FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.

Ipswich Town 3 MK Dons 0

The hot, late summer sun beats down on the parched grass of Gippeswyk Park as I amble towards Portman Road beneath a cloudless azure sky.  When not ambling, I stroll along, enjoying the brief shade beneath Ancaster Road bridge and making as little effort as possible to place one foot in front of the other. There is something about walking slowly on hot days that feels cool, my wide-brimmed hat and sandals no doubt help add to the impression I must give that I feel like a dude.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way an ice cream van looks a better proposition than the Butcher’s Grill, but I opt for a programme (£3.50), which I pay for in the modern cashless way. By the time I reach the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) sweat from my brow is stinging my eyes. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) preferring a lighter beer today to my usual Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride, it’s good to have the choice. In the beer garden Mick is texting me in French to tell me he is “dans le Jardin”.  It seems a long time since we were last here, but it’s just a fortnight ago.  The conversation seems to be all about me as I regale Mick with tales of my road trip to Forest Green last week and how after getting home from the match versus Bolton my wife and I booked a holiday in Brittany.  We go on to talk of the Nazi submarine docks of St Nazaire and Lorient, the giant mechanical elephants of Nantes and the neolithic stone alignments of Carnac.

It’s almost twenty to three when we leave for Portman Road and in the course of our walk Mick expresses despair at the state of the world and politics, and how the hope of the immediate post-war era and the desire for peace and co-operation forged by the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet, has all but evaporated.  Mick also regrets that he will probably not live to see how the climate crisis ends; not wanting to suffer a lingering death from de-hydration or starvation, or a sudden violent death due to a cataclysmic weather event, I think this may be a good thing, but then I can be a bit of a pessimist at times.

In sombre mood, it is almost five to three as I enter the ground through turnstile number 59 by way of a change from my usual turnstile 60. I thank the turnstile operator and he calls me ‘mate’.  By the time I take my seat the teams are on the pitch and limbering up. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here with his son Elwood and so is Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket, but Pat from Clacton is absent, she is visiting a friend she met on holiday who lives in Kent and is having a ninetieth birthday party.

The noise inside Portman Road today is fulsome, the heat and the sun seem to have invigorated the home supporters. Over the PA we get to hear just a few bars of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ before the game is ready to begin.  I don’t mind too much, as my favourite Beatles’ songs are probably Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever, but much as I want to, I can’t ever imagine the Sir Alf Ramsey stand singing “Let me take you down, cos I’m going to, Po-ortman Road, nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about, Po-ortman Road for ever”.  Knees are taken and applauded and Town kick-off towards me and Phil, Elwood and Fiona and the man who might be from Stowmarket.  The opposition today are wearing a frighteningly unimaginative kit of all red.

Town begin the game in an attacking frame of mind and within two minutes Freddie Ladapo shoots to the near post necessitating a save from the visiting goalkeeper Jamie Cumming, who unfortunately sounds like he could have a side line in pornographic films.  “Sit down if you’re standing up” is the bizarre but original Village People themed first chant from the visiting supporters. In the Sir Bobby Robson Stand Town supporters respond with an old religious number– “Care-free wherever we may be, We are the Ipswich Town FC, and we don’t give a fuck wherever we may be, cos we are the Ipswich Town FC”.  How pleased the nineteenth century American Shakers would have been to have heard that.

It’s the fifth minute and Janoi Donacien advances down the Town right, then advances a bit more, before sensibly stopping at the by-line to pull the ball back to Wes Burns, who sweeps it majestically into the visitors’ goal net. Town lead 1-0 and joy abounds, with chants of either Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez , Allez  spilling from the stands  depending on where you take your holidays.  Oh my, it’s so good to score an early goal.

Town are dominant; Sam Morsy wins a free-kick and his deflected shot is cleared off the goal line and a follow up shot saved.  In a moment of madness, the visitors win a corner but can only summon a rally of head tennis before losing possession entirely to a goal-kick.  About 12 minutes have elapsed and having gone behind, the visitors are having what we will look back on as their best spell of the game as their number 30 has the temerity to direct a header over the cross-bar after a good passing move down the Town right; alarmingly, he possibly should have scored. Normal service is soon resumed however, as Freddie Ladapo chases a punt forward and has his shot blocked to win a corner, which leads directly to another from which George Edmundson heads past the far post.

With the visitors’ goal kick I notice that their number 4 is called Tucker; I think of the characters in tv’s Citizen Smith and Grange Hill, and imagine his team mates saying “flippin’ eck Tucker” as he makes a catastrophic defensive error, sadly it doesn’t happen.

Town just attack and then attack again. Marcus Harness and Conor Chaplin play beautifully down the right and win another corner. Sam Morsy shoots wide.  The visitors’ number thirty collapses to the ground when challenged from behind as if suddenly and miraculously crippled by polio, admirably referee Mr Carl Brook just gestures to him to get up. The half is half over as stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads an obviously pre-prepared statement “The players and officials will now take the first drinks break of the afternoon”.  “How many are there going to be?” I ask Fiona a little incredulously.

The effect of the refreshment and re-hydration is almost immediate as Town win another corner and then Wes Burns runs down the right again and towards goal;  he shoots for the far corner  and his low shot is parried, but Marcus Harness is on hand to strike the rebound with just enough force and direction that it  dribbles over the  goal line and Town lead 2-0.  That was in the 27th minute and with a half an hour gone, Ipswich fans are singing “And it’s Ipswich Town, Ipswich Town FC, By far the greatest team the World has ever seen” and of course they’re not exaggerating. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me. “It is” says the bloke next to him. I don’t tell them that true Champagne football can only be played in Reims and Troyes.

The final fifteen minutes of the half sees Conor Chaplin shoot over the cross-bar and Sam Morsy’s shot steaming for the top right hand corner of the visitors’ goal before the goal keeper tips it away for yet another corner.   Christian Walton has to make a rare save with ten minutes to go until half time, but the visitors’ goalkeeper is soon working again as another Wes Burns break leads to a deep cross which is headed back for another Sam Morsy shot which is again saved.   With time ticking down to the half-time break the game quietens down a little, perhaps because the more depressive souls amongst the Sir Bobby Robson standers begin one of their funereally-paced versions of “Oh, when the Town go marching in”.  Yet another Town corner ensues however, and three minutes of time are added on,  presumably to compensate for that very formally announced drinks break.

Today there is no sign of Ray, or his son, or his grandson Harrison and so I merely stand to eat a Nature Valley Maple Syrup and Nuts Crunchy bar and flick though the programme.  Nothing really grabs my attention, although I do now know that Conor Chaplin prefers pens to pencils, Apple to both Orange and Samsung and, although I don’t know what it means or who they are, Phineas to Ferb.  It is not recorded whether he voted Remain or Leave, is in favour of the right to abortion or not, or favours nationalisation or privatisation.  Next week I shall perhaps ask if there is an alternative match programme for us grown-ups.

At 16:07 the game resumes.  The heat has been building and ever-present Phil drapes a white shirt over Elwood’s head beneath his cap.  The bloke behind me is talking about the half-time scores in the context of his fantasy football team; it sounds like his fantasy football team is Manchester City. It’s a while since I played Fantasy Football, but maybe nowadays you can opt to have your team taken over by a wealthy country with a poor human rights record which is keen to launder its global image.

On the pitch, Town produce a sweeping move that travels the length of the pitch and more corners are won before the visitors’ number eight sees Mr Brook’s yellow card for tugging desperately at Sam Morsy’s shorts.  “ We’re just too good for you, we’re just to good for you” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier channelling Guiseppe Verdi.  On the right Janoi Donacien proceeds down the wing, lays the ball back and Conor Chaplin sweeps it into the net in a majestic style reminiscent of Wes Burns, and Town lead 3-0. “Ee-I, ee-I, ee-I-o, Up the Football league we go” chant the home fans boldly predicting the situation next Spring, before reprising their version of “No nay never” which has Ipswich Town being the finest football team the world has ever seen.  As if to prove the point, another fine move follows, and whilst it ends with Freddie Lapado missing quite badly, at least he was offside so it didn’t really matter.  “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me again, clearly not having read up on the rules surrounding protected designation of origin during the half-time break.

Evidently now in party mood,  the Sir Bobby Robson Stand lower tier break into a chorus of “Stand up if you ‘ate the scum” before Stephen Foster’s voice is heard again announcing “The players and officials are now taking the second half drinks break” just in case anyone was wondering why the players were all of sudden drinking at the side of the pitch instead of playing football.  The refreshment has apparently reached the people counting the attendance too and this is announced as 23, 045 with 532 of those being visiting supporters, although in truth we’re all just visiting , no stands at Portman Road having been demolished to make way for residential flats just yet.  News arrives that Town are now top of the league with both Peterborough United and Exeter City losing.

With twenty minutes left mass substitutions are made for Town, although these can’t excuse a sudden error by Luke Woolfenden which forces Christian Walton into diving at the feet of some opposing player or other to maintain his clean sheet and give the visitors the treat of a corner. The corner however merely leads to a Town breakaway from which we earn yet another corner kick of our own.

With the game entering its last ten minutes the sun has emerged from behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and its hot rays are playing across my bare knees. Town are camped in the visitors’ half of the pitch.  “Gonna make a move in a sec” says the bloke behind me, adding “Over innit” to justify his decision. A minute later he leaves. “See ya later mate” he says to his mate. “See ya mate” says his mate.   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Town fans celebrating the very probable result,  or may be it’s  “Allez, Allez, Allez”. The visiting supporters take note and begin to drift away.   Two minutes of normal time are left and an injury to a visiting player provides a convenient opportunity for a final, unannounced drinks break. The last action of note is when George Edmundson almost emulates Rakeem Harper’s goal assist for Col U in midweek as he sends a poorly advised square ball to the edge of the Town penalty area. “Bloody Hell!” I utter in a moment of sudden panic, but happily the ball is cleared.  Five minutes of added on time are safely negotiated and Town win what has been a most enjoyable match.

Whether Town were good or the visitors were poor I don’t care, I have decided to live in the moment and not think about it; in this way I hope to remain both happy and of balanced mind, but I am looking forward to my trip next week to Shrewsbury.  Up the Town  – Ipswich that is.

Postscript

In previous seasons I have not deigned to allow the name of the club Town played today to appear at the top of the page; I have instead referred to them simply as Visitors.  Today however, I have displayed their name because Ipswich have so thoroughly outclassed and humiliated them that I thought it was a good thing to ‘out’ them.  The reason for this, if you didn’t know is that the MK Dons have no right to be in the Football League, having stolen the identity of Wimbledon FC in 2004 and moved the club to Milton Keynes. As a city of over 150,000 people Milton Keynes should probably have a Football League team, but that team should achieve that status by gaining promotion through the league pyramid as other new town clubs such Crawley Town and Stevenage have done. 

The new town programme was a utopian vision for the future of post-war Britain, and the likes of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Abercrombue who inspired and put it into practice, and were surely big footie fans themselves are doubtless spinning in their graves because of the MK Dons.  

Brantham Athletic 0 Stowmarket Town 0

It’s a dull late January day; layer upon layer of slate grey cloud block out the sun, darkening the soft , deep browns of the claggy fields and casting the naked, leafless trees as black silhouettes. I catch the train to Manningtree from where it is just over a kilometre’s walk to the Brantham Leisure Centre, home of Brantham Athletic; the Blue Imps. At Manningtree Station the platform sign says “Manningtree for Dedham Vale”, but it doesn’t mention Brantham Athletic. Today Brantham Athletic, eighth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division play Stowmarket Town, third in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. The train is on time; a man walks by as I wait on the platform and opens a bag of crisps, a waft of artificial roast beef flavour assaults my nostrils in his wake. On the train I sit by a window, a ticket above the headrest states that the seat is reserved from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, but it’s vacant; what has happened to the person who reserved this seat? Did they miss the train? Are they getting pissed in the buffet car? The guard makes an announcement; the PA system is faulty and it sounds as if he is just talking loudly from the next carriage. The announcement does not solve the mystery.

a dull grey january day

Even on a dull January day it’s not a wholly unpleasant walk along the A137 from Manningtree station (which is actually in Lawford) over the River Stour and the marshes and meadows either side. The traffic is nasty but the scenery’s not. I take my life in my hands as I walk beneath the bridge below the railway line where there is no footway just a continuous white line to separate the would-be pedestrian from the traffic, but I survive to tell the tale. At the river, a gang of cormorants are hanging about on the mud. Over the river I am safely into Suffolk and I pass two blokes with powerful looking cameras; twitchers probably; Cattawade marshes is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I cross the old road bridge at Cattawade before walking along Factory Lane past the derelict, mostly demolished premises of ICI and then turn left up towards the Brantham leisure centre. The shingle covered car park is already pretty full and it’s only twenty minutes past two. A sign that says “Kitchen in the clubhouse” strikes me as a little odd, I wouldn’t have expected to find it in the car park. There is no turnstile, just a man in a wooden shed. I pay my entry fee (£7) and buy a programme (£1), the man in the shed meticulously crosses off two more squares on the sheet in front of him. Even now there’s a short queue to get in, they’re all from Stowmarket. I enter the club house, a flat roofed building in the style of the 1950’s or early 1960’s with plenty of windows with UPVC frames. I look towards the bar but the one hand pump has the clip turned away from public gaze, indicating that there’s no real beer here today. I should have stopped for one at the Manningtree Station Buffet instead of just looking at the art in the tunnel beneath the tracks. I buy a bacon roll (£2.50), a young woman takes my money, cooks the bacon and then serves me the roll. “Well done Lill” I hear an older woman say from within the kitchen.

I take my bacon roll outside because the smell of hot cooking oil from the kitchen is a bit unpleasant and with my thick wool jumper and coat I’m feeling rather warm, hot even. I stand on the neatly manicured grass in front of the clubhouse; the teams are warming up on the adjacent cricket pitch which makes Brantham’s a slightly unsatisfactory ‘three-sided’ football ground. More and more Stowmarket Town supporters arrive, identifiable by their black and old gold knitwear. I head for the main stand, a beautifully modest, home-made looking structure of wooden benches smoothed by Suffolk buttocks, and white painted stanchions behind a brick wall, with the words Brantham Athletic Football Club painted along the front of the lean-to roof. If sitting on the back row it’s necessary to be careful standing up so as not to bang your head; I may be 1.87m tall, but I love a low roof. “Martin” calls a voice from the back of the stand; it’s Alistair, a disillusioned Wivenhoe Town supporter. Al takes in a local match most weekends with his young daughter; she’s a real football enthusiast and she’s only about six. We talk as the teams walk onto the pitch at the club house end of the ground before lining up to shake hands and say “How are ya?”. At last the game is ready to begin and I leave Al and his daughter in the stand, partly to promote my self-image as ‘a bit of a loner’, but mostly because it’s hard to see one of the goals over the top of the somewhat outsized metal-framed ‘dug-out’, which looks like the sort of structure you might park your bike in.

Stowmarket Town get first go with the ball, their favoured direction of kicking for this first half being towards the River Stour, the marshes and the main London to Ipswich rail line, with the clubhouse behind them. Stow’ wear an unnecessary away kit of all red, but it contrasts well with Brantham’s all blue strip and together on the bright, soft green turf they form a brilliant scene beneath the grey clouds. This may be Constable Country, but it’s all gone a bit Fauvist down here at the Leisure Centre.

Stowmarket are quickly on the attack and winning a corner. “Be strong” says their coach and I almost expect him to burst into song. Behind the Brantham goal a line of Stowmarket supporters hang over the rail. “Lip-up Fatty” they call to the chunky Brantham number four, appropriately channelling the song by ‘Bad Manners’. The number four then inexpertly slices a hoofed clearance off the pitch and looks down at the pitch as if to blame a worm cast or dissident blade of grass for his mis-kick. I decide that Stow’s number 2 and captain looks like a smaller version of Marseille’s Luis Gustavo.

“Oh Stowmarket is wonderful, oh Stowmarket is wonderful” the Stow’ fans then chant, to the tune of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, going on to qualify this by describing how it is full of the body parts that only women have, as well as Stowmarket Town Football Club. It’s not something Stowmarket town council advertise on their website. Stowmarket continue to dominate possession, but Brantham are their equals. At about twenty past three referee Mr Robertson-Tant, who has a high forehead and deep set eyes, a bit like Herman Munster, airs his yellow card for the first time, booking Stow’s number ten for barging the Brantham goalkeeper. Coincidentally and fascinatingly, one of the linesmen has a pronounced widow’s peak, not unlike Eddie Munster, Herman’s only son.

This is a close game, which is a good explanation for its lack of goals although just before half past three Stow’s number seven does turn smartly as a prelude to hitting a shot against the Brantham cross-bar. With half-time approaching I stand behind the Stowmarket goal in order to be closer to the clubhouse and the tea within. I catch the last exchange of a conversation between two blokes in their twenties or early thirties about an unidentified player. “Yeah, he’s shit, well he’s not shit, but…he’s shit, int he.” This is the sort of incisive player critique that the likes of Mark Lawrenson or Garth Crooks can never hope to provide.
Half-time arrives, the floodlights flicker in to life and I seek the warmth of the clubhouse; my right hand is burning with cold because I seem to have dropped my right glove on the way the railway station; later, on my walk home I will find it on the pavement where it fell. I join the queue for a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup; the man behind me in the queue orders coffee and cheesie-chips; I don’t know why but I find cheesie-chips amusing. Despite the deepening cold I return outside; it’s too warm and noisy in the clubhouse and I’m more suitably dressed for the outdoors. In the window of the clubhouse I look at the team sheet; oddly only the players’ surname and initials are given, which seems unnecessarily formal. I take a look at the programme, there’s not much in it but I like its amateurish layout and the reference to Emiliano Sala in the Chairman’s report. I saw Sala play for Nantes against Lille a couple of years ago and have watched him numerous times on TV, I liked him a lot.
For the start of the second half I watch from the metal, prefabricated stand situated in one corner at the clubhouse end of the ground; apparently the seats were brought from Colchester United’s sadly missed old Layer Road ground. I don’t sit here long because the man behind me talks with a loud, piercing voice which hurts my ears. I return to the side of the ground by the dug outs. Stow’s number four, M Paine becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Robertson-Tant, I’m not sure why.
Stow’ continue to have the ball more of the time than Brantham. but look no more likely to score. “Stop fuckin’ dropping” shouts the Brantham manager to a defender as the game enters its last quarter and nervousness and angst begin to surface. At about half-past four Mr Robertson-Tant books G Clarke of Brantham, firstly raising his arm and flexing his wrist to point to three or four approximate locations around the pitch where Clarke had recently committed other misdemeanours; I like it when referees do that. Persistent fouling is my favourite offence for this very reason. Meanwhile the Stowmarket ‘ultras’ continue through their repertoire, rather repetitively re-living Depeche Mode’s “I just can’t get enough”. It’s almost twenty five to five and Stowmarket almost score as R Garrett receives a ball on the left, surges forward, goes wide of the challenge of the Brantham goal keeper L Avenell, but hits his shot against the base of the goal post from an acute angle.
With the game in its closing minutes I enjoy the glare of the floodlights and the deep blue darkness of the evening sky as much as the increasing anxiety of both teams’ coaches. “Watch that line, watch that line” says one of the Stowmarket coaches to the substitute J Mayhew as if he just can’t be trusted not to stray offside. He then says “Watch that line” just once more, for luck perhaps. “Brandy!” shouts the other bobble-hatted Stow’ coach to his goalkeeper C Brand, although it’s a name more suited to a porn actress, “…put a fuckin’ angle on it”, before saying “Shut it” to a Brantham supporter who passes comment. “Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” bawls the Brantham coach preferring cliché to coarseness. The final words before I move towards the exit go to the bobble-hatted Stow’ coach, “Fuck’s sake” he says.
The game ends goalless. It’s been a frustrating match, more for Stowmarket than for Brantham perhaps, but that may be just because of the weight of the combined hopes of their greater number of supporters. As I walk away across the cricket pitch towards the river the teams warm down and the Stow’ supporters wait to applaud their team from the field. I reflect upon whether watching local non-league football isn’t just the perfect way to spend a winter’s afternoon and return to the railway station, smug in the knowledge that I’ve also kept a car off the road today and helped to save the planet.

Paris St Germain 2 Les Herbiers 0

For an Ipswich Town supporter FA Cup ties have become something of a rarity, and more than that, a disappointment. Despite winning the FA Cup itself, albeit forty years ago, (incidentally, only thirty-six of the current ninety-two league clubs have ever won the Cup, and Norwich City are not one of them) Town have failed to honour their past and have not even won an FA Cup tie since 2010, when they triumphed away at Blackpool. Starved of cup glory therefore, the opportunity to go to the final of the French equivalent of the FA Cup, the Coupe de France, is not to be missed. This year the final tie is between the current holders Paris St Germain and Vendee Les Herbiers Football (VHF) a semi-professional team who currently play in the Ligue National, the third tier of French league football. Francophile that I am I ‘signed up’ for e-mails from the Federation Football Française (French Football Association) a couple of seasons ago and my wife, who I shall introduce to you by name shortly is on Paris St Germain’s e-mailing list, so we both received invitations by e-mail to buy tickets for the final. For just 19 Euros each, yes, 19 Euros, about £16.50, we have tickets at the Stade de France for the show piece, end of season finale. I have paid more this season to watch Colchester United versus Morecambe.
My wife, Paulene and I arrived in St Denis in the north of Paris at lunchtime and from

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Basilica St Denis

our hotel room at the Novotel it is possible to see the Stade de France in one direction and in the other the Basilica Cathedral of St Denis, where nearly 1,600 years-worth of French kings and queens including Clovis, Dagobert, Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were all buried. As if that is not enough this is considered to be the building where in the twelfth century all the elements that make up Gothic architecture were brought together for the first time; it is a most beautiful building of remarkable historic significance.

After a leisurely visit and a picnic in the nearby Parc de Legion d’Honneur we rest up back at the hotel before making the short walk to the Stade de France. In the hotel lobby Les Herbiers supporters are checking in and making use of the bar.
Today is the May 8th, a national holiday in France marking the liberation of the country from the Nazis in 1945; it is a glorious sunny day with temperatures up in the mid-twenties; one digital display says the temperature is 35 degrees but I’m not sure I believe it. Our approach to the Stade de France is at the end of the stadium where there is a sea of Les Herbiers supporters of all ages dressed up in red and white. Les Herbiers is just a small town with a population of about 16,000 situated in the Vendee department, some 50 kilometres south east of Nantes and almost a four hour journey by road from Paris. Today Les Herbiers and a good few places all around it must be completely empty.
Last night on French TV sports journalists were debating whether this cup final between Paris St Germain, with an annual budget of 340 million Euros, and a semi-professional third division team with an annual budget of 2 million Euros was a good thing or not. Seeing the excitement and joy on the faces of the Les Herbiers supporters leaves me in no doubt that it is a good thing. It does not matter that it is the final and it is a mis-match. Paris St Germain will win because they now win everything, but it will still be the show piece event of the season and both sets of supporters will love every minute of it; also in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter much because there will be another cup final next year, and another the year after that, provided Donald Trump hasn’t finally caused Armageddon.
Security at all the bigger French football matches is reassuringly tight and once patted down we head up the ramp to the concourse that surrounds the Stade de France, a stadium that feels much more spacious and is much more beautiful than Wembley, although it is now twenty years old. Unable to resist acquiring souvenirs of the day, I buy myself a T-shirt (20 Euros) and Paulene a scarf (20 Euros) for which Paulene also learns the French, which is écharpe. There is a while to go before kick-off at five past nine so I get into the spirit of things joining the Les Herbiers supporters with a pint of Carlsberg (8 Euros), the price of which makes me feel that the T-shirt and scarf were massive bargains and I should buy more of them, but I don’t. The beer comes in a re-usable plastic “eco-cup” (2 Euros) of a type seen at many French stadiums and makes me feel much better in the knowledge that even though I have been robbed blind I am helping save the planet. Paulene has a bottle of water (3 Euros).
Paulene is keen to get in the stadium to watch the warm ups and pre-match

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entertainment and because she is a chronic asthmatic and will need to recover from the long climb to our seats. For Paulene visits to large stadiums such as Marseille’s Velodrome and the Stade Felix Boleart in Lens have in the past come with near death experiences after ascending staircase after staircase after staircase on a sort of stairway to Heaven. Whilst Paulene climbs, I callously hang around outside, slowly drinking my beer, savouring it as best I can and soaking up the ambiance with smiling, excited and inebriated French people. Eventually I head for the turnstile where I must show both my ticket and passport, the French show their identity cards. The steward seems pleased to see a “Rosbif “ and summons up his best English to say “Welcome”, which is nice. Inside the stadium I am patted down again and wished bon match before being offered a complimentary Pitch choco barre courtesy of a promotion by Brioche Pasquier an industrial French bakery whose products can be found in English supermarkets too.
Our seats are in the third tier of the stadium but are not together, Paulene sits in the second row from the front whilst I am another three or four rows back and off to the right. As I arrive at my seat, on the pitch the final ten minutes of the French FA Youth

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Cup for Under 19’s, the Coupe Gambardella, between ESTAC Troyes and Tours FC are being played out. Troyes are winning 2-1 and hang on to lift the trophy amidst scenes of much excitement and generous appreciation for these young players. Although fully professional, Troyes and Tours are relatively small clubs, but in France this is no barrier to producing successful youth teams, a fact illustrated by Auxerre, a town a third the size of Ipswich having won the Coupe Gambardella a record seven times. I sit on the steps next to Paulene and after the presentation of the trophy and ensuing celebrations we watch the stadium gradually filling up until the steward just in front of us asks me to take my seat.
We are amongst the Paris St Germain supporters, although the hard core ultras are in a seemingly dedicated area in the lower tier where a platform is positioned in front of

them for the use of the two ultras who will lead and orchestrate the chanting. On the pitch the preparations are being made for the start of the final of the Coup de France and the celebration of French football that this represents. The teams warm up; the PSG players looking comfortable and familiar with the huge stadium, the Les Herbiers players looking slightly in awe of the setting and the vast numbers of their own supporters decked out in red and white; their home crowds in the Ligue National average about 1,300. Les Herbiers wear simple hi-vis jackets over their red tracksuit tops and look every bit the modest, provincial club that they are. The players warm up in a corner in front of their fans as if at a much smaller ground.
At last the scene is set and amidst two teams of drummers behind each goal, four separate formations of flag wavers, a huge circular FFF Coupe de France logo and two similarly massive club badges that all look like they could be used by the fire brigade to catch people jumping from high buildings, a marching band in French blue trousers with tunics decked in gold braid, a suspended image of the Coupe de France trophy and pitchside pyrotechnics the teams emerge from the tunnel. I join in as best I can with the singing of the Marseillaise, which is truly glorious and then the teams are introduced to President Macron who is roundly booed. I exchange amused smiles and raised eyebrows with the white haired bearded man stood next to me who admits he is not really a football fan, he prefers rugby and has just been brought along to the game by his two friends; he is however supporting Les Herbiers and so am I. It’s all absolutely brilliant and the game hasn’t started yet.

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We sit and Les Herbiers kick off the match wearing all red and playing towards central Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower; PSG are in their usual all navy blue kit and kicking towards the Cathédrale Basilique St Denis. Les Herbiers start well and within two minutes Joachim Eickmeyer breaks down the left, crosses the ball and Sebastien Flochon’s shot is deflected wide of the goal resulting in a corner from which Valentin Vanbeleghem shoots wide from some 25 metres out. The white-haired man and I applaud conspiratorially. But it doesn’t take long before PSG have two shots from Giovanni Lo Celso and Kylian Mbappé that hit a Les Herbier goal post, the second shot defying physics as its angle of incidence blatantly fails to equal its angle of reflection, instead the ball just bounces right back at him.
Satisfyingly for my white haired friend and me it is PSG’s Yuri Berchiche who is the first player to be booked by referee Mikael Lesage. But such events become crumbs of comfort as PSG predictably dominate and miss chance upon chance with Lo Celso again hitting a goalpost with a shot , although Les Herbiers are in fact playing extremely well, they’re just not as good as PSG. The Ligue National team do not ever resort to aimlessly booting the ball away in blind panic, but always attempt to play the ball from defence by passing it, certain Ipswich Town defenders could perhaps benefit from some coaching from Les Herbiers’ Stephane Masala; does he know there is a job going? He is perhaps one of the few successful managers of a lower league club not so far linked with the job.
Off the pitch, the far end of the stadium is a noisy, constantly choppy, but joyous sea of red and white flags, even when on 26 minutes Giovani Lo Celso surprises me at least by scoring with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area to inevitably give PSG the lead. PSG continue to dominate play but still only lead 1-0 at half-time, when I pop downstairs to buy a bottle of Evian (2.50 Euros) for Paulene.
The second half picks up where the first left off, but for the usual change of ends. Within five minutes it seems PSG have scored again as following a sequence of remarkable deflections and rebounds Mbappé sends the ball into the goal net. The PSG fans and ultras have celebrated the ‘goal’ but apparently under false pretences as following some sort of video conference at the side of the pitch Monsieur Lesage disallows the goal and awards Les Herbiers a free-kick. It is the first time I have witnessed the use of video technology at a match and it feels very odd because of the hiatus it creates; I don’t like it, it doesn’t feel right, although my neighbour and I gleefully cheer the decision nevertheless.
PSG probably dominate the second half more than ever and despite some fantastic saves from Matthieu Pichot in the Les Herbiers goal it eventually all becomes too much and a bit after twenty five to eleven he can’t help but knock over PSG’s Edinson Cavani who

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scores from the resultant penalty. Pichot is booked by Monsieur Lesage for his efforts but shakes his hand to acknowledge his mistake and show he has no hard feelings; what civilised people the French are.
PSG come close to scoring again more than once in the final minutes but pleasingly Les Herbiers have a late flourish too and both Diaranké Fofana and then substitute Clement Couturier almost beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp with a snap shot and a run into the penalty box. Finally, after five minutes of time added on however, Monsieur Lesage calls time on the 101st final of the Coupe de France and PSG have won it for a record 12th time. No one seriously thought they wouldn’t, but some of us hoped.
After an overlong wait, the presentation of the trophy follows with much jumping about and littering of the pitch with red, white and blue fluttery material. A massive scrum of photographers surrounds the players who are barely visible in the unseemly melee and the players make their way to the ultras to thank them for their support and to celebrate together. Nobly the vast majority of Les Herbiers supporters stay on to watch also; this is all part of their big day out. With their celebratory juices running dry the players leave the pitch which is covered by protective sheeting in preparation for the finale to the finale a display of fireworks, lights and lasers which says thank you to the 7,160 clubs who entered the Coupe de France this season, almost ten times the number that enter the English FA Cup. Reminders appear on the scoreboard of when the last metro trains leave the two nearest stations to the stadium.

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The fireworks display is a fitting end to the evening, although Paulene and I actually thought the one put on by Lille Olympique at the end of their final league match last season was better, but we can be picky like that sometimes. It has been a terrific night for PSG, the Coupe de France, French football and most of all Vendee Les Herbiers Football and its supporters and we didn’t half enjoy it too. Vive La France!

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