Ipswich Town 1 Reading 2


In 1974 the BBC broadcast one of the first ever fly-on–the-wall documentary series; a precursor of modern ‘reality television’ it was called The Family and followed the lives of the Wilkins.  I remember the series had a haunting, wistful theme tune played mostly on a flute (I think) over family photos and stills of a murky urban landscape; at the end of the tune a voice seemed to sing “Ha,ha,ha” very slowly, which was quite appropriate because sat watching the programme with my own family, I found it very funny, we all did.  I recall that Mrs Wilkins was quite a domineering woman, Mr Wilkins was a bus driver with brylcreemed hair, they had four children and a grandchild and all lived together in a house in Reading.  I don’t recall Reading Football Club featuring in the programme.

Back in 1974 Reading FC was a top-six team in Football League Division Four and Ipswich Town qualified for the UEFA Cup.  Today, forty-five years on and Ipswich Town and Reading meet in Division Two, both with the longer term aim of avoiding relegation to the third division.  As I walk to the railway station I speculate on whether any descendants of the now deceased Terry and Margaret Wilkins will also be travelling to the game.  I always think of The Family when Town play Reading.

It’s been a grey, dank morning; dull, leaden cloud hanging in the air sullenly.  It was a perfect day for football but as I leave the railway station I am disappointed to see that it appears to be brightening up.  I proceed nevertheless, past the Station Hotel with its multiple signs in the window advising that it is a pub for away supporters only. I hear strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline emanating from the bar; another set of provincial football supporters striving to be ‘interesting’. I overhear two Reading fans as I cross the bridge over the river “It was dead boring in there”, “Yeah, but they’ve started singing now”. 

I walk on up Portman Road with its burgers, poor quality bread rolls and more than the usual number of people seemingly desperate to get into the stadium as early as possible. I don’t buy a programme because £3 is a lot to pay for something which will spoil the line of my overcoat and from which I will probably derive very little if any pleasure, except to deride it in all its glossy vacuity.  By the time I reach St Jude’s Tavern I am feeling warm and curse my jumper and overcoat, I feel over dressed for what seems to have become a Spring day.  In St Jude’s Tavern I ask the barmaid what the Match Day Special is. “Goblin’s Piss” she replies.   Understanding that this is not her way of telling me I am not welcome in this hostelry but is the name of the beer I ask for a pint; after all, it only costs £2.50.   I find a seat next to the usual bunch of grey-haired Town supporters who frequent this pub and Portman Road out of sheer habit.  After five or ten minutes Mick arrives; I am pleased to see that he is wearing a well-insulated looking parka and so I will not sweat alone; Mick has a pint of Hoppy Jude’s (£3.20), largely I think because the name “Goblins’ Piss” does not appeal and it does smack of a brewery asking a thirteen year old boy to come up with names for its beers.

Mick and I talk of the expressiveness and eloquence of the French, of funerals and the weird names that people give their children ‘nowadays’, and the even weirder spellings.  Mick tells how his daughter had wanted to call her child Maverick if it was a boy.  Mick considered it was his duty to dissuade her with the argument that Maverick is a crap name; fortunately Mick now has a grand-daughter.   I like to think however that had the baby been a boy he would have grown up to become an accountant.

First drinks drunk, Mick buys me a pint of Hoppy Jude’s, although I had asked him to get me a pint of Nethergate Old Growler, and he has a Speyside Malt Whisky, because there was no Glenmorangie.  Imperfection seems to be the theme of the day.  The pub clears early, probably because a large crowd is expected and a little after twenty five to three we make our way too.  Outside, the gloom of the morning has completely gone and we comment on how Spring-like it is.  As we descend Portman Road a police van and car pass us with blue lights flashing; we speculate as to whether there’s “trouble”, which would be unexpected from Reading, a club like Ipswich with no reputation for it.  “You might see some gore” says Mick optimistically.  We catch up with the blue lights which have parked near Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue but there is nothing to see here, just one policeman talking into his radio and looking slightly puzzled.

By way of a change, today I have seats in the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand, our tickets giving entry through turnstiles 19 and 20.  We join the queue for turnstile 19 because although the two queues are directly side by side, it is much the shorter of the two.  I suggest this is because some people have an inherent fear of prime numbers.   I like the area beneath the Cobbold Stand with its unfathomable layout of cramped passages and 1970’s painted concrete and there are even pictures on the walls, albeit ones painted by primary school children;  it’s very different to the cavernous, drafty, emptiness that I am used to beneath the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand where I have my season ticket.

Today the two teams are led onto the pitch by a dog called Bowza.  Every month Ipswich Town nominates a Community Champion and this month Bowza is that champion after he helped save the life of a sick woman by keeping her warm whilst she waited for medical help.   There should be more dogs at football matches, but I don’t suppose they can afford the ticket prices. However, the @nonleaguedogs twitter account suggests this isn’t necessarily so outside the Football League or ‘EFL’ as it is now dubbed because TV or the interweb has made people’s attention spans too short to deal with whole words anymore.

Bowza’s appearance will prove to be a highlight of the afternoon.  Ipswich kick-off playing towards Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, who I can just make out in their usual seats in the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Town are as ever in blue and white with a nasty logo across their chests entreating on-line fools to part with their money.  Reading, whose hooped blue and white home kit is likeable wear an awful all-black affair which fades to grey over their stomachs; it’s hideous and looks nothing like a football kit.

 Soon, with Bowza just a fading memory Town and Reading begin to show why they are both haunted by relegation.  This is not to say that I am not entertained however, although I am not a big fan of pantomime.  Everyone loves to hate a pantomime villain however and in Nelson Oliviera Reading have one of the best ever seen at Portman Road.  Not only is Oliviera on-loan to Reading from Norwich City but just to make it clear that he is the embodiment of evil today he is also wearing a black mask. All he is missing is a tall black hat.  Oliviera quickly gets into his stride with an audacious and obvious dive in the penalty area as Bartosz Bialkowski comes to collect a typically over-hit forward pass.  But referee Mr Geoff Eltringham is wise to him, it would be difficult not to be, and lets him have a personal viewing of his yellow card.  “Wanker, Wanker” shout the Sir Bobby Robson Stand at Oliviera to everyone’s approval.  Evil genius Oliviera ain’t.

Ipswich look particularly clueless in much of the first half of this game and this may be because they have unexpectedly switched to a complicated looking 3-5-1-1 formation which no one comprehends.  With eighteen minutes having passed all three players in Ipswich’s defence run towards Reading‘s weirdly spelt Garath McCleary as he runs to the left edge of the penalty area.  With no defenders in the middle of the penalty area, even a forward not good enough to play for Norwich City understands that it is a good place to be and Oliviera moves in, receives the inevitable pass from McCleary and has the time to light a cigar and feed his cat before choosing whereabouts in the goal to put the ball.  He shoots, he scores and heads off on a slightly bandy legged run to taunt the Ipswich supporters in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand.   Had Geoff the ref not already booked him once his offensive gloating would surely have led to a caution from a referee who will eventually show his yellow card to seven players during the course of the afternoon, some of them for some hilariously bad and extremely entertaining attempts at tackles.

The remainder of the half passes with Ipswich often looking not as good as Reading; which is a worry.  Town create one very good opportunity to score with Jon Nolan appearing unmarked much as Oliviera did, but he shoots where the Reading goalkeeper Damian Martinez, who sounds as evil as Oliviera is, can save it instead of where he can’t.With the half-time whistle Mick and I descend beneath the stand to the gents and then to the crowded bar to catch up on the half-time scores.  Like some sort of conceptual art installation the TV set is showing the view from the stand of the empty pitch.  Mick heads back to the stairs to ask the steward if there is another TV, there isn’t but the steward says he can come and change the channel for us, “Yes please” says Mick and he does and we catch up on the half-time scores, which aren’t as interesting as we’d hoped. I don’t think we realised who was playing who and had hoped to see a score somewhere where Ipswich were winning.   We return to our seats which are roughly level with the penalty area at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground.  “At least we’ll get a good view of all the goals this half” I say to Mick “Yes” he replies, throwing back his head slightly as if to laugh loudly, but then not doing so.

The second half begins.  The bald man in front of me smells unpleasantly ‘pine fresh’; it must be his aftershave or body spray, either that or he’s been cleaning out toilets all morning.  If my wife Paulene were here she would surely have an asthma attack.  Ipswich now have all three substitutes on the field, an admission perhaps that the 3-5-1-1 formation was not a success, although the injury to central defender James Collins before half-time had doubtless messed it up further.  Collins is joining that long line of much vaunted crocks from Kevin Beattie, through Tony Humes to Johnny Williams and David McGoldrick who have, due to injury, seemingly missed as many games as they’ve played.

Ipswich improve, but not sufficiently; that will sadly prove beyond them.   The crowd get behind the team, a bit; there is a will even if there isn’t a way.  But not everyone is supportive.

“Get off Quaner” shouts a bloke behind me at the gangly German.  He shouts it again, but happily Quaner can’t hear him and to voluntarily go down to ten men seems like bad advice.  “He’s fucking, shit” moans the bloke behind me refusing to let up, but I’ve already decided he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and block out his whining with  higher thoughts; it’s not difficult.

Disappointingly Oliviera is substituted in the second-half but not before he makes one final scene as clutching the back of his leg he then throws himself down flat on his back having undergone a miraculous transition from evil nemesis to flouncy drama queen in just under an hour.  He’s been a lot of fun but if asked I would say that a post-playing career in Hollywood does not await the bandy Portuguese.   

As Jon Nolan is booked for one of those hilarious attempted tackles, players of both teams square up to one another childishly and completely ignore the crumpled Reading player writhing about to show how hurt he is. Meanwhile I contemplate how Geoff the ref is the most barrel-like of all referees I have seen this season; he is so wide he appears to have a leg at each corner.  I am biased but Ipswich are worth a goal and there is mounting excitement as the clock counts down towards ten to five.  ‘Pine-fresh’ man in front of me keeps jumping up from his seat whenever the ball nears the Reading goal, which is rather annoying, but with full-time approaching it is all quite exciting even if the Reading goalkeeper’s best save ends up being from one of his own players; but it’s that sort of a game, no one is fully in control of their faculties.  Then, with 83 minutes having passed into history Gwion Edwards scores, lashing the ball in at the far post; at first I think he must have missed, but he hasn’t.  Town will surely go onto win now, although being happy with a draw is the story of the season.  Instead, as injury time approaches Reading break away and although Town’s goal looks defendable with three defenders and Bartosz Bialkowski against two strikers, it doesn’t prove so and Gambian Modou Barrow rolls the ball past Bartosz to win the game for Reading.  In my head I hear a  plaintiff voice sing “Ha-ha-haaaaa”.

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.

Paris St Germain 5 Olympique Lyonnais 0

It’s Sunday evening at Meudon Val Fleury suburban railway station and due to engineering works I didn’t think the RER trains were running, they weren’t when I tried to get home from central Paris last night just after midnight, but life is full of surprises and some of them are nice ones. So my wife Paulene and I eschew the almost door to door service of the 289 bus and opt for fewer carbon emissions with a short train ride and a twenty-minute walk to get to Parc des Princes.
It’s an uneventful journey apart from the sight of a coach, with curtains drawn across the windows and led by two police motorbikes, driving across the Pont d’Issy les Moulineaux. Was it the Olympique Lyon (OL) team, just OL supporters or may be a gendarmes’ night out? Nobody knows; well we don’t.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Tonight’s match is the highlight of the weekend in Ligue 1, one of the ‘classique’ games that sees PSG play either OL or Olympique Marseille; the capital against France’s biggest other cities and North versus South. PSG have been dominating French football for the last six or seven years, but OL won Ligue 1 for a record seven consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2008, and with a new stadium hosting crowds in excess of 50,000 they should, in theory, be capable of challenging PSG. So far PSG have won all of their eight league matches this season (a record in itself), but this will be their first game against a club that might be expected to compete with them. OL beat Manchester City in the Champions League a week ago but are already as many as ten points behind PSG in the league.
Kick-off is at nine o’clock and it is almost dark by the time we approach Parc des Princes. There is a roar of traffic along the Périphérique where the red and white lights of the31291864528_a05c5770de_o scooters, cars and trucks make a surreal, atomised tricolour with the deep blue night sky before they disappear beneath a corner of the stadium; in the streets there is a hum of crowds and footfall along the wide boulevards. There are police in abundance; tonight they’ve brought not only their usual vans and bikes but a full size single-deck bus. Then there is a hiatus in the street, armed police are strung45116788112_465d898a34_o across the Route de la Reine and our path to the stadium is blocked. There is no clue why, and then just as mysteriously we are free to go on our way again. The grocery shops are busy as people buy pre-match snacks and a couple of bars are busy, but not to the extent that a pub as close to an English ground would be. Our route to the ground is now carefully directed between metal barriers feeding us toward the correct stand; we are in Borelli, entrance N. Tonight a ticket is notOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA enough to get you in the ground, the French show their ID cards whilst we show our passports.
The nine o’clock kick-off has given ample time to eat dinner with a drink or two so there is no need to buy pre-match refreshment this evening. But the French like to linger over dinner and the seats around us do not fill up until just before kick-off, some after that. This is a big match. The Ultras are back in force in the Auteuil Tribune after being absent for the Red Star Belgrade game, but there is a good following from Lyon also, all waving blue and red flags, chanting and holding their arms aloft as if undergoing a religious expereince. As The PSG team runs out to carry out its on-pitch warm up, the tannoy announces “L’equipe de Paris” (The Paris team) and some raucous grunge is played as pictures of the players striking poses appear on the two giant screens. As Gianluigi Buffon stops shots in a practice goal near the side of the pitch a stray ball flies into the crowd just in front of me. The ball firmly smites a man on the side of his head, but he feigns insouciance and enquires after the well-being of the person next to him as if the ball hit them rather than him. Odd behaviour I think, perhaps he’s concussed.
With the approach of kick off the Ligue 1 anthem, a brassy, punchy little number greets

our ears, the teams and officials walk-on side by side and a brief display of fireworks explodes into life. It’s all very dramatic and slightly pompous. The pomp is put into mundane context soon afterwards as the banners displaying the club crests and Ligue 1 logo are dismantled without ceremony on the space behind the goal and folded up, they no longer look so grand, but more like a colourful two-man tent.
The game begins and early play is tight with both teams’ forwards being crowded out, but Lyon soon suffer a severe blow as Nabil Fekir, their captain and member of the

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World Cup winning squad twists an ankle. At first he receives treatment and carries on, but not for long and is substituted by Maxwell Cornet in just the seventh minute. That’s disappointing for Lyon and for me; I had wanted to see Fekir play. Two minutes later Lyon’s Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes compounds Lyon’s misery as he foolishly tries to race Kylian Mbappe to the ball, which appears to be going out for a goal kick. Lopes doesn’t reach ball, but he does reach Mbappe and referee Monsieur Antony Gautier rightly points to the penalty spot. Neymar scores; rolling the ball gently to the right as the goalkeeper dives left, exactly as he did against Stade de Reims ten days before.
It’s been a messy start to the game and it doesn’t improve. Lucas Toussart is the first player booked after he commits a high tackle on Marco Verratti, but PSG’s Presnel

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Kimpembe then out does him by eliciting a red card from the top pocket of Monsieur Gautier for an assault on Tanguy NDombele. Weirdly, the dismissal is not instant as at first Monsieur Gautier goes to show a yellow card, but then looks again at the foul using the ‘VAR’. It is almost as having been caught Kimpembe is then tried before the verdict is reached. It would have been a nice touch if having reached his verdict the referee placed a black cap placed on his head before showing the red card. Only a few minutes after Kimpembe’s dismissal Neymar is booked for poleaxing Jeremy Morel, and after Lyon make another enforced substitution due to injury, Marco Verratti is also shown a yellow card after fouling Maxwell Cornet. Edinson Cavani is then substituted so that PSG can prop up their depleted defence, although the football press will later desperately try to make more of it, as ever failing to grasp that football is a team game. Other decent fouls go unpunished in terms of cards, but there are plenty of free-kicks to keep fans of set-pieces happy. The net result is no more goals and four minutes of unwanted additional time, but this is put to good use as Toussart trips Mbappe and receives a second yellow card from Monsieur Gautier and to end the half both teams have just ten players. If you like your football fast and violent, with every kick of the ball being matched by a kick of a player, it’s been a terrific half.
Half-time is an opportunity to rest and recuperate and I watch the electronic advertisement hoardings changing their messages. Although we are in Paris it is interesting how many of the advertisements are in English, another symptom of how clubs like PSG see themselves less as belonging to Paris and more as global brand. One advert for the Qatari National Bank mystifies me with its weird slogans “When you set your life goals, We can make the time right”. It all sounds very positive and inspiring, but what the hell does it mean? Equally hollow are the signs that read “Indonesia Stay Strong”; superficially all very laudable and who doesn’t wish the people of Indonesia well after the recent natural disasters? But slogans in a football grounds thousands of miles away don’t help them; perhaps a slice of PSG’s £500 million budget might though, if they really want to help.
The second half arrives and for a while Lyon look a threat. There is still only one goal in this game, a mere penalty at that, not a proper goal and Lyon are not being outplayed. I start to think PSG might not necessarily win this game. Neymar is setting up Mbappe however, and twice he puts him through on goal with just Lopes to beat, but he misses the first and his second shot is saved. Again Neymar puts Mbappé through and again he misses and then it happens yet again. I genuinely don’t think Mbappé has yet played as well for PSG as he did for Monaco and am on the verge losing patience with him. I begin to wonder if is he too young, if there too much pressure on him having been transferred for such a massive fee. Then with just about an hour of the match gone Neymar sets him up or a fifth time and this time he scores hitting both posts in the process and PSG lead 2-0. Five minutes later Mbappé scores again after interplay between Marquinhos and Verratti. Three minutes later Mbappé has a hat-trick as PSG hit Lyon on the counter OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAattack. Finally, after a further five minutes Mbappé scores his fourth goal and PSG ‘go nap’ as an attempt to set up Neymar sees the ball return to him with the invitation to score, which he accepts.
Mbappé and Neymar are incredible. Their speed and skill is wonderful to see. This is not like normal football and when PSG build up a lead like this they transform into a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters; this is pure footballing circus. When two minutes from time Neymar attempts an audacious and spectacular overhead kick, the crowd roars in appreciation. But this is all in sharp contrast to the first half, it is as if having two less players on the field, albeit one of them one of their own players has created that extra bit of space that Neymar and Mbappé use to run amok.
This was an unexpected result, even by the high standards of free-scoring PSG, but it has been a very strange game not least because two players were sent off before half time; then Mbappé contrived to miss four good chances all of which he is more than capable of scoring from, only to then go on and score four times in thirteen minutes. At the end of the match the PSG team line up as one to salute the Ultras at the Auteuil end and an extended love-in ensues with much jumping about and singing shared by players and supporters. The team are clearly very excited by the win and this has been a very special night, the like of which I am not sure I have ever seen. The closest I can come to it was when Ipswich beat Norwich City 5-0 but despite the joy of that night I don’t honestly think it matched the passion shown here tonight.

Paris St Germain 6 Red Star Belgrade 1

A bit after 5 o’clock on another sunny, early autumn afternoon in Ile de France my wife Paulene and I arrive at Meudon Val Fleury station to find that the suburban RER train service is suspended for at least two hours because someone has unfortunately been hit by a train at Champ de Mars station. The Paris St Germain versus Red Star Belgrade match in Group C of the European Champions League kicks-off at six fifty-five, which is a bit of an odd hour, and it means that a different mode of transport will be required to get to the game on time. Seasoned travellers that we are, we don’t panic, but stroll round to the front of the station and across the forecourt to the bus stop where a No 289 bus is conveniently just drawing up. In just twenty minutes this bus will take us to Porte de St Cloud, which is more or less just over the road from Parc des Princes. Our carbon footprint will be bigger courtesy of the Iveco diesel engine, but what can you do? We board the bus and validate our tickets (1.49 euros each if bought as a carnet of ten).
It’s a fun ride through the streets of western Paris and we have a driver who likes to use his horn; at one stage he leans out of his cab window to converse with the driver of a

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Peugeot who has pulled across in front of him. With car drivers cowering, the bus pulls onto the cobbled surface of the Porte de St Cloud bus station and, along with a handful of blokes sporting various Paris St Germain branded attire, we alight and make the short walk to Parc des Princes. Our tickets tonight (48 euros each) are in the Paris tribune, the stand which has its back to the centre of Paris. It is a dramatic approach to the stadium as we cross a bridge over the

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périphérique, Paris’s inner ring road, which actually passes underneath the corner of the Paris tribune. Of all those ‘you can see the stadium from here’ moments that you get on car and rail journeys, this has to be the best. We walk past the PSG supporters’ shop (most definitely not the official club shop) with its delightful “Fuck Marseille” scarves. It’s not much past six o’clock and it’s still light, and the concrete ‘fins’ that define the silhouette of the stadium look fantastic; Parc des Princes may be over forty years old but it’s a marvellous sight, a far more exciting looking building than any stadium in Britain.
Security arrangements mean some queuing to get in, with everybody patted down by

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people wearing what look like knitted gloves; it’s a matter of luck how quick or thorough your ‘patter’ is. My ‘patter’ is slow and thorough; Paulene’s patter may be no quicker, but as she only has to deal with women in a crowd of mostly men the queue to be patted down is shorter. This means that by the time I get to the turnstile itself, Paulene is already in the stadium. We have tickets that were sent by e-mail to Paulene and she then sent my ticket to my mobile phone, so ‘all’ I should have to do is pass the black and white patterned thingy in the e-mail beneath the electronic reader at the turnstile. But the reader doesn’t like what I place under it; it seems it needs to read the original rather than the one Paulene forwarded to me. It takes a steward to explain this to me of course and I send two desperate texts to Paulene: “I can’t get in”, “Come to the turnstiles” I plead. As my wife and carer, Paulene immediately understands and answers my call; the reader reads the ticket from her phone and I get inside the stadium. Technology and I are sworn enemies, but everything has worked out fine, until the next time.
Out of gratitude and because she asked me to I treat Paulene to a bottle of Coca Cola (2.50

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euros), but I decide to go thirsty because I object to buying a bottle of drink from which the cap is confiscated. I am a 58 year old adult and can be trusted with a plastic bottle top, so “shove your Coca-Cola and other topless bottled drinks where the sun doesn’t shine” is my message to PSG. I later buy a coffee (2 euros) to keep me alert against other possible infringements of my human rights. The spirit of Mai ’68 lives on.
PSG has e-mailed Paulene earlier in the day to warn that trouble was a possibility at tonight’s game from followers of Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda in Serbian), who might have dodged any efforts to segregate supporters. It seems like an admission that PSG have failed to properly control ticket sales and they also advise away supporters not to wear club colours, which surely increases the possibility for trouble by making them impossible to spot. We had heard lots of Balkan voices as we approached the stadium, but there was no sign of any antagonism between French and Serbs. Inside the stadium we find ourselves sat behind a row of blokes in their thirties or early forties who are clearly Belgrade supporters but they seem a bit like the sort of ‘youngish professionals’ you might find at a rugby match in England or in the Greyhound pub in Ipswich; two of them wear Mercedes Benz lanyards which suggests they may have wangled a trip to Paris on the back of the current motor show at Porte de Versaille.
Our seats are close to the front of the stand and in a corner, close to where the Paris

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tribune ends and the Boulogne tribune begins. A wedge of Belgrade supporters are nearby to our left, behind a large net which hangs from the roof of the stadium, and a moat. More Serbians fill a batch of seats in the upper tier of the stadium, away to our right. The Auteuil end of the stadium where the bulk of the Paris Ultras are usually accommodated is completely empty tonight, presumably a sanction by UEFA for some previous transgression by the Ultras, probably the use of flares. The noise level is reduced as a result, but there is still a decent atmosphere inside the ground, but then there are still over 39,000 people here.


Pre-match entertainment includes the players’ warm-ups to a soundtrack of tunes from the ‘legendary’ Charles Aznavour, who sadly died earlier this week, and some serious watering of the pitch, which reminds me of the spectacular fountains at the gardens of the palace of Versaille. I am a little surprised that PSG haven’t considered choreographing the sprinklers to a musical accompaniment. At last the overblown Champions League anthem, that rip-off of 45092131931_858bdc0502_oHandel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, strikes up and the teams line up on the pitch whilst some young people stand in a circle and shake a big circular thing; it looks to me like they are shaking the crumbs off a massive table cloth, possibly one used by UEFA officials in some lavish pre-match banquet; the comparisons with Versaille continue. Tonight PSG are wearing an all-black strip, whilst Red Star Belgrade wear red and white, looking like Stoke City from the front and Fleetwood Town from the back.
The game begins with PSG having first go with the ball and aiming in the direction of the banks of empty seats at the Auteuil end of the ground; Belgrade shoot towards the Boulogne-Billancourt end. Predictably, the first free-kick of the game, and the second, is awarded for a foul on Neymar. Backed by chants of “Red Star, Red Star” the Serbians have the first shot on goal however, as a poor header from Presnel Kimpembe is half-volleyed into the beautiful blue evening sky by Goran Causic. Belgrade look keen but translate this into committing lots of fouls. The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria are a bit too quick for them. The Belgrade number thirty-one El Fardou Ben from the Comoros Islands is very chunky, a sort of scaled down Ade Akinbayi. To begin with he looks like he might be a handful for the PSG defence, but he’s not and in the pantheon of chunky players is probably no better than former Ipswich Town superstar Martyn Waghorn.
Having weathered the early Red Star enthusiasm, Paris St Germain settle down into totally dominating possession, as is their habit. With twenty-minutes gone a free-kick is granted to PSG in a position from which it is almost inevitable Neymar will score, and he does. Two minutes later he performs a brilliant high-speed one-two with Kylian Mbappe and scores again. Mbappe is set up by Neymar but the Belgrade goal keeper Milan Borjan saves at his near post and then saves a header from Edinson Cavani. Marco Verratti is magnificent in midfield, winning the ball back almost instantly every time a move breaks down. Edinson Cavani scores the third goal just after half-past seven before a Thomas Meunier cross, or possibly even a pass, is delicately flicked in by Angel Di Maria four minutes before half-time. Paris St Germain are magnificent and I’ve seldom if ever seen the like of it before.
At half-time we feel we need a rest, not just because our collective breaths have been taken away by the sumptuous football, but also because the Serbian blokes in front of us have been stood up throughout the first-half and we need a bit of a sit-down. Whilst they go off to pay 7 euros for non-alcoholic beer in PSG branded plastic cups we can rest in relative comfort and gaze upon the green of the pitch without having to look over their neatly cut heads of hair.
The second half is soon underway however, and the Serbians return looking suspiciously at their beers. Paulene now stands by a free seat further back across the gangway because the Serbs have played musical chairs and a tall one and a shorter one have swapped places so her view is obstructed. The second-half proves even more exciting as Mbappe attacks down the left and we get to witness his remarkable speed at close quarters from which he looks even faster. But the PSG forwards and attacking midfield are so free, interchangeable and flowing that anyone can pop-up anywhere. Mbappe pops up regularly but misses every time and by the time he does score Belgrade have even had a couple of shots on target of their own. In the far corner of the ground some Paris Ultras have begun to wave banners, one says Paris, whilst a second is clearly aimed at winding up the Serbs and reads ‘Kosovo’, a part of the country that has declared independence from Serbia; although Serbia recognises the government it sees Kosovo as its own province.44171686915_83e7470fae_o
Belgrade’s Filip Stojkovic is the first player to be booked by Portuguese referee Artur Dias Soares, when he tugs at Neymar’s shirt; Stojkovic just couldn’t wait until the end of the match to claim his souvenir. Mbappe’s eventual goal is scored two minutes later with 70 minutes played, it’s a relative tap-in from a bamboozling passing move instigated by Neymar that should have resulted in a goal sooner, but previous shots were blocked. The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for the fifth goal to be scored, but any sense of shock is eclipsed four minutes later as Milan Miran scores with a fine shot for Belgrade. The Serbian fans are ecstatic and make the most of their only opportunity to celebrate this evening, which is a lesson to all football supporters of losing teams, Ipswich Town fans please take note. But not to be outdone the Paris Ultras also light four or five flares on the opposite side of the ground where the flags were, for which the club will no doubt be punished in some way by UEFA.43269643400_d3ee064df0_o
A man in a dark suit appears from the back of the stand to ask everyone to sit down as people behind can’t see. He has some success but it’s a bit late for this now and within ten minutes everyone is stood up again anyway. But we see the last ten minutes with an unobstructed view because the Serbs in front can’t take any more and leave. All that remains is for Neymar to complete his hat-trick with a second perfect free-kick over the defensive wall into the top left hand corner of Milan Borjan’s goal.
This has been the fourth time I have seen PSG at Parc des Princes and I can’t but help feeling a little disconnected from these matches, because PSG are the French version of Manchester United or Bayern Munich, and are the club who everyone except their own supporters loathes. I can’t help disliking them too because their un-earned wealth distorts and compromises the French league and Cup competitions. But I have to admit that tonight PSG have played brilliantly and produced possibly the best football I have ever seen, better even than Ipswich Town’s during the 1980-81 season. English commentators will no doubt debunk the win by saying that Red Star Belgrade are a weak side, but the brilliance of Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Rabiot, Di Maria, Meunier and Verratti just cannot be denied. This has been a fantastic evening’s football.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.