Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 2

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Today is the 30th December, the last Saturday of 2017 and I am travelling to Portman Road to witness the third game of the ‘Hectic Christmas Schedule’. It being Christmas week it doesn’t feel like a Saturday, but it definitely is and will no doubt bring the joy or despair to prove it.
The train is on time and peopled with passengers clearly going home after Christmas. A woman opposite me wears a woolly hat with a disproportionately large fluffy bobble; her jeans hug her calves but her knees are exposed through fashionable rips. Further down the carriage a woman bawls at her young daughter, ironically telling her to be quiet. It’s an average train journey.
It is a mild, bright and blustery day and on Princes Street in Ipswich the wind has torn some banners promoting the annual pantomime from their fixings on the lamp posts. 24538582807_845ab7c1ef_oPortman Road is its usual Saturday afternoon self as I walk along it. The turnstiles are not yet open and people who must have very little else to do indeed, queue by them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Burgers and buns are eaten, programmes are bought, blokes with strange ‘North meets the Midlands’ accents talk of the “Station Hotel or summat” where, as visitors to Ipswich they might be allowed to buy a drink.
In St Jude’s Tavern the usual collection of blokes is present, enjoying their pre-match beer. Today’s Match Day Special is Mauldon’s Silver Adder (£2) and that‘s what I drink before I am joined by my friend Mick; we talk of Christmas, travelling to Lille, Brussels and Paris by car or train and ‘top’ Parisian football clubs (PSG, Red Star, Paris FC, and Creteil; Entente SSG get forgotten). Mick admits that his one great regret is that he was born English or at least never went to live abroad. Mick makes a very good point about how people like to moan about their lot but never do anything about it. I am deeply unhappy about being an Ipswich Town supporter, but I write it down.
After another pint of Match Day Special (which has been changed to Crouch Vale Brewers Gold) and a half of Nethergate Old Growler (£1.80) later, I am descending Portman Road without any sense of anticipation or excitement. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and I was only here on Tuesday. It’s a bit annoying to have to come back again so soon when what I saw on Tuesday was so awful.
Inside the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand (Churchman’s) is a pair of signs pointing the way forOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA blood donors. Season ticket prices won’t be going up this year, but supporters will be required to donate a pint of blood each. I need to urinate and so visit the toilets. I wash my hands and use the blow dryer, which breathes warmly across my wet hands with the force of a chronic asthmatic. I take my seat and to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way’ the teams take to the field. ‘My Way’ was apparently Bobby Robson’s favourite song, but amusingly it could equally be the theme tune of current manager Mick McCarthy or the elusive and seemingly parsimonious club owner Marcus Evans. Is the club having a laugh at our expense?
Derby County begin the game, kicking towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand and wearing vile, day-glo yellow shirts and navy blue shorts. Quite why Derby feel the need to wear a change kit when their club colours of white shirts and navy blue shorts would not remotely clash with Ipswich’s blue shirts and white shorts is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, which probably has something to do with selling replica shirts. As the Town players shield their eyes, Derby dominate possession and their supporters are soon singing Verdi and enquiring in which part of the stadium they will find nineteenth century romantic novels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The home crowd is of course quiet and become even quieter when Derby score a goal in the 13th minute, a header from a corner by a stocky bloke called Sam Winnall. Ipswich win three corners in the first half and a few free-kicks within sight of the Derby goal, but the home crowd offer nothing in the way of support for their team and it makes me feel quite angry. Ipswich are being outplayed, which isn’t what I want to see, but I can’t help thinking these people get the team they deserve. I shout and I chant, on my own.
At half-time I move seats to sit near Phil the ever-present fan and his son Elwood, but not before I eat a piece of Christmas cake that I had brought along to keep my spirits up. There are scores of empty seats and this is the cheap part of the ground, maybe it’s not OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcheap enough. Crazee the edgy, urban Suffolk Punch mascot struts his stuff in front us; if he’s trying to rally the supporters he’s almost literally flogging a dead horse. I think of a disturbing scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which a peasant flogs his feeble old horse to death in the street and onlookers join in. Crazee can add masochism to his list of edgy behaviours, which really only amount to wearing sunglasses and a hat which is on back to front.
A new half like a new year brings new hope, but that is soon dashed as Sam Winnall hits a long distance swerving shot into the top left hand corner of the goal that Ipswich are defending. I am virtually in perfect line with the shot and get a spectacular view of it as it hits the goal net. How lovely for me. A man behind me can’t contain himself and goes into raptures. But the goal doesn’t ‘do for’ Ipswich and the second half is a more even contest with Ipswich even pressing at times. A string of corners sees the electronic scoreboard flash “Come On You Blues”, but it must be tempting for the operator to type in “Go on, Sing you Bastards!” and I live for the day. Eventually, and in spite of the indifference of the crowd, Joe Garner heads the final corner into the net and Ipswich now only trail 2-1; a draw is a possibility. The silence in the stands is broken by cheers of joy; people stand and wave their arms about in happy abandon. At times thereafter there is some rhythmic clapping around the ground and some drumming in the Sir Bobby Robson stand, and the last twenty minutes are more enjoyable. The Derby supporters are quieter now as they worry whether their team will hang on, but they do.
Five minutes of added on time pass quickly by and referee Mr Oliver Langford, who awarded far too many free-kicks to Derby, calls time on another disappointing afternoon at Portman Road, which will doubtless fuel much rage, fury, wailing and gnashing of teeth on social media; if only people could channel their over-excitement about disappointing results into backing their team when they are actually playing.
Up The Town!

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Gallia Club Uchaud 1 FAC Carcassonne 0

I am on holiday and travelling with my wife down through France to Marseillan Plage in the Hérault département.  Careful research has turned up the good news that we can take in a football match en route. The match is a league game between Uchaud and Carcassonne in the Languedoc – Roussillon section of the Occitanie region’s Division Honneur; the sixth level of French football.

It is now about half past one and we have stopped at an ‘aire’ on the A9 motorway just a few miles from Nimes; with a half hour stop for lunch we will still make it to the Stade Municipal in Uchaud with time to take in the ambience before kick off at 3pm. As we lay out our lunch on a concrete picnic table, a lady about our own age asks if she can share the table with us; being nice people, and in the interests of the entente cordiale, we agree and she joins us with her daughter, who is mentally handicapped. Through a winning combination of our useless French and her slightly less useless English we converse. She is a lovely, friendly ladywith a kind, smiling face and with her daughter Gladys ( a name that sounds much better in French; Gladeece not Gladiss) is on her way from their home in Grenoble for a week’s holiday at Grau du Roi, at a centre that provides holidays for handicapped people and their carers. Gladys, a pretty, joyful young woman, who today wears a large pink flower in her dark hair, is now twenty-nine years old and her mother has brought her up and looked after her on her own all that time. From Monday to Wednesday Gladys now lives in a home, but for the remainder of the week with her mum.  Having eaten lunch, we say goodbye wishing each other bons vacances; we feel a mixture of sadness and humility but also great happiness to have met Gladys and her mum as we set off back onto the motorway towards Nimes and then Uchaud.

Uchaud is a very small town about 8 miles south west of Nimes on the D113, which was the main road between Nimes and Montpellier before the A7 motorway was built. The D113 follows the route of the old Roma road, the Via Domitia. Uchaud is typical of such French towns, appearing to be just two rows of mostly slightly scruffy two and three-storey buildings either side of the road, although in truth it does spread out a little beyond.  According to Wikipedia, in 2014 Uchaud had a population of 4,230.

Just past the very centre of the town we turn off to the left down the Rue Jean Moulin which takes us over the motorway; to the right we see a set of floodlights and then we turn right down the Chemin des Poissoniers. Easing our Citroen C3 between a pair of concrete posts scarred by generations of other Citroens, Renaults, Peugeots and probably Simcas that were less expertly driven, we enter the unsurfaced car park of the Stade Municipal and come to rest beneath the welcome shade of a plane tree. It’s about twenty-five to three.

The Stade Municipal is not much more than a football pitch bounded by a high chain-linked fence. There is a changing room block and buvette (refreshment stall or buffet) at one end of the ground  and a tiny, open, metal ‘grandstand’ which has a capacity of about a dozen people. Otherwise there are just a couple of large rocks and two benches on which to sit and watch the match. The floodlights we saw belong to the neighbouring rugby club. On the opposite side of the ground by the half-way line are the dugouts, including a one-man dugout for the délègue principal, who oversees the whole staging of the match; today’s délègue principal is Monsieur Alain Mistral. He is the only person wearing a suit, although he has taken his jacket off because of the heat. Along this side of the ground runs a low grassy bank with a few young trees on top; a row of rhododendrons punctuate the side of the ground where the benches, rocks and grandstand are, although sadly by now most of their deep red blooms have died off. Such decorative plants are sadly lacking at most English football grounds.

It is free to watch games at this level in France and the players are amateurs playing for the love of the game, so there is no turnstile and we just pass through a metal gate and head for the buvette. The teams are already on the pitch and we ask two gentlemen of retirement age which is which. Uchaud are in all green whilst Carcassonne wear red and blue stripes with blue shorts in the style of Barcelona or, seeing as this is France, Stade Malherbe de Caen. Perhaps confused by my ‘Allez les Bleus’ t-shirt, the gentlemen ask who we are supporting; it seems rude not to support the home team, but I explain that back in England my team is Ipswich (‘les bleus’ of my t-shirt), and my wife adds that she follows Portsmouth; the Frenchmen are Marseilles fans. At the buvette we buy two filter coffees (one euro each); there’s none of your instant rubbish here. We walk about a bit and explore before eventually settling down on one of the rocks in time for kick off, which is slightly delayed because one of the assistant referees seems to be having a bit of trouble inspecting the goal net at the buvette end of the ground. But eventually we hear an electronic beep which signifies that the referee  (Monsieur Boris Gil) has synchronised his watch with his assistants (Monsieurs Laurent Mazauric and Anthony Chaptal) and the game begins.

Carcassonne kick off defending the town and motorway end of the ground and kicking in the general direction of the Camargue and Mediterranean Sea. I am quickly struck by the total absence of any tattooed forearms on any of the twenty-two players, something that is completely unthinkable in England. There are plenty of the ubiquitous beards, but not one tattoo, although the Uchaud number eleven, who bears a passing resemblance to the former Bastia and Lille full-back Julien Palmieri, does wear a bandage on his left forearm.  Could it be a tattoo that went horribly wrong? Does he have a tattoo but covers it up because no one else has one? Do tattoos remain the preserve of convicts in southern France?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The pace of the game is quick, which is surprising given that it is a warm afternoon with a temperature of a good 25 or 26 degrees, but nevertheless it takes more then five minutes for the first shot on goal, from Uchaud, and then another ten minutes before the next OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAone, from Carcassonne; both shots are from angles, across the face of goal. Uchaud have an uncharacteristically solid, English looking centre half at number four, whilst as well as having a Julien Palmieri lookalike at number eleven, their number six bears a disturbing resemblance to former French international and alleged sex-tape starlet Matthieu Valbuena.

The match is quite absorbing even though there are very few attempts on goal, but we still find time to notice that the badge on the shirt of the assistant referee appears to be OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAattached with velcro; his shirt, shorts and socks all look brand new as if this is their first outing; he’s like an outsized boy on his first day at school. Carcassonne look the slightly more accomplished team and have more forays forward, but Uchaud are well organised and in Palmieri (who the rest of the team call Kevin), Valbuena and their captain they have three players who stand out for their skill and good positional sense; their goalkeeper contributes too with his constant calls of “parlez vous” (talk) and “garde” (keep it) as well as the odd catch from a cross. Carcassonne finish the half with a flourish winning the game’s first corner and then seeing their number three place a free-kick carefully over the angle of post and crossbar, before their dreadlocked number eleven runs in behind the Uchaud defence only to hit a low shot beyond the far post.

Half – time, or mi – temps as the French would have it brings a return to the buvette for a bottle of water (one euro) and a wander to the far side of the ground to view the second half from a different perspective. There are plenty of people stretched out on the grassy bank and it brings to mind a football spectating version of Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche après – midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte” (a Sunday afternoon at the island of Grand Jatte). There are no advertising hoardings, no programme and no team sheets to amuse us today so we have to talk. Of course, being a conversation with my wife I dont recall anything she says to me, although we do wonder how many people are here watching the game and decide there are at least 120, not including the people who have parked their cars right next to the fence and are watching from behind the wheel.

As the second half begins we too sit down on the grassy bank, but despite the warmth of the day the grass feels a bit damp and it seems likely that the bank has benefited from some ‘fall-out’ from the watering of the pitch, which is in pretty good condition given that the summers in these parts are on the hotter side of scorching. We don’t move however before the Uchaud goalkeeper misses a punch and has to rely on one of his full-backs to clear the ball for a corner. Carcassonne’s number two then has a yellow card waved at him by Monsiour Gil for roughly tackling Uchaud’s number ten and captain.

Now watching the game from behind the goal, the second half is slower than the first and not quite as good as some of the players start to rely a little more on breaking the game up, some by appealing for fouls, others by committing them. With twenty minutes to go there is a very quick drinks break, soon followed by Uchaud’s first corner, which is won by their young substitute wearing the number thirteen shirt. Heading into the final ten minutes Carcassone’s number seven is booked and not that suprisingly because he has been consistently overplaying the “who, me ref?” role for some time, whilst also provoking a series of complaints from the Uchaud players and coaches.

Despite Carcassonne’s less than always sporting approach, my wife and I agree that they look a little more likely to score because they seem just a little bit sharper. Seconds later the Uchaud number thirteen turns and lofts a diagonal cross to the corner of the Carcassonne penalty area where Uchaud’s number two controls and shoots across the alice – band wearing goalkeeper towards the far post. The Carcassonne number six runs back and attempts to clear his opponent’s shot off the line, but both he and the ball merely combine to bulge the net as Uchaud take the lead to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Carcassonne do not now seriously look like scoring an equaliser and only succeed in using up a bit more of the ink in Monsiour Gil’s biro or the lead in his pencil, as their number nine becomes the third player to be cautioned.

With the final whistle, there is a very small ripple of applause, which quickly dissipates and the crowd depart whilst we safely negotiate the perilous posts at the entrance to the the car park and are once again on our way south. It’s been an entertaining afternoon in the sun, in surroundings reminiscent of step six of the English non league, but with football of a slightly better standard and better coffee.

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LOSC Lille 3 FC Nantes 0

Lille is in northern France, in Flanders, so close to Belgium that it also has Flemish and Dutch names, Rysel or Rijsel. The city of Lille has a population of about 230,000 but the metropolitan area, or agglomeration as the French call it contains over a million people, making it France’s fourth largest urban area behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lille is only an hour and twenty minutes by car from Calais and it is served by the Eurostar, making it easily accessible from southern and eastern England. I’ve come to Lille with my wife because it is wonderful city full of fabulous things to see and because it’s a good place to watch football.

In its time LOSC Lille has been a half decent football club, winning the league and Cup double as recently as 2011. It was from Lille that Chelsea took Eden Hazard. This season they have struggled and were in the bottom three early on and are now only eight points away from it in twelfth position in the table. Their opponents tonight for the final match of the season are FC Nantes, another big city club with an illustrious past but currently just jogging along. Nantes also flirted with the relegation places a few months ago, but a decent run has seen them climb to seventh in the table.

My wife and I are staying on the other side of the city centre and therefore catch a Metro train out to the Stade Pierre Mauroy which is located in the suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq. Lille’s Metro only has two lines but it is fully automated with driverless trains. Whilst most of our Metro journey is underground, towards the end there are outdoor elevated sections and somehow it reminds me of the monorail in Francois Truffaut’s film of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451; I sigh and think of Julie Christie before I am shaken from my reverie by our arrival at the end of the line.

It’s a ten or twelve minute walk from the Metro station to the Stade Pierre Mauroy, a massive structure with a closable roof it is a multi-purpose venue. Originally, and rather unimaginatively, it was known as Le Grand Stade, but subsequently and somewhat controversially it was re-named after a local politician. The stadium is like a lot of French stadia, a grand statement. It is sheathed in fluorescent tubes35032548265_3925b4c17a_o that are capable of changing colour and a little like the Allianz Arena in Munich it resembles an enormous rubber dinghy, or may be a slug. The walk from the Metro station is through a university research park; the final approach is impressive across a broad pedestrian bridge over the ring road and into a huge open area around the stadium where fans meet, mingle and munch on chips and baguettes from the food stands; there is beer too.

My wife heads impatiently for our seats at the other side of the stadium whilst I uncontrollably linger in the club shop. I just can’t help popping into club shops, there is something fascinating about them, it’s may be the fact that they are full of people eager to advertise their football allegiance through the clothes they wear, the mug they drink from, the magnet on their fridge, the pennant hanging from the rear view mirror in their car and the teddy bear they hug in moments of doubt.

Having left the shop I get thoroughly patted down by security and wished ‘Bon Match’ before heading through the automated turnstiles. Just inside I pick up a copy of the match day programme; sixteen pages of glossy A534899646781_c2c4496472_o which is absolutely free and tells you all you need to know about tonight’s teams and happily stops short of telling us anyone’s favourite holiday destination, whether they prefer tea or coffee or would read Camus rather than Stendahl or de Maupassant. Once again French football shows its superiority to English, reasonably priced seats (20 euros tonight) and free match programmes, which gives you more money to spend in the club shop. The programme has the title “reservoir dogues”; partly because LOSC Lille are known as the les dogues, a type of enormous dog, and partly it would seem because LOSC Lille can’t resist a not very good pun.

Up in the stand there are more freebies to be had; a smiling young woman is giving away giant foam hands, whilst under every seat is a red flag on a stick bearing the club crest. It may be the last match of a disappointingly unsuccessful season, against a team ranked as the 4th least entertaining in Ligue 1 by the sports paper L’Equipe, and it may be a meaningless match, but it will be fun! That is the point, because there are new owners at Lille and they have a vision for the club and they want to sell season tickets (abonnements). I buy a small low alcohol (0.5%) beer (Kronenbourg Malt), which I cannot recommend and take my seat.

As kick-off approaches the words of the club anthem appear on the giant screen set into the front of the roofOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and a good number of the 28,390 crowd sing heartily to the tune of Amazing Grace whilst waving their flags and giant hands; it’s almost moving. Nantes is in the far west of France some 600km away by road, so not many Nantoises have made the trip and the few that have are high up in the corner of the stadium; they mostly don’t bother to take their seats but stand at the top of the stairs, as if preparing for a quick getaway at the end of the match. From where I am sat their contribution to the match atmosphere is nil. The teams come on to the pitch behind large banners displaying the two club crests, as happens for all Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 matches. Lille wear their red shirts and navy blue shorts, whilst FC Nantes are in their traditional kit of all yellow with green trim, for which they are known as the Canaries (les canaris) and for this reason I can’t help disliking them slightly, even though to my knowledge they have nothing else at all in common with Norwich City. Whatever, I am supporting Lille tonight and have the fridge magnet to prove it.34187818524_1f7e6cca3f_o

The match kicks off and for fifteen minutes or so it lives down to expectations and not much happens. But gradually Lille start to look the better team. The crowd, who after that initial pre-match burst of orchestrated enthusiasm had begun to sound a bit lost amongst the cavernous spaces around the other 32,000 unoccupied seats, start to find their voices which fill those voids. The Ultras below our seats call to the support at the far end of the ground and they call back and the atmosphere builds. Thirty-six minutes gone and a through ball finds Nicolas de Preville who advances and passes the ball beyond Dupe to put Lille ahead. Yes! Not only am I seeing a team called the Canaries lose but I had spotted de PrevilleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA playing for Reims last season and picked him out as ‘one to watch’. So I’m pretty pleased with myself. Lille continue to be the better team and retain their 1-0 lead as Monsieur Desiage the referee (arbitre) blows for half-time.

During half-time the entertainment switches to a shoot-out between a couple of boys teams and there is also a performance by some dancing girls with pom-poms, which is more or less in the tradition of French Saturday night TV where variety, which in France includes bare-breasted show girls, is still popular. For all its philosophy and sophistication France often still seems oddly sexist. I take a trip downstairs to the gents’ and enjoy the figure painted on the door34992387426_ce06889e21_o of a male in a baggy shirt and shorts with knees bent and fist clenched, which is probably meant to convey that he is celebrating a goal, but he looks like he may be just farting loudly, it is a toilet door after all.

A minute into the second half and Lille fans have every reason to fart loudly in the direction of les NantoisesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and celebrate as my protégé Nicolas de Preville scores a second goal, a simple tap-in, for les dogues. Les canaris are looking suitably sick as parrots. Seven minutes later and de Preville claims his hat-trick after Lima holds back a Lille player in the penalty box and a penalty is awarded. Lima is sent off. FC Nantes have developed into a full-blown surrogate Norwich City for me with les canaris 3-0 down and with a player sent-off, it’s the sort of thing I dream of seeing.

Just past the hour Lille replace Benzia with Naim Sliti a skilful Tunisian international midfielder and another player who I have to take the credit for spotting last season, this time when he was playing for Ligue 2 Parisian team Red Star. This evening is getting better and better. Apparently however, Sliti is in dispute with Lille because they are not giving him enough games and he has said that if “a door opens” for him he will move. I hope you are you reading this Mick McCarthy.

It looks like it could be a complete rout, but Lille don’t press home their advantage and it’s Nantes who have some half decent chances on the break, but the score remains unaltered. Nine minutes from time Monsieur Desiage books Nantes substitute Kacaniklic with style as some time after he commits a foul he calls him over, speaks with him and then in one very swift and quite angry movement brandishes his yellow card at him.
There’s very little additional time to play, what’s the point? Lille’s win sees them rise a place to eleventh in the final table, leapfrogging Toulouse who play out a goalless draw at home to Dijon; Nantes remain seventh as both St Etienne and Stade Rennais, their nearest rivals in the table, also lose. So that’s it for another season, or is it? We are asked to stay in our seats and meanwhile as the Lille players milk applause for their season’s work a tractor and trailer drives on to the pitch, sheets are laid across the turf and boxes and things are heaped up on the sheets. The players thank the UltrasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the bloke who stands on the step ladderOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA in front of the Ultras to orchestrate their chants makes a short speech to the players. Applause follows, so he evidently hasn’t told them what a useless bunch of overpaid gets they are, or maybe he has. No one seems to take offence however, and as the celebrations die down we sit and wait. Suddenly the stadium lights go out; then begins the loud beat of Euro-disco, the flash of lasers and then the explosion of fireworks. Quite a spectacular display follows and goes on for the next twelve minutes or so. If this is how they celebrate the end of the season when they finish top of the bottom half of the table, what do they do when they actually achieve something? But it’s great; this is what football clubs should be doing, thanking their supporters at the end of the season. I had only seen Lille once before this year, but they seem to care that everyone here has bothered to come to the last match of the season.

We finally leave the stadium at about 11.20pm and head for the Metro which is of course still running; night buses begin to run in about an hour’s time. It has been a fun night at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with defeat for a team called the Canaries, a sending off, a hat-trick for a player I had ‘scouted’, a fireworks display and a free flag. I shall hopefully return some time next season. As it says on the illuminated destination blinds of the buses outside the stadium Allez Lille!

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