Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

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

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I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her44942590311_4d3b434cb6_o house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc de Princes security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour.44025173585_b37d1e5baa_o The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.31064460688_7e352cdfe5_o
After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks 44942587611_72fcbe55dc_oof soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the44216940294_327da4a58a_o injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but In particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures.  But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.

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

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Meudon AS 0 St Ouen L’Aumone AS 2

Today is the last day of September, my wife Paulene and I are staying in Meudon on the edge of Paris and having enjoyed both professional Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 football in the past week and a bit, watching both Paris FC and Paris St Germain, this afternoon we are getting down with the French equivalent of ‘non-league’. Not much more than ten minutes away by car at the Stade Georges Millandy in Meudon Le Foret (twenty minutes by bus service No 289) is a Coupe de France fourth round tie between Meudon AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 3 and St Ouen L’Aumone AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 1. These leagues are the 6th and 8th levels of the French football league ladder, although probably not directly comparable to those levels in the English non-league ‘pyramid’.
The parking at the local community sports centre, where the match is to take place is full, so we park our Citroen C3 around the corner in Rue Georges Millandy between large blocks of modern apartments. We are not sure exactly where we are going, but the Federation Football Francais (FFF, the French Football Association) website says this is the where the match is taking place and having walked through a corridor in a sports hall we find ourselves next to an artificial football pitch. There is no turnstile and watching this match is free. A bunch of blokes in tracksuits sit outside a portacabin eating baguettes and drinking coffee. In my exquisite school boy French I ask if this is this is where the Coupe de France game is taking place at 2.30; I am relieved to learn that it is and flattered that the man I speak to recognises the Ipswich Town crest on my T-shirt. I explain that I am a fan and not from the club itself, but we both quickly make the connection that Ipswich’s Under 18 player Idris El Mazouni is from Meudon. I will later discover that I have been talking to Idris’s dad.
The Stade Georges Millandy is not a stadium as we might understand it in Britain because it has no stands, it’s just a 3G synthetic pitch with dugouts and a metal fence, overlooked by five or six large, shiny white apartment blocks.

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It wouldn’t make the grade for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League, although in truth the playing facilities are better than at most clubs in that league. It seems quite new, is in good condition and is the sort of installation that a town the size of Ipswich should probably have at least ten of. Given that these pitches are not cheap to install it is doubly impressive that the surface extends beyond the actual pitch to the area around it, with a mini pitch and goals in the space behind one goal. A game (possibly Under 15s) is

just finishing with a penalty shoot-out and I return to the portacabin, which is a sort of club house and buvette, to get two cups of green tea and a Kit-Kat (all 1 euro each); the tea is poured from a huge pot. On one wall is a large array of trophies won by all age groups within the club.

Paulene and I wander around the pitch as we drink our tea and I scoff Kit-Kat trying to remember why Nestle products were boycotted and if they still should be; too late now I have become complicit in their multi-national nastiness. It is a beautiful, bright sunny 45013661531_f3c54472c1_oafternoon beneath a clear blue sky and the gaze of those shiny apartment blocks, which cast no shadows on one another or the pitch; this has to be how Le Corbusier imagined La Ville Radieuse.

 

A man in a loosely belted gabardine raincoat appears; if he was wearing a trilby hat he could have stepped from a 1940’s film. He sports a bright arm band which adds to the look, but in a slightly sinister manner; he is however the délègue principal, the FFF official who 43201967200_10152fe2e5_owill oversee this afternoon’s game from the side lines. Out of the blue one of the spectators walks up to me and shakes my hand. In due course the two teams emerge from their respective changing rooms and walk through the metal gate onto the pitch before lining up side by side, then in a line before shaking hands. Introductions between the referee and players and délègue principal are made all-round, before the game kicks off about five minutes late (it was advertised as a 14:30 kick–off) with St Ouen having first go with the ball, aiming at the goal in front of the buvette. Meudon kick in the general direction of far off Stade Charlety and the 13th Arrondissement. St Ouen wear an all-green kit, whilst Meudon are all in red; neither club has its club crest on its shirts but instead bear the logo of the FFF with its cockerel.

St Ouen quickly win a free-kick as their tricky number nine goes down under a challenge; he gets up to send a neat free-kick over the red wall of Meudon, but into the arms of the very young looking Meudon goalkeeper, who strangely is one of the smallest players on the pitch, a sort of French Laurie Sivell. It is also St Ouen who have the second serious goal attempt, again a free-kick, but this time firmly hit from a wide position by their number ten. Once again the goalkeeper, whose blond hair may not be its original30077406907_10dcb243ea_o(1) colour, saves, batting the ball away for the first of five corners that St Ouen will win this half. Most of these corners are either poorly taken or all the St Ouen players are waiting for the ball in the wrong places.
Meudon are very competitive and the game is played at a fast pace with the emphasis on passing rather than just getting the ball forward by the fastest route. Meudon come close to scoring a bit before three o’clock as their huge number eleven breaks through on the left. The St Ouen goalkeeper, who incidentally reminds me of St Etienne ‘keeper Stephane Ruffier on account of his designer stubble and very short dark hair, and is possibly the second smallest on the pitch dives at his feet. The ball rebounds to the Meudon number seven whose goal-bound shot is headed away at improbably close range.
Meudon seem to be growing in confidence and their number ten does a few feints and jinks over the ball like a footballing Michael Jackson (Bubbles’ friend, not the one who played for Tranmere and Shrewsbury) might have done. There are a few jeers and within the next twenty seconds his ankles are swept away from beneath him by the St Ouen number three as he goes to dribble down the right touchline. It’s one of those situations that some people would try to excuse by saying that number ten had been ‘disrespectful’, but that’s just a modern buzzword, a sort of false political correctness and it is tosh; I blame Eastenders. Football is a game of skill and dumping someone on their bum shows little ‘respect’ itself. Referee Monsieur Charly Legendre doesn’t see fit to book anyone either way.
The coaches on the side lines are animated, “Parlez –vous” one calls urging his players to talk to one another. The St Ouen coach, a portly man in his fifties sports a fine mullet and43201968530_160c2105a2_o has the look of Maradona about him. The Meudon coach becomes involved in a prolonged discussion with the linesman Mefa Bakayoko about an offside or a free-kick which has been and gone and so no longer matters. On the field the St Ouen number ten sends a free-kick solidly over the cross bar whilst Meudon’s number six comes as close as anyone else with a long range shot that goes wide. St Ouen’s number nine is proving industrious and creates a couple of shots for himself one of which is well saved and Meudon replace their number three with substitute number thirteen. Half-time arrives and Paulene and I look back on a good but slightly frustrating forty-five minutes, which was too tight to be really entertaining. I head for the buvette to get a bottle of water (1 euro).
During the half-time break we stand about and as a man walks by he shouts “Ipswich!”. We could do with that sort of enthusiasm at Portman Road. As I stand I enjoy the44294420204_39f8378ac4_o contents of the many balconies that overlook the pitch from the surrounding apartments. Bikes, mattresses, plants and drying clothes decorate the bright white buildings and on one corner is a tricolour, perhaps left over from the summer’s World Cup win. As the afternoon wears on more people seem to arrive to watch the game and by the end I estimate that at least one-hundred people are here.
The délègue principal oversees the away team leaving their dressing room by a side door to the sports centre building and heads back to the pitch still wearing his gabardine raincoat, although it’s a warm afternoon; he is perhaps the anti-thesis of the banker in The Beatles’ Penny Lane and also feels as if he’s in a play, or a British TV sitcom. The bearded referee begins the game again and St Ouen soon win their sixth and seventh corners of the game, although in between their number eleven also shoots over the cross bar. At about four o’clock the St Ouen number eleven breaks forward through the middle, stretching the Meudon defence before playing a through ball to number ten who slips the ball inside the near post past the ‘blond’ goalkeeper; St Ouen lead 1-0.
They may be losing and disappointed to be doing so, but Meudon still pose a threat and a good run and cross from number eleven meets the thigh of number seven just a few yards out, but he can’t direct the ball past the goal keeper. The first booking of the game goes to Meudon’s number two and the game enters a tetchy stage where it seems it could flare up at any moment. As at most French football matches I have seen where this happens however, there are only outbreaks of animated discussion between the players, but the referee stands back and let’s this carry on. It’s a civilised approach which may reflect the character of a country that has produced far more philosophers than England has produced ‘World Class’ footballers.
St Ouen are buoyed by their goal and their bearded number three controls a ball beautifully on his chest before advancing down the flank. The lads watching near us jeer at his skill and nickname him Fekir, and they’re right to do so because he does vaguely resemble the French international. But Meudon are not beaten yet and the large number eleven strides past a couple of St Ouen players before playing a through ball to number twelve who either wasn’t paying attention or the pass wasn’t as good as it looked. Paulene and I belatedly realise that the number twelve has replaced the number seven, who we had thought was Meudon’s best player.
St Ouen almost score a second goal as their number nine diverts a cross from ‘Fekir’ the wrong side of the post from close range, but the game is becoming more scrappy and there are more fouls. The Meudon number ten spends more time than most not being upright. St Ouen win an eighth corner and as a passage of play ends Monsieur Legendre calls over Meudon’s number nine and ‘Fekir’ and books them for a mystery offence that neither Paulene or I saw. It is now gone half past four and we are witnessing time added on as St Ouen’s number eight runs down the right and then pulls the ball back across the penalty area for substitute number fourteen to side foot beyond the small, blond goalkeeper into the far corner of the goal.  St Ouen L’Aumone AS is the name that will go into the draw for the 5th round of the Coupe de France.
It’s been a reasonable game although not an exciting one in terms of goalmouth action. We turn to leave and Paulene notices a man with an Ipswich Town crest on his coat; I speak to him and it turns out he is the father of a second player from Meudon AS who is now in Ipswich Town’s Under 18 squad, Lounes Fodil. 44294397894_dca5642a04_oLounes’s dad, who is called Mustapha (apologies if the spelling is wrong) is a lovely bloke and is genuinely pleased to meet us and invites us for a coffee in the buvette. Our conversation probably isn’t the best as neither our French nor Mustapha’s English are fully fluent, but Mustapha gets across his philosophy of football; it’s a game of skill and intelligence not brute strength. He’s been to Portman Road and has noticed the glum atmosphere, which he attributes to the dull football. Whilst we are at the buvette some of the players come in for post-match drinks and snacks, one of them (I think it might have been the big number eleven or the captain) tells me Lounes is a good player. I tell him that’s good news because Ipswich Town really needs some good players; before he leaves he shakes my hand. The man who I first spoke to when we arrived comes to the bar counter and gets out his mobile phone before showing us a montage of clips of Idris El Mizouni playing for the Under 18’s, this is when I discover that this is Idris’s dad.
After a good half an hour or more we have to leave and walk from the ground with Mustapha who leaves us his phone number and invites us round to eat; sadly Paulene’s food intolerances and allergies will make that too complicated. We thank Mustapha and say how good it has been to meet him. Hopefully we will see him again.

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Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 2

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Today is the 30th December, the last Saturday of 2017 and I am travelling to Portman Road to witness the third game of the ‘Hectic Christmas Schedule’. It being Christmas week it doesn’t feel like a Saturday, but it definitely is and will no doubt bring the joy or despair to prove it.
The train is on time and peopled with passengers clearly going home after Christmas. A woman opposite me wears a woolly hat with a disproportionately large fluffy bobble; her jeans hug her calves but her knees are exposed through fashionable rips. Further down the carriage a woman bawls at her young daughter, ironically telling her to be quiet. It’s an average train journey.
It is a mild, bright and blustery day and on Princes Street in Ipswich the wind has torn some banners promoting the annual pantomime from their fixings on the lamp posts. 24538582807_845ab7c1ef_oPortman Road is its usual Saturday afternoon self as I walk along it. The turnstiles are not yet open and people who must have very little else to do indeed, queue by them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Burgers and buns are eaten, programmes are bought, blokes with strange ‘North meets the Midlands’ accents talk of the “Station Hotel or summat” where, as visitors to Ipswich they might be allowed to buy a drink.
In St Jude’s Tavern the usual collection of blokes is present, enjoying their pre-match beer. Today’s Match Day Special is Mauldon’s Silver Adder (£2) and that‘s what I drink before I am joined by my friend Mick; we talk of Christmas, travelling to Lille, Brussels and Paris by car or train and ‘top’ Parisian football clubs (PSG, Red Star, Paris FC, and Creteil; Entente SSG get forgotten). Mick admits that his one great regret is that he was born English or at least never went to live abroad. Mick makes a very good point about how people like to moan about their lot but never do anything about it. I am deeply unhappy about being an Ipswich Town supporter, but I write it down.
After another pint of Match Day Special (which has been changed to Crouch Vale Brewers Gold) and a half of Nethergate Old Growler (£1.80) later, I am descending Portman Road without any sense of anticipation or excitement. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and I was only here on Tuesday. It’s a bit annoying to have to come back again so soon when what I saw on Tuesday was so awful.
Inside the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand (Churchman’s) is a pair of signs pointing the way forOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA blood donors. Season ticket prices won’t be going up this year, but supporters will be required to donate a pint of blood each. I need to urinate and so visit the toilets. I wash my hands and use the blow dryer, which breathes warmly across my wet hands with the force of a chronic asthmatic. I take my seat and to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way’ the teams take to the field. ‘My Way’ was apparently Bobby Robson’s favourite song, but amusingly it could equally be the theme tune of current manager Mick McCarthy or the elusive and seemingly parsimonious club owner Marcus Evans. Is the club having a laugh at our expense?
Derby County begin the game, kicking towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand and wearing vile, day-glo yellow shirts and navy blue shorts. Quite why Derby feel the need to wear a change kit when their club colours of white shirts and navy blue shorts would not remotely clash with Ipswich’s blue shirts and white shorts is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, which probably has something to do with selling replica shirts. As the Town players shield their eyes, Derby dominate possession and their supporters are soon singing Verdi and enquiring in which part of the stadium they will find nineteenth century romantic novels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The home crowd is of course quiet and become even quieter when Derby score a goal in the 13th minute, a header from a corner by a stocky bloke called Sam Winnall. Ipswich win three corners in the first half and a few free-kicks within sight of the Derby goal, but the home crowd offer nothing in the way of support for their team and it makes me feel quite angry. Ipswich are being outplayed, which isn’t what I want to see, but I can’t help thinking these people get the team they deserve. I shout and I chant, on my own.
At half-time I move seats to sit near Phil the ever-present fan and his son Elwood, but not before I eat a piece of Christmas cake that I had brought along to keep my spirits up. There are scores of empty seats and this is the cheap part of the ground, maybe it’s not OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcheap enough. Crazee the edgy, urban Suffolk Punch mascot struts his stuff in front us; if he’s trying to rally the supporters he’s almost literally flogging a dead horse. I think of a disturbing scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which a peasant flogs his feeble old horse to death in the street and onlookers join in. Crazee can add masochism to his list of edgy behaviours, which really only amount to wearing sunglasses and a hat which is on back to front.
A new half like a new year brings new hope, but that is soon dashed as Sam Winnall hits a long distance swerving shot into the top left hand corner of the goal that Ipswich are defending. I am virtually in perfect line with the shot and get a spectacular view of it as it hits the goal net. How lovely for me. A man behind me can’t contain himself and goes into raptures. But the goal doesn’t ‘do for’ Ipswich and the second half is a more even contest with Ipswich even pressing at times. A string of corners sees the electronic scoreboard flash “Come On You Blues”, but it must be tempting for the operator to type in “Go on, Sing you Bastards!” and I live for the day. Eventually, and in spite of the indifference of the crowd, Joe Garner heads the final corner into the net and Ipswich now only trail 2-1; a draw is a possibility. The silence in the stands is broken by cheers of joy; people stand and wave their arms about in happy abandon. At times thereafter there is some rhythmic clapping around the ground and some drumming in the Sir Bobby Robson stand, and the last twenty minutes are more enjoyable. The Derby supporters are quieter now as they worry whether their team will hang on, but they do.
Five minutes of added on time pass quickly by and referee Mr Oliver Langford, who awarded far too many free-kicks to Derby, calls time on another disappointing afternoon at Portman Road, which will doubtless fuel much rage, fury, wailing and gnashing of teeth on social media; if only people could channel their over-excitement about disappointing results into backing their team when they are actually playing.
Up The Town!

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Montpellier Hérault SC 0 Paris St Germain 0

Having arrived on holiday in Languedoc on Monday, on Tuesday tickets for this match went on general sale. With no secure internet connection acquiring tickets required a forty-five minute drive to Montpellier, to the Odysseum complex just off the A9 motorway where Montpellier Hérault SC has its’ club shop. Joining the queue outside in the blazing sun at about 12:15 we emerged from the shop clutching a pair of 35 euro tickets at about 13:45. By the time we had reached the front of the queue the only tickets left had been in the upper tiers of the stands behind each goal. We chose seats in the Tribune Petite Camargue above the Montpellier Ultras at the opposite end of the Stade de la Mosson to the Paris St Germain supporters.
Two weeks and four days later we park up in the dedicated football car park near the37399307972_eb9bb2373d_o park and ride tram station in Mosson, or La Paillade as it is colloquially known. It costs just 2 euros to park. It’s early, not much after 3 o’clock and the game won’t kick off until 5 pm. We dawdle out of the car park towards the stadium enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I am supporting Montpellier today because like a lot of football supporters I despise clubs like Chelsea, Billericay Town and Salford City that are bankrolled by people with too much money. But also I first saw Montpellier in 2011 against PSG (they lost 0-3) and followed their results for the rest of that season, in which they ended up winning the Ligue 1 title. I like their navy blue and orange kit too and added to which Montpellier is a very attractive and exciting city. The upshot is today I am wearing a Montpellier Hérault SC t-shirt, and as we cross the car park I exchange glances with a PSG fan who is stood with two women under the shade of a tree enjoying a snack and a drink. He rolls his eyes at my T-shirt and smiles and so I decide to stop and try and talk with him. Happily neither his English nor my French are so inadequate that we can’t make ourselves understood to one another. I tell him that I really support Ipswich Town and he rolls his eyes again, although he agrees that they had a good team a long time ago; he believes that Chelsea and Liverpool are okay, but then I’d expect as much from the sort of person who supports France’s most hated club. My wife tells him her team is Portsmouth, which he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it ‘Ports-moose’. He is in his fifties, a scruffy looking bloke in a denim jacket with a beard and long hair; he and his wife and daughter live in Béziers but he is a PSG ultra; he grew up in Paris and his dad took him to watch PSG at the Parc des Princes as a boy. Having both shared our deep disappointment over Brexit (every German, Belgian and Frenchman I have spoken to seems as upset as me) and probably exhausted our respective vocabularies in each other’s language we wish one another well and my wife and I carry on towards the stadium.
There is a lot of hanging about going on because the road to the stadium is closed off. But there are a number of gazebos selling food and beer to help while away the wait.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A blacked out Mercedes minivan is guided through the road block behind two police motor cycles and an army of policemen look on, some in full Kevlar riot gear, one or two with sub-machine guns, including one who looks a bit like the late John Le Mesurier.37397661451_31eb220131_o Later we learn that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the game and it is likely it was him in the Mercedes.
Eventually, having enjoyed a beer in the shade of some trees we are allowed through the barriers and approach Stade de la Mosson at about twenty to four. Unusually perhaps for a stadium that was used in the 1998 World Cup, Stade Mosson is not particularly spectacular looking; in fact it is a fairly basic cantilever roofed design, which forms an angular horseshoe around three sides of the pitch. The steel stanchions from which the roof hangs are painted in the club colours of orange and blue. It does have one striking looking stand however,

a triple decker with a massive top tier but no roof, supported on streamlined, sloping concrete legs. Bizarrely however, the top tier is closed; something to do with the club’s average attendances and its licence from the French Football Federation, which is explained on the website, but I don’t quite follow.
There is a mobile club shop out in the road and a bar run by one of the ultra groups is built into the back of a stand by the roadside. After the usual pat down we enter the stadium and entering the stand pick up one of the glossy, A5 size, 28 page and free match day programmes entitled ‘L’Echo de la Mosson’, which are left in cardboard boxes at the top of the stairs. I buy another beer (4.50 euros but this price includes a club–branded reusable plastic 500ml ‘glass’).37399326532_c0479ae95c_o The guy who serves me at the buvette instantly detects that I am not French but sees my Montpellier T-shirt and so I explain that I dislike PSG; not as much as he does he replies.
It’s a good view from our backless plastic seats and we watch the players warm up. The PSG players are roundly booed as they come onto the field. We watch the stands fill up and are interested by the eclectic mix of spectators. Montpellierians tend to be keener on rugby than football and the average attendance at Stade de la Mosson last season was only 12,356, although the team were mostly struggling, finishing fifteenth out of twenty in Ligue 1. It is inevitable that there are a lot of people here today who probably rarely come to Mosson; many will have been drawn by the anticipated presence of Neymar, the world’s most ludicrously expensive footballer. Fortunately for the club, the tickets sold out long before PSG announced their squad would be minus Neymar. There are many families here but also a group of four young women who seem to be dressed more for a night out rather than a football match; they perhaps want to look their best for PSG and its millionaires. A happy looking man works hard up and down the aisles and staircases selling packets of cacahuètes andOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA crisps from a tray; I buy a packet of the locally made crisps (2 euros) which are in a plain bag which carries no branding whatsoever, very good they are too.
Before the teams come on to the field there is a display of flag waving and then with much fanfare and the playing of the Ligue 1 theme music the teams take to the field led by Monsieur Clément Turpin possibly Europe’s finest current referee.

Montpellier wear an all navy blue kit with orange names and numbers on the back; oddly but fashionably the shoulders are a different colour too, a sort of burgundy. Paris St Germain wear an all yellow kit and they remind me of Leeds United of the 1970’s, not just because of the kit but because of how obvious it is that everybody in the ground except their own supporters loathes them. Like in most countries there is much antipathy between the regions and the capital in France, but Montpellier is deep in the south of the country just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and that dislike of all things Parisian is even greater down here.

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The game begins, Montpellier kicking towards the Tribune Petite Camargue, and predictably PSG don’t let go of the ball; they pass it around effortlessly and endlessly but Montpellier are not going to be a pushover, they chase and they tackle and every success is cheered wildly by the fiercely partisan home crowd. A couple of bangers are let off to our right somewhere and a fire cracker burns in the PSG goalmouth down in front of us. PSG’s Brazilian defender Marquinos is booked after just twelve minutes and the home supporters cheer like a goal has been scored; to please them that bit more PSG’s Italian hard-man Thiago Motta has a free-kick awarded against him and seems to hurt himself in the process of committing the foul.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
There is a lot of football being played in this game, PSG are great to watch. There is the incredible speed and quickness of thought of Kylian MbappéOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, the sheer presence of the rugged Edinson CavaniOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the elegance of Adrien Rabiot with his pre-Raphaelite looks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The atmosphere is intoxicating with constant noise from both sets of ultras; the PSG fans ceaselessly waving flags and banners at the far end;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a short while before half-time the PSG fans together raise their scarves aloft as English fans once did. The perpetual threat of a possible goal from PSG at any time is its own form of excitement, enhanced by the tension of 20,000 of us willing it not to happen. But as PSG go on longer without scoring, Montpellier get more into the game and come forward; there is a belief that they could grab a goal themselves which only adds to the churn of emotions, hopes and fears.
Half-time brings respite and a visit to the ‘toilette’, which is a bit dark and a little grim but there’s no queue, unlike for ‘the ladies where as is often the case there just aren’t enough cubicles. The bars are busy so I return to my seat to enjoy the scene and the warmth of this beautiful bright, late September afternoon. Looking out across the pitch it is plain to see that it isn’t in a very good condition; it is almost bare in places and if they don’t win PSG can always use that as an excuse.
As the second half begins the Tribune Minervois behind the far goal now casts a shadow over the penalty area at that end. The same pattern of play resumes with PSG dominating possession of the ball. The Montpellier defence is playing brilliantly however, and their captain, 40 year old Brazilian, Vittorino Hilton,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a veteran of the 2012 title winning side is outstanding. At different times both Mbappé and Cavani look sure to score but don’t, but now Montpellier also get the opportunity to spurn chances. As much as most of us in the ground would love Montpellier to score, it is enough that PSG do not. For the impartial, if that is possible in this atmosphere, or for journalists, this game is probably not the best and indeed the following week’s France Football magazine will only give it 8 marks out of 20 in its summary of matches, although no match will get a mark higher than 14. But football matches are not just about the football. On 74 minutes the whole crowd breaks out into applause for Louis Nicollin the wealthy industrialist and former chairman of Montpellier Hérault SC who died on his 74th birthday during the summer. Nicollin was a legend in Montpellier and across France having led the club from the regional amateur leagues in the early 1970’s to Ligue 1 in the space of just eight years. Nicollin was affectionately known as ‘Loulou’ and this name adorns the team shirts this season and that plastic cup that I drank my beer from before the game. Despite the divisions between the ultras of Montpellier and PSG, Loulou succeeds in uniting them.
By now the shadow of the Tribune Minervois has lengthened to shroud the whole pitch and the four minutes of added on time are a final test, creating a terminal tension which explodes with joy and relief and pride with Monsieur Turpin’s final whistle. This has been a fantastic afternoon, a classic example of the underdog winning through, one of the very best things in football. As much as people love to hate clubs like PSG the pantomime villain has his place and if he didn’t exist he would need to be invented…as indeed he has been.

 

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Balaruc 0 Clermontaise 2

Paris St Germain are the current holders of the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup, but they have an easy ride into the final as they only have to play six matches to get there, the first of which is in January. Like the FA Cup, the Coupe de France really begins in the summer and eight rounds are played before the likes of PSG deign to make an appearance. In fact there is also an overseas section that begins as early as May because clubs in the French territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe are also eligible to enter the competition. Today is the troisième tour (third round) of the Coupe de France and Mrs Brooks and I are in the seaside spa town of Balaruc les Bains at the Stade Municipal20170910_144644.jpg to see the tie with Clermontaise, who are from the town of Clermont l’Herault, some thirty kilometres to the north west.

Balaruc les Bains sits at the north end of a salt water lagoon, the Bassin de Thau, a kilometre or so across the water from Sète. There is a huge spa (les thermes) in Balaruc, which is something to behold. A massive, sleek, white building like an ocean going liner; from its commodious foyer, two escalators slowly ascend like conveyor belts, carrying mostly elderly, bronzed, French people, some in towelling robes, up to experience various health giving treatments.  I found it creepy, it made me think of Logan’s Run and Soylent Green.

The Stade Municipal is in total contrast to les thermes; it’s scruffy and dusty and will soon be full of young life, although like many French small town stadia it’s largely just a football pitch surrounded by a high metal fence.20170910_142429.jpg

There is one stand, a concrete platform with three rows of plastic seats bolted onto metal frames. 20170910_141746.jpgIt looks like the original roof has been replaced with new metal sheeting on another metal frame, which obscures the row of the pitch from the front row of seats. We enter the stadium through a wide opening in the back wall and find ourselves in the players tunnel; it’s an entrance that is closed soon afterwards, but it’s not quite two -thirty yet and the game doesn’t kick off until three. A wonky sign points roughly in the direction of the buvette,20170910_143307.jpg which is a portakabin style structure with a counter even more wonky than the sign. To the other side of the stand is a dark room with high-up shelves of trophies on two walls and a bar counter;

it smells of stale tobacco. A poster lying on a table shows what’s healthy to eat and what’s not and a timetable shows what time the number three bus leaves on matchdays for the Stade Mosson in Montpellier, the local home of top flight French football.

As the teams and referees warm up on the pitch we wander about seeking the best vantage point from which to watch the match; there doesnt seem to be one. The lowest part of the metal fence is quite closely meshed and there are few places where it is possible to see over it. It’s a bright, warm day, but its also extremely windy; with the wind howling off the Bassin just a couple of hundred metres behind us, we can smell the brine and taste the salt in the air. A group of elderly men have claimed a good spot on a bench in the lee of a high hedge on a small slope; one of them has brought his own folding chair. You can’t beat the experience that comes with age. Behind each goal there is a small outcrop of terracing,

which looks like archaeology; the concrete is even gently patterned like mosaic but it doesn’t really help see over the fence.

Eventually we settle on some rocks strewn about in front of the buvette 20170910_142610.jpgand the teams line up on the pitch. Balaruc wear an unattractive all-black kit with green trim, which displays no team badge or sponsor’s names. Clermontaise and Balaruc are in the same regional league (Poule A of the Languedoc-Rousillon section of the Occitanie region’s Division Honneur 2 – the seventh level of French football), but Clermontaise look much smarter and ‘professional’ in their all blue kit with badge. The McDonald’s golden arch logo is on the Clermontaise shorts; they can’t have read the poster on the table in the trophy room.

La Clermontaise kick off the match with the Mediterranean Sea at their backs, but proceedings are soon interrupted as the young looking referee Monsieur Yohan Beker is concerned that the strong wind has laid flat the corner flagsIMG_20170910_182517_939.jpg at the Mediterranean end of the ground.  A bloke in a t-shirt and trakkie bottoms is called on to sort them out and once he has done so the game carries on. Early on Clermontaise look the better team, but it might just be because they’re wearing a nicer kit.  Just before twenty past three it looks like they have scored, but I can’t tell if it was  offside or the shot was missed. There are flattened practice goals either side of the real one and from my rock it’s hard to tell which is which.

La Clermontaise’s number five is the first player to receive what will become a litany of cautions as he appears to knock out the Balaruc number nine, who stays down still, but eventually gets up seemingly none the worse for wear. But any violence on the pitch is as nothing to that developing in front of me as two small girls poke sticks at the dirt between the rocks we are sat upon and end up flicking it at one another with angry stares and increasing ferocity. It is worrying that humans are so unpleasant to one another from such a young age. Balaruc then have a rare attack, but just as the ball is crossed a massive gust of wind blows and carries it off to the far side of the ground.

The Stade Municipal is closely overlooked by four-storey blocks of flats all along one side and partly at both ends; they make quite a dramatic backdrop being so close to the pitch. At one end of the ground small gardens are visible through the boundary fence and I can see one has an interesting collection of gnomes. 37010937752_0f2b1b1e4c_oThere are a number of people, mostly men in their sixties and seventies, sat at windows and balconies looking down on the game. I envy them their home comforts, it has to be better than perching like a lizard on a rock in the sun. Dissatisfied with my view sat on the rock, I watch the remainder of the first half standing up.

Just about half an hour has passed since the game began and La Clermontaise are awarded a free kick a little more than twenty metres from goal. The ball is lofted to the near post where the visiting number nine cleverly twists and heads it into the net. La Clermontaise have taken the lead and, better kit or not they deserve to have done so because they look a tad classier than the home team. That touch of extra class is further illustrated as Balaruc respond with a series of petulant fouls. Firstly their number seven hurls himself into a misjudged tackle resulting in a melee of virtually every one on the pitch. At first Monsieur Beker steps in to separate the aggrieved parties, but then he steps back to seemingly allow the teams to sort the matter out for themselves. I have seen a few such incidents in French amateur games and whilst there is usually much fierce debate among the players there is never any real violence; once everyone has had their say Monsieur Beker returns to caution the number seven, award a free kick to La Clermontaise and play on.

Annoyingly the rough approach from Balaruc seems to work and they now have the initiative as the attacking team. A corner is punched away by the orange clad Clermontaise keeper, but the return is instant from the edge of the box as the Balaruc number eleven volleys the ball solidly against the crossbar. The half ends with more brutality as the Clermontaise number six shoves the Balaruc number six and also receives a caution from Monsieur Beker.

The search for a better viewing point resumes at half time with added vigour because the strong wind and warm sun really are taking their toll on our soft, southern English sensibilities. Eventually we find a place at the back of the main stand, leaning on the rear wall against a steel stanchion.37010978392_d5a2d9a778_o It proves to be a good choice and our enjoyment of the second half is much increased by our new location, which is shaded, out of the wind and high enough to see over the fence, with the added bonus of atmosphere as the stand is full; spectating nirvana.

The new half begins with Balaruc  on the attack again and their number nine shoots over the crossbar before his opposite number fouls the Balaruc number five, who bawls and stays down on the ground twitching, but eventually gets up and hops away; he was only stunned. Balaruc soon earn a corner, which is quite skillfully worked across the penalty area and fed back to their number nine who curls a shot into the top corner of one of the practice goals squashed up behind the real goal.

Quite a few people seem to have changed their spectating position for the second half and like giant birds on a telephone wire, a row of young lads have perched themselves on the high pink wall behind the Clermontaise keeper and are hanging over the crossbar of one of the practice goals. Other lads sit on a bench, their motorcycle helmets stacked together in front of them like deformed, painted skulls in an ossuary. Some of the people watching from the windows of the flats are no longer there.

It’s a quarter past four and Balaruc’s number four is shown the yellow card for plunging feet first through Clermontaise’s number eleven. A wit in the stand entertains his fellow spectators with what sound like caustic comments about the refereeing; people laugh anyway, which only encourages him. Balaruc might be said to be enjoying most of the possession, but it’s not doing them any good; they are also now ‘enjoying’ most of the bookings too as their eleven hurls himself at his opposite number, who stays down on the ground, as does Balaruc’ s number nine who has fallen down in a separate incident that Monsieur Beker sensibly ignored. Balaruc’s nine looks frustrated and tetchy. At half past four there is a drinks break.

Players are now being substituted freely, keeping the grey-haired, kindly faced and besuited  délègue principal37182734275_6954af6a9c_o Monsieur Gerard Blanchet busy in front of us. Clermontaise’s number twelve confirms his presence by boldly attempting a shot from a thirty metre free kick; of course he misses, but not embarrassingly so. The Balaruc bookings continue and five blatantly kicks the Clermontaise twelve as he dribbles past him and three knocks over his opposite number as they run side by side. All afternoon tbere is a pleasing symmetry with many of the fouls and bookings as players with the same shirt number go for each other.

There are only five minutes left now and whilst Balaruc have been nimble and passed the ball well, they have also been overly physical and not succeeded in making many goal scoring chances at all. Clermontaise have not had much of the ball, but it doesn’t seem to have worried them unduly and I think to myself that they might now just score again and finish the game off. A  Balaruc goal kick ends up with the Clermontaise number twelve some thirty plus metres from goal; he runs past a couple of opponents and to the edge of the penalty area; another stride, a check on where the goal is and he strikes the ball across the goalkeeper into the far side of the net.

La Clermontaise go through to the quatrième tour of the Coupe de France. Allez les bleus!

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