Gillingham 3 Ipswich Town 1

In my admittedly limited experience of the place, Gillingham seems an immensely dull town, despite being pleasantly situated close to the banks of the muddy estuary of the River Medway and the Norman castle and cathedral of Rochester.  Gillingham grew from almost nothing on the back of the expansion of the Chatham Royal Naval dockyard at the end of the nineteenth century as Britain embarked on an arms race with Germany, which ultimately resulted in the carnage of World War One that in turn led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust.  The weight of history therefore hangs heavy on the terraced streets around the Priestfield Stadium.  But I guess it wasn’t Gillingham’s fault, it just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; Kent.

As if Gillingham’s culpability in the horrors of twentieth century history wasn’t enough, Gillingham Football Club and its supporters may have reason to harbour resentment against Ipswich Town.  On 30th May 1938 Ipswich Town were voted into the Football League at Gillingham’s expense.  Gillingham had been in the wrong place at the wrong time again, having finished bottom of the Third Division South just as mighty Ipswich Town were embarking on their unstoppable rise to glory.   Gillingham’s demise was only temporary however, and happily as early as 1950 they were re-elected.  But whilst Ipswich Town were Football League Champions a little more than a decade later, Gillingham simply bobbed about between the two lower divisions until the turn of the twenty-first century when for the first time they made it into the second division. 

Meanwhile, throughout the post-war period, until his retirement in the early 1980’s my father’s brother Ray worked in Chatham dockyard and lived in nearby Rainham;  on a Saturday he would watch Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium with his stepson, I think they may even have had season tickets at one time.   Fast forward nearly forty years  and my uncle Ray is long dead and this afternoon thanks to Covid-19 no one is watching at the Priestfield Stadium as Gillingham meet Ipswich Town in the third division,  but I shall be listening on the radio.

Annoyingly, today’s game kicks off at one o’clock when most civilised people are sitting down to lunch.  The only explanation I have seen for this early kick-off is that the streets of Gillingham are not safe after five pm, but I’m not sure I believe this.  I tune in to BBC Radio Suffolk just in time to hear commentator Brenner Woolley describing Kane Vincent-Young’s goal  against Gillingham last season. “ Kane Vincent -Young scores” says Brenner before continuing in typical commentator style with “He goes off to celebrate, as well he might”.   Ask yourself this, when was the last time you said “As well he might” ?

Today is significant because it is the first game for Town under the management of Paul Cook.  “Yet another new era dawns” says Brenner portentously.  To describe the managerial reigns of Paul Lambert and Paul Hurst as “eras” is in hindsight going a bit far; if we are intent on using geological terminology they were not even periods or epochs, merely ages.  Ipswich Town have had eighteen managers Brenner tells us, and Marcus Evans has appointed a third of them.   It might be appropriate therefore that today Town are playing a club whose manager shares a surname with Mr Evans, the obese and irascible Steve Evans; I like to think that they are perhaps brothers.  According to Brenner’s sidekick for the afternoon, former Town youth player Stuart Ainsley, taking the job as Ipswich Town manager is “A big opportunity for Paul Cook, one he couldn’t turn down”; Stuart makes it sound as if the alternative was being encased in concrete in the foundations of a bridge.  Incidentally, Paul Cook is Town’s first bald manager since Bill McGarry over fifty years ago.

The Ipswich Town team are first out of the changing room, we are told by Brenner, who then takes us through the two teams.  I am struck by the name of Gillingham’s number nineteen.  At first I think Brenner has said the Dane, Oliver, and that Gillingham’s centre forward is from Denmark, but no, I check on my phone and he is called Vadaine Oliver and he’s from Sheffield.  I speculate that Vadaine’s mum was a fan of fantasy novels and a quick Google reveals that although the spelling is not quite the same, Vardaine is the name of a planet in Star Trek.  I wonder to myself if his team mates call him Vado,  Vads or Daino for short.  Personally, I hope they say Vadaine in the way that Boycie said “Marleen” in the BBC tv sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

The Town team is unchanged from the last game, but for the inclusion of Josh Harrop in place of little Alan Judge who has suffered a death in his family.  Stuart tells us with regard to the team that “Everybody’s happy with the way things are”.  I am brimming with confidence in the wake of Stuart’s words and the game begins with me humming The Buzzcocks’ 1979 single “Everybody’s happy nowadays” to myself.

Brenner is quickly into his stride “The referee has seen something in the box, and has blown up his whistle” he says, conjuring an image of a referee who carries a small supply of detonators.  “Norwood back with the pink boots on that he changed at half-time on Tuesday” continues Brenner quickly providing his regular update on player footwear.  Six minutes pass and Andre Dozzell gives away a free-kick close to the edge of the Town penalty area, in what Brenner and Stuart agree is a ‘good position’.  “Totally needless” says Brenner of the foul.  The free-kick is taken; Gillingham centre-half Jack Tucker is unmarked at the far post and when the ball drops to him scores. “Tucker, one nil”. The “new era” is for the moment on hold.  Apparently, it’s Gillingham’s first goal against Town in seven games; the dawn of a “new era” for Gillingham.

Stuart launches in to an explanation of Gillingham’s tactics. “Gillingham are going to launch big diags across the pitch” he says, unleashing the previously unknown word “diags” onto the radio listeners of Suffolk.  I write it down, adding it to my list of words and phrases to use when talking about football and trying to impress.  “Town need to wake up” says Brenner honestly.  Stuart concurs, “Ipswich haven’t come out of the blocks very well in the last few minutes” he says , not quite pulling off an athletics-based analogy as he fails to understand that coming out of the blocks happens just once and not over a number of minutes,  unless the runner is glacially slow.   Brenner sums up their shared outlook, “Paul Cook won’t be impressed with what he has seen from his team so far” he says, before triumphantly adding, like the true pro that he is, the football speak coup de grace “Although it’s early doors, it has to be said”. 

Fourteen minutes are up and Stuart feels Town are fortunate not to concede a penalty as a result of a foul by Myles Kenlock.  “Looks like this game is going to be a battle, unless Town can get the ball down on the deck” says Brenner, clearly influenced by Gillingham’s proximity to the former Chatham Royal Naval dockyard.  “Tucker the goalscorer” and “The busy O’Connor” are enjoyable epithets to fall from the mouth of Brenner as Gillingham dominate the play. A Gillingham shot hits Tomas Holy’s right hand goal post. “The players just need to up their game” says Stuart, sounding frustrated.

Twenty-six minutes have passed and Town win their first corner.  With the resultant drop-kick James Norwood lingers behind Gills ‘keeper Jack Bonham, whose name makes me think of deceased Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.  “Bonham has spotted him (Norwood) in his rear view mirror” says Brenner confusingly implying that Bonham is either driving a car or wearing some sort of harness with mirrors attached to it.  For a moment I think Brenner might have forgotten he’s providing a radio commentary.  Realising his faux pas Brenner quickly resorts to ‘painting a picture’ with words in the more traditional manner as he resort to his favoured back-stop of “Dozzell, with his yellow footwear”.

Troy Parrott produces an overhead kick which narrowly misses the Gillingham goal. “One of the most unlucky he’s had so far” says Stuart of Troy’s goal attempt.  “Not seen much of the ball in this match, Josh Parrott” says Brenner, re-christening the bird-named on-loan player and at the same time putting his name at the end of the sentence to keep us in suspense over who he’s talking about.

Seven minutes until half time and Brenner raises my hopes “Clear sight of goal for Norwood” he says expectantly, but Norwood’s shot is deflected away for a corner.   Andre Dozzell takes the corner.  “Really poor, cleared by the first defender” says Brenner of the last significant incident of the half.

With the half-time whistle Brenner asks Stuart for his verdict so far. “It’s not been very good, Brenner” says Stuart; he carries on using the well-worn football phrases that all listeners to football commentary know and love. “Gillingham stamped their authority on the game”; “Big lad up front”; “Not put their foot on the ball” and then in a sudden fit of violent intent, “I’d be tempted to throw a rocket into a few of them”.

Feeling utterly despondent and somewhat confused that it’s only a quarter to two and not a quarter to four I am physically unable to put the kettle on.  A lot has been said about the impact of lockdown on people’s mental health, but no one mentions the impact of football matches not kicking off at 3 o’clock.

Returning to my radio I hear Brenner say “Confident Stuart Ainslie?”  Clearly not sounding so, but refusing to say so Stuart replies “They’ll certainly have to up their game”.  “Dozzell too deep in his own half” he explains, suggesting a way in which their game might be upped.   Play resumes. “Ipswich in a rather washed out away kit” says Brenner, painting that picture again but subliminally describing Town’s performance so far before going on to explain that he and Stuart are not in Gillingham but in the studio “…watching the telly for want of a better phrase”.  I decide that there is nothing wrong with “watching the telly” as a phrase, but it would be better to be at the game if it were possible.

Five minutes into the half and James Wilson prevents a probable second goal for Gillingham with a timely block.  “Town have never lost at Priestfield” says Brenner probably filling in his betting slip and putting £50 on Gillingham to win as he speaks.  We look a lot better team when our foot’s on the ball” says Stuart inventing the concept of a shared foot and making me think of the end of the opening titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  “Poor spectacle, it has to be said, the game so far” says Brenner producing one of his best ever back to front sentences.

Sixty five minutes have passed. “Could it be Luke Chambers? Fabulous goal” says Brenner. “It’s a huge goal, a huge goal, with Ipswich’s new tenure” says Stuart, partly repeating himself and trying to use an intelligent sounding word but making no sense. Ipswich have equalised and my hopes are raised. Three minutes later the oddly named Keanan Bennetts is replaced by Gwion Edwards, Freddie Sears replaces Josh Harrop and Flynn Downes replaces Troy Parrott.  “Am I right to fancy Ipswich to go on and win it”? asks Brenner, goading Stuart into making a foolishly optimistic prediction.  “Errr, yes” says Stuart foolishly and optimistically, and giving Brenner the answer he probably thinks he and the listeners at home want to hear.

The seventy second minute and Town win a corner which is headed away.  Freddie Sears loses the ball, Gillingham break down their right, a low cross into the penalty box and ‘Daino’ scores easily. “Poor from Town again” says Stuart. Town are losing 2-1.  Kayden Jackson replaces Andre Dozzell. “Still wouldn’t rule out Town winning this game” says Brenner with uncharacteristic optimism, as if he’s trying to curry favour with the new managerial regime.

Less than fifteen minutes of normal time remain and from a corner a Kayden Jackson header hits the cross bar.  Minutes later Jackson fouls Jack Tucker “More than happy to find himself on all fours” says Brenner slightly weirdly of Tucker and conjuring images that I didn’t want to imagine.  The ball is given away by Town again, “ it could easily have been 3-1” Gillingham still have the ball, “ a shot into the corner of the net” and Gillingham lead 3-1 thanks again to Vads.  “Self-harm from Ipswich here” says Stuart taking his co-commentary to a very dark place.  “A fair few culpable at the back” says Brenner returning the commentary to more familiar territory.  “ A really disappointing afternoon for Ipswich Town so far, it has to be said” says Brenner fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it,  before admitting that he had expected a Town win. 

Gillingham cleverly or cynically manage the remaining minutes and time added on, but it doesn’t sound as if Ipswich do very much to make them think the game isn’t already won, and indeed it is. Brenner asks Stuart for his final thoughts.  “Just didn’t turn up today” says Stuart unimaginatively. “One or two players will be looking over their shoulders with regard to their shirts” he adds, implying perhaps that some players don’t know their own names or that before he left, Paul Lambert had written uncomplimentary things in felt tip on the numbers.  Reaching for the radio off switch I hear Stuart say “May be they took this as a given today”, before immediately contradicting himself and adding “I’m sure they didn’t”, as if Brenner was sat opposite him reproachfully shaking his head from side to side.

Like Brenner, I think I had expected Town to win today, but then I expect us to win every game whether it is the beginning, the middle or the end of an era.  Slightly annoyed with myself for feeling so dejected therefore, I put away the radio and wonder what the hell I’m going to do for the rest of the afternoon. At least I don’t live in Gillingham, I think to myself , and in any case I expect we’ll win on Tuesday.

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-matchOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 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 whoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA scores for 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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