Ipswich Town 0 Portsmouth 0

Spring is sprung and as former Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells us, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of promotion and sneaking into the play-offs. With such thoughts in mind, I once again park up my trustee Citroen C3 in classical sounding Waller’s Grove, and tread steadily across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arboretum pub beyond, which is now known as the Arbor House.   It’s a gloriously sunny day, which sits beneath a pale blue sky, once the grey clouds have broken up.  The human contents of the Station Hotel spill out onto Burrell Road and in the pub garden Pompey fans revel in the joys of beer and life.  On Portman Road a golden Labrador sniffs for incendiaries and I buy a programme (£3.50) for the first time using cashless payment.  There are far more police about than usual, no doubt because of some strange belief that the followers of today’s opponents, Portsmouth Football Club, are somehow rowdier than your average spectator, but on Portsea Island life is lived to the full.

At the Arb’ I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and bask in the sun in the beer garden where I am soon joined by Mick. who I haven’t seen since before Christmas.  We talk of Fatty Liver Disease, Home Office funding for the housing of Afghan refugees, conversations with mutual friends, bicycles, people who still think Brexit was a good idea, Baptists, my wife’s twin aunts in Portsmouth, one of whom has sadly died and electric cars.  We don’t talk of Ukraine except to say that it makes us too angry and sad, and we simply don’t know what to say about it.  At some time after two-thirty, having finished our beers, we depart for Portman Road, Mick walking his Raleigh bicycle as we go and finally locking it up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where we head for our respective turnstiles, Mick making for the posh West Stand seats and me the cheap seats in the lower tier of what I still think of as Churchman’s.  For a second consecutive fixture there are queues at turnstiles 59 and 60, but I’m inside the stadium by ten to three giving plenty of time to use the ‘bathroom’ facilities before taking up my seat.

In the stand, Pat from Clacton is here, as is ever-present Phil who never misses a game, along with his young son Elwood.  Fiona is away on a cruise to the Canary Islands, but her seat is occupied by Mark, a long -time supporter who travels on the coach from Clacton with Pat, but usually sits in the West Stand. Curiously the seats immediately in front of me are empty today.  We will later learn that there are 25, 495 other people here too, each with their own distinct lives, hope and fears and tales to tell, and 1,986 of them are also Portsmouth supporters.

At a minute past three, after knees are taken and applauded the Town begin the game, hoping to rattle the net of the goal just a little to the right and in front of Pat, Phil, Elwood, Mark and me.  Town are back in our traditional blue shirts and white shorts after Tuesday’s flirtation with all blue, whilst Pompey are in a handsome kit of red and black halves with black shorts, it’s a kit with personal significance for me because my wife was wearing an earlier version of the shirt when I first spoke to her back in the 1990’s, and it was the shirt I spoke to her about.

“Hello, hello, we are the Pompey boys” sing the Portsmouth supporters helpfully and politely introducing themselves, as if to hold out a hand and bid us all a good afternoon.  There is a fine atmosphere inside Portman Road today courtesy of the Pompey boys (and girls) and a chorus of “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” is soon ringing out and the Sir Bobby Robson stand respond with “Oh when the Town go marching in” sung to the tempo of a funeral march and with a similar quota of joie de vivre.   It’s conceivable that the Pompey fans can’t hear the Town supporters’ dirge above the sound of their own anthem, or it could be that they can only clearly see the impassive faces of the Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but our visitors soon break into the old  favourites of away fans at Portman Road with choruses of “You’re support is fucking shit” and its intellectually superior sibling chant “ Is this a library?”.  Moving swiftly into goading mode they produce a rendition of the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just a small Town in Norwich” before finishing with “You’re supposed to be at home”. Such is the wit of football supporters. “Never heard that one before” says the bloke behind me sarcastically as I imagine that I’ve been listening to an advertisement for a compilation of football ‘s favourite chants from K-tel Records.

Twelve minutes past three and Town, who have been dominating possession, win the game’s first corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the Pompey boys and girls showing that it’s possible to vocally encourage your team when they’re defending as well as when they attack; this afternoon is proving to be an education.   The corner kick is delivered and Luke Woolfenden, looking a bit like a 1990’s Eminem with his bleached blond hair stoops and twists to somehow head the ball away from goal rather than into it.  Four minutes later and Pompey win a corner too, eliciting even more chimes.

Sam Morsy has already had to pause the game once to check on his gammy leg; a legacy (no pun intended, though it’s a pretty good one, isn’t it?) from Tuesday night’s game, but now with seventy minutes still to play, he has to be substituted by Tommy Carroll, who incidentally last played for Town against Pompey on 4th May 1968 (Town won 2-1 at Fratton Park).  Bringing on a player who would be over eighty if he was still alive unsettles the Town team and Pompey nearly score as Aiden O’Brien shoots spectacularly over the cross bar from very close range and then Luke Woolfenden gives the ball away to O’Brien who thankfully misses again, this time shooting wide of the far post.  It’s almost as if Town had been setting up O’Brien to embarrass himself. Town bounce back briefly to win a second corner but then a George Hirst shot has to be saved by Christian Walton. On the left touchline the referees assistant fits very snugly into his pale green shirt, almost as if he’s been vacuum packed.

After twenty minutes, the incidence of foul play is increasing, and O’Brien falls beautifully, arching his back in a graceful curve as he is allegedly fouled by Wes Burns.  If they ever put on Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, O’Brien has to be worth a punt for the part of Odette.  A short while later Pompey’s Louis Thompson is the first player to be shown the yellow card belonging to the largely ineffectual referee Mr Christopher Sarginson, as Wes Burns wriggles in a heap on the turf.

A third town corner is greeted with a song involving repeated Ole’s or Allez, I’m not clear which, from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but the corner kick is easily cleared at the near post.  The improbably named Mahlon Romeo then drags down Dominic Thompson and holds the ball up angrily in the air as if to say to “But look, I got the ball” when he is called out by Mr Sarginson,  who, I like to think ,tells him that he could equally have come away with the ball if he’d hit Thompson with a long plank of wood or set a dog on him, but it would still be a foul.

“Oh, great ball Bakinson” calls a sarcastic voice somewhere behind me as Janoi Donacien mistakenly passes to a Pompey player.  “Oh Shut up” says someone else, understandably frustrated by the sort of people who inexplicably seem to need a bete noire in every Town team.  Conor Chaplin has a shot blocked and with half-time nearby Cameron Burgess concedes a corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the 1,986 in the Cobbold Stand. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” answer the Sir Bobby Robson Stand revealing a level of sophistication, wit and humour which goes some way to explaining the popularity of TV’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ among much of the general population.  Entering time added on a Conor Chaplin snap shot whistles past the left hand post of the Pompey goal before Kayden Jackson runs on to a through ball and has his shot saved by Gavin Bazunu.  Jackson appears to tweak a hamstring in the process of running and shooting and troops off angrily and dejectedly to be replaced by the oddly named Macaulay Bonne whilst Town take another corner and the three minutes of added on time are played out.

Half-time brings relief and nourishment in the form of a wee and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, but unusually I do not go and talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison because Ray is somewhere up the back of the stand with his brother-in-law today.  Half-time nevertheless passes quickly and the football soon resumes along with the pattern of Ipswich possession interspersed with corner kicks and a series of crosses which carefully avoid anyone likely to divert the ball into the Pompey goal.

As Bersant Celina wins another corner, the volume of the home crowd seems to be turned up a notch as if there is either a sudden collective understanding that they can help the team, or an outbreak of collective anxiety. From a cross, subsequent to the corner kick , the ball comes out to Wes Burns, but he wellies it over-enthusiastically and high above the Pompey cross bar.  Pompey are mostly the lesser team in this contest but they retain the ability to threaten occasionally and as half past four approaches a header from Sean Raggett lands on the roof of the Town goal net and the “Play Up Pompey/ Pompey Fuck Off” duet is reprised. It took the home fans a while to think of their response to the Chimes, but now that they have they’re not missing a beat.

Pompey’s Louis Thompson is replaced by Joe Morell and Tyreeq Bakinson seems to carefully place a shot into the arms of Pompey goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu before Bersant Celina wins yet another corner, and Bakinson heads the ball into the side netting, promoting jeers from the Pompey supporters directed at those Town supporters who might have thought the net was bulging from within.  Over seventy minutes have passed and the competitive edge in the game unfortunately boils over as it appears that the Pompey manager, the never-smiling Danny Cowley, gets in Dominic Thompson’s way as he prepares to take a throw-in.  Thompson seems to over react somewhat, but Cowley makes no attempt to appease the offended wing-back and starts to come over all macho.  An unseemly melee ensues and the Sir Bobby Robson  stand are unforgiving as they announce “ Cowley, Cowley, You’re a cunt; Cowley, You’re a cunt”.  To my shame I join in with a shout of “Bugger-off back to Braintree”, but mainly because I enjoy the alliteration and find any mention of Braintree faintly amusing.

The match descends into its final ten minutes as Bersant Celina shoots wide and Tyreeq Bakinson is booked. Meanwhile Pompey swap Aiden O’Brien for the interestingly monikered Denver Hume and   I notice that their bearded Ryan Tunnicliffe has strange hair, cut into a sort of bob like a 1920’s flapper.  Pompey also replace George Hirst, whose name is satisfyingly close enough to Geoff Hurst to make me smile and his substitute is a man with two surnames, Tyler Walker. With three minutes of added on time ebbing away some folk in the home crowd begin to accuse Pompey of time wasting; there are even calls of “Boring Boring Portsmouth”, which are ridiculous and reveal how easily some people can slip into repetitive behaviour; it saves having to think.

The final whistle brings inevitable disappointment that Town haven’t won, tempered by the understanding that this has been a good match and we haven’t lost either, which we often do at home to Portsmouth.   Pat from Clacton makes a swift exit and Mark thanks me for my company;  I reciprocate before heading out into the chill of the early evening for the journey home and the thoughts of Mick Mills through the medium of BBC Radio Suffolk and the car radio.  Life is generally good, although it could sometimes be better.

Ipswich Town 2 Fleetwood Town 1

It’s a cool, almost cold, still, grey autumn day.  As I walk down through Gippeswyk Park a leaden pillow of cloud hangs over the town and Portman Road.  I march on through the gathering crowds, past people perched on car park railings folding foamy bread, heavy with sauce-laden sausage into their gaping mouths.  I stop only briefly to buy a programme (£3.50) and to put a coin in a collection box for an NHS charity, although I thought that’s what we paid our taxes for; I guess we’re being asked to make up the shortfall for the very wealthy and those companies like Amazon who could pay more, but choose not to because how else is their owner expected to be the richest man in the world and launch ageing actors who once played fictional astronauts into space.

At the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum), Mick is already sat at a table enjoying a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride. I toy with the thought of copying him but opt for a pint of Mauldon’s Phantom (£3.90), it occurs to me that the beer seems to increase in price by 10 pence every time I come here.  I join Mick to discuss how we’ve passed our respective weeks and other assorted issues of our times, including driving a hearse on the M25, cycling in Belgium, the Kray twins and East Suffolk County Council police houses. At twenty minutes to three we depart for Portman Road, as do the three people sat at an adjacent table, we follow them down High Street.

Mick and I bid our adieus near the turnstiles close to the corner of Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road, Mick’s seat is in the upper tier of what is now called the Magnus Group stand; I’m in the cheap seats at the bottom of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Having vouched for my being double-jabbed I enter the ground through turnstile sixty-one, which I select over turnstiles fifty-nine and sixty because 1961 was when we won the Second Division for the first time.  I make my way through the undercroft of the stand having put on my face mask, although few others have the decency to do likewise, and Ipswich has the country’s highest Covid infection rates.

The teams are walking out on to the pitch as I shuffle past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to my seat.  “We were getting worried about you” says Pat as I sit down, and in dipping my head my glasses fly off.  “You’ve every reason to be” I reply.  The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ plays and people join in with the na-na-nas. The floodlights are already on and with knees taken and applauded, at a minute past three the game begins. Town are attempting to put the ball in the goal just in front of me, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood.  In their red shirts with white sleeves Fleetwood look like a bargain basement Arsenal, and it’s good to see a team not change their kit unnecessarily just because they’re playing away from home; both teams are even wearing white shorts!

Just a minute of the game has passed and already the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away, and we will fight for evermore because of Boxing Day” as if to reiterate the often made point that Christmas seems to get earlier every year.  Town win a corner. “Come on you Blues” I bellow hopefully. “Is that Martin?” says Phil, turning round to Pat to ask a question to which he already knows the answer.

It’s early, the game is still settling down and the crowd are getting accustomed to what they are seeing before them. The referee Sam Allison is black; a voice behind me says “Uriah Rennie, innit”, a comment which unfortunately is unthinkingly racist, although I have no doubt it was not intended as such, but at least it does highlight the scarcity of black football referees despite there being a lot of black footballers.

Ten minutes pass and it looks as if Fleetwood almost score; Gerard Garner appearing from my low down, distant view to beat three players before having a shot blocked.  Four minutes later and Town have a goal disallowed as the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads in a free-kick, but is considered by the assistant referee to be have been offside. Another five minutes later and Bonne directs a free header at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, a large man who has made the double fashion faux-pas of wearing dark pants beneath his yellow shorts and displaying a distinct VPL.  Cairns is however one of the few footballers to share a surname with the name of a northern Australian city.  

The game has settled into a somewhat disappointing pattern of Town passing the ball about quite a bit, but not having any decent attempts at scoring a goal.  It’s nearly half past three and Paul Cook is gesticulating wildly from the touch line like someone directing traffic having dropped a few amphetamines.  Janoi Donacien wins Town a corner.  “Come On You Blues! Come On You Blues!” tumbles from the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a handful of people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand join in, including me. Toto Nsiala heads the corner kick over the cross bar from a position so close to the goal that it looked easier to score. 

 It’s gone half-past three and after Fleetwood’s James Hill fouls Conor Chaplin, his name becomes the first to enter Mr Allison’s notebook.  I like to think of Mr Allison amusing himself childishly by stroking his chin as if in deep thought and then writing down Hill’s first name as Jimmy.  Ten minutes until half-time and Sone Aluko has Town’s first decent shot at goal, but it goes past the post. Finally, as the half peters out Sam Morsy becomes embroiled in a contretemps with Fleetwood’s Jay Matete, as they literally wrestle each other for the ball; Morsy is clearly at fault and Matete is awarded a free-kick.  A bit like the weather, the half has been rather dull.

My half-time snack of a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar is the highlight of the afternoon since leaving the pub and Ray offers the opinion that Town haven’t done very much so far as he stops by to chat on his way to use the facilities beneath the stand.

The game resumes at four minutes past four and the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are soon singing “You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit you’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit,” which strikes me as being not very polite.  From the comments of the man next to me I think their “song” is directed at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, and I can only think that they too have spotted that you can see his pants through his yellow shorts, although I think it would probably have been more helpful to sing “Don’t wear dark pants, Don’t wear dark pants,  Don’t wear dark pants with yellow shorts, Don’t wear dark pants.”  

Cairns’ misdemeanor is soon punished however and with just four minutes played of the new half, Conor Chaplin turns outside the penalty area and sends a firm shot into the corner of the goal with, as the man next to me says, the goalkeeper “stranded”.  Clearly getting nostalgic for former glories, the Sir Bobby Robson stand erupt into a chorus of “1-0 to the Tractor Boys” to the tune of Village People’s 1979 hit ‘Go West’.  Feeling elated by taking the lead I risk sensory overload as I breathe in the smell of the damp turf. This afternoon’s attendance is announced as 20,099 with 133 of that number being from Fleetwood.  Pat from Clacton thinks she might have won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ coach and passes me the sheet containing everyone’s guesses.  Sadly, I have to break the news that her guess of 20,069 is not closer than someone else’s guess of 20,103, although to be fair to Pat her number looks a lot more like 20,099 than 20,103 does and she got five of the digits right; there has to be a field of experimental maths where what the numbers look like matters.

Back on the pitch and Wes Burns replaces Sone Aluko who is wiping his nose and has presumably either suddenly developed a heavy cold or has a nosebleed.    Meanwhile, back in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand Pat from Clacton tells us that she will be having a Marks & Spencer prawn salad for tea. 

It’s nearly half past four and Christian Walton makes a save from Ged Garner who had been allowed to dribble far too close to the goal.  From the resultant corner the ball is hit into the crowd where a man over the other side of the gangway from me calmly stands up and heads it back onto the pitch.  The last time I did that I tell Fiona and Pat from Clacton, my glasses flew off (Woodbridge Town, September 2018, FA Cup extra-preliminary round v Clapton).

Fleetwood’s Jay Matete is booked for a foul on Sam Morsy and meanwhile I count twenty-one seagulls on the cross girder above the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Town miss two chances in quick succession as first the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a shot saved by the bloke in the dark underpants and then Conor Chaplin sends a shot above the crossbar.  Attempting to create a diversion, Fleetwood replace Ged Garner with someone called Paddy Lane; it’s Penny’s brother I tell Fiona, although of course I do know that Penny Lane is really a street in Liverpool, and Paddy Lane is round the back of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

Town miss another opportunity as Wes Burns billows the net with a shot to make half the ground think he had scored, only to realise the ball had gone behind the post. Sam Morsy is eventually booked for persistent fouling with Mr Allison offering a fine mime, pointing in different directions to indicate that Morsy had committed fouls here, there, and everywhere.  Whilst Morsy receives his punishment from Mr Allison I am struck by the long shins of Fleetwood’s number nine, Callum Morton, a youth who the app on my phone says is English, although his stroppy demeanour, ginger hair and surname shared with a Greenock football club imply he is Scottish.  I have a premonition that he will score, which is based on the fact that he looks like he has the capacity to annoy.

Something happens across the other side of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and from up in the Cobbold stand comes a chorus of “We forgot, We forgot, We forgot that you were here” and I think to myself “Who said that?”.  Back on the grass and Fleetwood’s Johnson fouls Celina and is booked before Fleetwood string together an alarming number of passes prior to Town eventually clearing the ball. Less than ten minutes of normal time remain, and Lee Evans concedes a free-kick.  The Liverpudlian back street crosses the ball and the annoying youth with long shins heads the ball into the Town goal from unfeasibly close range.  What had felt like a comfortable one-nil lead isn’t any longer,j but as I said to Fiona, we hadn’t conceded a goal for almost two whole games, so it was unlikely we’d hold on much longer.  We would probably have conceded sooner or later even if we had to score it ourselves.

To the credit of the Town supporters, we don’t become over-anxious and we even raise a few chants of “Come on Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” and indulge in some rhythmic clapping.  On the pitch, Town remain patient, passing the ball back and forth waiting to prise an opening rather than just hitting and hoping or ‘getting it in the mixer’.  In the eighty-eighth minute a deep cross from Lee Evans is headed across the goal by the oddly named Macauley Bonne, it’s a decent chance; and then the game enters five minutes of added on time.  A draw wouldn’t be unexpected, but hope remains that we can win; this is a team that has scored twenty-eight times in thirteen games, an average of more than two goals a game, so we’re due another one.

It’s the ninety third minute; Fiona has had to leave early to catch a train because she’s going out this evening.  The excellent Janoi Donacien runs all the way to the goal line to knock back a deep, cross field ball; his flicked pass falls to Bersant Celina who sweeps it imperiously past the man in the dark underpants to give Town victory.  It’s the best ending to a match at Portman Road in years, possibly since Pablo Counago scored almost directly from the kick-off after Coventry had equalised in 2010.  Town did manage a near last minute win against Shrewsbury last November, but that doesn’t count because last season only happened on ifollow.

What started as a grey, dull, cold day has ended in a blaze of glory, the embers of which will glow all week long and at least until we lose again, which hopefully won’t be for ages; and just to add a barely needed coat of varnish, Norwich have lost 7-0 too.  Some days are definitely better than others.

Ipswich Town 2 Bolton Wanderers 5

This evening I shall be staying in town after the match and along with my friend Pete will be going to the Arbor House (formerly and properly known as the Arboretum) for something to eat and a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.70).  The refreshments however are a mere precursor to the main event, which will see me heading to the Ipswich Transport Museum to witness the wonderful, extraordinary, and brilliant Robyn Hitchcock (formerly of the Soft Boys) perform a selection from his repertoire of over forty years’ worth of groovy tunes.  Robyn is a particular hero of mine who first came to my notice back in 1978, a year that was an undoubted highpoint in my largely pointless existence, when a friend played me the Soft Boys single “(I want to be an) Anglepoise Lamp”.   This evening, explaining how he comes to be playing a concert in Ipswich Transport Museum, Robyn will tell of how in the summer of 1963, as a ten-year old obsessed with the Beatles and trolleybuses he glimpsed Ipswich Corporation’s trolleybus-filled Priory Heath depot from the train line that runs by on the opposite side of Cobham Road.  Robyn’s love of trolleybuses has not abated, and he will confide that playing the museum is a dream gig, and he’s right, it will be one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to.  The last time I saw Ipswich Town and Robyn Hitchcock on the same day was 17th October 1992 when in the company of Pete’s then girlfriend, now wife, Claire, I witnessed a 1-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge before Claire and I ate burgers in Wendy’s on Oxford Street and then travelled on to the Powerhaus in Islington to meet up with Pete. But today, before the pleasure must come the pain.

After three consecutive two-all home draws in League matches, I have broken out of the pattern of driving into Ipswich in my trusty Citroen C3, parking on Chantry, and trying to get a drink in the fanzone but failing.  Today I have travelled to Ipswich with the aforementioned Pete in his fourteen-year-old Ford Focus and am meeting another friend, Mick at the Greyhound for a pre-match pint of Adnam’s Southwold Bitter (formerly more simply known just as Adnam’s Bitter). I am anticipating that the break in habit will bear fruit with a first win of the season.  At the Greyhound Mick kindly buys the pints of beer, so I don’t know what they cost, but I expect they were expensive.   After three-quarters of an hour of intelligent conversation we leave the Greyhound beer garden (formerly the car park) at about twenty minutes to three and go our separate ways on Sir Alf Ramsey Way, Mick to what was the West Stand and me to what was Churchman’s after having both purchased a programme each (£3.50), so that we know the names of the players representing Town this week.  It’s a good job we do too because today we have both a new goalkeeper, Christian Walton, and a new centre-half, George Edmundson and there are three more changes to the team that last played.  I enter the ground through turnstile number fifty-nine because Pat from Clacton seems to be causing the formation of a small queue at turnstile number sixty.  Entering the ground, I chat to Kevin who I know from our time at Wivenhoe Town.

On the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, by the time I’ve drained my bladder Pat from Clacton and Fiona have taken their seats and Ray and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood are here too; Ray’s son and his grandson Harrison are absent however because, as Ray will later tell me they are at Centre-Parcs.  With both teams on the pitch and lined up, Conor Chaplin swings his leg to kick-off the match just as referee Mr Robert Madley reminds him that the teams are about to ‘take the knee’, which Conor proceeds to do, seamlessly transforming his shaping up to kick pose into a kneel as the crowd applauds and sticks it to racist knuckle-draggers everywhere.

Soon enough Chaplin begins the game and within a minute the assembled Boltonians up in the Cobbold Stand are asking “Is this a library?” through the medium of Italian opera.  “You don’t know what a library is” bawls a man somewhere behind me, sounding like the embittered voice of the person responsible for adult education in Greater Manchester.  Bolton win a corner.  The fifth minute arrives and Wes Burns brushes aside the weakling challenge of Bolton full-back Liam Gordon to put in a low cross, which the oddly named Macauley Bonne merely has to side foot into the net, which he does, to give Town a very early lead and confirm that today things will be different.  How we celebrate; the breath of life inflating our balloon-like hopes. “He’s fuckin’ superb, he is” says the coarse bloke behind me of Wes Burns. I can’t disagree, but might express the view differently.  I breathe in the smell of the lush turf as the Sir Bobby Robson stand invoke the spirit of Boney M and Christmas with their oddly un-seasonal and goodwill-free version of Mary’s Boy Child. 

A further five minutes pass, and the right hand side of the Town defence solidifies instead of gelling and Bolton’s Oladapo Afolayan sweeps the ball past Christian Walton to equalise.  The balloon of hope has burst.  “Who are ya? chant the Bolton fans repetitively, for reasons which are not clear. “Who the fuckin’ hell are you?” respond the Sir Bobby Robson stand equally repetitively and for equally obscure reasons, but whilst also possibly claiming short-lived ‘bragging rights’ by including a swear in what is usually a religious tune (Cwm Rhondda).   The Bolton support responds in turn however with what sounds like “Wanky, wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers”, although I could be wrong, and their thick Lancastrian accents may have disguised their true words beneath a layer of hot-pot, barm cakes and soot.  But there is no time to dwell on this as the eager to gloat Boltonians follow up with renditions of the generally truthful “Sing when you’re winning” and the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just small town in Norwich”.  Such is the quick-fire nature of their trawl through these songs that I half expect the PA system to announce their availability on three discs exclusive to K-tel Records via mail-order.

The Bolton fans’ jibes make the time pass quickly until their team’s next goal, in the 18th minute, which arrives courtesy of Kane Vincent-Young’s ill-advised and unnecessary attempt at a tackle in the penalty area. Eoin Doyle scores the penalty for Bolton as Christian Walton appears to dive out of the way of the ball.  Within five minutes Vincent-Young is replaced by Janoi Donacien as he has already been given a glimpse of Mr Madley’s yellow card and no longer looks like a fully functioning full-back.  Despite trailing, Town are not obviously the second-best team on the pitch and the Bolton defence is often desperate, to the extent that both Lloyd Isgrove and the delightfully Welsh Gethin Jones both have their names written down in Mr Madley’s notebook.  A third of the game has passed and once again Wes Burns decides there is nothing for it but to bustle past the full-back and send in another cross from which the oddly named Macauley Bonne can score, but Bolton’s Ricardo saves Bonne the trouble of applying the final touch and Town are level.  “E’s fuckin’ superb” says the bloke behind me of Wes Burns, just in case no one was listening after the first goal.  An hour left and we’ve already reached the usual scoreline for a home league game, at this rate we’re heading for a six-all draw. 

Hopes for a win are revived and the massively improved Sone Aluko heads over the Bolton cross-bar and also puts in a decent cross at the end of a fine move down the right. “E’s ‘aving a good game, ‘e is” says the bloke behind me of Aluko, in case we weren’t sure.  There will be three minutes of time added on, which is more than enough time to score another goal. Wes Burns once again gets down the wing to the goal line and crosses the ball for Macaulay Bonne to direct towards the goal, but his off-balance stab at the ball bounces the wrong side of the goal post.  Quickly Bolton launch the ball forward and with unsporting alacrity the ball is delivered to the feet of Oladapo Afolayan who scores what is almost a replica of his first goal with the Town defence unsure whether to gel, solidify or just melt away. For the first time this season it has become necessary to score a third goal simply to avoid defeat.

Half-time provides time to reflect on confused emotions and to talk to Ray who, as a former full-back, albeit for the YMCA in the 1970’s, has concerns about the defence and the midfield.  Our conversation fills the space between the two halves completely and the game is almost beginning again as I take my seat and I haven’t yet eaten my Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.  Ever-present Phil says we’re going to win 5-4 and I remain hopeful too, especially as Finney and Worthington are both out for Bolton and have been for several years.  The one portent of possible doom however, is that the lead in my Ipswich Town pencil has snapped. Three minutes pass and Bolton send a ball over the top to Doyle.  Walton saves a shot from Antoni Sarcevic before the Town defence dissolves into an aqueous mess and Josh Sheehan scores a simple fourth goal.  The bloke behind me vows to leave if Bolton score again.

The bright early autumn sunshine and blue sky seem to mock me with their beauty and question what I’m doing here on such a lovely September afternoon. The attendance is announced as being 19,267 with 553 of that number being supporters of Bolton Wanderers who must be lapping up the additional Vitamin D.  Weirdly given the sunshine, at sixteen minutes past four the floodlights are turned on. “That Evans is a bag o’nails” says the bloke behind me in an unrelated and possibly surreal incident.  A minute later George Johnston scores a fifth for Bolton as the Ipswich defence gets into what Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley could justifiably call a “sixes and sevens situation.” The bloke behind me leaves as he said he would. Loud boos emanate from the mouths of some Town supporters. “It’s a shame innit” says Pat from Clacton sympathetically. “We want six” chant the Bolton supporters less sympathetically.  “We’ve got to go all-out attack now” says Pat to ever-present Phil, although the score line already suggests that if we’re not attacking we’re not doing anything else much either.

Conor Chaplin is replaced by 1960’s signing from Cambridge City Tommy Carroll.  “Is this a library?” sing the Bolton fans reprising their earlier attempts at a Verdi opera, and the oddly named Macauley Bonne hits a post with subtle re-direction of a Hayden Coulson cross.  “What I don’t understand is why he don’t bring Piggott on and play two up-top. That’s fuckin’ ignorance that is” says a voice behind me which sounds oddly like the voice that I thought had left after the fifth goal.  The answer to what he doesn’t understand is that Piggott isn’t actually on the bench.  Ignorance eh?

Town have plenty of possession now, but annoyingly Bolton appear to have gelled and we can’t find a way through.   “Over and in” says Pat from Clacton willing the ball into the Bolton net from a cross, but it’s over and out for a corner.  Soon it will be over and out full stop.  “We can see you sneaking out” chant the hot-pot munchers upstairs in the Cobbold stand, conveniently ignoring the people like me, Ray, Fiona, ever-present Phil, and Pat from Clacton who will resolutely sit in our seats until the inevitably bitter end.  A Bolton shot sails over the cross bar and lands the width of seven or eight seats and a gangway to my right. The bloke in the seat in front of me flinches and ducks away to his left, but it’s still early in the season and he clearly hasn’t gelled with his surroundings.  Seven minutes remain and in what seems like the most aimless substitution of the season so far, Wes Burns is replaced with Kayden Jackson, although I reserve the right to change that view should Wes Burns prove to have been injured.   “Kayden Jackson? We’d be better off with Gordon Jackson” I think to myself, involuntarily remembering both the 1970’s ITV series ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. Thankfully I didn’t shout it out.

In due course the final whistle sounds to the inevitable boos from those elements of the home crowd ignorant of, or unable to see the truths in the words of Rudyard Kipling’s admittedly sexist poem “If”, about attitudes to triumph and disaster.  I must admit however to preferring Lindsay Anderson’s film.   I leave the Sir Alf Ramsey stand in the company of Ray, who is heading for Fonnereau Road where his wife Roz will pick him up, whilst appropriately, given the nightmare I’ve just witnessed, I head for the car park on Elm Street.   But what do I care, the best of my day is yet to come and I know it.

Ipswich Town 2 AFC Wimbledon 2

Back in 2004 as Ipswich Town were yet again failing to win yet another play-off tie (we have won just two out of nine ties), AFC Wimbledon were winning the Combined Counties Premier Division title.  Since then, Wimbledon have continued to collect promotions and Ipswich Town haven’t, and so today we find ourselves playing the 2004 Combined Counties Premier Division Champions for a third consecutive season.  Town and the original Wimbledon, the one that famously beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, had of course met in both the Premier League and the Championship and my wife Paulene is the proud owner of a cuddly Womble in Wimbledon kit that dated from when the original club was being eaten alive; apparently when she bought it, it was the last one in the shop.

Shamefully, playing fast and loose with the future of our planet, I have again driven to the match today, still fearful of using public transport as Covid cases spiral upwards in number and the government gambles the lives of the clinically vulnerable so that money can change hands, as it does most of the time to be fair, but usually more obliquely. Parking my trusty Citroen C3 up on Chantry I stroll down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a sky of picturesquely heaped up clouds, the afternoon is warm but dull, as English summers often are.

Rocking up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk) at about twenty past two, I join a short queue for the Fanzone just as the steward checking tickets and Covid credential announces that the bar in the Fanzone is now closed.  Brimming with disappointment and thwarted thirst I leave the queue and hang about aimlessly for a few minutes watching the crowds and counting the number of people wearing face masks, I see four.  It really is as if most people are convinced the pandemic is over.  Quickly bored with my own company I trudge off between the supporters’ coaches artfully arranged outside the old Corporation tram depot and head for the Constantine Road gate to the ground, where I join a very short queue to show off my Covid credentials.  “Thank you Martin” says the female steward as I flash my NHS vaccination card; it seems a bit familiar of her and I wonder if we know each other; she’s one of the few people wearing a mask so I can’t properly see her face. 

On the walk from the gate to the turnstile I purchase a programme (£3.50) and join a queue for turnstile fifty-nine because of the four turnstiles on this corner of the ground (numbers 59 to 62) it’s the only one that’s open. My favourite turnstile is number 62 because when using it I feel I am paying homage to Town’s Football League winning team of 1962.  Behind me in the queue a bunch of blokes chatter like excited youths, making weak jokes and commenting on there being only one turnstile open. “Cutting costs” suggests one.  “A bit naughty if it’s nearly kick-off” says another, weirdly imagining a scenario in which he hasn’t arrived twenty minutes before the game is due to start.  Another reads out loud the sign explaining what items are prohibited from the ground. “No tools” he chuckles, prompting his accomplices to each name a tool they would have liked to bring with them starting with a blow torch.

In the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with his son Elwood, but Pat from Clacton is on holiday in Ireland and Fiona, Ray and his son and his grandson Harrison are yet to arrive.  I speak with Phil who, in the course of our conversation explains that the bar in the Fanzone closes early because people hadn’t been drinking up in time to comply with the licence.  It starts to rain.

It’s still raining when the teams come on to the pitch and after a very brief ‘taking the knee’ which is so brief it looks a bit like a curtsy, the game begins beneath a battleship grey sky. Wimbledon get first go with the ball, lumping it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  For the third consecutive home league match Town’s opponents are wearing a kit of all-red; I think back to when most club’s away kit was yellow shirts and blue shorts,  except of course for Oxford United and Mansfield Town, but we never played them in the 1970’s.

Continuing the 1970’s theme the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are quickly into a rendition of Boney M’s 1978 Christmas number one ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but with lyrics altered to celebrate Ipswich singing, Norwich running away, and eternal fighting because of Boxing Day rather than the birth of the Messiah.  Just four minutes pass and Town’s Scott Fraser has the first shot on goal.  After seven minutes the weather seems to be brightening up a bit and the Wimbledon fans chant “The animals went in two by two”, which seems a bit odd given that it looks like it is about to stop raining and any plans to build an ark will have been put on hold, particularly since no one is allowed to bring tools into the ground.

With about a quarter of an hour played Wimbledon’s Alexander Woodyard is the first player to get sight of referee Mr Rock’s yellow card after he fouls Joe Piggott.  “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Wimbledon supporters somewhat coarsely and unimaginatively and then Town’s Rekeem Harper takes a shot from 18 metres or so which is easily gathered by Wimbledon goalkeeper Nik Tzanev.  The clouds are parting to reveal blue sky and as if attempting to create some sort of allegory, Town breach the Wimbledon defence and make several forays down the right flank, with Kane Vincent-Young and Wes Burns getting in a number of crosses, although none of them is met by a Town player and when one is the shot is weak.  The first half is almost half over, and Town win the game’s first corner.  “Come on you Blues” I chant, to the apparent bafflement of those around me.

Town are playing some exciting football but have little presence in the penalty area.  “Chase it, put him under pressure” shouts a voice a few rows behind me as Joe Piggott pursues a punt up field.  Another corner comes to nothing after thirty-seven minutes and the linesman with the red and yellow quartered flag minces back to the half-way line as Tzanev takes the goal kick.  As the half draws to a close a man with a loud, penetrating, and annoying voice is sharing a conversation with all those around him, although I doubt any of us want him to.  We learn that he was ‘the editor’, of what we don’t know or care, but he was “furious with himself”.  I’m not too pleased with him either, he needs to find his volume control, or just shut up.  Happily, only a minute of added time is to be played so respite soon arrives.  It’s been a pretty good half, although I can’t help feeling that although Town look good enough to be winning, somehow we haven’t really created good enough chances; perhaps it’s because we still have not ‘gelled’ yet.

Half-time involves consumption of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and then a cupcake, which is one of a whole tray-full that Ray shares with those around him to mark the occasion of his retirement, something that is also recorded on page 55 of today’s programme.   The happy events of real-life retreat again into the shadows as the second half begins at two minutes past four and like last week there is a mysterious hush around the ground in the opening minutes, almost as if people are disappointed that the players have returned.  Within seven minutes however, Wimbledon’s William Nightingale fails to live up to the high ideals of his namesake Florence and comes closer to wounding Wes Burns rather than offering succour and from the resultant penalty kick, Joe Piggott gives Town the lead, placing his penalty in the right-hand corner of the goal as Tzanev stupidly dives to the left.  The Sir Bobby Robson stand reprises “Mary’s Boy Child” in a state of heightened ecstasy whilst the Wimbledon supporters chant “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” to the tune of Guantanamera, thereby introducing a welcome Cuban folk vibe to the afternoon, something which is often conspicuously absent from Portman Road.  William Nightingale’s name is recorded in Mr Rock’s notebook to punish him further for being so unlike Florence.

With Town ahead Portman Road rocks to Boney M and thoughts of victory, and within two minutes Wes Burns doubles Town’s lead collecting a crucial pass from Kane Vincent-Young and smacking a fine shot across Tzanev into the far top left-hand corner of the goal.  Town will surely win now after four fruitless matches; on the basis of what has happened in the previous fifty-four minutes our lead is unassailable.  Four minutes later Wimbledon win a free kick, the ball skids off the top of Luke Woolfenden’s head and is set up ideally at the far post for Wimbledon’s Ben Heneghan, whose name makes me think of Feyenoord’s Wim Van Hanegem, to head down past Vaclav Hladky and make the score 2-1.  It must be Wimbledon’s first goal attempt on target.  “Bloody hell”, I think to myself.

“I don’t rate him” says a voice sitting behind me blaming Hladky for the goal “No, I don’t” says a neighbouring, voice “I don’t see how there’s any difference between him and Holy”.  It’s a point which I will hear no lesser expert than Mick Mills echo over the airwaves of Radio Suffolk as I drive home from the match in an hour’s time.  The discussion behind me continues as Hladky launches the ball up field; “He just boots the fuckin’ ball, he don’t look for no one do ‘e?

Dissatisfaction with the goalkeeper is however balanced by satisfaction with Wes Burns, “He’s superb, he is, he’s a helluva player” and it’s true, he is playing very well today and is linking up to goal scoring effect with Kane Vincent-Young down the right.   Within ten minutes Wimbledon have made their permitted three substitutions bringing on the more exotically and lengthily named Nesta Guinness-Walker and Dapo Awokoya-Mebude for plain old Luke McCormick and Aaron Pressley and swapping the fifty percent exotic Cheye Alexander for equally exotic Jack Rudoni, both of whom sound like they may possess an Equity card.

Seventy-four minutes of the game have got up and gone and Hladky has to save a shot from Ollie Palmer giving Wimbledon a corner.  Four minutes later and a hobbling Wes Burns is replaced by Janoi Donacien and less understandably Kane Vincent-Young is replaced by Sone Aluko.   The excellent Hayden Coulson also appears to be injured and is replaced by Matthew Penney.  Vaclav Hladky is booked for time-wasting, although it looked as if he merely didn’t understand Mr Rock’s wafting hand gestures about where a free kick should be taken from.  “I can’t help falling in love with you” sing the Wimbledon supporters enigmatically.  What is it with football supporters and naff “adult orientated” popular music?

“The momentum has gone” says one of the voices behind me and then repeats the phrase, perhaps for added emphasis, but possibly because it’s true.  Wimbledon now press as they have never done before in the game, it’s as if the two teams have swapped shirts.  The Wimbledon players seem to want to score a goal whilst the Ipswich players just want to get indoors and have a shower before driving home in their sickeningly ostentatious cars.  Time added on arrives and there are six minutes of it, Fiona and I roll our eyes.   Five minutes into the additional six minutes and what we have come to think of as the inevitable happens; a Wimbledon corner is headed goalwards by Ben Heneghan, Hladky saves but doesn’t catch the ball and Jack Rudoni boots the ball over the goal line, unable to miss, even if by some freakish desire to see Ipswich win, he had wanted to.

The final whistle follows soon afterwards and predictably a number of attention seekers in the crowd of 19,051 and people who were perhaps spoiled as children boo because their team hasn’t won.  Maybe someone will buy them an ice cream on the way home to appease their bawling and moaning.  I stay to applaud the Town players from the field and see them hang their heads in disappointment.  I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but football is that sort of a game and when I get home I shall flush that cuddly Womble down the toilet.

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.