Ipswich Town 0 Visitors 0

When I saw who Town’s opponents were today, I did think about having a week off from writing this blog as a futile protest against the theft of Wimbledon Football Club’s status, identity and history and its translocation 70 kilometres away from its indigenous supporters.  But such a gesture, so long after the crime was committed would achieve nothing other than my having not to think of something to write about Town’s latest fruitless attempt to score a goal.  The time for protest and action was back in 2004; that was when supporters of all clubs should have stormed the offices of the Football Association, kidnapped the then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and dumped truckloads of horse manure on the pitches of St George’s Park.  But revolution has never been a strong suit with the English; most of us are too self-centred to support the oppressed and act collectively for the common good, which is why we get so many Tory governments.

Politics aside, it is oddly appropriate that today Town should be playing what is effectively a sports franchise in the week that our club has been sold to a bunch of Americans.  Let’s hope our new owners don’t decide a in a few years’ time that their interests would be better served if our club was somewhere else where the local inhabitants are wealthier or more plentiful.

Not believing that today’s opponents are, as a club, worthy of their place in the Football League I am not particularly looking forward to this afternoon’s match,  and  I take a walk across the fields near my house to feel the blustery wind in my face and commune with nature in an attempt to purge myself of the ill-will I am harbouring for the visiting team and the club’s straggly-haired, short-arsed, pudgy-faced chairman, Pete Winkelman; but at least he has a surname we can all laugh at; unless that is your surname is Winkelman too.

Back indoors and with a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Adnams Broadside (two for £3 from Ocado) there are ten minutes to go before kick-off and I turn on my Lenovo lap-top and log-on to the ifollow.  It’s just a short while before I hear the familiar voices of Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills coming at me through the airwaves; my mind greets them like the old friends that they have become over the course of this season in lockdown. Brenner invites Mick to comment on the American takeover. “It’s something that’s happened that pretty much we all thought would happen, although when it went quiet I though it wouldn’t happen” says Mick , as clearly as he can before admitting that he is in “the Marcus Evans’ camp” and is thankful to the outgoing owner for the continued existence of our club.  As ever, Mick is right, but also, as ever, he doesn’t stop there.  Mick goes on and ends by telling us that the players are the most important part of any football club, but that lately at Ipswich “We haven’t seen the desire from the players”.  Of course, Mick is right, again.

The game is due to begin but cannot do so until we have had a silence for the very recently deceased Duke of Edinburgh.  Unlike dead footballers, who used to get a minute’s silence but now get a minute’s applause because the sort of people who watch football can’t be trusted not to shout profanities during a silence, the Duke, or Phil the Greek as he was known, gets a stonking two-minutes silence.   The silence ends and a brief self-congratulatory applause bursts out then quickly dies; it’s weird how nowadays people feel moved to applaud a successful silence; although it would have been weirder if one of the assembled players or officials had de-spoiled the silence by blurting out some anti-royalist sentiment.

The game begins and the visitors, appropriately attired all in black like the baddies that they are,  get first go with the ball,  kicking towards the Sir Alf Ramsey stand.  “How big to have Flynn Downes back, Mick Mills” says or asks Brenner making strange use of the word ‘big’ and using one of his typically unusual sentence constructions. “I like Flynn Downes” replies Mick, being atypically concise.

Just two minutes in and Armando Dobra clatters into a visiting player. “The referee belatedly wants a word with the Albanian youth international” says Brenner indulging his passion for telling us the nationalities of anyone who’s not English.  Dobra is shown the yellow card by referee Mr Tom Nield.

Play resumes and I think I hear Brenner refer to a player on the visiting team whose name is Harbey.  I pray silently that I didn’t miss-hear him and that perhaps there is an heir to the John Duncan era number three, who is one of the few Town players ever to be called Graham.  As I begin to wonder to myself if the blond-haired, gap-toothed full-back would have got into today’s team my reverie is punctured by the realisation that the visiting player’s surname is not Harbey, but Harvie.  Like the 1970’s, it was fun while it lasted.

Armando Dobra lobs the ball wide of the visitors’ goal following a decent pass from Flynn Downes to Aaron Drinan, before the ball returns to the other end of the field.  “Holy, clearly first choice under Paul Cook, the Czech” says Brenner, being Brenner but confusingly implying that Paul Cook is Czech like Tomas Holy before deciding to tempt fate by announcing that the visitors have never beaten Town during the course of normal time.  Clearly feeling compelled to qualify his statement however, he then adds “…they’ve only played us six times, it has to be said.”

Ten minutes gone and the game is not very exciting, although there is much passing of the ball. “ I’m not sure the players have got the capabilities to play this way” muses Mick quickly pointing out the truth behind Town’s season.  Gwion Edwards wins a corner for Town and the visiting players fall over a lot when Town players touch them, winning undeserved free-kicks.   The visitors attack down Town’s right and, says Brenner revealing his confusion over what footballers wear on their feet “…the ball goes fizzing across the Town area from McEachran’s shoe”.

Seventeen minutes pass. “There hasn’t been a whole heap of goalmouth action so far “says Brenner.  The visitors win a corner. A shot is fired straight at Tomas Holy.  Five minutes later Stephen Ward overlaps down the left and sends in a low cross but there are no Town players in the six yard box, only Gwion Edwards, who collapses pathetically between two defenders.  “There should have been a cluster of Town players there” says Mick, putting emphasis on the word ‘cluster’.  Mick is right yet again, cluster is a good word.

The game remains on the boring side of dull.  “Still very little in the way of a goal threat from Ipswich Town, from both teams in fact” admits Brenner with the honesty expected of a public service broadcaster.  “It’s windy at Portman Road this afternoon” Brenner continues,  “Paul Cook with beanie hat and gloves and hooded coat as well”  he adds, unintentionally giving advice on what to wear for anyone intending to commit any criminal acts in the Portman Road area in the next couple of hours.

In my kitchen I am suddenly bathed in pale sunlight as the grey clouds outside momentarily part.  All of a sudden I realise how Brenner must be feeling when he tells us about the weather at a match; how his heart must be lifted that he can tell us about something vaguely interesting and beautiful.  A half an hour has passed since the game began and Teddy Bishop commits a foul; previously I hadn’t realised that he was on the pitch.   Brenner tells us again that the visitors have never won at Portman Road and Mick assures us that this won’t change,  “ They don’t look like they’re going anywhere” he says, but balances this optimism with “ …and we haven’t got our game going at all”.

The visitors win another corner but mostly just pass the ball about a bit, prompting Mick to suggest that “At this level you can’t play that type of football”.  I’m thinking what type of football can you play ‘at this level’.  Brenner livens things up with some of his own special brand of football speak as he tells us that the visitors’ goalkeeper “…hasn’t been asked too many questions in terms of his glove-work unfortunately.”  The only question I have is what is glove-work?  Is it really just Brenner’s way of saying ‘making saves and catches’, or is there more to it?  Hand movements in the style of Alvin Stardust perhaps? Jabs and punches a la Muhammad Ali or donning the Marigolds to do the washing up?

Despite the efforts of Brenner and Mick I’m not enjoying the match.  Brenner suggests that the Town manager is also not happy.  “Paul Cook frustrated; by his body language down below”.  It’s an odd and somewhat unfortunate sentence from the BBC commentator which implies that something unpleasant is happening in Paul Cook’s nether regions. I do hope not.  As if worried by these developments also, the Town team ends the half with, an albeit tiny, flourish. Andre Dozzell has a corner kick “plucked out of the sky” by the visiting goalkeeper before a low Gwion Edwards cross is diverted wide of the visitor’s left-hand goal post by Dobra.   According to Mick “It’s the best opening we’ve had in the first half” and of course he’s right.  Half-time arrives, the score is blank and Mick says that the visitors “…are the better side”.

Half-time is the usual excitement of putting the kettle on and choosing a snack; today I return to the familiar comfort of the Nature Valley brand peanut and chocolate protein bar.  In the living room my wife Paulene has been watching her team Portsmouth trail to Burton Albion.  Uninspired by the efforts of the brothers Cowley and their team, Paulene decides to forego the second half and watch Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace versus Paris St Germain in French Ligue 1.  Wanting to extract every last penny from the £10 that has no doubt been debited from what I paid for my season ticket, I persist with Brenner and Mick.

The game resumes and the visitors are soon awarded a free-kick just outside the Town penalty area after a ludicrous dive that fools the referee.  A player who Brenner tells us played for Norwich shoots and Tomas Holy makes what Mick describes as a “brilliant save”.  “A save early doors in the second half by the big Czech” says  Brenner stupidly,  but apparently edging his way a little further to winning his bet that he can say “early doors” in every commentary for a whole season, or possibly a whole commentating career.

As time moves on towards the completion of an hour of the game, Town win three corners.  “More intensity about Ipswich Town, momentarily” says Brenner, knowing not to get carried away by the site of a Town player running.  Mick meanwhile is concentrating on his adopted theme for today which is the visitors’ propensity to pass the ball about at the back.  The visitors “…losing possession in the defensive half, that’s how we’re going to capitalise I’m pretty sure” says Mick sounding strangely convinced that Town will win.  Town earn a fourth corner inside six minutes courtesy of Aaron Drinan but typically Andre Dozzell fails to lift the ball above the first defender and the ball is cleared.

An hour has passed and little Alan Judge, Tristan Nydam and Freddie Sears replace Armando Dobra, Andre Dozzell and Teddy Bishop.   The public address system sounds very loud as if it is being played for the benefit of those of us watching at home.  Tomas Holy makes an impressive double save and then Freddie Sears falls over when he should have got a shot in and I am suddenly struck by how very pale and white Flynn Downes’ skin looks; “I hope he’s not sickening for something” is what a concerned mother might say.

In the sixty-ninth minute Troy Parrott replaces Gwion Edwards whom Brenner had earlier referred to as the “Welsh wing-back”, showing his appreciation of alliteration.  The visitors meanwhile replace their lone striker Will Griggs with a former Town youth player who rejoices under the name of Charlie Brown. What were his parents thinking? Did they buy him a pet dog and call it Snoopy too?  But to be fair to mum and dad Brown however, he does have a big round head, very short legs and a long body.    

It’s the seventieth minute and Freddie Sears hits a “fabulous strike” according to Mick , although of course he doesn’t score,  whilst according to Brenner, Paul Cook is “being rather loud down below us”; it’s something that raises the prospect of Paul Cook replacing  the public address system and announcing his substitutions in person.  The second half is better than the first but ultimately remains annoying.  One of the few joys is Darling, the comedy surname of the visitors’ number six.  “Darling, I’m not sure what that was meant to be” says Brenner as if talking to the love of his life but in fact describing a wayward pass.  Eight minutes further on and the visitors’ lose possession “in the defensive half” as Mick predicted, and Freddie Sears only has to lob the onrushing goalkeeper to score; Sears lobs the goalkeeper, he must score, but no, the ball travels past the post on the outside of the goal.  It’s the sort of chance that you cannot miss and still expect to win. 

The final ten minutes of normal time turn up on cue and Flynn Downes is booked for a hopelessly late challenge.  Two minutes later and Brenner repeats his usual faux pas about players’ footwear and tells us that “Tristan Nydam lost his shoe in that challenge”. Only three minutes remain and Ollie Hawkins replaces Aaron Drinan for what a lot of commentators would probably describe as a “cameo appearance”, thankfully Brenner doesn’t, although that’s not to say he wouldn’t.

Four minutes of added on time are added on during which the visitors win a corner. Town defend this final assault comfortably which moves Mick to compare this to Town’s performance at the other end of the field.  “In attack it’s absolutely woeful” is Mick’s parting shot.  “The referee can’t take any more of this” says Brenner, only half in jest, and finally and Mr Nield calls time.   Feeling like another Saturday afternoon has been stolen from me I turn off the tv and log out of the ifollow.

I sit for a moment to reflect on what I have witnessed this afternoon, but give up concluding that it’s only football although in years to come when Ipswich Town are once again the best team in Europe, we can tell our grandchildren about the days when Town were so poor that we rarely scored and some weeks we were lucky to get nil.

Ipswich Town 2 Doncaster Rovers 1

Today is a beautiful day; the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the birds are singing; February is not yet over but it feels like Spring is here.  I spend the morning in the garden.  It’s been a sunny week and an odd week of rumours about Ipswich Town being the subject of a takeover, a buyout, a sale.  What seemingly started as a joke on social media has grown into a rumour sufficiently credible, or at least prevalent, for the local newspapers to report it and the club owner to deny he is “actively looking to sell”.  To add a layer of complexity to the story, those calling for Town manager Paul Lambert to be sacked are now having to contend with the team having found some decent form, having at last beaten a team in the top six of the third division and having not conceded a goal in three games.  All this coincides with the buffoon who is ludicrously Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announcing  details of what he calls his ‘road map’ for the nation’s way out of lockdown and a hoped for return to normality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Suddenly, optimism is the ‘new normal’, although as all Town fans know we must be careful what we wish for.

Rewarding myself for my morning’s work in the garden I sit outside and pour a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for eight bottles direct from the brewery).  I am reminded of the song ‘Winter’s Over’ by the erstwhile Norwich band ‘Serious Drinking’, the lyrics of which read “Thanks God the winter’s over, December’s far away, let’s drink outside at lunchtime , on another sunny day”.   My wife Paulene has a gin with soda water and together we kick back and enjoy the warmth of the sun on our faces and bare arms; feeling like an Englishman at the seaside I roll up my trouser legs and top up on much missed Vitamin D. 

As we lose ourselves in the joy of being outside in the sun, time moves on and three o’clock soon approaches; I move to the kitchen and Paulene to the living room where separately we tune in to the ifollow, me to watch Town, Paulene to watch Pompey play Gillingham.  By the time I log on and hitch my lap top to the tv, today’s opponents Doncaster Rovers are on the pitch in their red and white hooped shirts and red shorts, hugging and forming a circle like new age weirdos crossed with a Rugby League scrum. Town trot on to the pitch and then together the two teams ‘take the knee’ to annoy all the people who deserve to be annoyed.  I feel like I’ve arrived in the ground just in time for kick-off, as you do when it’s been difficult leaving the pub.

The game begins, Ipswich having first go with the ball and kicking towards what will always be Churchman’s, although the Sir Alf Ramsey Cigarette End sounds good, but I doubt Sir Alf smoked. “Doncaster lack a goal scorer; a bit like us” are the first wise words of the afternoon that  I hear Mick Mills say as side-kick to BBC Radio Suffolk’s commentator Brenner Woolley.  The Town team is unchanged from the beautifully unexpected 1-0 win at Hull on Tuesday.   “Bostock trying to pull the strings” says Brenner of the Doncaster midfielder, quickly settling into football speak.  Midfielders always ‘pull the strings’ in football and not only those on the waist bands of their shorts.  “Smith, on loan from Manchester City, the blond-haired player” continues Brenner, airing his interest in all things tonsorial and using his trademark back to front sentence construction.

Brenner tells us that it’s a “Fine Spring afternoon at Portman Road”; indeed it is and to make the point again Brenner describes how some player or other “…goes square into the sunshine”.  Doncaster have started ‘brightly’ we are told, it must be all that sunshine. Suddenly, “That was awful from Judge” says Brenner excitedly as little Alan Judge inexplicably turns and plays a perfect through ball for a Doncaster wide player to run onto.  “That was woeful from Town” adds Brenner just so we can be sure how bad it was.  “Doncaster, very lively on their feet” says Mick.  It’s a sentence that might suggest that they are not so lively on other parts of their bodies, but we never find out.  It seems likely however that  ‘lively feet’ are a pre-requisite for footballers, and for goalkeepers ‘lively hands and arms’ too.

Just eight minutes have elapsed since kick-off and Doncaster, or ‘Donny’ as Brenner is calling them, to show off his knowledge of local slang names, are dominant.   “The (Town) defence is working overtime, they really are” says Mick conjuring up images of Marcus Evans on the phone to his accountants checking that Luke Chambers only gets time and a half and not double time.  “Gorgeous weather over there” says Brenner of the far side of the pitch and thereby displaying a worrying perception that being in the shade means he is experiencing different weather from somewhere a hundred metres away.

Three minutes later and “Doncaster, the better side after eleven minutes” is Brenner’s assessment. “The tide will turn if you’re professionally about it” replies Mick, accidentally using an adverb and adding another natural phenomenon to the commentary to compliment Brenner’s interest in the weather.  Doncaster’s Joe Wright  ”… puts his foot through the ball” according to Brenner , who  then follows up with reference to what he had expected “early doors”.   We are not yet a quarter of the way through the game and impressively Brenner has used most of his football-ese vocabulary already.

Doncaster’s John Bostock is a frequent name in Brenner’s commentary as he continually links up play between Rovers’ defence and wide players.  Bostock is 29 years old.  “All these years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen John Bostock” admits Brenner, but then he hasn’t been commentating for local radio in Leuven, Antwerp, Lens, Toulouse and Bursa where Bostock has played 148 of his 200 odd club games.  Myles Kenlock wins the game’s first corner.  “If Town score it’ll be very much against the run of play, but we’ll take it” says Brenner magnanimously.   Why do people say “we’ll take it” ?  What is “it”? Has anyone ever “not taken it”?  If you take “it”, where do you put it? Thankfully in the circumstances, Town don’t score.

John Bostock is still the dominant presence in midfield and therefore it is Doncaster who have the ball most of the time.  “It’s Dozzell and Freddie Bishop we need more from” says Mick.  Town break down the right and win a free-kick.  “Judge not keen to put the ball in the painted crescent by the referee”  says Brenner  , unusually getting his trademark sentence construction all wrong.  From the free-kick Toto Nsiala sends a decent header across the face of the goal.

Town break forward again, this time more centrally and Teddy Bishop is adjudged to have been fouled by Doncaster’s Taylor Richards.  Mick isn’t convinced it was a foul, but presumably someone decides we should “take it”.  A knot of Town players surround the ball. “Norwood’s been told to do one” says Brenner, eliciting a stifled chortle from Mick.  Little Alan Judge takes the free-kick and arrows a superlative right-footed shot into the top right hand corner of the Doncaster goal.  “That was a fabulous goal” says Mick, and after twenty-four minutes Town lead one-nil.  “A cracking free-kick from the Irish midfielder” says Brenner characteristically reducing little Alan Judge to a nationality whilst also sounding a bit like Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit animations.

For a short while Town have as much of the ball as Doncaster.  Luke Chambers gets forward from his full-back position and earns a corner “ Yeah, good play” confirms Mick.  Then little Alan Judge almost scores again as Myles Kenlock makes a long run forward to pull back a deep cross to him. Town win a third corner and then a fourth. Brenner saying “Bostock with that bleached mohawk haircut” and “Bostock along the deck” announces Doncaster’s return to having more possession and Brenner’s continued interest in coiffure and his curious need to describe football using nautical terminology.

Ten minutes to half-time and Doncaster almost score, with Tomas Holy deflecting a shot away with his right leg and the follow-up shot from Josh Sims , who makes me think of Joan Sims, being blocked by the excellent Toto Nsiala. “Best attack from Doncaster if you’re talking about ending up with something on target” says Mick having clearly spotted that in spite of all their possession Doncaster have had very few decent attempts on goal.  Another Doncaster shot is on target but Brenner confirms that it’s “straight down the mouth of Tomas Holy, who drops on the ball for extra security”.  Mick thinks the Doncaster player should have done better, with “Control, finish” being his unusually succinct assessment of what he needed to do.

With half-time approaching, Brenner adds a little incidental colour to his commentary telling us that Paul Lambert is “just screwing the top back on his water bottle”; it sounds like a euphemism but it’s probably not.  Half-time comes and Brenner tells us that it’s a case of “Town with that slender 1-0 lead” as opposed, presumably, to a huge 1-0 lead or even a slender 3-0 lead.  With Mick heading off into a long and convoluted explanation of the first half, the BBC Radio Suffolk transmission is rudely interrupted by the ifollow’s own commercial break , disgusted that Mick must play second fiddle to consumerism and capitalist greed, I get up to put the kettle on.

The second half begins with a cup of tea and a couple of ginger Christmas tree biscuits ,which are very tasty and which my wife Paulene acquired at a generous 70% discount due to Christmas having happened two months ago. Paulene incidentally has given up on Pompey v Gillingham and has turned to Dijon FCO versus Paris St Germain in French Ligue 1, where former Town loanee Bersant Celina is playing for the home team and is destined to have easily his team’s best attempt on goal,  but his team will lose four-nil.  Brenner meanwhile announces that if Town win this afternoon it will be “a huge feather in their cap and a right old boost”, whilst Mick summarises the game so far by stating “Bostock and Smith have been much better than Dozzell and Bishop”, and naturally Mick is right.

Just two minutes into the half and Myles Kenlock is booked for an unnecessary foul on Taylor Richards.  Mick tells us that Doncaster had 71% of possession in the first half, although personally I was more impressed with their 85% passing accuracy.  “A lazy leg in there from Okenabirhie” says Brenner as the Doncaster player fouls Andre Dozzell and I imagine Okenabirhie dragging his idle, recalcitrant leg about the pitch constantly committing fouls as other players fall over it.   Doncaster start the half well, but it’s Town who almost score as James Norwood bounces a shot off the ground and Joe Wright heads it off the goal line.   A minute later Wright concedes a corner;  the ball is headed on from the edge of the penalty area and James Norwood nips in to scramble it past the exotically named Doncaster goalkeeper, Ellery Balcombe who sounds like he might write pulp crime fiction when he’s not picking the ball from the back of his goal net.    Town lead 2-0; I let out a cheer, clap my hands above my head and kick my legs out in front of me.  “Goodness, gracious me” says Brenner mysteriously channeling Peter Sellers and making me imagine Mick as Sophia Loren.

Moments later little Alan Judge shoots a little high and a little wide or, as Brenner rather gruesomely describes  it,  “he opened up his body from 19 yards”.  “Greedy for me” says Mick and suggests Troy Parrott was free and better placed.  If Parrott was perhaps older, had been at the club longer and knew little Alan “as a person”, Mick believes he would have given little Alan Judge a “volley” of abuse.  It’s an entertaining insight from Mick.

An hour passes; Doncaster make two substitutions and win what Brenner refers to as a “rare Doncaster corner”.  Tomas Holy rather weirdly “pats the ball into the ground” according to Brenner, who goes onto speak, as he did last week, of a “bit of brown ground down this nearside”.   It’s a phrase that suggests Brenner has no concept of mud or bare earth and has me wondering if he otherwise thinks of the pitch as “green ground”.

Doncaster begin to recover from the blow of the second Town goal and in the 64th minute almost score. “That was close to a goal from Doncaster” says Brenner and Mick backs him up with “That was a big chance for Bogle, it really was”.  Three minutes on and Gwion Edwards and Flynn Downes replace Little Alan Judge and Andre Dozzell.  Five minutes further on and a Doncaster shot strikes an Ipswich goalpost.   A minute after that Taylor scores for Doncaster after a slightly desperate tackle from Flynn Downes sees the ball squirm away to Jon Taylor who is in space and strides forward to hit the ball across Tomas Holy and inside the far post.  “Maybe they deserve it” says Mick sportingly but resentfully, citing that Doncaster had hit a post.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Josh Harrop replaces the oddly named Keanan Bennetts. Eleven minutes of normal time remain and Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears replace James Norwood and Troy Parrott.  Mick questions the wisdom of changing half the team.  “It’ll be awful if Town let a 2-0 lead slip in this game” says Brenner mischievously before going onto predict “an uncomfortable final eight minutes for Ipswich Town fans”.  Brenner is right and yet he’s not; Doncaster camp around the Town penalty area, passing the ball back and forth but seldom if ever threaten the Town goal.

With two minutes left Aaron Drinan breaks down the right. “Poor from Drinan” says Brenner as an over hit cross by-passes a Doncaster penalty area which is devoid of Town players in any case. “Still Town on top in terms of score line” says Brenner, reassuringly stating the obvious.  Four minutes of added on time will be played. “Stand by your beds, it won’t be easy listening” says Brenner, fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it; “All hands on deck for Ipswich Town off to the right”, although I think he meant starboard. In the ninety-third minute of added time the ball falls to Teddy Bishop who aimlessly and apparently in a state of panic lumps the ball away up field, provoking the sort of sweary outburst from me that would be frowned upon within earshot of the Family Enclosure at Portman Road.  But Doncaster are playing with only Omar Bogle up front and he’s not been by any means a prolific goalscorer at any time since he left Grimsby Town in 2017, consequently the score remains unaltered and Town win.

“You wait all this time for a victory against a top six side and then two come along at once” says Brenner, reprising, but mostly repeating his public transport based analogy from last week. I think to myself how you can wait years for a public transport related analogy in a football commemtary and then two come along at once. To the strains of “Hey Jude” the players leave the pitch; they have taken a sad song and made it better. It really has been a beautiful day.

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.

Dijon Football Cote d’Or 2 Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace 1

The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it.   The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000.   But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it.  If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.

It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses.  We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium.  Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government.  But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’.  We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do.  The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus.  From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible.  From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.

A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park.  We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us.  Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built  this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934  and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco.   Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.

We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”.  It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen.   At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt.  I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron. 

Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger.   France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.

Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop. 

Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs.  Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones.  I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.

Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand;  it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift.  I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and  having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand.  The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like.  The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand.  We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke.  From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful.  We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.

There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004.  Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet.  Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros).  The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked.  The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.

As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard.  That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners.  The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that.  All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.

After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud.  It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league.  Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.

Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome.  Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012.  This game is not dynamic.  Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation.   Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.

With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate.  Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time.  Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty.  Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected.  Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal;  Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).

I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill.  Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.

The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before.  But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves.  A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to  Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise.   As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard.  Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.

I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat.  With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon.   Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going. 

Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards.  The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on.  Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2.  If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain.  It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering.  This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner.  In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six.   The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate.  What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.

The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift.  Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered.  We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us.  One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard.  Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent,  and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop.  Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers.  I love going to football matches in France.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.