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.

Colchester United 2 Coventry City 1

After a hard day at work (7 hours 24 minutes) there’s nothing like getting home to your wife, husband  or partner on a winter’s evening to enjoy an aperitif, a good meal and a relaxing evening of engaging conversation.  But tonight I have worked almost eight hours, caught a later train and now find myself on the cold, dark, traffic-dominated concrete forecourt of Colchester railway station leaning into a drizzle filled wind as I head for The Bricklayers Arms as a precursor to a bus ride out to the Weston Community Homes out in the middle of nowhere Stadium and an evening of fourth division football.

In the Bricklayers there are just a handful of drinkers, perhaps because it’s not yet six o’clock.  I buy a pint of Colchester Brewery Number One (£3.50) and settle down at a small table to read a couple more chapters of W Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage; I’ve been reading it for weeks.  A man called Mike and his grand-daughter walk in, he says hello and I reciprocate.  The Bricklayers is under new management and seems brighter and somehow larger than before, I like it but they have been unable to resist having inane words in different fonts painted on the walls –   “Menu, Share, Full Flavour, Experience, Greatness Awaits.”  They forgot “Huh?”, but at least the beer is bit cheaper than it used to be.

 

  Someone says it’s quiet because the trains are not running; there’s been ‘a jumper’ at Kelvedon.  The barman, with no one to serve, obsessively wipes down the bar.  There’s a group of four men who seem to be from out of town, well one of them has Scottish accent, and they sit and pore over the menu before discovering that food isn’t served on Tuesdays.  As they leave one of them says “We’re going pizza then are we?”    I return to the bar as the first appreciable numbers of patrons, mostly men going to the match arrive and stand in groups; I have a pint of Colchester Brewery Sweeney Todd (£3.50).  At length I finish another chapter, drain my glass and head for the bus.

It’s still wet outside and the soft lighting inside the buses gently illuminates the dull street; I pay my fare (£2.50 return) and head upstairs to the front of the empty top deck; car brake lights and yellow street lights glow psychedelically  through the misted up, rain spotted front window of the bus.  I eat a Ginster’s pasty that I’d bought earlier (£1.50 from Sainsbury’s); it’s strongly flavoured but the packet tells me that despite being ‘The Nation’s Favourite’ it contains just 14% ‘quality beef’. It doesn’t clarify whether that’s good or poor quality; the two large pieces of gristle I chew on don’t suggest the former.  The bus fills up and a bunch of middle-aged Coventry fans join me, still enjoying the thrill that we got when we were young, riding up at the front.  I ask one about the recent travails of their troubled club, but wish I hadn’t, because he goes on a bit.  I’m interested, but don’t want to write a thesis on it.  I’m not proud of this so don’t admit to my slightly ghoulish desire to see Coventry City, a club who were in the First Division for 34 years, playing in the Fourth Division. It’s morbidly fascinating, like having seen Simon Dee signing on.

 

The bus lurches, growls and hisses its way through the wet streets to the stadium where everyone politely alights thanking the driver for delivering us safely.  The stadium lights penetrate the gloom, casting angular shadows beyond the spiky stands. It’s only twenty five past seven so I take a wander around the ground to take in the ambience.  I love floodlights. It’s bleak and open out here, even more-so on a wet and windy night like this and people scurry towards the turnstiles appearing and disappearing between the shadows.  Across the A12 the jaundiced neon of the McDonald’s arches glows brightly.  Feeling cold I head for the warmth of the club shop from which a toy Eddie the Eagle stares blankly into the night.  The shop is virtually empty of customers; children have long spent their Christmas money and it seems no one wants a Colchester United air freshener, tea towel or pencil tonight.  I buy a programme, but outside from one of the cold and wet, windswept vendors.

 

As I join the three person queue at the turnstile a steward asks what I have in my bag and I try and make it sound interesting as I tell him about my umbrella and Kindle; he takes a look but mostly has a feel as if playing one of those party games where you have to pull out particular objects from a sock.  A female steward in a fluffy bobble hat asks me if I have any games. “What, like Snakes and Ladders or Ludo?” I say, bemused.  “No, on your Kindle” she says.   I didn’t even know you could have games on your Kindle. “You can read my book, if you want” I tell her as the turnstile beeps and I enter the stand, not really knowing if she would like W Somerset Maugham.  I reduce my liquid content and then take my seat, which appropriately is in Row P.

The pitch looks soft and muddy and Coventry City kick-off the playing towards the South Stand, Severall’s and the town far beyond.  Coventry wear their customary all-pale blue kit, not for nothing are they known at the Sky Blues.  Colchester United sport blue and white striped shirts and white shorts with beautiful blue and white hooped socks which look a treat. The drizzle sweeps across the pitch from east to west, visible only in the glare near the lights and unseen on the ground.

It’s a good game, Coventry try a couple of shots and then Colchester take over a bit, their number 20 Courtney Senior darting forward and repeatedly feinting to the right before running off to the left past hapless Coventrians.     In the seventh minute, as if to announce that they’d now got a quorum, the few hundred Coventry fans up the corner near the A12, somewhat surreally burst into a chorus of the Eton Boating Song.  It’s not because of the ‘jolly boating weather’ or being Old Etonians, but rather because when Jimmy Hill took over the club in the 1960’s, taking them for the fourth to the first division he wrote new Coventry-centric lyrics to make it the club song.  I always thought Jimmy Hill was a bit odd.  Now Jimmy is dead and Coventry City are back in the fourth division, but the song remains the same and they’ve brought their modern folk music with them to soggy Colchester.

People around me are getting involved in the game, some cuddle up for warmth , others are in fancy dress.  A free-kick is given to the Coventry goalkeeper after he’s challenged by a Colchester player, “How the fuck does that work?” queries a voice behind me. A dog’s bark echoes from the dark corner between the stands; there are two policemen with police dogs watching the game, the dogs turn around as if to ask “Who said that?”   The drizzle has draped itself over the walls of the concrete vomitoria in the west stand.  At the back of the stand a man talks loudly with occasional calls of “Come On U’s”.  He  sounds a bit like Harry H Corbett and in my mind I imagine he looks like Oliver Reed; I turn around to look, but can only see Roy Cropper from Coronation Street.

 

Twenty-six minutes have passed;  a couple of legs or feet trail and snag and courtesy of the interpretation of referee Mr Busby, Colchester have a penalty; Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe scores, they deserve it and possibly more goals, but 1-0 is still the score at half-time.  I go under the stand to escape the chill and release some more what’s become of the output of the Colchester Brewery.  The refreshment counters are doing a good trade tonight and there’s an intensity about the staff in their blue schoolboy caps as they dole out the over-priced, plastic wrapped, processed fare.  I flick through the match programme which is boring and too inoffensive for my taste.  I like the page on local football however and in particular the words of FC Clacton manager Kieron Shelley who is quoted as saying “I still believe this team is good enough to compete – may be not at the top of this league or even the middle but certainly within this league”.  I like to think he paused for a long time after he said certainly and perhaps went “…erm…”.

 

Within ten minutes of the game re-starting a newly galvanised Coventry City equalise as Tom Bayliss smacks the loose ball high into the middle of the goal from the edge of the penalty box.  The Eton Boating Song is heard again and I wonder what Captain Algernon Drummond, who wrote it back in the 1870’s would have made of Jimmy Hill and Match of the Day. As a riposte to the glorious swell of the boating song the Colchester fans respond with a Welsh hymn tune and sing “We forgot that you were here”.  I don’t know where they thought they had gone, to chapel perhaps.   Not to be out done the Coventry fans respond with “You’re not singing anymore” to the same tune and from behind me Roy Cropper booms “Shut up you Black Country tossers” showing off his knowledge of geography, but perhaps a lack of singing talent and vocabulary.  A youth in front of me finds it amusing though.

Coventry are having the better of the second half and I sense that Colchester might rue not scoring more than once when they were the better team.  The managers of both teams hop about in their ‘technical areas’ looking like they may also have been processing the products of the Colchester Brewery; and it is a cold night.   Colchester bring on their substitutes and Coventry introduce a man with three surnames, Johnson Clarke-Harris, a name which the Coventry fans quickly put to music covering the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.

The drizzle has stopped, but the cold is deepening and the damp is penetrating my bones.  My ankles and knees feel like pins are being pushed into them, my nose is numb and I sense an iciness crystallising around the very depths of my soul.  It’s the 88th minute of the game and just then Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe crosses the ball from in front of me,  Mikael Mandron leaps majestically in the centre of the penalty area, turns his head to divert the path of the ball, sending it firmly into the  bottom corner of the goal net. A goal, and Mandron salutes the crowd, before disappearing into a blue and white striped human hill, which includes mascot Eddie the Eagle.  Joy abounds.

After four additional minutes Mr Busby blows conclusively, Colchester win, Coventry lose and my circulatory system stutters back into life as I head for the bus and my lonely spouse.

 

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Colchester United 1 Port Vale 1

It is the day before Christmas Eve, a dull, dirty December day. A breeze has dried the pavements and roads but the damp is in the ground and releases a chill into the air like a radiator in reverse. It’s a short train journey into Colchester but the carriage is well loaded with people ‘going to stay’ for Christmas, the gangways between the seats are blocked up with suitcases.
Opposite me a bulbous-eyed, red faced man is on his mobile phone organising last minute work details as he heads off for the holidays… “Take Stella’s name out….sanitise it….just say it’s a commodity distribution company….a cdc…”. It all sounds a bit dodgy. Twat, I think. Behind me a woman asks a man if he is going to Colchester. No, Stowmarket” he says. “ Is that near Norwich?” “ Yes “ he lies, although I suspect it would just be too much bother to be truthful and to say “No”. People do that I find; I do that.
In Colchester I leave the train and head for the Bricklayers Arms, following a bald headed man in a camouflage jacket who disappears into the pub fifty yards ahead of me. I stride across the pub car park eager for a beer, there is a man with a large Airedale terrier in the smoking shelter. At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Old Ale (£3.65; I can’t see the man in the camouflage jacket anywhere). There are a few people enjoying a drink, it being nearly Christmas, but conversation is quiet and there don’t seem to be many football fans in yet. Two men and a woman, who is wearing a sparkly woolly hat with a furry bobble, occupy the next table along from me. The woman is on her mobile phone as she sits down. “No, I’m going to London tomorrow. We’re taking the dogs up town” she says mysteriously before sitting down with her back to me. Phone conversation over, one of the men dominates the pub conversation; he talks about the Star Wars films. “I’m not a sci-fi person” he says “ But basically those three made in the 1990’s were shite; but I always go and see them all because I feel if I don’t I might be missing something… I know I’m going to come away disappointed.”
I get another pint of beer (Adnams Broadside £3.70) and speak to a man at the bar called Mike who I vaguely know from my wife’s church. He is waiting to swap a pint of St Austell Tribute which refuses to settle for a pint of Adnams Ghostship. The Broadside is very enjoyable and I am still savouring it as I board the bus to the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium (£2.50 return). There is plenty of leg room

on the bus which is good. The front window on the upper deck has a blue tint across the top which reminds me of my first car, a mark two Ford Escort. Hopefully the bus won’t get written off on a frosty road like the Ford Escort did.
Once off the bus I join a queue for a programme (£3), then pop into the club shop, not to

 

buy anything but just because I am fascinated by club shops and the things they sell. It’s like visiting an art gallery. Back outside the Port Vale team bus nestles at the back of the main stand, a few hardy souls sit and drink coffee at the picnic tables outside the Hot Shots café, which is serving locally made ice cream. At the corner of the ground a vast screen stares out across the A12 advertising forthcoming ‘attractions’. It seems that inOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA July four young women dressed as prostitutes will appear under the name ‘Little Mix’. I turn away because they make me feel a little uneasy, and head for the turnstiles.
Inside the south stand I take in the aroma of breeze blocks and urinal deodorizer blocks and for reasons I cannot explain decide to buy a sausage roll (£2.30). It’s a decision I begin to regret as I peel the pastry from its plastic wrapper which has turned brittle in the microwave. The wrapper tells me that what I am about to eat has a ‘pork-based filling’, a phrase which worries me slightly. The list of ingredients reveals a pork content of just OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA18%. On the front of the wrapper it says “…don’t compromise”; as the slimy sausage roll slides down inside me I realise that it’s too late.
Feeling disappointed with myself I take up my seat and the game begins with Port Vale kicking towards Colchester town centre with the McDonald’s across the other side of the A12 at their backs; they are wearing an all-black kit with narrow yellow and white stripes running down from the armpit; Colchester wear their usual blue and white stripes with white shorts. PortOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Vale’s kit is rather nasty. A new layer of disappointment is added as the game unfolds not into a beautiful flower but into a scrunched up mess. A win could see Colchester step into the top six in the fourth division, whilst Port Vale are only four points above the relegation zone; so a Colchester win is expected. But neither side is very good, although Port Vale are slightly better than expected and Colchester far poorer.
The game and the pervading atmosphere are dull and grey like the weather. The man sitting in front me who has a very full head of grey hair mildly vents his frustration with a slightly camp flick of his wrist as referee Mr Kinseley gives Port Vale a free-kick. “but he got the ball “ the grey–haired man opines. Behind me two men talk about things other than what is unravelling in front of us. As ever, one of them dominates the conversation. “I’ve got a feeling Braintree are at home ……..he’s got a very funny surname…..I watched this thing, it mighta been on Channel Five, about a bloke that built a lot of stuff in this country….Brunel, fuckin’ ‘ell, what a clever bloke…”
On the pitch Port Vale’s Marcus Harness stands out, not just because his first and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsurnames kind of rhyme, but because he runs around a lot to good effect and has a very bouncy, almost fluffy ponytail. Just after half past three a ball is lumped over the Port Vale defence, Sammie Szmodics runs onto it and kicks it beyond the appropriately named Ryan Boot in the Port Vale goal. It’s a bit of a surprise, but more importantly it’s a goal.
At half-time I step outside the back door with the smokers and eat the last of a box of Fairtrade cereal bars that has lasted me several months. Whilst some spectators smoke and top up with fast food at the burger van outside the stadium I browse through the programme; it’s not very interesting today, but I enjoy reading the names of the Colchester United squad; my favourites are Doug Loft, Kane Vincent-Young and Rene Gilmartin. To read out a team containing such names would be something like poetry.
The grey afternoon gets darker as the sun goes down and the second half begins. Hopes of there having been a stirring half-time team talk which has inspired the players toOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA produce anything approaching entertaining football are soon dashed, this is dull. Eddie the Eagle peers on glumly through his huge startled eyes, wearing a red coat edged in white. I assume this is Eddie‘s sartorial nod to St Nicholas, but in fact he looks more like a bizarrely colourful Teddy boy or perhaps he is just wearing his dressing gown.
Port Vale are Colchester’s equals today and with a quarter of an hour left Marcus Harness scores the equalising goal with a glancing header. For the first time the small band of away supporters can be heard,” Vay-al, Vay-al” they chant, once or twice. Five minutes of added-on time raise hopes that Colchester can re-establish their lead, but they don’t. With the final whistle I am up quickly and on my way to the bus stop. This seems like a wasted afternoon; a wasted £17.50. But may be football is like Star Wars; shite, but you can’t not go in case you miss out on something.

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Balaruc 0 Clermontaise 2

Paris St Germain are the current holders of the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup, but they have an easy ride into the final as they only have to play six matches to get there, the first of which is in January. Like the FA Cup, the Coupe de France really begins in the summer and eight rounds are played before the likes of PSG deign to make an appearance. In fact there is also an overseas section that begins as early as May because clubs in the French territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe are also eligible to enter the competition. Today is the troisième tour (third round) of the Coupe de France and Mrs Brooks and I are in the seaside spa town of Balaruc les Bains at the Stade Municipal20170910_144644.jpg to see the tie with Clermontaise, who are from the town of Clermont l’Herault, some thirty kilometres to the north west.

Balaruc les Bains sits at the north end of a salt water lagoon, the Bassin de Thau, a kilometre or so across the water from Sète. There is a huge spa (les thermes) in Balaruc, which is something to behold. A massive, sleek, white building like an ocean going liner; from its commodious foyer, two escalators slowly ascend like conveyor belts, carrying mostly elderly, bronzed, French people, some in towelling robes, up to experience various health giving treatments.  I found it creepy, it made me think of Logan’s Run and Soylent Green.

The Stade Municipal is in total contrast to les thermes; it’s scruffy and dusty and will soon be full of young life, although like many French small town stadia it’s largely just a football pitch surrounded by a high metal fence.20170910_142429.jpg

There is one stand, a concrete platform with three rows of plastic seats bolted onto metal frames. 20170910_141746.jpgIt looks like the original roof has been replaced with new metal sheeting on another metal frame, which obscures the row of the pitch from the front row of seats. We enter the stadium through a wide opening in the back wall and find ourselves in the players tunnel; it’s an entrance that is closed soon afterwards, but it’s not quite two -thirty yet and the game doesn’t kick off until three. A wonky sign points roughly in the direction of the buvette,20170910_143307.jpg which is a portakabin style structure with a counter even more wonky than the sign. To the other side of the stand is a dark room with high-up shelves of trophies on two walls and a bar counter;

it smells of stale tobacco. A poster lying on a table shows what’s healthy to eat and what’s not and a timetable shows what time the number three bus leaves on matchdays for the Stade Mosson in Montpellier, the local home of top flight French football.

As the teams and referees warm up on the pitch we wander about seeking the best vantage point from which to watch the match; there doesnt seem to be one. The lowest part of the metal fence is quite closely meshed and there are few places where it is possible to see over it. It’s a bright, warm day, but its also extremely windy; with the wind howling off the Bassin just a couple of hundred metres behind us, we can smell the brine and taste the salt in the air. A group of elderly men have claimed a good spot on a bench in the lee of a high hedge on a small slope; one of them has brought his own folding chair. You can’t beat the experience that comes with age. Behind each goal there is a small outcrop of terracing,

which looks like archaeology; the concrete is even gently patterned like mosaic but it doesn’t really help see over the fence.

Eventually we settle on some rocks strewn about in front of the buvette 20170910_142610.jpgand the teams line up on the pitch. Balaruc wear an unattractive all-black kit with green trim, which displays no team badge or sponsor’s names. Clermontaise and Balaruc are in the same regional league (Poule A of the Languedoc-Rousillon section of the Occitanie region’s Division Honneur 2 – the seventh level of French football), but Clermontaise look much smarter and ‘professional’ in their all blue kit with badge. The McDonald’s golden arch logo is on the Clermontaise shorts; they can’t have read the poster on the table in the trophy room.

La Clermontaise kick off the match with the Mediterranean Sea at their backs, but proceedings are soon interrupted as the young looking referee Monsieur Yohan Beker is concerned that the strong wind has laid flat the corner flagsIMG_20170910_182517_939.jpg at the Mediterranean end of the ground.  A bloke in a t-shirt and trakkie bottoms is called on to sort them out and once he has done so the game carries on. Early on Clermontaise look the better team, but it might just be because they’re wearing a nicer kit.  Just before twenty past three it looks like they have scored, but I can’t tell if it was  offside or the shot was missed. There are flattened practice goals either side of the real one and from my rock it’s hard to tell which is which.

La Clermontaise’s number five is the first player to receive what will become a litany of cautions as he appears to knock out the Balaruc number nine, who stays down still, but eventually gets up seemingly none the worse for wear. But any violence on the pitch is as nothing to that developing in front of me as two small girls poke sticks at the dirt between the rocks we are sat upon and end up flicking it at one another with angry stares and increasing ferocity. It is worrying that humans are so unpleasant to one another from such a young age. Balaruc then have a rare attack, but just as the ball is crossed a massive gust of wind blows and carries it off to the far side of the ground.

The Stade Municipal is closely overlooked by four-storey blocks of flats all along one side and partly at both ends; they make quite a dramatic backdrop being so close to the pitch. At one end of the ground small gardens are visible through the boundary fence and I can see one has an interesting collection of gnomes. 37010937752_0f2b1b1e4c_oThere are a number of people, mostly men in their sixties and seventies, sat at windows and balconies looking down on the game. I envy them their home comforts, it has to be better than perching like a lizard on a rock in the sun. Dissatisfied with my view sat on the rock, I watch the remainder of the first half standing up.

Just about half an hour has passed since the game began and La Clermontaise are awarded a free kick a little more than twenty metres from goal. The ball is lofted to the near post where the visiting number nine cleverly twists and heads it into the net. La Clermontaise have taken the lead and, better kit or not they deserve to have done so because they look a tad classier than the home team. That touch of extra class is further illustrated as Balaruc respond with a series of petulant fouls. Firstly their number seven hurls himself into a misjudged tackle resulting in a melee of virtually every one on the pitch. At first Monsieur Beker steps in to separate the aggrieved parties, but then he steps back to seemingly allow the teams to sort the matter out for themselves. I have seen a few such incidents in French amateur games and whilst there is usually much fierce debate among the players there is never any real violence; once everyone has had their say Monsieur Beker returns to caution the number seven, award a free kick to La Clermontaise and play on.

Annoyingly the rough approach from Balaruc seems to work and they now have the initiative as the attacking team. A corner is punched away by the orange clad Clermontaise keeper, but the return is instant from the edge of the box as the Balaruc number eleven volleys the ball solidly against the crossbar. The half ends with more brutality as the Clermontaise number six shoves the Balaruc number six and also receives a caution from Monsieur Beker.

The search for a better viewing point resumes at half time with added vigour because the strong wind and warm sun really are taking their toll on our soft, southern English sensibilities. Eventually we find a place at the back of the main stand, leaning on the rear wall against a steel stanchion.37010978392_d5a2d9a778_o It proves to be a good choice and our enjoyment of the second half is much increased by our new location, which is shaded, out of the wind and high enough to see over the fence, with the added bonus of atmosphere as the stand is full; spectating nirvana.

The new half begins with Balaruc  on the attack again and their number nine shoots over the crossbar before his opposite number fouls the Balaruc number five, who bawls and stays down on the ground twitching, but eventually gets up and hops away; he was only stunned. Balaruc soon earn a corner, which is quite skillfully worked across the penalty area and fed back to their number nine who curls a shot into the top corner of one of the practice goals squashed up behind the real goal.

Quite a few people seem to have changed their spectating position for the second half and like giant birds on a telephone wire, a row of young lads have perched themselves on the high pink wall behind the Clermontaise keeper and are hanging over the crossbar of one of the practice goals. Other lads sit on a bench, their motorcycle helmets stacked together in front of them like deformed, painted skulls in an ossuary. Some of the people watching from the windows of the flats are no longer there.

It’s a quarter past four and Balaruc’s number four is shown the yellow card for plunging feet first through Clermontaise’s number eleven. A wit in the stand entertains his fellow spectators with what sound like caustic comments about the refereeing; people laugh anyway, which only encourages him. Balaruc might be said to be enjoying most of the possession, but it’s not doing them any good; they are also now ‘enjoying’ most of the bookings too as their eleven hurls himself at his opposite number, who stays down on the ground, as does Balaruc’ s number nine who has fallen down in a separate incident that Monsieur Beker sensibly ignored. Balaruc’s nine looks frustrated and tetchy. At half past four there is a drinks break.

Players are now being substituted freely, keeping the grey-haired, kindly faced and besuited  délègue principal37182734275_6954af6a9c_o Monsieur Gerard Blanchet busy in front of us. Clermontaise’s number twelve confirms his presence by boldly attempting a shot from a thirty metre free kick; of course he misses, but not embarrassingly so. The Balaruc bookings continue and five blatantly kicks the Clermontaise twelve as he dribbles past him and three knocks over his opposite number as they run side by side. All afternoon tbere is a pleasing symmetry with many of the fouls and bookings as players with the same shirt number go for each other.

There are only five minutes left now and whilst Balaruc have been nimble and passed the ball well, they have also been overly physical and not succeeded in making many goal scoring chances at all. Clermontaise have not had much of the ball, but it doesn’t seem to have worried them unduly and I think to myself that they might now just score again and finish the game off. A  Balaruc goal kick ends up with the Clermontaise number twelve some thirty plus metres from goal; he runs past a couple of opponents and to the edge of the penalty area; another stride, a check on where the goal is and he strikes the ball across the goalkeeper into the far side of the net.

La Clermontaise go through to the quatrième tour of the Coupe de France. Allez les bleus!

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FC Sete 0 Stade Bordelais 1

The town of Sète is a fabulous seaport, fishing port and resort in Languedoc, it nestles by the sea where a rocky outcrop meets a saltwater lake. It has trawlers and its own network of canals and narrow streets, which give it the character of a cross between Venice, Naples and Lowestoft with a bit of North Africa thrown in thanks to its ferry links to Morocco. It has a population according to Wikipedia of about forty three thousand. Of all the places I have ever been I think Sète is one of my favourite towns anywhere.

FC Sète were early members of the French professional football league, winning the title in both 1934 and 1939 and the Coupe de France (French FA Cup) in 1930 and 1934, being the first club to win ‘the double’ in France. After 1960 the club declined and then, having been in Ligue 2 as recently as 2006, were relegated to the regional leagues in 2009 due to financial problems. But promotion to the second amateur tier (CFA2) in 2013 was followed by promotion to the top amateur tier in 2015. The club remains at the amateur, fourth level of French league football, which is now known as League National 2 and is divided imto four regionally based leagues with sixteen clubs in each.

So far this season Sète have won just one of their four games but are undefeated; their opponents today are Stade Bordelais from Bordeaux20170909_173047.jpg near the Atlantic coast, some 380 kilometres away by road; they have won one and lost two of their four games so far. Kick-off is at six pm and we arrive about a half an hour beforehand, parking in the spacious gravel topped car park at the side of the Stade Louis Michel, although other spectators prefer to park in the road outside. Entry to the stadium costs €6 and we buy our tickets from the aptly porthole-shaped guichets 20170909_173102.jpgoutside the one gate into the ground. Just inside the gate a cardboard box propped on a chair provides a supply of the free eight-page, A4 sized programme ‘La Journal des Verts et Blancs’. Also today there is a separate team photo and fixture list on offer.

The Stade Louis  Michel was opened in 1990, but its pre-fabricated concrete panels somehow make it look older, but in a good way; 20170909_173348.jpgthe brutal angular concrete of the main stand, the Tribune Presidentielle, could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s, channeling the inspiration perhaps of Auguste Perret or even Le Corbusier. The concrete panels on the back of the stand are lightly decorated and sit above wide windows; a pair of curving staircases run up to the first floor around the main entrance, 20170909_175009.jpgabove which is a fret-cut dolphin, the symbol of the town and the club. The stand runs perhaps half the length of the pitch either side of the halfway line and holds about twelve hundred spectators, as well as club offices and changing rooms. Opposite the main stand a large bank of open, 20170909_173643.jpg‘temporary’ seating runs the length of the pitch, it is built up on an intricate lattice IMG_20170909_223051_287.jpgof steel supports. Behind both goals are well tended grass banks; there is a scoreboard at the end that backs onto the carpark.

There is now not long to wait until kick-off and the teams line up; 20170909_175652.jpgSète in green and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks, Stade Bordelais with black shirts with white shorts and socks. There is a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off before the real one, taken by a youmg woman with a green and white scarf draped around her shoulders.  Eventually, referree Monsieur Guillaume Janin gives the signal for the game to start in earnest.

Its a grey, overcast afternoon, but not a cold one and the game quickly settles down with both teams enjoying attacking bursts in turn. The visiting team perhaps look slightly more accomplished, a bit more knowing, particularly at the back where their number four is the only player to have a tattooed forearm. He has long, lank hair and a beard and looks like he might have ridden into town on a Harley-Davidson rather than travelled over from Bordeaux with the rest of the team. The Bordelais number two is a 20170913_130330.jpgman mountain with a wide shock of bleached hair on the top of his head, and thighs the size of other men’s waists.

There’s not much of a crowd here today, three or four hundred perhaps and I count just eleven people on each of the grassy banks behind the goals and about the same number looking lost amongst the expanse of empty seats opposite. A few spectators stand and peer through the metal fence below the main stand, but most are up in the plastic, backless seats where we sit in the company of greyhaired men, idle players, club volunteers, wags and their children. A man in front of us wearing double denim reminds me of a petit Yosser Hughes, not that Yosser Hughes ever wore double denim.

The first real scoring opportunity falls to Stade Bordelais after seventeen minutes as a ball over the top of the Sète defence puts their number nine through on goal with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.  But he must have been dazzled by the dayglo yellow kit of the bald and bearded goalkeeper, who makes a startling, even dazzling save from close range.

It’s only a quarter past six, but the floodlights are coming on; every now and then there is a metallic rattle and rush behind us as a passenger or freight train speeds by on the track between Montpellier and Perpignan, which is just the other side of the road behind the Tribune Presidentialle. Sète win their first corner of the match and I am surprised to hear rythmic clapping rise from the ‘posh’ seats at the centre of the stand, but Sete has no Ultras so someone has to get behind the team; it’s a lesson that would be well learned by many club owners and officials in England.

It’s now half-past six and a ball forward is headed down to the feet of the Bordelais number ten; he feints one way and then the other to shake off the defender and shoots past the luminous Sète goalkeeper to give the away team the lead. Before the game resumes the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper is given timeout by the referree to throw a ball back to a bunch of children who have been playing their own game on the grassy slope behind his goal.

It’s six-thirty seven by the scoreboard clock and Sète win another corner to elicit more rythmic clapping from the centre of the stand; sadly it doesn’t produce an equalising goal only spiky, bitter shouts of disappointment. In the final minute of the half Séte’ s number five is booked for a trip, which leads to a Stade Bordelais free-kick within striking distance of the goal, but the opportunity is spurned.

I can’t deny I’ve been looking forward to half-time as I nimbly nip down the stairs to the buvette, 20170909_173408.jpgFC Sete.jpgwhich is close by at the corner of the stand where we are sat. The reason for my eagerness is that Sète is the home of the tielle, a small, spicy, calamari and tomato pie, with a bread like case. I love a tielle, and I love that they are specific to Sete, and are served at the football ground as a half-time snack. I only wish there were English clubs that served local delicacies. Middlesbrough has its parmo, but I can’t think of any others. Do Southend United serve jellied eels or plates of winkles? Do West Ham United serve pie and mash? Do Newcastle United serve stotties? Did the McDonald’s in Anfield’s Kop serve lobscouse in a bun? I need to know. Sadly, I don’t think my town Ipswich even has a local dish. Many English clubs don’t even serve a local beer; Greene King doesn’t count because it is a national chain with all the blandness that entails.

Having eaten my tielle (€3) with relish, by which I don’t mean some sort of pickle, but rather enthusiasm, I wash it down with a small beer (€2) and I treat my wife to a bottle of cold water (€1).

Reflecting my sense of tielle induced well-being, sunshine floods the stadium some time after the start of the second half. I look out across the pitch to the backdrop of the tree covered rocky outcrop that is Mont St Clair and all is right with the world, except that Sete are still losing; they substitute their number ten for number fifteen, but their opponents counter ny swapping thier number eleven for a thirteen.

Sète don’t look particularly like scoring, despite the change in personnel, and Stade Bordelais almost double their woe as a corner kick is headed firmly but deftly against the far post from an unlikely distance by a player whose shirt number I didn’t quite catch. The Stade Bordelais number nine is very quick and slaloms between two or three Sète players before being outnumbered. Sète’s eight becomes a fourteen. There are twenty minutes left and a free-kick to Sète is saved at full stretch by the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper. Sète’s eleven is replaced by their thirteen, a player and father of a little girl who calls and waves to him as he warms up in front of the stand, and he waves back. But undaunted by familial pleasantness Stade Bordelais replace their number seven by number fourteen. Stade Bordelais’ number nine breaks free down the left; he gets behind the Sète defence and delivers a low cross which is perfectly placed to meet the incoming run of the number ten who, from a position near the penalty spot, embarrasses himself with a shot which misses the goal in two directions. Two minutes later ten’s failure is compounded as his time under the unforgiving glare of the floodlights is terminated and he is replaced by twelve. There are still ten minutes left, but the final act of any note sees Sète’s number nine head the ball past the post from a corner. Stade Bordelais’ defenders hold firm to win the game. No one is a match for their huge full-back, their very own, very mobile rocky outcrop.

It’s not been the best game I’ve ever seen, but it’s been an oddly calm, measured one. Was anyone booked? I don’t recall. Stade Bordelais have won with greater guile and knowledge and strength, but Sète will always have their tielle, although they’ve run out of them in the buvette today.

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