Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

The first and second rounds of the Football League Cup are always an early season treat, a chance to play an interesting ‘lower league’ club and maybe visit a ground never visited before, in fact that was almost guaranteed back in the days of two-legged ties.  Added to that, summer isn’t over (if it has ever started) and a hot and sticky road trip precedes a balmy evening of lengthening shadows beneath a maturing, setting sun. Early season evening games are blissful, beautiful occasions and I fondly remember visits to Torquay, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Darlington, Brentford, Stockport, Bolton and Wigan.   Sadly, Ipswich Town are now one of those lower league teams, and a decade or more of abject failure has transformed cup ties from nights of wonder and joy into painful experiences to be endured like a trip to the dentist or having your car MoT’d.

Tonight, our opponents are ‘little Newport County’, a phoenix club resurrected from the one that went bust in 1988, following relegation from the fourth division.  I recall seeing the original County play out a magnificently awful goalless draw at Layer Road, Colchester in that fabulously terrible relegation season, but I also recall their glorious 2-3 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final defeat to Carl Zeiss Jena at the same time as Town were cruising past St Etienne on our way to winning the UEFA Cup.  Again, like on Saturday when Morecambe played their first ever third division game at Portman Road sixty years after Town played our first ever top division game, it is somehow fitting that Newport and Town should meet forty years after both clubs’ finest moments in European competition. I visited Newport’s old Somerton Park ground back in 1988 and could only think how their opponents from the German Democratic Republic must have been glad to get back behind the ’iron curtain’, doubtless with renewed faith that Communism was far superior to Capitalism and produced much better football stadiums, which of course it is and did, if you do it right.  Communism is a bit like sex, a great idea but best only conducted between consenting adults.

Shamefully arriving by car and not public transport because of continuing Covid induced paranoia, I park-up in West End Road car park at a little after 7 pm; the tariff is £1.00 until 8.00pm, after which it is free.  Stepping from my trusty, air-conditioned Citroen C3 the warmth of the evening air hits me unexpectedly and stirs pleasant memories of going to night matches in more exotic locations such as Beziers, Nice, Marseille and Montpellier whilst on holiday in the south of France.  Musing that the stadium catering at Portman Road probably doesn’t serve espresso coffee or cheese and ham baguettes, I stroll to the ground where there are queues at the guichets (look it up). I buy a programme (£2.50) from a booth in which the gently smiling young female programme seller seems rather heavily made-up for the occasion, but then it’s nice that she’s made the effort.  Drinking in the pre-match ambience I pass by the back of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and enter Portman Road, which is strangely quiet.  I realise later that this is because the only people occupying the Cobbold Stand tonight are the 131 from Newport, many of whom will have travelled on the six-wheeled charabanc of Watt’s Coaches, which idles by the Portman Road bus stop; I ask one of the drivers how long the journey took; “Five and a half hours” he tells me stretching out his vowel sounds with his rich, lilting and somewhat tired sounding South Walean accent, which oozes Rarebit and Eisteddfods.

Returning to Sir Alf Ramsey Way the queues for turnstiles 43 to 47 are lengthening and beginning to snake, so I head for turnstile 49 where there’s hardly anyone ahead of me at all.  Inside the ground a line of Heras fencing separates the fanzone from those of us who have passed through the turnstiles. The back of the stand is a noisy place as a disco inside a shipping container seems to be operating from a corner of the fanzone, predictably no one is dancing, and I wonder what the point of it is.   Fearing that my hearing is being damaged I head for my seat which tonight is in Block H, so lettered I will discover because at the end of the match it’s difficult to get out of, like the prisoner cell block.

As I stand and flick through my programme, kick-off comes ever closer and the PA system which successfully scrambles any spoken word delivers a medley of tunes associated with the Town.  I enjoy the anthemic Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown from the 1970’s, but cringe at the dire Singin’ the Blues of the George Burley era, which sounds as if it is performed by Vic Reeves and Suzi Quattro, and the surreal and corny Sweet Caroline.  My only pleasure is from a childish giggle provoked by the name of a Newport substitute, Evan Ovendale. 

Finally, my torture by music is ended when the teams come onto the pitch, and I’m pleased to report are warmly applauded as they ‘take the knee’.  The match kicks off; Newport pointing in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand in their traditional amber shirts and black shorts and getting first go with the ball.  Barely two minutes pass and an Armando Dobra shot strikes Newport’s right hand goal post. Within a further two minutes Newport lead.  One of Town’s many debutants, Sone Aluko needlessly concedes a free kick, from which a low cross is diverted into the net via the heel of Timmy Abraham, who rather wonderfully sounds like he should be, and indeed he is, the little brother of the Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham.

At least we probably still have 90 minutes to score a couple of goals of our own. But inevitably, given Town’s recent record in cup competitions, I have a nagging sensation that some writing is already being daubed on a wall somewhere.  Meanwhile, Armando Dobra has a shot saved and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads over the Newport cross bar.   When Newport are awarded the game’s first corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” to the taker, displaying a boastfulness of their own ignorance that is fitting in a town that voted for Brexit.

Town may be losing, but the game is nevertheless an entertaining one and despite the mostly empty stands the spectacle is enhanced by the fading daylight. With 21 minutes gone Sone Aluko claims the glory as the first player to be booked by the strangely competent referee Mr Neil Hair, or Herr Hair as he would be known if this were the Bundesliga.  Quite suddenly at about ten past eight I notice that all sunlight has gone and the ground is totally in the shade of whatever the Pioneer stand is now called.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne strikes the outside of Newport’s left-hand post with a shot and some childish banter ensues between him and the Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend, with Bonne clutching his stomach to indicate that that Townsend is not merely big-boned; you can take the boy out of Chantry High School but you can’t …etcetera.

Five minutes of the half remain, and Town produce a delightful passing move, sending the ball from Luke Woolfenden to Idris El-Mizouni (whose father incidentally drank a post-match coffee with me when AS Meudon played St Ouen L’Aumone in the Coupe de France in 2018) to Sone Aluko to Armando Dobra, whose cross is headed over by the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  There is still time for Newport’s short and dumpy, but wonderfully named and impressively numbered (he’s No 56) Aneurin Livermore to be booked, for Idris El-Mizouni to have a free kick saved, and for him to provide a deliciously whipped-in cross for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to head over the bar yet again.

Half-time brings relief from the claustrophobia of the oldest part of the stadium, as those around me leave to get refreshment; people genuinely were smaller in the 1950’s when the old West Stand was built, possibly because there was no stadium catering back then.  Tonight, I am seemingly surrounded by youths in their late teens and early twenties who are all about 2metres tall.  Two of them return with trays of chips and the game begins again.

My seat is closer to “Churchman’s” than the Bobby Robson Stand and perhaps that’s why I notice for the first time this evening that Tomas Holy is a vision in cerise, he’s quite a sight.  Five minutes pass and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a looping cross into the goal, the giants all around me stand as one, but I had already spotted the offside flag.  “You fat bastard” chant the North Standers, presumably at goalkeeper Townsend and not to the oddly named Macauley Bonne.

Tonight’s attendance of 6,154 is announced and a good proportion of that number applaud themselves like performing seals do after catching a fish thrown at them from a bucket.  Town’s Scott Fraser replaces Sone Aluko who looks like he knows he’s had a poor game.  “He’s weird in ‘e? He’s got funny little legs in ’e?” I hear a voice behind me say.  I think the voice is talking about Newport’s left-back Aaron Lewis, who indeed does have funny little legs; he also has hair like Grayson Perry; he’s not a bad footballer mind, and I like to think he might also be able to knock up some decent ceramics or tapestries.

Over an hour of the match has passed and a fine shot from Armando Dobra brings an equally fine flying save from the fat bastard in the Newport goal; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson replace Louie Barry and the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Newport mount a rare attack down the right and Town’s Corrie Ndaba, whose first name reminds me of the episode in series nine of The Simpsons in which Lisa becomes addicted to ringing the ‘Corey hotline’, spectacularly and miraculously slices the ball into the arms of Tomas Holy who is stood behind him.

With the match in the final twenty minutes Newport players twice clear the ball off their own goal line in the space of a few seconds and James Norwood heads a decent cross from Bailey Clements over the bar in a manner which I had thought was the preserve of the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Just a short while later Norwood begins to limp and then leaves the field of play to be replaced by no one at all because we’ve used all our substitutes.  The bloke next to me doesn’t notice for a further few minutes that we are down to ten men and when he does, he thinks we’ve had someone sent off; “What happened?” he asks; and I thought I was guilty of not paying attention.

Newport’s shaven headed forty-two-year-old, Kevin Ellison is substituted and hobbles off, clearly attempting to eke out the remaining time in a way which doesn’t involve football being played. “Get off you old git” I bawl at him despite being almost twenty years his senior. I’m not sure what came over me, although these West Standers seem rather dull and need livening up.  Unfortunately, Ellison and his team win the day with their time-wasting ways and despite five minutes of added on time Ipswich fail to score, and so once again leave the League Cup at the earliest opportunity, leaving Newport County and the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Barrow and Oldham Athletic to seek the sort of glory we can only dream of.

Despite the result it’s been an enjoyable match, with some fine performances from young players, particularly Bailey Clements, Idris El-Mizouni and Cameron Humphreys. As I stand helplessly waiting to get out of the slowly clearing stand, I applaud Newport and their intrepid supporters and reassure myself by believing that although the score reads as another Cup defeat I have simply witnessed the birth pangs of a Grand Projet that will one day see us reach the next round.

AS Fabregues 0 Canet Rousillon 2

Fabregues is a very attractive small town about 10 kilometres southwest of Montpellier in the Hérault department of southern France. The town has a population of fewer than 7,000 but has a history dating back a thousand years, the centre being set out in a pattern of concentric circles around the church or chateau, a form of early medieval urban development known as a circulade. The town’s history probably goes back further to the Gallo-Roman era as the name Fabregues being derived from a Latin word meaning forges.
The Stade Joseph Jeanton is a part of a sports complex dating from 1993 that sits on the other side of the River Coulazu from the medieval town of Fabregues and it is here that my wife and I arrive today with a half an hour to spare before the kick-off of the match between Fabregues and Canet Roussillon in National Ligue 3, the fifth tier of French football, which is amateur, although the professional teams play reserve or ‘B’ teams in it. We park up in the neatly laid out car park which is landscaped with trees and shrubs and then walk through a metal gate to a wooden hut where we pay the 5 euros each admission fee. The Stade Joseph Jeanton is much like most other small town football grounds in France; a pitch surrounded by a high metal fence and a single stand affording a decent view of the pitch.

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The teams and referees are warming up as we walk behind one goal and round towards

the stand and buvette. I am impressed that one of the goalkeeping coaches is a woman and can’t imagine that many if any men’s teams in England have a female coach. The FA and English football in general really needs to get with the programme. We stop to ask three men in their sixties or seventies which team is which. One of them speaks a little English which he is keen to practice and he seems impressed that we have come to see Fabregues, which he describes as a good little club. At the buvette I buy a bottle of water (1 euro) and pick up a copy of the club’s directory. It is mostly adverts for local businesses, but contains details of every team in the club from the under 6 and 7’s up to the seniors. There is a statement from the president setting out the aims of the club and the overall impression is of the club being an important and well-run focus for the local community.
It is a warm afternoon and a strong breeze stretches white clouds out across the blue sky. We climb up into the stand and look out over the pitch towards the pink roof tops of 36538176213_715c21d13e_ocirculade and the old town. This is a pleasant spot to spend the afternoon it seems. Below us the referee (Monsieur Gauthier Lapalu) and his assistants (Monsieurs Jeremy Noiret and Maximilien Demoustier) are warming up, the referee looks very young, very neat and very enthusiastic, too enthusiastic and a little officious perhaps. He seems to want to organise his assistants overly and they don’t look that impressed.
Kick-off is scheduled for 3 pm but the teams aren’t on the pitch yet, although we can see them waiting at the mouth of the players’ tunnel, everyone seems to be waiting for the referee. Eventually, after the usual introductions, Canet Rousillon, from the town of Canet some 35 to 40 kilometres to the west, kick off in their white shirts with black shorts and socks; Fabregues wear all red. The first foul is committed after about five minutes and Monsieur Lapalu quickly airs his yellow card and then takes time to explain his decision to the Fabregues bench who are perhaps miffed, and understandably so because it wasn’t much of a foul. Five minutes later a Canet player is booked, but justifiably this time. It takes another fifteen minutes for Monsieur to get his hat-trick of cards.
This is a poor game. It may be because the afternoon is still warm, but the players aren’t running about much. One or two like to run with the ball, particularly the Fabregues number eleven, who is quite good at it, but there is not much running off the ball so there is seldom anyone to pass to near the opposition penalty area and therefore there are no shots on goal to speak of, except for optimistic long range ones. In addition, the players of both teams like to fall over and scream as if fatally wounded and Monsieur Lapalu is proving to be quite fussy and precise; he runs like Forrest Gump and his shorts fit too snugly, like his mum has cut down a pair of trousers from a dark suit.
Fabregues make a first-half substitution and the substitute adjusts his hair carefully before coming on, appearing to arrange his top-notch like the leaves on top of a carrot. But the substitute claims the distinction of being the first player to have a shot worthy of the name, in first half injury time.
With half-time we leave the stand to get out of the sun and the breeze, and to get away from the body spray of the young man next to me, which smells like pine disinfectant. This stadium has advertisement hoardings and they remind me of those at Eastern Counties League grounds. There is one for a Pompe Funèbre (undertaker) and one for Auto Ecole Thierry (Terry’s Driving School) as well as one for Pub Resto O’Papa Chico, which sounds like an Irish, Mexican pub. The local butcher, Bouchère des Beaux-Arts sounds a step up from an English pub meat raffle, but in a country that takes food seriously, such a name is probably not pretentious.
For the second half of the match we stand, peering through the fence from the opposite side of the ground to the main stand, where we are shielded from the wind by a hedge.

The second half starts well as the first discernible passing move of the game in an opponent’s half results in the Fabregues goalkeeper diving at the feet of the Canet number seven, to make a decent save. Just a minute later Canet’s number eight collapses to the turf inside the Fabregues penalty area and a penalty kick is awarded by Monsieur Lapalu. It seems a trifle harsh, but Monsieur Lapalu takes so long ensuring that no ones’ toes are in the penalty area that the number eight has far too long to think about his kick and when he eventually takes it, it provides a relatively easy save for the Fabregues ‘keeper, who dives to his right and smothers the ball completely to keep the scores level.
The game now enters a ridiculous stage where players fall like nine pins every few seconds; any physical contact apparently leads to mortal injury. The best moment is when three players come together and all three end up lying on the ground pleading for attention. If the Keystone Cops had played football it would have looked like this. It is at once both amusing and pathetic. The game is stopped and miraculously all three players recover to carry on. A banger goes off in the bushes close to where we are stood; everyone ignores it although some teenage girls trying their best to look innocent look like they might know who was responsible.
With an hour gone Canet somewhat surprisingly take the lead. The ball lands at the feet of their number ten; he shoots and the ball is saved, but the rebound bounces off him and into the net, although he may have adjusted his feet quickly enough to ensure the direction of the rebound was goal-wards rather than anywhere else. A good number of Canet supporters in the main stand celebrate. A second banger goes off in the bushes close to where we are stood and there is a delay as Monsieur Lapalu checks with his assistant that all is okay; he indicates that his ears are ringing a bit but otherwise he is fine. Monsieur Lapalu then checks with the Délègue Principal monsieur Jean Pierre Jullian, but carries on with the re-start. Fabregues are stung into action and are unlucky to have a goal disallowed five minutes later for offside when the ball was possibly heading into the net without the extra touch from the offside player. I detect the scent of cannabis on the breeze, but can understand why people watching this game may seek solace in illicit drugs.
There is about a quarter of an hour left and Canet’s number nine lofts the ball onto the roof of the goal net as his team hit Fabregues on the break. Two minutes later Fabregues’ number five stretches out a leg to win the ball, he does so, but he then catches his opponent too and Monsieur Lapalu deems this a foul and cautions number five for a second time this afternoon resulting in his sending off. To his credit number five does not complain, although having won the ball he probably had cause to. Monsieur Lapalu goes on to also caution Fabregues’ number three as he organises the human wall to defend the resulting free-kick.
Fabregues continue to search in vain for an equaliser and they seem more capable and energetic now that the sun is lower in the sky, casting a long shadow over the pitch from the adjacent sports hall. But with four minutes of normal time remaining Canet hit them on the break again as their number 10 feeds the ball beyond the Fabregues full-back for the moustachioed number two to run on to. The Clark Gable look-alike rounds the goalkeeper and scores. Canet celebrate wildly whilst Fabregues cannot believe they have conceded a goal to a bloke with a moustache.
The result is assured now and Canet almost claim an undeserved third goal as number nine strikes the ball against the cross bar. Monsieur Lapalu even seems to have lost interest a little and has seemingly relaxed his grip on the proceedings. Only two minutes added time are played, which is a relief for everyone. Canet and their supporters celebrate noisily again as the final whistle blows.
This has been a poor game, perhaps the worst I have ever seen in France. It is a shame because the Fabregues club appears to be such a well-run, ideal community based club; but I guess all teams have off days. I hope this was one of those days for both teams, because even though Canet won, they were terrible too. Monsieur Lapalu should also learn from this game too and we will look out for this name in Ligue 1 in may be ten years’ time.

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LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

After a wet, drizzly afternoon enjoying an exhibition of marionettes at the Hospice Comtesse,

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a rather groovy establishment called ‘The Beerstro’ and then the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, the Grand Finale is an eight o’clock kick-off at the Stade Pierre Mauroy where LOSC Lille meet Montpellier Hérault in the 29th Journee of Ligue 1. Montpellier sit in 6th position in the twenty-team French league, whilst Lille flounder uncharacteristically just one place off the bottom, battling against relegation. I am with my wife Paulene and after a relaxed, light meal we head for the Gambetta Metro station. It’s a little after six o’clock and as the streets begin to dry with warm air up moving up from the south, so the Lillois are venturing out to drink, to dine and to watch football. At Gambetta station the escalator is out of action and at the foot of the stairs a ticket man greets us; somehow he instantly detects that we are English and calls out over his shoulder “Alain! Ils sont Anglais”. A smiling, balding man in glasses walks over to us “Awright?” he says and we shake hands. He continues to talk to us in English with a strange hint of an estuarine accent; he must have learnt English in Dartford or Thurrock. He explains the system of rechargeable tickets and although the ticket itself costs 0.20E he lets us have one for free and on to this one ticket we add four journeys for the trip to the stadium and back (6.40E). Alain even validates our tickets for us before we thank him and bid “Au revoir” and descend down onto the platform. What a lovely bloke. The driverless trains on the Lille Metro are frequent and one soon draws up alongside the automatic doors at the edge of the platform. We step on and sit at the front of the carriage, a siren sounds, the doors close and we’re soon hurtling along through concrete tunnels beneath the city

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above. The stadium is the twelfth stop on our mostly subterranean journey, although it is possible to alight at any of the four stops from Villeneuve d’Ascq onwards and the stadium is still easily walkable. People board and leave the train along the route at Republique Beaux-Arts, Gare Lille-Flandres, Caulier, Fives and Marbrerie, some sport red and navy blue knitwear betraying their support for the local team. Before the end of the line at 4 Cantons

Stade Pierre Mauroy, the train rises out of the ground on to an elevated section and just like the last time I made this journey I am for a minute or two Guy Montag and my wife is Clarisse (Julie Christie) in Francois Truffaut’s film of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. But it soon passes. From the Metro station it’s a ten minute walk to the stadium through a university campus and science park, past the student accommodation called residence Albert Camus; a much cooler name than Essex House, where I lived in my first year at university. It’s dusk and the stadium and its great neon name is visible through

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the black branches of the trees that line our route. The path then opens out onto a wide bridge across Lille’s peripherique motorway and Stade Pierre Mauroy is directly in front of us. To the left a broad concrete piazza is filled with French football fans, and the smell of chips and hot oil. The sun sets behind the stadium to the left, turning the clouds a blurry red and casting ruddy reflections in the puddles; adding some late colour to what has been a grey day.

It’s northern France; Belgium with added je ne sais crois, but similar quantities of frites and beer. Low buildings face the stadium across the piazza, a parade of fast food outlets and bars. Further on the crowds diminish and we pass a large area set aside for cycle parking. Although the stadium is some way from central Lille, next to the motorway and has masses of covered car parking beneath and around it, the French planners were clearly optimistic for sustainable travel and there are two concrete canopied blocks of covered cycle racks in which I sadly count just two bikes and a bloke having a smoke.

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At gate M my wife chooses to go inside, get comfortable and watch the warm ups before the match, but I want to wander about a bit and so we part. I walk around to the ‘front’ of the stadium where it faces the road and the retail park opposite. There is a trailer here from which more chips are being dispensed, the queue of ‘diners’ snakes out of the descending darkness and into the bright light spilling out from above the deep fat fryers.

I walk on, following four members of the Police National, who bristle with shields and kevlar armour. A neon display advertises a future event at the stadium, a concert by the Pink Floyd pensioner, Roger Waters; its title ‘Us and Them’ will seem fateful by the end of the evening. At the ‘corner’ of the stadium is the club shop, red letters spelling out LOSC glow in the windows and fans walking past are silhouetted in its light. Inside the shop, the colour of the club shirt, red, is overwhelming; the colour red is everywhere it seems,

WW2 night-time bomber pilots could have spent time in here to improve their night vision. But to me there is more than a hint of the subcutaneous, of viscera; this is the sort of place to give a sensitive person like me nightmares. Feeling queasy I head back outside for the fresh air and then re-trace my steps back to gate M where after the customary patting down I pass through the automatic, bar-code operated turnstile, pick up my free programme and head for my seat. Re-united with Mrs Brooks I study the sixteen-page A5 size glossy programme, which contains just three advertisements not directly related to the club. The programme is small and necessarily concise and all the more excellent for that, with everything you need to know, which is really just the squads, the league table and details of the next match. If you crave extraneous information such as forward Anwar El Ghazi’s recipe for lentil soup then there is a fortnightly club paper available in the club shop, ‘LOSC in the City’, which is also free. As I read, a superannuated looking band perform live from the side of the pitch. I think they’re playing the Sex Pistol’s ‘Problems’ but Paulene tells me it’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I’m a bit disappointed to be honest and their rocked-up version of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ doesn’t please me either , but to my possible shame in these modern times, they’re next number, Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, makes me smile. My reading and musical reverie however, is disturbed by a large bang and some chanting from outside the ground; I had seen on the local TV station that there was to be demonstration by supporters before the game because of the poor performance of the team this season, and this must be it. I walk out to the back of the stand to witness through the mesh wall and some acrid smoke a couple of hundred fans following a bloke holding aloft a red flare; more firecrackers go off and there is some chanting. Excitement over, I return to my seat. Many of the other seats in the stadium are still unoccupied, particularly those on the Virage Est (East Stand) that the Lille Ultras occupy. It is soon evident however, that the ultras were the protestors as the Virage Est sees a torrent of flag waving humanity flood towards the back of the goal.

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Meanwhile a female announcer gees up the crowd with some disco music and a dance-cam

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shows supporters boogeying insanely on the big screen above the Virage Est. People seem to be enjoying themselves at a football match which hasn’t even started yet. On the pitch everything is being set up for the grand entry of the teams. Ball boys in orange shirts are camped across the centre circle, the Ligue 1 logo is carried out and put into place along with the sponsor’s logo (Conforama – a furniture retailer) and the match ball is placed on a plinth.

Banners featuring the club badges flank the ball and plinth and another banner displaying the Ligue 1 logo and then more banners are marched on to the field, these are red and bear the squad numbers and a photos of the players in tonight’s Lille team. As if all these banners aren’t enough a short film is played on the big screen which follows a journey around the city of Lille and shows images of LOSC players projected onto its most notable sites and buildings, culminating in all the players being projected on to the Stade Pierre Mauroy. It is a mightily impressive little film and conveys brilliantly the ideal of the club and the city and its people as one, I am not a little moved by all it all and wish for a day when I see something like it in Ipswich. We shouldn’t be leaving the EU, we should be saying can we forget about ‘being English’ and instead be French, or German, or Italian or even Belgian. The final act of the pre-match rituals is the singing of the club song, to the tune of Amazing Grace.

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The words appear on the giant screen and the singing hasn’t finished before referee Monsieur Sebastien Moreira, a stocky bald man, signals the start of the game. Montpellier in all white with pale orange shoulders have the first kick, in the direction of the Virage Est but it’s as if they are mesmerised by the club song, they pass the ball about and then as the song melts away immediately lose possession. That strange, musically accompanied start aside, it’s an exciting start to the game, with both teams dashing towards their opponent’s goal at every opportunity. Montpellier’s 19 year old Jonathan Ikone, a loanee from Paris St Germain, leads the charge and his team dominate the early possession, understandably believing that against the team second from bottom in the league, they are bound to score if they keep pressing. A Montpellier shot is soon saved by Mike Maignan, Lille’s goalkeeper. Montpellier are good to watch, they’re fast and direct even if most attacks break down before anyone has a shot. Lille burst forward when they can, particularly through Algerian Yassine Benzia who has the facial hair of a swarthy Mr Pickwick and his arms look unusually long; he is also the first player to be cautioned by referee Monsieur Moreira. Montpellier’s Ellyes Shkiri is injured and replaced by Saloman Sambia, but their forty year old Brazilian captain

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Vittorino Hilton

Vittorino Hilton, a veteran even six years ago when Montpellier won Ligue 1, plays on. Although the early excitement dies down a little as defences settle into their roles, the Ultras behind both goals never waver and give constant support, their beating drums being the beating heart and rhythm of the match. Each end sings their own songs, and then call to one another down the pitch. It sounds marvellous, even though the Ultras make up no more than five thousand in a crowd of 28,609 in a stadium that holds nearly twice that number . With less than five minutes until half-time, Yassine Benzia surges forward again for Lille, running at the centre of the Montpellier defence. Leaving two, then three Montpellierians in his wake Benzia pushes the ball forward into the path of Nicholas Pepe who is sprinting into the penalty area. Pepe takes a touch and then sweeps the ball past Benjamin Lecomte in the Montpellier goal. A fast, incisive if slightly unexpected goal. Pepe runs to the corner of the pitch and salutes no one in particular in the way that players like to do nowadays, but then he’s only a young lad of twenty-two. Half-time comes and two teams of boys, one in all white and one in all black, take to the field to participate in something called the Orange Football Challenge; it’s a shoot-out which at first is a non-event as none of the boys is capable of scoring , but eventually one team wins, I think. Both teams get their photo taken in the centre circle before another competition takes place in the far goal as three blokes try to hit the cross-bar with a single kick of the ball from 20 metres. The first contestant steps up and casually succeeds, winning 500 Euros in cash as a result. Predictably the next bloke doesn’t hit the cross-bar, although he’s not too far off, whilst the third slips over and shanks his shot along the grounds six metres wide of the goal. He may never be able to watch or participate in football ever again. As the players return to the field for the second half a camera man sets up in front of us to film people in the crowd who will then appear on the giant screen; as if being at the match isn’t enough you have to be able to see yourself and be seen at the match by other people at the match, although they have actually only come to watch the match; Jean Baudrillard might have something to say about it or may be Michel Foucault. Montpellier run at the Lille defence from the start, with chunky Jerome Roussillon attacking down the left and Paul Lasne down the right. It’s about twenty minutes past eight and Roussillon receives the ball some 20 metres or more from goal; he reacts instantly and dispatches a hard, low shot between the outstretched arm of Mike Maignan and the right hand post of the goal. Montpellier have a deserved equaliser, which their small knot of fans high up in the corner of the stadium

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also deserve for having made the 972 kilometre road trip; it’s no wonder there aren’t many of them, but equally a wonder there are as many as there are. No one boos, despite the dire loss of a winning position and behind the goals the Ultras maintain their support. On the touchline the Montpellier coach Michel Der Zakarian looks thoughtful, stroking his chin in his skinny legged tracky bottoms and shapeless black coat. The Lille coach Christophe Galtier moves between his seat in the stand and the technical area, he wears shiny shoes and a dark suit; he steps out of the technical area and onto the pitch at one point when play has stopped for an injured player and is admonished by the fourth official. Galtier waves his arms about in frustration and as he turns to go back to his seat gestures at the official as if to say ‘fuck you’. My wife likes Christophe Galtier; he’s very French.

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There are three minutes added on time in which both sides press forward seeking the winning goal, but neither finds it. Monsieur Moreira blows the final whistle and almost instantly supporters from the Virage Est begin to run onto the pitch and towards the players tunnel and the seats where the directors and officials are sat. More and more supporters pour onto the field; one or two approach Lille players with a look of complaint. The referee and his assistants are the first down the tunnel. A large crowd has gathered but a cordon of stewards has quickly formed creating a semi-circle around the mouth of the tunnel. Whilst most of the people on the pitch are facing the main stand and chanting something like “ If the club goes down , then you go down” at the club officials, there are a few who are taking selfies with the handful of Montpellier players stranded on the pitch as they went over to applaud their supporters. Scenes like this always look uglier than they are and whilst there are a few kicks and scuffles as stewards feel the need to man-handle some people, the cordon of stewards around the tunnel has controlled the situation. For a football tourist like me local difficulties like this just add to the entertainment, but I do wonder what the point is of these demonstrations. The supporters didn’t complain when the new regime at the club installed previously well-respected Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa and backed him with an overhaul of the squad. Bielsa had been a fabled legend at Marseille but his short tenure at Lille was a disaster and he was first suspended and then sacked as the newly assembled team failed to perform with Lille slumping into the relegation places from early in the season. Watching people stood on the pitch not playing football is only entertaining for a short while and not wanting boredom to spoil what had been an entertaining evening we decide to head back to the Metro of Montag, Julie Christie and Alain.

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Ipswich Wanderers 0 Coggeshall Town 3

The historic and much under-valued port and town of Ipswich has two senior clubs within the pyramid of non-league football, albeit clubs close to or at the base of that pyramid. Whitton United has been knocking around since the 1920’s and possibly before, but Ipswich Wanderers are up-starts by comparison, having begun in 1980 as a boys’ team and joined the Eastern Counties League in 1987 they only became Ipswich Wanderers in 1988. The Wanderers are now struggling uncomfortably close to the foot of the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division, they are second from bottom and probably heading for relegation, whilst their opponents today from North Essex are second from top and keen to move up the pyramid from Step 5 to Step 4.

The Wanderers’ home on Humber Doucy Lane is on the north eastern edge of the town in a semi-rural setting which is actually within the village of Rushmere St Andrew. The environmentally responsible can access the ground by bus; not some country service that runs the third Tuesday of every month, but by Ipswich Buses route No 6 running every 20 minutes from Tower Ramparts bus station and passing near enough to leave just a five minute walk to the ground. But today I, along with my wife have been to visit my mum, so somewhat shamefully we have travelled by car.

It is a beautifully sunny, clear, winter’s day, some might think it spring-like, but it’s still a

 

bit too damp and chilly for that. We draw up into the large car park at ‘the Doucy’, parking on the grass behind the blue metal fence and the row of low metal-roofed stands. It’s ten to three and most people who are going to be here are here. An impressive row of portakabins line the route to the entrance, Ipswich Wanderers may be struggling on the pitch but they have portakabins to spare. The entrance, although it is a

 

couple of metres wide has a turnstile set on one side. I pay our entrance money (£6 each) to the cheery, welcoming gateman who records our presence with another couple of strikes from his biro on a piece of paper marked with ‘five bar gates’. We step past the turnstile, which I turn manually, just for fun so that it clicks twice; the gateman gets the joke, such as it is. I am disappointed to hear however that the programmes have sold out (normally £1.50).
Inside the ground the teams come onto the pitch to the strains of Dion’s “The Wanderer” but minus the words, meanwhile I fetch a couple of teas (£1 each) and start to see people I know; there’s Ipswich Town fan John, whose sister is serving in the tea hut, his friend

 

Michael, Jimmy from Coggeshall who introduces me to his friend Shane, Keith and Jim who live down the road from me, Geoff the Coggeshall Town turnstile operator with his slicked back hair and pint in hand, and quietly spoken Paul who runs the Coggeshall Town website and films the match. Feeling thoroughly at home, I stand my tea on the perimeter wall and Coggeshall Town kick the game off in their black and red striped shirts and black shorts travelling towards the battered, cream coloured, metal fence and equally battered looking and hacked about row of conifers at the Rushmere Road end of the ground. Ipswich Wanderers are in all blue and the scene is a colourful one with the clear sky, backdrop of conifers and the chill in the air lending it a Nordic feel, as if we might all have come to see Osterlenn FF versus Solvesborgs.

Coggeshall are soon dominating play and most of the game is being played out in the Wanderers’ half of the pitch. There are a couple of close calls for the Wanderers and it’s barely 3:15 when a free-kick on the right is brought down by Coggeshall number 7 Tom Monk, who then turns and half volleys into the corner of the net to give the ‘Seedgrowers’ of Coggeshall the lead. The good following of fans from Coggeshall cheer and the Wanderers fans look on stoically having seen it all before. I stand with Paul who is filming the match from between two of the three wonderful ‘home-made’ looking stands on the Humber Doucy Lane side of the ground. In front of us the Wanderers’ kit man bobs up and down making sure there is always another ball available every time one is booted out into the car park, which happens quite often. He curses Paul’s camera

 

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and doesn’t seem happy in his work as he mutters profanities at the players of both teams when they don’t get the ball back into play as quickly as he’d like; he’s doing a worthwhile job though. I take a wander to view the game from behind the Coggeshall goal and then return to find my wife talking to Keith and Jim; they used to divide their football habit between Colchester United and Wivenhoe Town, but Coggeshall is much closer and have now taken Wivenhoe’s place as their second team. Keith is an upright, tall man whilst Dave is quite small; they make me think of Yogi and Boo Boo. Although I don’t think they’d nick anyone’s picnic or packed lunch, I think Keith would suit a hat.

Coggeshall still dominate but are struggling to turn possession into clear cut chances let alone goals. The Wanderers are in combative mood and always able to get a head or a foot in the way when it counts and when that fails their goal keeper Jack Spurling is always in just the right place to collect the ball. It takes until twenty to four for Wanderers to have a shot on goal as their lanky number 9 Ashley Rankin chases a punt forward and despite an over heavy first touch strikes a first time shot from a narrow angle, which the Coggeshall ‘keeper James Bransgrove parries before smothering. There’s still time for another Coggeshall attack, which Ipswich clear but not without a bit of a panic. It’s been a typically noisy game but now for the first time we get some really loud swearing; “Play the fucking ball deep” somebody shouts, forgetting to ‘Keep it down for the kids’.

Half-time arrives amongst lengthening shadows and it’s been a reasonably entertaining half. Coggeshall are clearly the better side going forward but Ipswich Wanderers have competed and defended well enough to thoroughly frustrate them and the result is still

 

in the balance. We saunter towards the club house and the tea hut where I join a queue, which moves very slowly. As I reach the head of the queue there seems to be some sort of hiatus in the kitchen; one of my teas is placed before me but then there’s a delay and the kitchen staff gather round the large urn of hot water; one of the ‘tea-ladies’ turns towards me “I am sorry” she says sincerely “The lid of the tea pot has fallen in the urn”. The tallest person in the kitchen carefully fishes out said teapot lid, happily avoids serious scalding and I get the second tea just as the teams are coming out for the second half. Phew.

The long shadows have made the stand side of the ground even chillier than before so we crave what little warmth there is from the winter sun and stand behind the goal that Coggeshall are now attacking. Within minutes of the re-start Coggeshall score a second goal. A ball forward sees Tom Monk bearing down on Wanderer’s number five who struggles and slips and Monk is through on goal. From the corner of the box he wellies the ball solidly against the inside of the far post and a satisfying metallic crack rings out as the ball ricochets across into the far corner of the net; on the goal line Jack Spurling reacts quickly enough to turn and see his undoing. I feel blessed, I had a great view of the goal, but also if the ball hadn’t hit the post it would have hit me, and I would surely have dropped my tea.

The second half follows the pattern of the first with Coggeshall providing all the best bits, but Jack Spurling is providing his own one man show with call after catch after save after dive; a giant of a man having a giant of a match. The stand behind the goal is another beautiful self-build, with corrugated sheeting over a frame of scaffolding poles and a floor of paving slabs; it strongly reminds me of the metal bus shelters that used to stand on the Cornhill in front of Ipswich’s marvellous town hall, which incidentally has its 150th anniversary this year. Behind the dugout a tall green metal pole that looks like it might once have held up trolley bus wires adds to a likeable look of municipal knock-offs.

Architecturally the ‘Doucy is a treasure and today it is illuminated to advantage by the low winter sun. The crooked roof on the terrace is as quaint as any crooked half-timber Tudor house in Coggeshall, whilst the wooden tip-up seats (possibly from the director’s box at Portman Road?) are also something to admire. Strangely, overall it reminds me inexplicably of the stadium of an amateur club from Balaruc les Bains near Montpellier in southern France (see previous blog post in September 2017). In a way this is appropriate because supposedly the name Humber Doucy is derived from the French ‘ombres douces’ meaning soft shadows, which is how Napoleonic prisoners of war referred to the lane as they sought shade, having been working out in the open fields. I like to think they had a kick about too with berets and strings of onions for goalposts.

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The sunny side of the ground is more popular this half and the size of the crowd is doubled by the soft shadows on the metal fence behind.

In the ‘Cornhill bus shelter’ a bunch of lads sing occasional songs, ironically aping those sometimes heard at Portman Road.    Twice Coggeshall ‘score’ only to see the flag of linesman Mr Elwalawang delete the achievement and the lads amuse themselves with a rendition of “You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong”. They progress later onto “You are my Wanderers, my only Wanderers you make me happy when skies are grey”. A gang of older men with silver hair stand in a group close to the corner; laughing and being blokes they are the singing lads fifty years on. A couple of them hadn’t noticed the score is now 2-0. A man who recognises me from pre-match drinking at St Jude’s Tavern says hello.

The shadows of trees forty metres behind the ground now stretch right across the pitch and I move to stand with Paul who has placed his camera in the corner of the ground by the club house; he has very kindly managed to get a programme for me through his contacts with the Coggeshall club officials. Mild-mannered Paul is secretly seething however, because the kit man caused him to miss the second Coggeshall goal, but a third goal, probably the best of the match hopefully applies balm to soothe his troubled brow. Coggeshall’s substitute Aaron Cosgrave repeats a trick of running along the edge of the box, taunting the Wanderers defence with his close control before eventually the ball runs to number nine Ross Wall who sends it firmly and neatly into the corner of the net from 20 metres or so.

There are only a couple of minutes to play now and Paul is wishing them away because on his own admission he is a bit under dressed today and is therefore freezing cold. The final whistle from referee Mr Carter is consequently a welcome sound. It’s been an enjoyable afternoon of decent football played competitively and sportingly in a quirky stadium of soft shadows and scaffolding poles. Ipswich’s Jack Spurling has been a colossus and a lesser goalkeeper might have let in six or seven. Coggeshall win, but Wanderers have the best player on the field .

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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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