Ipswich Town 2 Shrewsbury Town 1

The football aspect of my weekend has started well.  On Friday evening I logged into FFF tv, the free tv channel of the French football association, to watch one of my favourite French teams, FC Sete take on Stade Lavallois in Ligue National, the French third division; it’s sort of like watching ifollow, but without BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley or Mick Mills (Michel Moulins in France) , and not being English the FFF don’t charge for it.   Things didn’t immediately go well, Sete went a goal behind, a blow from which they never recovered but early in the second half I checked up on how my other Ligue National team, Red Star St Ouen, were doing; somewhat annoyingly, seeing as I wasn’t watching them, they were winning 3-0 away at Avranche. I soon switched feeds but not soon enough to see Red Star’s fourth goal, although at least I saw their fifth and sixth goals to create some welcome Anglo-French symmetry with Town’s recent thrashing of Doncaster Rovers.

This morning the sun continues to shine, literally, from a bright blue autumn sky.  It’s the sort of beautiful day that makes you feel glad to be alive.  I do the usual things, parking up my trusty Citroen on Chantry and strolling down through Gippeswyk Park, but by way of a change from routine I am going to buy my programme (£3.50) before my pre-match beer.  Having only a twenty-pound note in my wallet I decide to buy my programme from the club shop where I can pay by card; but stepping over the threshold I am witness to a sea of unmasked faces queuing at the tills. It looks like a cross between the January sales and the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.  Not wanting to even risk entering a scene of such thoughtless disregard for the health and safety of others in such a confined space, I make a hasty retreat and form a queue of one at the nearest programme seller’s booth.   Programme in hand, I proceed up Portman Road, along Little Gipping Street, across Civic Drive, up Lady Lane and St George’s Street to what used to be The Arboretum, but is now known as the Arbor House.  The bar is surprisingly empty and having purchased a pint of Nethergate Copperhead (£3.80) I make the short walk through to the beer garden where I am mildly surprised to find Mick already sat at a table behind a pint of Mauldon’s something or rather (he can’t remember exactly what), with his mobile phone in hand,  texting me to say “Je suis dans le jardin”, which I tell him is exactly what I was going to do if he hadn’t beaten me to it.   

Having discussed “new Labour”, Mick’s daughter’s recent wedding and his father of the bride speech, how we have been born in the wrong country, the utterly unbelievable ineptness of Boris Johnson, the whereabouts of mutual friends, and the Sheffield Wednesday game we find we have drained our glasses and with no time for more beer we head for Portman Road.  As we walk to the ground we share our bafflement over what appears on the front of Ipswich Town’s shirt. I think we both know it’s something to do with a tour by Ed Sheeran, but what does it mean?  I tell Mick that I don’t think it makes any sense in algebraic terms and we confide in each other that we had both wondered if the mystifyingly popular ginger recording artist was trying to say something obliquely about living in ‘divided times’, but we had both been a bit embarrassed to mention it to anyone else.⁹

Having bid farewell to Mick at the West Stand turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I proceed past checkpoint Covid on the Constantine Road gate to turnstile No 59, the portal to another world, the foyer to which is the men’s toilet beneath the Sir Alf Ramsey stand; relieved, I am soon making my first appearance this month in the lower tier seats.  Against the usual background of overly loud music, presumably intended to excite me as well as make my ears ring unpleasantly, stadium announcer and former Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster somewhat alarmingly speaks of Town having put Doncaster Rovers “to the sword” in the last home game.  Then, sounding like an entertainer at a child’s birthday party, Stephen asks the crowd if Town can do the same to Shrewsbury. The response is not an enthusiastic one and suggests that “probably not” is the consensus.

Following the taking of the knee, which we all applaud, the game begins with Shrewsbury Town getting first go with the ball, which they are mainly hoping to aim in the direction of the goal just in front of me.  Today, Shrewsbury are wearing an unusual kit of pink socks, black shorts, and black and pink hooped shirts; they look like a team of Denis the Menaces who are in touch with their female side.   There don’t appear to be any away fans wearing the replica shirts of this kit, although I think I can see a woman in a pale pink cardigan.  To my right Fiona and Pat from Clacton discuss the UEFA Cup celebrating musical ‘Never Lost At Home’ which Fiona is seeing at the Wolsey Theatre tonight and Pat saw last night.  “It brought back so many memories” Pat tells Fiona.  I share with them that I am going to watch it on-line this evening, and I am destined to discover that my experience mirrors Pat’s.

Eight minutes pass and Wesley Burns receives a through ball, which he crosses low for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to hit into the Shrewsbury goal from close range, only for Macauley Bonne to have been offside.  The near miss provokes a burst of noise from the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a fulsome chant echoes around the stands for at least a few seconds. Town are permanently ensconced in the Shrewsbury half. “Here we go” says Pat from Clacton trying to influence events as the ball is crossed from a free-kick; but Wes Burns’ header goes into the side netting.  Town win a corner. “Ipswich, Ipswich”, “Come On You Blues” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand with gusto and Matt Penney sends an angled shot whistling past the far post from 25 metres out.

“Nice to see the ball down here” says the bloke behind me contrarily as Shrewsbury make a rare foray towards Vaclav Hladky’s goal and Ryan Bowman heads over the cross bar. It’s an incident that causes excitement amongst the Shropshire lads lurking in the shadows at the back of the Cobbold Stand, who don’t sing but instead read from their books of poetry by AE Housman. Two minutes later and a left foot shot from Lee Evans is blocked.  A further minute passes and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a Matt Penney cross goalwards forcing  a flying save from Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.  But Marosi can only push the ball away and Conor Chaplin nips in to fire the ball into the net and give Town a deserved lead.   A little bizarrely, the reaction of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand is to go all 1970’s and sing about endlessly fighting ‘the Norwich’ because of Boxing Day, I can only attribute this to a liking for the back catalogue of Boney M.

Relaxing, confident that we are on our way to another handsome victory, I think to myself how Town’s Cameron Burgess reminds me of Town legend Terry Butcher; this is mostly because of his height and the shape of his legs, but also extends to his ability to boot a ball up the left side of the pitch and curl it out into touch for a throw to the opposition.  Behind me one bloke asks the other if he thinks we might see another 6-0 win, but thankfully he doesn’t mention the use of swords.

Five minutes go by in which Town worryingly follow my ill-advised lead and appear to begin to relax too.  The inevitable result is that Sam Morsy loses possession on the edge of the Town penalty area, and the unfortunately monikered Shaun Whalley silences anyone tempted to call him a wally by lashing the ball into the net from 20 metres out.  The recurring pattern has recurred.  “Why don’t we ever shoot from there?” asks the bloke behind me; possibly because the opposition don’t give the ball away in that position I respond, but only in my head. Up in the shadows of the Cobbold Stand the Shropshire lads briefly chant “You’re not singing anymore” but oblivious to the irony, very soon they’re not doing so either, although for no particular reason such as Town scoring again.

With the scores level, Town seem to lose all memory of what they stepped out on to the pitch to do and the remainder of the half drifts away somewhat aimlessly, but with Shrewsbury Town spending more time in the Ipswich half of the pitch; at one point they even win a corner.  With ten minutes of the half remaining Shrewsbury’s number twelve Ryan Bowman is replaced by their number nine Sam Cosgrove. I think the scoreboard gets it the other way round, but it’s an easy mistake to make given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11, and substitutes 12 to infinity.  Of course, I might have got that wrong, but it’s an easy mistake to imagine given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11 and substitutes 12 to infinity.

The final ten minutes of the half see Cameron Burgess booked by referee Mr Will Finnie, who kicks his heels too high and has overly neat hair for my liking.  Three minutes of additional time are added on during which Pat from Clacton remarks on how nice Fiona looks in her new home shirt, which Fiona collected from the club shop today.  As ever Pat is right, the home shirt is a rich shade of royal blue and suits Fiona to a tee.  Half-time arrives and departs in the flurry of a toilet visit, a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar and a chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison.  The talk is of whether we can score another goal in the second half; I think we can and am hopeful for a third too.

At 1605 the second half begins, and the floodlights flicker on soon afterwards despite it being a bright afternoon, and sunset not being for almost another two and half hours.  I suspect our club’s new owners are just showing off how Americans have no qualms about the conspicuous consumption of energy, or wasting it.  Today’s attendance is announced as 19,256 with the 202 from Shrewsbury being made up of not only Shropshire lads, but Salopians of all ages and sexes.

The half is nine minutes old, and Town earn a corner. Lee Evans crosses the ball and the oddly named Macauley Bonne runs towards it, jumps, and sends a glancing header obliquely across the face of the goal and comfortably inside the far post to restore Town’s lead.  I love a glancing header, one of my favourite types of goal; the twist of the neck, the precise contact with the ball, the eyes following its path into the net, poetry that A E Housman might have appreciated.  “ He’s one of our own” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the tune of Sloop John B, before going on to sing about beating up a Norwich City supporter (poor little budgie), this time through the medium of a top 20 hit recorded in 1979 by the Abbey Hey Junior School.

With the sun now hidden behind the West Stand, the temperature drops and the smell of the damp turf drifts into the stands;  I breathe it in deeply like an inhaling dope fiend.  Matt Penney whizzes in a low cross, which the oddly named Macauley Bonne fails by a matter of a fraction of a second to slide into the net.  Kyle Edwards replaces Wes Burns with seventeen minutes of normal time remaining.  Toto N’siala replaces Matt Penney with the game into its last ten minutes.  Three minutes remain and Vaclav Hladky rises imperiously to catch a cross and reap the applause of the home crowd.  Town haven’t managed to score a third goal, but it doesn’t look like they will need to.   For Shrewsbury George Nurse draws laughter from the crowd, firstly falling over as he boots the ball up field and then heading the ball into the ground and somehow managing to get hit by it as it bounces up again; the boy is a natural.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne is replaced by Joe Piggott and five minutes of added on time are announced.  There remains time for Scott Fraser to go down in the penalty area and to be booked by Mr Finnie for diving.  Predictably it’s not a popular decision amongst the Town supporters, but this Town supporter thought it was a blatant dive and Fraser deserved to be booked and possibly kicked when he was on the ground, which then would have been a penalty.

The final action sees the Sir Bobby Robson lower tier singing “Addy, addy, addy-o” for reasons unknown other than that they must be happy and seemingly this makes them reminisce about pre-school. With the final whistle Fiona and Pat from Clacton make a sharp exit, but I linger to applaud the Town players and witness the sadness in the faces of the Shrewsbury players.  It’s been a good day; the sun is still shining and I still have the joy to look forward to of listening to the analysis of Town legend Mick Mills, and the Radio Suffolk phone-in as I drive home. Sometimes life just keeps giving, but then it stops.

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.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into the fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma, my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV, when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The main entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Colchester United 0 Forest Green Rovers 3


It’s been a foul March day; blustery, wet and cold; at times the word very has been in front of those adjectives.  Now it is gone seven o’clock, the sun has gone down and it’s mainly miserable and dark, particularly at the Colchester Park & Ride car park, an exposed expanse of dimly lit tarmac next to the A12, adjacent to a petrol station and a McDonald’s. Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town.

Across the A12 the lights of the Colchester Community Stadium, currently known as the Jobserve Community Stadium and formerly the Weston Homes Community Stadium, which I like to call ‘Layer Road’, shine, but not enough to satisfactorily illuminate the ticket machine at the edge of the car park.  The machine  asks for at least three digits from my car number plate, then changes its mind and asks for all of them and then tells me to pay with coins; I don’t have any.  I trudge the 70 odd metres to the typically streamlined Park & Ride waiting room building and change a fiver into coins with the help of another machine. I ignore the queue of other people buying tickets at the machines there and trudge back to the dimly lit machine.  A kind man illuminates it with his mobile phone and after the machine first claims ignorance of my car registration it eventually allows me to purchase a ticket (£3).  

I walk to the football ground between bright lights planted into the ground that don’t actually illuminate the path only give me a clue where it might be.  I turn left onto Boxted Road and traverse the bridge over the A12 with its high metal sides presumably there to prevent suicidal football supporters from jumping down onto the highway; I turn left into United Way and arrive at another open expanse of tarmac upon which here and there are painted the words BUS STOP.  A white Mercedes Benz is parked partly across the word STOP.  I shed a tear for the shuttle buses which no longer ply their way to the stadium and were the only thing that made this god forsaken location for a football ground even faintly viable. I have probably watched Colchester United play well over 300 times in the last 35 to 40 years but have not been to ‘Layer Road’ since the shuttle bus service stopped running, until tonight. Tonight I have come to see Forest Green Rovers play Colchester United because I want to see Forest Green Rovers, the Football League’s only vegan football club, the only Football League club owned by a former ‘New Age’ traveller.  The irony that I have had to drive to watch this club famed for its ‘green’ credentials is not lost on me.

The Community Stadium is as bleak and lonely as it ever was, surrounded by a car park and nothing much else.  The Forest Green Rovers team bus sits up a corner by the main stand, disappointingly it looks like a regular team bus, not powered by methane or biofuel or anything other than dirty old diesel. I take a look in the well-stocked club shop, where trade is slow; toy bears stare out into the car park but no one is buying.

I queue at the turnstile for what feels like seconds wishing I had a bag for the steward to look into to make this experience more interesting.  Inside the ground however things look up, the programmes are free! This is like being in a civilised country like France where free football programmes are de rigeur and fleetingly I am transported to the imaginary Rue de Layer where Unifie de Colcestre are about to take on Nomades de Foret Vert in the Ligue National.   The sight of Pukka pies not baguettes and Carling instead of espresso coffee returns me from my reverie.   I spot a former work colleague called Mark, which is nice, and we shake one another warmly by the hand; he introduces me to his friend Darren who like me is really an Ipswich Town supporter.  Mark tells me this should be a good game, although Colchester United tend to either ‘do alright’ or lose 3-0.  Up in the South stand I take my seat,  I am sat behind a man and woman who I recognise from the Barside at Layer Road from over thirty years ago, they look much the same, just slightly shrivelled with age.

The U’s soon kick off towards me in their customary blue and white stripes, although from behind their shirts are all blue with white sleeves as if they couldn’t really decide if they want to be in stripes or not.  Their white socks have just two blue hoops as if they couldn’t decide if they should be hooped or not either.  There are no such uncertainties with Forest Green Rovers’ kit of overly dark bottle green with lurid day-glo green trim.

Colchester dominate the start of the game taking on the role of 6th placed promotion hopefuls eager to cement their place in the play-off positions, as someone on Sky Sports TV might say.  Ninth placed Forest Green defend capably.  “It’s a long way on a Tuesday, innit?” says the bloke behind me and is not fully understood by his companion.  He explains that it’s a long way for Forest Green supporters to travel from wherever it is that Forest Green is, “Somewhere down Portsmouth way, I think”.    Forest Green Rovers actually play in Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, so they’re more Laurie Lee than Lord Nelson, but I don’t turn round and tell him that.

The Forest Green number 23 Joseph Mills is the first player to make an impression; he is wearing his hair in a bun.   “You’ll never make it Ward” says a voice at the back of the stand, seemingly attempting to goad the Forest Green goalkeeper Lewis Ward who is dressed all in pink.  From the middle of the stand directly behind the goal a chorus of “Ole, Ole, Ole” rises or perhaps it’s “Allez, Allez, Allez”; it’s hard to tell, it could be both.  After twelve minutes Colchester win the game’s first corner.

Twenty minutes have passed, Colchester are doing okay just not scoring.  Forest Green cross the ball from the left to Lloyd James, he quickly shoots and scores from a good 18 metres or so from goal. No one was expecting that, it’s probably the first shot on target.  “Come on Col U” chant the understandably disappointed but not unduly upset occupants of the South Stand.  But things change, the crowd becomes more vociferous, less happy, more angry.  Colchester win another corner to no avail and Forest Green players spend time sat on the turf looking pained.  “Get on with it, you bloody…” shouts an angry man so irate that he can’t think of a word to finish his sentence.  It’s nearly twenty past eight and Forest Green break away down the right, one pass, another pass and number ten Reece Brown side foots the ball past Colchester’s slightly exotically named goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin.  Forest Green lead 2-0. Colchester’s number forty-five Frank Nouble kicks Lewis Ward out of spite and becomes the first player to be booked by the slightly portly referee Mr Alan Young. Colchester rather pointlessly win a third corner and Lewis Ward is booked for mucking about.

After three minutes of added on time comes the half-time whistle and I head downstairs for a pounds worth of PG Tips in a plastic cup and to check the half-time scores, but mysteriously all the TV sets are on their sides; perhaps the Sky subscription is cheaper like that; it would be okay if you could lie down on a sofa to watch it.  Ipswich are losing.

The second half is much like the first, just a bit colder.  The breeze is getting stronger and there are a few spots of rain in the air.  In the West Stand a man in a blue and white wig and bath robe reclines against his seat looking bored.  Perhaps like Bobby Ewing he will later step out of the shower and find it was all a bad dream. Colchester press forward but Forest Green defend well, blocking every shot, thwarting every move, frustrating the spectators.   The crowd begin to blame Mr Young for a lack of free-kicks to Colchester or too many free-kicks to Forest Green.  “You are kidding” shouts an exasperated man at Mr Young and drawing out every word.  “What is wrong with you referee?” asks someone else.  “Show some flair referee” says another rather more obscurely “Show some bollocks” replies yet another, a little crudely.  I for one want Mr Young to keep his shorts very definitely on.  A few rows in front of me a young woman, or very high pitched man shouts viciously, rendering herself or himself incoherent with vented spleen.   The atmosphere is unpleasant and it’s no wonder Boudicca sacked the place back in AD60 if the inhabitants were as narky as this.

Despite Colchester’s dominance of possession and shots it takes until gone ten past nine for Lewis Ward to make a decent save as he dives away to his right like a flying raspberry blancmange to give Colchester another pointless corner kick.  The final ten minutes begin and Forest Green show that they can keep and pass the ball very neatly, so much so that they end up passing to an unmarked Christian Doige who despite a suspicion of offside amongst the home supporters scores a third goal.  The names Shephard, Brown, Doige appear as verse on the scoreboard.

With the game lost its time for two youths to run onto the pitch, probably as their tribute to recent televised pitch incursions at Arsenal and Birmingham.  They only look about fourteen.  One of them makes a break for it trapping himself at the back of the East Stand having athletically vaulted over several rows of seats. “Wanker, Wanker, Wanker” shout the South Stand. “Wanker!” shouts an angry man behind me a little belatedly, and sounding a bit stupid as a result.  He should have saved his shout for the equally silly Frank Nouble who rounds off an entertaining evening by committing a needless foul, getting booked for a second time and consequently sent off.

The crowd of 2871 are already heading off into the dingy car parks and wasteland outside before five minutes of added on time are announced.  A wildly bearded man in patched double denim rails at the team as others shuffle past. “Worst game of the season” a man says to me unintentionally referencing Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons as he raises his eyebrows and edges past me. I wait until the very end to get my money’s worth (£18.50) before also heading off into the damp and dark to walk to my car and travel home alone fondly remembering the days when we left the ground together sharing our misery in a crowded shuttle bus.

Havre AC 2 Tours FC 0

It is Friday 11th May and tonight the 38th and final round of matches will be played in the French second division, known as Ligue 2, which despite the French reputation for gastronomy is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. Tours have already been relegated to the Ligue National having been bottom of the league for much of the season. Le Havre, known as HAC, by contrast, have been within striking distance of les barrages (play-offs) positions for much of the season and a good recent run finds them in fifth place and needing a win to ensure that they will play in les barrages.
My wife Paulene and I arrived in Le Havre on Wednesday afternoon and bought our tickets (10 Euros each) at the smaller of two club shops, the one in the Place Perret in the centre of the city (the larger shop is in the Docks Vauban shopping mall, about 15 minutes away on foot). There is no longer a ticket office or club shop at the Stade Océane where HAC play their home matches, although guichets do open there on the evening of the match. Place Perret is named after the architect whose practice was charged with rebuilding Le Havre after a phenomenal 80% of it was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944. Perret was a great advocate of concrete construction and his planned city centre with its wide boulevards, massive city square and classically inspired concrete buildings is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking its streets is like being in an idyllic 1950’s vision of the city of the future.

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The Stade Océane is at the very edge of what is a sprawling city, with its vast docks strung along the mouth of the River Seine.  The HAC website refers to shuttle buses (navettes) that run from the city centre to the stadium but it doesn’t provide details.  The bloke in the club shop didn’t seem to know anything about the navettes, disappointingly recommending travelling by car; nor did the woman at the Tourist Information centre, although she was able to supply a bus map and timetable for the regular service that passes close to the stadium.  The HAC website does however provide a link to the website of CODAH (Communauté de l’agglomération havraise) the local public transport undertaking who provide the free navettes and where I learn that buses will run every forty minutes from Quai D (stand D) of the bus station (gare routier) beginning at 6.30pm.  After the match four separate routes will run to various destinations across the city.41233756055_f38c51250b_o
Although kick-off is not until 8:45pm we are perhaps over keen and are waiting at the bus station at 6.30 where a handful of people including a nerdish looking youth in a HAC tracksuit top are already hanging around Quai D. A white Mercedes bus swings onto the stand and first in the queue is a small boy who climbs aboard and stretches up to hug the driver, who it seems is his dad. Pausing briefly to go “awww” we board the bus and after waiting a few minutes, during which time no one else boards the bus who hadn’t already been waiting for it, we set off. The journey takes us through some less salubrious areas of the city, close to the docks through streets that might be termed both ‘gritty’ and ‘urban’ amongst other things.
The journey takes about 15 minutes at the end of which we are dropped off next to some tenement blocks beyond which, across a railway track and grey concrete open space is the amazing, bright blue Stade Océane, which looks like an enormous beached rubber dinghy. A few fans wait by the entrance to a subterranean world into which the team coaches will soon descend, but we ascend a flight of steps to the concourse around theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ground where not much is happening. A friendly faced man in the mobile club shop speaks to the nerd from earlier and then peers out in vain for customers who don’t think he is selling ice creams. I take a look OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAat his stock and he tries to convince me to buy a scarf; I tell him I already have a petit fanion (pennant) from the shop in town and this seems to satisfy him. He asks me who my team are in England and is complimentary when I say it is Ipswich Town, revealing that his knowledge of the English game is perhaps not up to date.
We hang about waiting for the turnstiles to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAopen. Some people arrive and buy tickets at the guichets where club employees arrange plastic barriers and then take them away again. The huge car park beyond the stadium fills up slowly with a trickle of cars from the main road that runs close by. Children are being admitted free tonight and school parties gather at the south end of the stadium, where more barriers snake a path to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAturnstiles. As we lean against a concrete wall two young women hand out free copies of the A4 sized, glossy four page match programme. There is a hot food van with the rather wonderful name of Friterie Momo parked on the concourse, providing a supply of massive cartons full of chips and sausage-filled baguettes (7 euros) to an increasing queue of casual diners. I wouldn’t usually eat this in England so see no reason to eat it in France, although it is likely to taste better, but I do buy a 500 ml can of Ch’ti Blonde (4 euros) the local beer of Pas de Calais and Picardie, which at 6.4% alcohol could probably not legally be sold at a football ground in England. But French people will drink one can of Ch’ti, English people would try and drink eight or ten.


Eventually the turnstiles open; they are automatic and read the barcodes on the tickets, but entry to the stadium is not speedy because once through the turnstiles everyone has to be patted down. Then the turnstiles go haywire as the barcode readers stop working, but it doesn’t matter because people are already backed up at the security check. Happily the turnstiles begin to work again and we are both into the stadium and up the steps to the upper tier; we make our way to as near to the half way line as we can get. It is a ‘sit where you like night’ tonight in this part of the stadium because there will be displaced supporters from behind the north goal where the seats will remain empty after fans threw objects onto the pitch during the recent derby match with Quevilly-Rouen.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Stade Océane is only six years old, it cost 80 million euros, it has a few more than 25,000 seats and the two I sit in were more comfortable, spacious and felt much more solid than the average football stadium seat; they even have a smooth spring action to tip up. I sit in two different seats because the bloke just along from my first seat is puffing an e-cigarette, which emits clouds of sickly fruit scented vapour that make me feel slightly ill; he also has quite a pungent body spray so it is doubly necessary to move a bit further away. I can’t believe that his natural smell was so bad that he had to go to such desperate lengths to cover it up.
The players warm up on the pitch as the ground fills up; eventually the ground will be almost exactly half full, which with a nice sense of numerical symmetry is about twice as full as it is has been for most Ligue 2 games this season. The teams are introduced in the customary French manner with the stadium announcer providing players’ first names and the crowd shouting out their surnames, it’s a lot of fun but I don’t think it would work as well with English surnames. Banners display the club crests and the teams enter

the arena. There is a band of ultras in one corner at the southern end of the ground they wave flags and then sing the national anthem, the British national anthem, which for Le Havre is the club song. (https://youtu.be/Wy2MhV8sFyw) Havre Athletic Club is France’s oldest football club, founded in 1872 by a bunch of Englishmen from Oxford and Cambridge universities, so possibly a Tory cabinet, and this English connection explains the use of Thomas Arne’s tune.
Le Havre kick-off the match towards the empty Tribune Nord wearing what is possibly an Oxbridge inspired kit of Cambridge blue and Oxford blue quarters with Oxford blue shorts and socks. Alternatively, the two blues could be of those of the sky and the sea as HAC are known as Ciel et Marine (sky and sea); two things that are prominent in Le Havre and somehow define the city and it situation. Tours meanwhile wear all white, but with blue and white checked sleeves. Havre are quickly on the attack passing the ball zippily on the lush playing surface and soon earn a corner and within four minutes the beautifully named Zinedine Ferhat crosses from the right and Jean-Philippe Mateta sends a fine header into the bottom left hand corner of the Tours goal. Six minutes later and a precise through ball from Jean-Pascal Fontaine precedes a right foot shot from Mateta and Havre are winning two-nil, with Tours having explained graphically why they are bottom of the league. That’s all that needs to happen this evening, if Havre can keep the score as it is they will be in les barrages. To an extent it seems that they realise this and after such an exciting opening ten minutes the game settles down to be not quite so exciting.
It takes twenty minutes for Tours to have a shot and despite the score the Le Havre supporters don’t seem overly thrilled; perhaps they are not wanting to tempt fate by celebrating too soon. The ultras provide another rendition of the club song, but the most interesting development is in the stand where some people complain to a steward about

two blokes who are stood at the top of the steps watching the game. The young steward is pressured into asking them to sit down or at least move because it seems they are blocking the view, which they may well be. The older of the men, who looks well in his fifties gesticulates and argues but eventually moves, walking past his accusers and jabbing his index figure at them angrily; it’s marginally more entertaining than the match, although Tours are now having more shots and their Baptiste Etcheverria is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thual for a rather violent assault on the impressive Zinedine Ferhat. Meanwhile, the other man who had been ‘outted’ for standing moves to stand at the side of the stairs and lights a cigarette.
All around the open sections of the ground there are people standing in the area at the

back of the lower tier, and skulking in the Tribune Sud behind the completely empty away supporters’ area are masses of police, all just watching the game apparently. I don’t know if the police were expecting Tours fans who never turned up; perhaps they were delayed, but heard the score after nine minutes and decided not to bother; it is a three and a half hour drive after all. With about five minutes to go until half time some rhythmic clapping breaks out and then the ultras sing another burst of ‘God Save The Queen’ as they hold their scarves aloft like English football fans used to before the Premier League spoiled everything.
Half-time arrives and I head downstairs to release some of that Ch’ti that I drank before the match and have since processed as nature demands. Passage downstairs however, is

difficult because bizarrely and surely contrary to safety requirements, the bottom of staircases E3 and E4 are blocked off with Heras fencing. This may be an odd attempt to keep the people who have paid 10 Euros for a seat out of the centre of the stand where normal prices have been charged, but it just has the effect of making people in the cheap seats walk through the central section to get to an open staircase. Down in the lower concourse children are playing on bouncy castles and the light shining through plastic outer ‘skin’ of the stadium creates a bluish hue. At the back of the lower tier people stand and smoke.

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The football returns and the scoreboard encourages the fans to get behind the team; “Faites Du Bruit” it announces, “Make Some Noise”. The ultras obey but no one else much does. On the opposite side of the stadium is the directors box and it amuses me a little that above this are the words “Shopping, Restaurants, Loisirs (leisure)”, as if advertisingOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the thoughts of the wealthy people in the seats below. In the players’ tunnel a man in a suit, presumably a club official, lolls casually against the concrete wall with his hand on his hip, perhaps summing up in his casual posture the

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apparent attitude to the ongoing failure tonight to promote supporter safety in the Tribune Est (East Stand) opposite. A procession of people descend the steps of the Tribune Est expecting to be able to go down the staircase to the toilets or buvette, but of course they find the foot of the stairs closed. A small girl gets quite distressed until led away by her older brothers and an elderly man looks equally perplexed when he finds his way barred. There is no easy way to the other staircases except by walking along whole rows of seats and asking people to stand up to let you through. I just hope there is no need to evacuate the stand quickly.
As the game approaches its final minutes, at last a tangible sense of anticipation and excitement returns to supporters other than the ultras. There is clapping and singing and the fans at last seem confident that their team is capable of holding on to a 2-0 lead against the league’s bottom club and despite three minutes of time added on they do. Le Havre qualify for the play-offs where they will be at home to Stade Brestois 29, another club from a great French port that was also bombed heavily by the allies towards the end of World War Two. We leave the supporters to celebrate without us in order to head for the navette, because we’re not sure what time it will leave.
It has been a good night, but a slightly disappointing one nevertheless. The Stade Océane is fabulous, but has not been shown at its best and its management tonight has been nothing short of alarming. Everything is in place for football to be memorable in Le Havre, but the club really needs that promotion.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA