Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 0

Sunday bloody, Sunday, a classic angst ridden film drama from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger starring Glenda Jackson, Murray Head and Peter Finch and featuring a doomed dog called Kenyatta, but also how I describe the Christian Sabbath when Town have to play on it.  I like my football on a Saturday and at 3 pm to boot.  Noon on a Sunday should be when the pubs open and nothing else.  To make matters worse today’s is the first match of the league season, a fixture which for the sake of symmetry if nothing else should kick off at the same time as every other club’s first game of the season.  As if Boris ‘Bozo’ Johnson being Prime Minister wasn’t enough to cope with.  Why do things only ever get worse?

Waking from my slumbers a little before 8 o’clock I draw the blinds and am bathed in bright early autumn sunlight. I shower and dress, donning my button neck, blue, Ipswich Town branded T-shirt purchased over the summer from the Planet Blue website, where my review of the garment has never appeared despite having been submitted three times (see previous blog post “Consumer City 1 Lockdown Town 0”); I’m not bitter, but the truth must be told. After a breakfast with my wife Paulene of bacon, egg, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms with tea and an espresso coffee, all prepared by me, I look for things to fill the time until shortly before noon when I will switch on my lap top, log on to the ifollow and hope that it lets me watch the match.  I have heard that yesterday Portsmouth supporters were unable to watch their game versus Shrewsbury Town on the ifollow and ended up listening to local radio.  I am soon in my garage breaking up cardboard boxes to put out for the refuse collection on Wednesday; it’s been a busy week of deliveries with two new toilet seats and thirty-two bottles of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer pale ale all arriving courtesy of men driving white vans.  Boxes crushed, I potter about and fold away the blue and white bunting that bedecks my garden each summer to celebrate the season the sun and the Town.

Time passes quickly and Paulene is soon telling me that she has logged me onto to the ifollow and  it’s working.  I pour myself a pint of water, which I liven up with a squirt of lime juice, and lie on my back on  the orange canvas bean bag that normally sits in the corner of the room, but which I have re-positioned centrally in front of the smart tv.   I have today’s match programme by my side; impressively it arrived in yesterday’s post in time for the match.  It’s not the best programme I’ve ever seen, it’s front cover, which appears to be an homage to the programmes of the 1980-81 season is a little speckled at the edges, like a poor photocopy, which is possibly the source of the design, but at least the cover price is a £1 cheaper than if this was a normal game.  I don’t mind if there are fewer pages and less to read, I just want a few folded sheets of paper that are specific to this match and which lists the teams or at least the names from which the teams will be selected.  Who actually reads all the other drivel that’s printed in the massive programmes we pay the price of a paperback book for anyway? Less is more in the world of football match programmes and I pine for those of the 1960’s and 70’s.  In France, the clubs that produce a programme do not charge for it.

I am now comfortably slumped and as the broadcast begins I am surprised, but pleased, to hear the familiar, nearly Geordie tones (he’s from Berwick-Upon-Tweed) of Brenner Woolley and the flat, steady delivery of Mick Mills.  Mick sets out on a lengthy monologue in which he immediately tempts fate by explaining that this is a good time to play Wigan.  He goes on to explain in a manner which suggest he thinks we should be surprised, that he has been doing a bit of research and had logged on to the Wigan website to see who is in their squad.  But he tells us that they have shipped out sixteen players and only brought in two so it was a waste of time; presumably he didn’t recognise any of the names. 

The players are now walking onto the pitch to the accompaniment of the crap-rock strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”, this despite the absence of a crowd.  I wonder to myself if the ‘entrance music’ is meant to inspire the players, and feel glad I am not a professional footballer.  Sadly the opportunity has not been taken to have some fun with the entrance music by playing something like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” or something by Roger Whittaker.  I’m pleased to see the players ‘take the knee’ and hope that all the people that it annoys, and sadly there are some,  are so annoyed that they slam their heads repeatedly against the nearest wall and pour boiling water over their own genitals.  Today’s referee and assistants are wearing purple tops which make them look like sporting Anglican bishops, which is appropriate for a Sunday game.  Meanwhile , Brenner Woolley tries to trump Mick Mills efforts to tempt fate by telling us that Wigan Athletic as a club are “in free fall”, which is probably not quite true.   At 12:02 little Alan Judge literally gets the ball rolling for Town who are resplendent in their new kit of all blue with Adidas decorations and the yellow  and blue badge that the team wore back in the days when it won Cups and was one of the very best in Europe, if not the World.  Wigan in contrast are today’s ‘baddies’, wearing all-black, although the gift of the tv close-up reveals that the shirt features a grim machine-like pattern of various shades of grey hexagon.

The game begins like a tennis match with the ball being knocked back and forward pointlessly between the two teams, but this disappointment is tempered by the realisation that Brenner Woolley’s radio commentary is actually much better than the usual tv commentary because he makes the effort to say who has the ball, and that is all we really need to know. On a tv screen the numbers and names on the backs of the players’ shirts are too small to read and most of the players look the same with their conscripts’ haircuts.

Eight minutes pass and Wigan should be ahead as 19 year old Nigerian Emeka Obi is left all alone to head Gary Roberts’ corner powerfully but clumsily past the post; the Ipswich defence seemingly need to learn the lesson that black lives especially matter when they’re in your own penalty area.  At about this time Paulene comes into the room and by some sorcery manages to make the screen bigger.  This naturally adds to my enjoyment but not as much as Teddy Bishop does in the eleventh minute as he heads into the goal an attempted clearance of a Freddie Sears’ left-wing cross.  It’s a goal that in its construction has something in common with Roger Osborne’s FA Cup winning goal in 1978, with the Wigan defender playing the role of the hapless Willie Young and with Freddie Sears as David Geddes.

As well as putting Town ahead, the goal highlights the fact that the commentary is fractionally ahead of the pictures on the screen as Brenner tells me that Teddy has scored a moment before the ball strikes the net.  As the game continues it’s a lack of synchronisation that ultimately proves reassuring as Emeka Obi is twice more left free to score, but Brenner promptly tells me that he fails to do so at the very moment when my heart is about to enter my mouth.  Brenner spoils it a bit though when he confirms that Wigan should be ahead, but adds, sounding slightly disappointed “…as it is , it’s 1-0 to Town”.  From wrongly placed bias Brenner then veers towards surrealism with the phrase “Ipswich Town’s ball, in the shape of Stephen Ward”.   The picture in the programme of Stephen only adds to my worries because I hadn’t realised he had a nose bigger than mine and hair neat enough to suggest he might follow a career as a referee once his playing days are over.

Whilst Brenner Woolley’s commentary adds things to the commentary not visible to the human eye, Mick Mills is I think having a very good day, providing some convincing and totally plausible tactical analysis about the full-backs and how the two teams’ respective line-ups and formations cancel each other out.  On days like this it’s as if Mick is wearing the number 4 shirt again in Frans Thijssen’s absence and is running the midfield.

Wigan had looked quite good for a spell but Town are looking better, and a passage of absolutely marvellous play ends with Teddy Bishop having a shot tipped away on to the post by Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones, whose name instantly has me breaking into the opening song on the Clash’s eponymous first album.  It’s easily the highlight of the match so far, but soon Brenner is competing with more weirdness as he tells how “Naismith scoops Sears’ cross away with his left shoe”.  His left shoe! No wonder we’re winning if Wigan are playing in their shoes; but presumably for these Lancastrians it’s better than playing in clogs.

With a half hour gone there is a drinks break and the camera lingers on Wigan manager John Sheridan and his coach gesticulating and pointing enthusiastically as if relaying the latest odds on another relegation to the club’s former owners.  Meanwhile Town manager Paul Lambert is wearing a rather unpleasant shiny grey Adidas training top and a blue Ipswich Town branded baseball cap.  I’m not a fan of baseball caps, to me they just say “Sir Francis Chichester”, and whilst I have nothing against the sadly deceased circumnavigator, he wasn’t a Town fan.  What have you done with your v-neck black jumper Paul? That looked much more classy.

As the end of the half draws nigh Joe Garner hits the Town cross bar with an overhead kick and my attention is grabbed by his nascent ginger beard, but also his skinhead haircut, which makes him look like he could be a member of the BNP, although I’m certain he isn’t.  The half ends with Mick Mills telling us that “A second goal would be handy to say you’re in a good position” before the sound from Radio Suffolk takes on a weirdness to match Brenner’s commentary making the co-commentators sound like a cross between the Daleks and Peter Frampton. Oddly it’s an aural effect that suits Mick more than Brenner.

Half-time brings adverts like on the real telly and I am being encouraged to purchase the services of Screwfix, something called Utilita, some sort of video game and to watch the EFL on Quest, and then it happens all over again as if I might need reminding.  Not really interested in this commercially driven filling of the football broadcast sandwich I head to the fridge and pour myself a glass of Faro Foudroyante lambic beer.  Paulene is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen and expresses her surprise that Town are winning.  My beer tastes a bit like cider and is very refreshing on a warm day like today.

The joys of the ifollow broadcast return with Norwood replacing Drinan for Town and Perry replacing a Wigan player; like Mick Mills, I don’t know who.  At 13:07 the fun begins again and soon Brenner is saying “Norwood takes the ball on his shoe”. What is it with these northerners playing in shoes? Are Church’s and Clark’s suddenly offering better sponsorship deals than Nike and Adidas?  This doesn’t bode well I’m thinking; thank goodness we’ve already scored one goal because I can’t see Norwood scoring  if he’s not wearing boots.  Idiot.  I’m surprised Paul Lambert allows it.

The second half is interesting enough to begin with; but Wigan are doing better and Brenner suggests that Town let Gary Roberts go too soon, although he is now thirty-six years old; but it’s an opinion I support. In recent years Town and English football in general have valued athleticism and endurance above skill far too much. I want to watch football not long distance running.  Brenner now adds incontrovertible facts to set alongside his opinions and lets us know that Town have won only four of their last sixteen home games before Mick Mills advises that someone else should have a go at the free-kicks after Freddie Sears sends  a second hopelessly over the cross bar; I couldn’t quite understand why he took them when Bishop and Dozzell are both playing, but perhaps  I am wrong to see them as the heirs to Peter Morris, Arnold Muhren, Mark Brennan, Ian Redford and Jimmy Juan.

An hour has passed and Luke Chambers is the first player booked, but the match is becoming a bit boring; Mick Mills euphemistically describes it as ‘mundane’ and asks if Wigan aren’t beginning to be the better team.  If I didn’t have beer to hand I’d be hoping for Pat from Clacton to appear with a bag of sweets now; hopefully the sugar would help me feel less queasy at the sight of Joe Garner’s completely tattooed left arm, which makes him look as if he has a nasty skin condition, all his veins and capillaries are a little too close to the surface  or he hasn’t washed his arm for a year.  But more to do with the game I am currently unimpressed with Norwood who seems to be wrongly playing beyond the defender who is marking him (Naismith), which means the ball is always intercepted before it reaches him, whereas Drinan played in front of the defender, received the ball, controlled it and laid it off bringing Dozzell and Bishop, the attacking midfield players, into the game.  I like to think that Mick Mills would be impressed with my tactical evaluation.

 Seventy-three minutes pass and Edwards replaces Sears, and three minutes later Huws replaces Bishop and the game swings back in Town’s favour.  Just four minutes after Huws comes on Edwards doubles Town’s lead after a second excellent passing moving from Town, again down the left, and our record of sixteen successive games televised by Sky tv without a win looks set to end.  The game is as good as won and the remaining highlights are reduced to seeing Wigan substitute Oliver Crankshaw massaging his right buttock, although he does have reassuringly long hair.  Town attempt to end the game with panache, playing ‘keep ball’ until it reaches Luke Chambers and it’s good to see Emyr Huws then kick Joe Garner in the stomach. But there’s nothing more to this and at four minutes to two referee Mr Thomas Bramall calls time. 

It’s been an afternoon of mixed and fluid emotions just as should be the case with proper football matches.  The game has been won, but the result was often in doubt and credit to Messrs Woolley and Mills, today they have reflected and explained the turmoil, the trouble and the ultimate satisfaction, a much better performance than last Saturday.  The ifollow has also done its job and I feel more confident about watching future broadcasts, even if I am paying over the odds just to watch the telly.

Coupe de France on Telly 5 Going to a Live Match 0

The world of football has stopped spinning on its axis, leather no longer strikes leather or skin or wood or nylon netting, whistles no longer blow, crowds no longer chant, turnstiles no longer click, the stink of frying onions no longer pervades the streets, people no longer gawp at the blacked-out windows of team buses, floodlights no longer shine, nobody leaps like a salmon, referees no longer brandish yellow cards, sniffer dogs no longer sniff for non-existent pyrotechnics, over-zealous stewards no longer hassle carefree supporters,  pre-match pints are no longer downed, blades of football pitch grass remain spittle free and no one listens to the results on their car radio.  Saturday has died, along with the occasional Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Having spent most of this season experiencing dead Saturdays, unable to go to football because of illness and my subsequent convalescence, it’s somewhat odd that now no one can go to football because of the Covid-19.  Social media is awash with reminiscences of past games and goals as bewildered football fans search for something to fill the void in their lives.  I have few memories of this season to look back on having only seen eight games, but I may be fortunate that at least I have plenty of recent experience of coping without going to a match.  When Ipswich travelled to Tranmere Rovers for example, I could not go and so sought solace in my living room. I now find myself reminiscing about that January day when I watched live football on TV, cue eerie sounds and a wavy effect in your mind’s eye.

After a frosty start to the 18th of January the sun has risen as high as it will get in the clear pale blue sky. It’s beautiful, but it’s cold.  It is Saturday. Football. Ipswich Town are away in Birkenhead; I haven’t gone, I can’t, but according to the ‘little book’ that I keep I have been to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers, nine times before, the last time being a 2-0 win in March 2000. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time; I’m staying home unless I go to a local game. Coggeshall Town and Stanway Rovers and Colchester United are my nearest clubs and they are all at home.  I won’t be going to Colchester as a protest at the withdrawal of the shuttle bus to the ground, the only thing that made the far out of town location at Cuckoo Farm in any way viable; we should be cutting carbon emissions to save the planet after all and I bet Greta Thunberg isn’t a Col U fan.  I find it hard to get enthused about bank-rolled teams such as Coggeshall Town, and Stanway Rovers has never managed to capture my imagination, probably because of its hyper-boring suburban location; all net curtains and open-plan living.

Ideally, even in preference to Birkenhead, I would be in France, where today is the round of the last thirty-two teams in the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup.  Three Coupe de France games kick off at noon English time, which after 11.30 is normally my least favourite time for a football match to start; all games should of course start at either 3 o’clock or at some time between 7.30 pm and 8.00 pm.  The three 12 o’clock games are Nice v Red Star, Prix-les Mézières v Limonest and Epinal v Saint Pierroise, and after a bit of interrogation of the ‘interweb’ I discover that all three games are live on ‘Jour de Coupe’ (Cup Day) on the French speaking Eurosport 2 channel, which is available to watch on the roast beef-eating side of the English Channel through the magic of the Amazon Firestick.   At 2 o’clock English time a further two games kick off with Gonfreville playing LOSC Lille and Belfort playing AS Nancy Lorraine.

The programme is presented by the personable Gaëlle Millon who certainly earns her money on Coupe de France weekends as she presents the matches at lunchtime, in the afternoon and on into the early evening with a 5 o’clock kick-off and then the later evening match at 8 o’clock.  It doesn’t stop on Saturday evening for notre Gaëlle either, as on Sunday she will then present the afternoon games and an evening match and then possibly another evening game on Monday too.  Gaëlle is perched on a high chair or stool behind a small desk in a studio which is probably in the headquarters of Eurosport in the Paris suburb if Issy-les-Moulineaux, which incidentally is only a fifteen minute walk from Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint Germain.

I miss the starts of the games because I am making a cup of tea, but no one has scored so I am not overly bothered.  The coverage is of the ‘Multiplex’ variety so all three games are being covered and the broadcast flits between them according to where it seems most likely something interesting is going to happen. But in reality the coverage concentrates, to begin with at least, on OGC Nice v Red Star because on aggregate these two clubs have the best cup records of those playing today, Red Star with five wins and Nice with three, although Nice haven’t won the Cup since 1997 and Red Star not since 1942.  Nice, managed by Patrick Vieira dominate the game, but I am pleased and then foolishly optimistic when Red Star hold out for ten, fifteen, twenty, and then twenty-five minutes.  In the twenty-seventh minute however, Danilo scores for Nice and with indecent haste Ignatius Gonago scores a second, a mere two minutes later.  After that second goal the result is a foregone conclusion; despite doing well in Ligue National, the French third division, Red Star are something of a Gallic Ipswich Town and rarely manage to score more than one goal a game.

I lose interest in the Nice game as a result of that second goal and begin to only pay attention to the TV when the Multiplex coverage switches to the games at Stade de la Poterie in Prix-les Mézières and Stade de La Colombiere in Epinal.  The game at Prix-les Mézières is between two clubs in the fifth tier of French football, the National 3.  Prix-les Mézières is effectively a suburb of Charleville Mézières the principal town in the Ardennes département which borders Belgium and is about 330 kilometres and a three hour drive from Calais.  Epinal is further south and east and is the principal town in the Vosges département. Epinal football club is in the fourth tier of the French leagues (National 2), whilst their opponents are in the first level of the Regional leagues which is the sixth tier.

Sadly the coverage rarely switches to the ‘lesser’ two games. I miss the Epinal goal which wins the match and Limonest concede the only goal of the match at Prix-les Mézières after fifty two minutes.  The Stade de la Poterie and Stade de la Colombiere are typical of French grounds outside the elite of most Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 stadia, which are the only venues to host fully professional football. The grounds or Stades are owned by the local authorities and whilst they all have a decent main stand or ‘tribune,’ the other three sides of the ground often have no cover at all and sometimes no terrace.  Poterie and Colombiere possess some of the charm of the English non-league, with spectators stood on grassy banks, a terrace of houses forming a cosy back drop, and traffic passing by with panoramas of streets and landscapes beyond. With more to see than just football, TV coverage from non-league is so much more interesting to watch because if the football is rubbish at least there is still something to see.

In the 92nd minute of the game in Nice Yanis Hamache scores for Red Star and for ninety seconds or so I hope against hope for another Red Star goal, extra time and the lottery of penalties.  But hope is all I get and Nice win the day, although Yanis Hamache gets a second moment of glory as he is interviewed on TV; the money he spent on a weird haircut wasn’t wasted.   On Twitter @RedStarFC tweet “Focus desormais sur le championnat,” which is pretty much French for “now we can concentrate on the League.” 

After a brief return to Gaëlle in the studio in suburban Paris, coverage of the three noon kick-offs quickly switches to the two ties which are beginning at two o’clock in Belfort and Le Havre.  The Belfort game sees ASM Belfort of National 2 play AS Nancy Lorraine of Ligue 2, whilst in Le Havre, ESM Gonfreville also of National 2 play LOSC Lille, runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2018-19 season.   Whilst Belfort’s stadium, the Stade Serzian is another typical French municipal stadium with a single cantilever stand on one side, a running track and views of suburbia all around, Gonfreville, which is effectively an industrial suburb of Le Havre, are borrowing the modern and totally enclosed Stade Océane, the home of Ligue 2 Havre AC.  Stade Océane, which looks as much like a giant, bright blue rubber dinghy as a football stadium, has made

recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

Most of the coverage of the latter two games centres on Le Havre, but it is in Belfort where the action begins and continues as after just seven minutes the wonderfully named Enzo Grasso puts Belfort ahead.  Disappointingly for the romance of the Cup, which pretty much means ‘giant-killing’, Nancy’s Malaly Dembele equalises a bit less than twenty minutes later.   Sadly, I miss the goal, partly because I had become distracted by my mobile phone and partly because the live coverage at the time of the goal was in Le Havre so there was no over-excited commentator to alert me to it by bawling “ Quel but!” (What a goal!). Meanwhile in Le Havre there are no goals at all, only the intriguing sub-plot of how Lille manager Christophe Galtier’s hair seems to have grown darker whilst his beard has become more grey. It could just be my imagination however, and according to my wife it is, but then, she always had a bit of ‘a thing’ for Monsieur Galtier, I think it’s because he’s from Marseille.

Half-time takes us back to Gaëlle in Issy-les Moulineaux to re-cap on what has gone before and  chat with ‘experts’ perched on stools like performing animals. The second halves begin and all the decent action remains in Belfort whilst the live coverage is in Le Havre.  With just ten minutes of the second forty-five played, karma gets even with Malaly Dembele of Nancy for scoring that romance-crushing equaliser and he is sent off.  I don’t know why Malaly is sent off because once again I have become distracted and miss the action, this time because I’m catching up on what’s happening in Birkenhead, which is nothing.  Having learnt my lesson, I put down my phone and concentrate on the games on the telly.  Lille are making hard work of getting past Gonfreville, a club three levels below them and I begin to notice the perimeter advertising; the usual multi-nationals are there such as Nike and Volkswagen but less expected in a country known for its love of haute cuisine is KFC, but some welcome novelty is present in the form of EDF the French electricity company and the French bakers Pasquier, whose industrially processed bread products can also be found in British supermarkets. My reverie is broken as coverage switches to Belfort in time to catch a Nancy player blowing his nose on his shirt. He might have got away with if he was playing for Norwich, whose kit is the colour of snot, but Nancy are playing in white shirts today.  

Back to Le Havre and with sixty-nine minutes played Loic Remy at long last gives Lille the lead, but the replays of the goal are not over before there is also a goal at Belfort where hopes of a ‘giant-killing’ are restored by Thomas Regnier and the TV screen divides in two to show two goals being scored at once, the excitement in my living room is now palpable.  Five minutes elapse and Belfort are awarded a penalty which gives the programme director time to ensure that the main action is being beamed from Stade Serzian and Thomas Regnier scores again to give Belfort a 3-1 lead with just twelve minutes left to play of normal time.  This is great, so good I almost fail to notice that in the Coupe de France teams do not carry their usual sponsor’s names on their shirts, but instead all the away teams display the logo of PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) a horse racing promoter and betting organisation, whilst home teams advertise the symbol of the Credit Agricole bank.  As if that’s not enough all players display the name of the Intermarche supermarket chain across their shoulders and club crests are replaced by the badge of the FFF (Federation Française de Football), the French football association. My mind begins to drift to thoughts of Vincent (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction and his ‘Quarter Pounder/Royale’ conversation with Jules (John Travolta); “It’s the little differences…”.  But injury time, as it used to be known, has started and with two minutes of it gone Victor Osimhan brings some late excitement to my TV screen as he confirms Lille’s ‘safe passage’ through to the round of sixteen with Lille’s second goal, but Belfort still have six whole minutes left to play. 

In Le Havre the game ends and the victorious Lille players line up to applaud the Gonfreville team from the pitch; what with the late goal, the mass sporting gesture not to mention the ‘giant-killing’ I feel rather moved by it all and emit a small cheer when the game in Belfort finally ends with no further goals.  Back with Gaëlle in the studio I remember to check the half-time score in Birkenhead, I wish I hadn’t.

Happy times, perhaps not quite as good as the real thing, but looking back from this shut-in, locked down world I feel quite privileged to have had them. Please appreciate the moment and make the most of it. In the words of Country, Pop and Novelty songwriter Ray Stevens “Everything is beautiful in its own way”. Oh, and there was a happy ending in Birkenhead after all.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

It has been a warm, sunny day in Paris beneath a clear blue sky. I have spent the afternoon in St Ouen, now a northern suburb of the city, but a town in its own right.

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I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her

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house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc des Princes, security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour.

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The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one, and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.

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After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks

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of soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the

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injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but in particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures. But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.

I cannot deny I have enjoyed seeing Neymar, Rabiot, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani et al tonight, but those players would all still be as good if they all played for different clubs and the league would be more interesting for it. But heck , what am I going to do but write about it?

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Coggeshall Town 1 Stowmarket Town 2

An evening in late March and a chill breeze blows along the valley of the River Blackwater. Individuals and people in small groups stride purposefully in the diminishing light through the quiet streets of Coggeshall and across open meadows. At the edge of the town along West Street, the floodlit turf of ‘The Crops’ football ground, draws them in.

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Tonight is a big night in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division. Tonight Coggeshall Town (3rd in the league table) play Stowmarket Town (top of the league) in a re-match after their initial encounter was controversially abandoned well into the second half as one of the linesman complained of not being able to keep his footing on the frosty pitch; Coggeshall had been 2-0 up at the time.

The Crops is a great name for a football ground, particularly for one in a small country town like Coggeshall (pop. 4,727 in the 2011 census), with its half-timbered houses and fully-timbered medieval tithe barn. Just to over-do the bucolic-ness of it all the football team are nicknamed the Seed Growers too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Crops is dug into the side of a field that slopes down from West Street towards the winding narrow river. The path from the turnstiles to the club house and changing rooms runs behind and above the low main stand with its four rows of seats, characterful uneven fascia and dark corrugated iron roof. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the front of the stand a large sign reads ‘Chelmsford Plastic Warehouse’; I like to think this is an actual thing, like plastic flowers or the Plastic Ono Band. Either side of the stand a steep-ish grassy slope runs down to the pitch-side. The changing rooms occupy a dark wooden building with steps leading down to onto a corner of the pitch. Dug into the ground behind the goal at the clubhouse end is a long low covered terraced with a corrugated tin roof like a utilitarian municipal tram shelter. You can stand behind this ‘tram shelter’, rest your beer on the roof and get a good view of most of the pitch, though you can’t see the near goal-line or a large part of the goal come to that.

For an evening match it’s possible to get to Coggeshall on the number 70 bus from Colchester, but it’s not possible to get back again. Coggeshall has no train station and never has done, so with no lights on my bike, tonight I must make use of the large car park at the side of the ground;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it’s almost completely full but could be fuller if people had smaller cars or didn’t indulge in ‘greed parking’, taking up more space than they need. According to Parking News (genuine trade paper of the parking industry) this has become more prevalent due to increased levels of obesity. Fat bastards. Entry to the ground is a bargain £4 tonight, the admission reduced because over 200 people had already paid to the see the first match on 21st January, which was never completed. The small but colourful and glossy programme costs £1.00.

The teams take the field, Coggeshall in red and black stripes like AC Milan, Stowmarket in yellow shirts so pale they are almost beige, and red shorts, like a washed out Watford. The Stowmarket shirts bear the Nike logo, but with their insipid colour they look like they’re from Primark. Both teams are clearly tense and the game begins with fouls and squabbles, protests and pleas, and the referee quickly needs to take control. The confident Stowmarket No5 sneers at Coggeshall’s diminutive No8 and insults him, “What’s up midget-boy?” he asks. Rude. These are two well organised and committed sides and what develops is an opera of constant shouts and calls, curses and oaths combined with a ballet of runs and leaps and turns. Under the floodlights it’s a sporting son et lumiere, but with a hint of surreal comedy as a giant cartoon cockerel watches impassively from the sidelines; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s Rocky the Rooster, the Coggeshall mascot.

Goalless at half-time, in the second half the match becomes a drama as with an hour gone Stowmarket score a penalty; but Coggeshall quickly equalise with a goal of beautiful simplicity, grace and speed. Their fleet of foot No 7, frizzy hair buffeted by the breeze, runs at the defence then threads through a perfect pass for the number 9 to chase and poke past the Stowmarket guardian. Coggeshall hopes are reborn, but the drama builds as with the game entering its final ten minutes hesitancy in the Coggeshall defence allows Stowmarket to score again. All the time this drama is played out before a tiny chorus, the Stowmarket six, a group of visiting supporters who chant and shout from within the tram shelter, their cat calls amplified by its tinny echo. “He’s got his IQ on his shirt, He’s got his IQ on his shirt” they sing to or about someone, it’s not obvious who. As Coggeshall strive to equalise a final twist turns the play into a tragedy as a poor tackle fells the Seed Growers’ Matt Southall; he’s too badly hurt to move immediately and there is a ten minute hiatus as a host of people in big coats run on and off the pitch and concern mounts. Some of the 310 strong crowd leave. Eventually Matt leaves the field to applause, but on a stretcher; his ankle is damaged and a long evening in A & E awaits.

The remaining five minutes produce half chances at both ends, the netting behind the goals does its job in catching stray shots and Stowmarket use up the time doing nothing whenever they can. But this tale has run its course and the game ends to scenes of gay abandon amongst the Stowmarket camp who may well win the league championship now, whilst Coggeshall’s disappointment is tangible, it’s clear this game mattered a bit more than most of the others.