Ipswich Town 2 Shrewsbury Town 1

The football aspect of my weekend has started well.  On Friday evening I logged into FFF tv, the free tv channel of the French football association, to watch one of my favourite French teams, FC Sete take on Stade Lavallois in Ligue National, the French third division; it’s sort of like watching ifollow, but without BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley or Mick Mills (Michel Moulins in France) , and not being English the FFF don’t charge for it.   Things didn’t immediately go well, Sete went a goal behind, a blow from which they never recovered but early in the second half I checked up on how my other Ligue National team, Red Star St Ouen, were doing; somewhat annoyingly, seeing as I wasn’t watching them, they were winning 3-0 away at Avranche. I soon switched feeds but not soon enough to see Red Star’s fourth goal, although at least I saw their fifth and sixth goals to create some welcome Anglo-French symmetry with Town’s recent thrashing of Doncaster Rovers.

This morning the sun continues to shine, literally, from a bright blue autumn sky.  It’s the sort of beautiful day that makes you feel glad to be alive.  I do the usual things, parking up my trusty Citroen on Chantry and strolling down through Gippeswyk Park, but by way of a change from routine I am going to buy my programme (£3.50) before my pre-match beer.  Having only a twenty-pound note in my wallet I decide to buy my programme from the club shop where I can pay by card; but stepping over the threshold I am witness to a sea of unmasked faces queuing at the tills. It looks like a cross between the January sales and the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.  Not wanting to even risk entering a scene of such thoughtless disregard for the health and safety of others in such a confined space, I make a hasty retreat and form a queue of one at the nearest programme seller’s booth.   Programme in hand, I proceed up Portman Road, along Little Gipping Street, across Civic Drive, up Lady Lane and St George’s Street to what used to be The Arboretum, but is now known as the Arbor House.  The bar is surprisingly empty and having purchased a pint of Nethergate Copperhead (£3.80) I make the short walk through to the beer garden where I am mildly surprised to find Mick already sat at a table behind a pint of Mauldon’s something or rather (he can’t remember exactly what), with his mobile phone in hand,  texting me to say “Je suis dans le jardin”, which I tell him is exactly what I was going to do if he hadn’t beaten me to it.   

Having discussed “new Labour”, Mick’s daughter’s recent wedding and his father of the bride speech, how we have been born in the wrong country, the utterly unbelievable ineptness of Boris Johnson, the whereabouts of mutual friends, and the Sheffield Wednesday game we find we have drained our glasses and with no time for more beer we head for Portman Road.  As we walk to the ground we share our bafflement over what appears on the front of Ipswich Town’s shirt. I think we both know it’s something to do with a tour by Ed Sheeran, but what does it mean?  I tell Mick that I don’t think it makes any sense in algebraic terms and we confide in each other that we had both wondered if the mystifyingly popular ginger recording artist was trying to say something obliquely about living in ‘divided times’, but we had both been a bit embarrassed to mention it to anyone else.⁹

Having bid farewell to Mick at the West Stand turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I proceed past checkpoint Covid on the Constantine Road gate to turnstile No 59, the portal to another world, the foyer to which is the men’s toilet beneath the Sir Alf Ramsey stand; relieved, I am soon making my first appearance this month in the lower tier seats.  Against the usual background of overly loud music, presumably intended to excite me as well as make my ears ring unpleasantly, stadium announcer and former Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster somewhat alarmingly speaks of Town having put Doncaster Rovers “to the sword” in the last home game.  Then, sounding like an entertainer at a child’s birthday party, Stephen asks the crowd if Town can do the same to Shrewsbury. The response is not an enthusiastic one and suggests that “probably not” is the consensus.

Following the taking of the knee, which we all applaud, the game begins with Shrewsbury Town getting first go with the ball, which they are mainly hoping to aim in the direction of the goal just in front of me.  Today, Shrewsbury are wearing an unusual kit of pink socks, black shorts, and black and pink hooped shirts; they look like a team of Denis the Menaces who are in touch with their female side.   There don’t appear to be any away fans wearing the replica shirts of this kit, although I think I can see a woman in a pale pink cardigan.  To my right Fiona and Pat from Clacton discuss the UEFA Cup celebrating musical ‘Never Lost At Home’ which Fiona is seeing at the Wolsey Theatre tonight and Pat saw last night.  “It brought back so many memories” Pat tells Fiona.  I share with them that I am going to watch it on-line this evening, and I am destined to discover that my experience mirrors Pat’s.

Eight minutes pass and Wesley Burns receives a through ball, which he crosses low for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to hit into the Shrewsbury goal from close range, only for Macauley Bonne to have been offside.  The near miss provokes a burst of noise from the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a fulsome chant echoes around the stands for at least a few seconds. Town are permanently ensconced in the Shrewsbury half. “Here we go” says Pat from Clacton trying to influence events as the ball is crossed from a free-kick; but Wes Burns’ header goes into the side netting.  Town win a corner. “Ipswich, Ipswich”, “Come On You Blues” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand with gusto and Matt Penney sends an angled shot whistling past the far post from 25 metres out.

“Nice to see the ball down here” says the bloke behind me contrarily as Shrewsbury make a rare foray towards Vaclav Hladky’s goal and Ryan Bowman heads over the cross bar. It’s an incident that causes excitement amongst the Shropshire lads lurking in the shadows at the back of the Cobbold Stand, who don’t sing but instead read from their books of poetry by AE Housman. Two minutes later and a left foot shot from Lee Evans is blocked.  A further minute passes and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a Matt Penney cross goalwards forcing  a flying save from Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.  But Marosi can only push the ball away and Conor Chaplin nips in to fire the ball into the net and give Town a deserved lead.   A little bizarrely, the reaction of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand is to go all 1970’s and sing about endlessly fighting ‘the Norwich’ because of Boxing Day, I can only attribute this to a liking for the back catalogue of Boney M.

Relaxing, confident that we are on our way to another handsome victory, I think to myself how Town’s Cameron Burgess reminds me of Town legend Terry Butcher; this is mostly because of his height and the shape of his legs, but also extends to his ability to boot a ball up the left side of the pitch and curl it out into touch for a throw to the opposition.  Behind me one bloke asks the other if he thinks we might see another 6-0 win, but thankfully he doesn’t mention the use of swords.

Five minutes go by in which Town worryingly follow my ill-advised lead and appear to begin to relax too.  The inevitable result is that Sam Morsy loses possession on the edge of the Town penalty area, and the unfortunately monikered Shaun Whalley silences anyone tempted to call him a wally by lashing the ball into the net from 20 metres out.  The recurring pattern has recurred.  “Why don’t we ever shoot from there?” asks the bloke behind me; possibly because the opposition don’t give the ball away in that position I respond, but only in my head. Up in the shadows of the Cobbold Stand the Shropshire lads briefly chant “You’re not singing anymore” but oblivious to the irony, very soon they’re not doing so either, although for no particular reason such as Town scoring again.

With the scores level, Town seem to lose all memory of what they stepped out on to the pitch to do and the remainder of the half drifts away somewhat aimlessly, but with Shrewsbury Town spending more time in the Ipswich half of the pitch; at one point they even win a corner.  With ten minutes of the half remaining Shrewsbury’s number twelve Ryan Bowman is replaced by their number nine Sam Cosgrove. I think the scoreboard gets it the other way round, but it’s an easy mistake to make given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11, and substitutes 12 to infinity.  Of course, I might have got that wrong, but it’s an easy mistake to imagine given that in a sensible world players would be numbered 1 to 11 and substitutes 12 to infinity.

The final ten minutes of the half see Cameron Burgess booked by referee Mr Will Finnie, who kicks his heels too high and has overly neat hair for my liking.  Three minutes of additional time are added on during which Pat from Clacton remarks on how nice Fiona looks in her new home shirt, which Fiona collected from the club shop today.  As ever Pat is right, the home shirt is a rich shade of royal blue and suits Fiona to a tee.  Half-time arrives and departs in the flurry of a toilet visit, a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar and a chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison.  The talk is of whether we can score another goal in the second half; I think we can and am hopeful for a third too.

At 1605 the second half begins, and the floodlights flicker on soon afterwards despite it being a bright afternoon, and sunset not being for almost another two and half hours.  I suspect our club’s new owners are just showing off how Americans have no qualms about the conspicuous consumption of energy, or wasting it.  Today’s attendance is announced as 19,256 with the 202 from Shrewsbury being made up of not only Shropshire lads, but Salopians of all ages and sexes.

The half is nine minutes old, and Town earn a corner. Lee Evans crosses the ball and the oddly named Macauley Bonne runs towards it, jumps, and sends a glancing header obliquely across the face of the goal and comfortably inside the far post to restore Town’s lead.  I love a glancing header, one of my favourite types of goal; the twist of the neck, the precise contact with the ball, the eyes following its path into the net, poetry that A E Housman might have appreciated.  “ He’s one of our own” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the tune of Sloop John B, before going on to sing about beating up a Norwich City supporter (poor little budgie), this time through the medium of a top 20 hit recorded in 1979 by the Abbey Hey Junior School.

With the sun now hidden behind the West Stand, the temperature drops and the smell of the damp turf drifts into the stands;  I breathe it in deeply like an inhaling dope fiend.  Matt Penney whizzes in a low cross, which the oddly named Macauley Bonne fails by a matter of a fraction of a second to slide into the net.  Kyle Edwards replaces Wes Burns with seventeen minutes of normal time remaining.  Toto N’siala replaces Matt Penney with the game into its last ten minutes.  Three minutes remain and Vaclav Hladky rises imperiously to catch a cross and reap the applause of the home crowd.  Town haven’t managed to score a third goal, but it doesn’t look like they will need to.   For Shrewsbury George Nurse draws laughter from the crowd, firstly falling over as he boots the ball up field and then heading the ball into the ground and somehow managing to get hit by it as it bounces up again; the boy is a natural.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne is replaced by Joe Piggott and five minutes of added on time are announced.  There remains time for Scott Fraser to go down in the penalty area and to be booked by Mr Finnie for diving.  Predictably it’s not a popular decision amongst the Town supporters, but this Town supporter thought it was a blatant dive and Fraser deserved to be booked and possibly kicked when he was on the ground, which then would have been a penalty.

The final action sees the Sir Bobby Robson lower tier singing “Addy, addy, addy-o” for reasons unknown other than that they must be happy and seemingly this makes them reminisce about pre-school. With the final whistle Fiona and Pat from Clacton make a sharp exit, but I linger to applaud the Town players and witness the sadness in the faces of the Shrewsbury players.  It’s been a good day; the sun is still shining and I still have the joy to look forward to of listening to the analysis of Town legend Mick Mills, and the Radio Suffolk phone-in as I drive home. Sometimes life just keeps giving, but then it stops.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

There are plenty of clubs throughout the Football League who could be forgiven for being envious of Ipswich Town.  Oxford United are one of them.  Oxford is a provincial city much the same size as Ipswich, and both are the biggest centres of population in otherwise rural counties, although Oxford is 25 miles closer to London.  Oxford United like Ipswich Town, came late to the professional game, but both made comparatively quick work of making their way up from non-league football to the Premier League, or First Division as it was known in happier times; taking twenty-three and sixteen seasons respectively to do so.  Oxford United lasted only three years in the First Division but Ipswich Town of course won the title at their very first attempt and in a later eighteen season stint in the division were twice runners up.  Oxford also won the League Cup, their only almost-major trophy, but Ipswich won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup.  Oxford as a city has had more than its fair share of wealthy ‘toffs’ passing through its university colleges but it was Ipswich Town that was lucky enough to benefit from the inspirational chairmanship of Old Etonian John Cobbold  who appointed Bobby Robson as manager, whereas Oxford United were bought by obese fraudster and publisher Robert Maxwell.  John Cobbold and Robert Maxwell are of course both long dead and today both clubs find themselves back in the third division struggling to relive former glories.

Sadly for Ipswich, history has no bearing on this season’s results, only on the expectations of the supporters, and viewed objectively a fixture versus Oxford United is now an even contest; actually, on current form Oxford are probably the favourites.   This, along with the fact that football is now something only seen on a television screen is the current reality, and I am resigned to it; at least I don’t live in Yemen, or Myanmar, or Texas.  Keen to make the most of what I’ve got I’ve been pottering about in my garden all morning enjoying the  sunshine and the sensation that Spring is definitely in the air. 

Rewarding myself for my pottering with a pre-match ‘pint’ of Westmalle Dubbel I sit down to watch the second half of the Coupe de France tie between Red Star St Ouen and Quevilly Rouen Metro, which is live on YouTube and should end just in time to tune in to the ifollow for the start of Town v Oxford. The score at the Stade Bauer in St Ouen (a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris) is one-all and I am rooting for Red Star who, despite not having been in Ligue 1 since 1975, are one of Europe’s coolest clubs. In the 83rd minute Johanne Akassou scores the winning goal for Red Star, rounding the Rouen ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the empty net after chasing a measured punt over the defence. Making up for a dearth of football related celebration of late I cheer loudly, clap my hands above my head and shout Yay!

Seconds after the commentator suggests there will be at least 3 minutes of added on time, the referee blows for full time with about 30 seconds of normal time still remaining according to the on-screen clock.  I linger a short while to watch the post-match back slapping and bask in the joyful radiation from the tv screen before switching to the ifollow, where the teams are already on the pitch and Brenner Woolley is explaining to BBC Radio Suffolk listeners that Oxford United are wearing all-white today, whilst their goal-keeper is a vision all in bottle green.  The game begins, and a Town team much changed from the one that rolled back the frontiers of the avant-garde versus Northampton a few days ago make unexpected early forays into the Oxford half of the pitch.  “Credit to Luke Chambers, that’s what he does” says Brenner’s co-commentator Mick Mills as the current club captain passes to the opposition and then chases back to try and atone for his error .  It seems likely that Mick is implying that effort is what typifies Chambers’ game rather than just constantly having to make up for his mistakes.

Inside three minutes the oddly named Keanan Bennetts wins the game’s first corner for Town.  “Good corner” says Mick encouragingly.  A short while later Luke Chambers lies stricken on the ground, it’s not clear if has suffered injury to his face or his leg.   “I would have hoped it was a facial, he would have got over that” says Mick , subtly but justifiably boasting that he was without doubt a more handsome club captain than the current man with his military haircut and heavy build.  A few minutes later James Norwood has a header cleared off the Oxford goal line despite having not really attempted to score.

For the first time in months the Portman Road pitch is bathed in sunlight although as Brenner is keen to tell us on more than one occasion it is a windy afternoon too.  The action today is unusually quick as Town eschew their usual “building from the back” at the pace of medieval cathedral builders and instead Tomas Holy punts the ball forward.   The result is that Oxford enjoy a majority of possession but to no particular advantage.  “By the cardboard cut outs on the far side” says Brenner, describing a   Town attack down the left rather than making a disparaging comment about the players on that side of the field. 

The game is even.  “Oxford due a tumble from grace” says Brenner either imagining a woman called Grace who enjoys the company of footballers or suggesting that Oxford United’s good run of results is bound to end soon.   “Very little between the two sides….much, much better from Ipswich Town” continues Brenner almost as if he is trying to make-up for harsh comments he might have made after Tuesday’s game.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts shoots on goal. “ He had to sort of make a save” says Mick of the Oxford goalkeeper, and sounding in unfamiliar commentating territory.

I finish my beer and am struck by how any mention of Oxford’s Brannagan and Sykes in Brenner’s commentary immediately conjure thoughts of John Wayne, Derek Guyler and Hattie Jacques.  It’s a “rather blustery Portman Road” adds Brenner channeling his inner weather presenter before saying “Town have done alright this first 18 minutes, haven’t they Mick?”  Rational man that he is,  Mick can only agree.  Oxford’s Alex Gorrin is booked for a foul on the oddly named Keanan Bennetts, although I’m a little surprised and unexpectedly disappointed that Brenner doesn’t refer to Gorrin as ‘The Spaniard’.  Mick seems sympathetic towards Gorrin believing that Bennetts , who is a bugger for doing ‘stepovers’,  falls over rather easily. “You can perform all the tricks you like but you’ve still got to be stable on your feet” says Mick wisely.

In a dull moment, of which there are nowhere near as many as usual, Brenner reveals that the last time Town scored against Oxford was twenty-two years ago (Mark Venus was our goalscoring hero); although in typical sports-hack style Brenner omits to say that last season was the first time we had played Oxford since 1998.  With almost a third of the match lost to the past, Troy Parrott’s right foot shot goes wide after what Mick describes as “ Super play”.   The game, according to Brenner is now “Finely poised” but immediately realising that he has stated the bleedin’ obvious he sensibly adds “as you would imagine given the score-line”.  Town continue to send the ball into the Oxford penalty area in a welcome departure from the tactics of recent games.  “ In comes his cross…which was horrific really” says Brenner honestly of a Keanan Bennetts effort before two minutes of added on time are played and everyone retires for a rest.  The conclusion from Brenner, ”Much improved from Town, it has to be said” and true to his word, he’s  said it.

Half-time is the usual blur of the kettle, mugs of tea and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  I return to the blue bean-bag from which I am watching today’s match in time to hear Mick reveal that he likes that the football from Town today is “simplistic”, by which I think he means we’re not pissing about with the ball at the back but are just shoving it forward.  I’m not sure if Mick ever appeared on BBC tv’s ‘Quiz Ball’ but if he had I suspect we’d have heard him say “Route One please David”.  Mick’s only disappointment with Town’s first half and indeed what he describes as “the downfall of the whole performance” is Troy Parrott’s “untidy” play, and he’s not wrong, we’re only playing with ten and a half players.

At nine minutes past four play resumes and within 20 seconds Town win a corner and then the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts shoots wide after James Norwood fails to react quickly enough with the goal wide open before him.  Oxford’s Anthony Forde,  who is not to be confused with the venerable Tony Ford who played a record 931 games for Grimsby Town and seven other clubs between 1975 and 2001,  is booked for pulling back little Alan Judge.  “That was naughty” says Mick, sounding a little like Frankie Howerd.   James Norwood then strikes the left hand post of the Oxford goal after Town exploit an intercepted pass. “ Ooohhhhhhh! “ I shout in desperation and frustration from my reclining position on the blue-bean bag.  Two minutes later Troy Parrott misses the goal from seemingly impossibly close range and I groan mournfully. “How?!” I ask rhetorically.

“Parrots all over him” says Brenner as Troy Parrott fouls an Oxford player and I imagine a pirate with feathered companions perched on both shoulders and all down both arms.  Clearly now enjoying the match Brenner says “ Then Bennetts stands on the ball” and almost dissolves onto giggles as the oddly-named player falls over.   Oxford’s Gorrin and Elliott Lee are replaced by Olamide Shodipo and James Henry; the change is clearly audible being announced over the Portman Road public address system and I wonder for whose benefit these announcements are being made.

There is less than half an hour left to play. Oxford’s Matt Taylor heads over the Town cross bar from a good position.  “ Neither side able to bring the ball down on the green stuff” says Brenner seemingly unable to recall the words grass or pitch, although it is possible that BBC rules forbid him from saying ‘grass’ in case it is interpreted as a drugs reference.  Sam Winnall replaces Matt Taylor for Oxford United, Josh Harrop replaces Ted Bishop for Town. Myles Kenlock is booked. James Norwood and the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts are replaced by Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears. “Sunday League out there” says Brenner as a succession of players from both teams fail to control the ball.

There are less than ten minutes of normal time to play and I feel an irresistible desire to close my eyes and gently drift beneath a soft welcoming blanket of sleep.  I am saved from the narcoleptic embrace by Brenner’s words; “ Lost his shoe, Dozzell” he says and my mind locks onto thoughts of what sort of shoes Andre Dozzell might be wearing. Loafers? DMs? Winkle-pickers? Stilettoes?  Brenner solves the puzzle with the words “Dozzell goes to retrieve his boot” and I realise he’s wearing wellies.

Less than five minutes remain. “Out goes the telescopic left leg of Moore” says Brenner clearly now hallucinating. A minute remains and Holy makes a good diving save as Oxford press for a winning goal in a manner that I had hoped Town would be doing.  “I think this 0-0 result is a good as we can expect today” says Mick recognising that Town have nothing left to give and that Oxford look the more likely to score.  Oxford indeed continue to push for a late victory.  “Stand by your beds, this might not be easy viewing” says a mentally drained Brenner now sounding as if he’s in a 1970’s British sitcom.  Brenner tries to redeem himself with the surreal “Parrott down on all fours” but his commentary ends with a 94th minute Oxford booking which has him referring to the guilty player  as if he had invaded a neighbouring country; “Yellow card for the aggressor, Winnall”. 

The game ends and Brenner’s inexplicably public transport–related summation is that after waiting fourteen months for a goalless draw, two come along at once.  Despite this, I have enjoyed the afternoon’s match in which pleasingly Town almost did enough to win, although of course, they didn’t.  But with commentary like Brenner’s and the continuing presence of Mick to remind us of our glorious past there is little likelihood that the likes of Oxford United will be anything but envious of Ipswich Town for years to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lakenheath 2 Mulbarton Wanderers 0


The village of Lakenheath, in the top left hand corner of Suffolk beyond Mildenhall is some 69 kilometres from the County Town of Ipswich, about an hour’s drive along the A14, the A1101 and then the B1112.  Lakenheath has a railway station but hardly any trains stop there.    If you want to watch Lakenheath FC play on a Saturday afternoon and you really, really want to travel by train two journeys are possible; leaving Ipswich at 8am and 8.08am these take you via Ely and Thetford or via Norwich and Thetford arriving at twenty four minutes past ten, giving you ample time to walk or even crawl the near 4.5 kilometres to Lakenheath village; no buses pass the station.  You’ll need to take a sleeping bag because there is no train back from Lakenheath until the next day.  If however, you like a lie-in on a Saturday morning but are still committed to saving the planet by using public transport then from Ipswich it is easier and quicker to catch the 11:20 train to Bury St Edmunds from where Mulley’s Motorways service 955 to Mildenhall connects with Coach Services service 201, which arrives ‘outside the post box’ (as opposed to inside it) at Lakenheath at 13.33.  Getting back is difficult however because the last bus out of Lakenheath arrives in Mildenhall at 18.18, eight minutes after the last bus departed for Bury.  The only way to return from Lakenheath therefore is to catch the 18.58 number 200 bus to Thetford, which is perfectly timed to arrive one minute after the train to Ely for the onward connection to Ipswich left at 19:24.  The next train from Thetford is the 19:54 to Norwich from where a connection arrives back in Ipswich at 21:41.   The on-line timetables tell us that the bus ‘services’ are supported by Suffolk County Council, but it’s as if they are trying to make them unusable, perhaps so a lack of passengers will justify not supporting them in the future.

With the best part of seven hours being a lot of time to spend on travelling to a ‘local’ football match, my wife Paulene and I reluctantly dodge the pleas of Greta Thurnberg and climb in to our trusty Citroen C3.  Sadly, it’s not such a fine day to go travelling either, with low grey clouds, a strong blustery wind and the threat of rain casting foreboding over the Suffolk landscape.  The countryside is bleak on a day such as this, although the open fields of Breckland with their rows of contorted Scots Pine trees (pine lines) leaning with the prevailing wind give this corner of Suffolk a distinctive character. 

Lakenheath has a long broad main street; we pass the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin on our right and at the instruction of our French speaking satnav turn a droite into Wing Street and then a gauche into a rough car park and the gateway to ‘The Pit’ or ‘The Nest’ as Lakenheath’s football ground is known.  Access is down a rough slope and round a sharp corner into another small rough car park; the site is an old chalk pit or quarry.  We’ve definitely come to the right place as the Mulbarton Wanderers team bus is parked opposite and they are today’s opponents. 

Tall trees surround us on three sides and as I lock up the Citroen Paulene takes crunchy footsteps across the car park to the small wooden turnstile hut without a turnstile.   Paulene asks the man in the wooden hut how old you have to be to be considered a pensioner but he doesn’t answer and charges us full price (£5 each), we buy a programme too (£1).  The  players are out on the pitch warming up as we head for the clubhouse; Paulene remarks on the dugouts being on the far side of the pitch and admits to having hated having to trudge across the pitch from the changing room to the dugout in her time as  physio with Wivenhoe Town.  It looks like Lakenheath have recently moved theirs to the other side of the pitch, perhaps to improve the view from the stand.

The clubhouse is spacious, if a little dark as a result, but the bar and barmaid are bright and welcoming and I order a glass of rose for Paulene; sadly there is no real ale so I take a deep breath and order a half of Greene King IPA ‘Smooth’, although I would prefer almost any other beer, even if it’s rough; the two drinks cost £5.30.  We sit at a table by a window.  The TV is on but a caption says there is no signal, perhaps because we are in the bottom of a quarry.  Without TV to dull people’s minds the room is filled with the sound of conversation but also the thumping rhythm of loud music from the changing rooms next door; I like to imagine it’s the referees not the players making the noise and that they are stood in their pants singing into hairbrushes and playing air-guitar .  At the table behind us three middle-aged men talk very loudly as if trying to be heard above the sound of jet engines at the nearby air force base. They discuss retired footballers, most of whom are now dead.  Although this is a far flung corner of Suffolk, the twang of London accents is evident.  A man in a yellow and black jacket sells us a strip of yellow draw tickets, Nos 481 to 485.  As usual I am destined not to win; the seller has got to me four strips too early.

Time passes quickly and it’s almost five to three. The loud men behind us have already left and we follow suit, downing what’s left of our drinks before braving the breezy outdoors; we both have our woolly hats on today.   The two teams line up behind the referee Mr Cameron Saunders and his two assistants Messrs Andrew Hardy and Lewis Lofts, who sounds like he might offer to board over your attic.  The group marches on to the pitch but quickly break formation, not hanging round for any ritual handshaking as happens at higher levels of the game.

Lakenheath get first go with the ball kicking towards Wing Street and wearing green shirts with white shorts and socks, they look a bit like French Ligue 2 club Red Star.  Mulbarton Wanderers are in all pale blue with shirts sponsored by ‘Pip’s Skips’ and they play in the direction of the railway line far off to the north.  The early pace of the game is fast with a clear desire to get the ball forward quickly.  Mulbarton soon settle but look lightweight up front.  Despite the blustery wind and a hard and uneven looking pitch some of the football is neat and good to watch.  For both these clubs it’s their first ever season in the Eastern Counties League First Division,  step-six of non-league football, and both have done well, with Mulbarton guaranteed a third place finish and Lakenheath set to finish fifth in the nineteen team league if they win today.

Weirdly Lakenheath don’t seem to have a team captain, with no one wearing an armband and no one annotated as such on the team sheet.  As much as a sort of football-collective seems a good idea, their goal keeper Frank Gammon, which incidentally I think is a great name, seems to be taking on the mantle however, with his constant encouragement and advice from the penalty area.  “Win your battles”, “Left Shoulder”, “No foul” he shouts, continuously.   But he’s doing a good job and Mulbarton are kept at bay without much difficulty.  Lakenheath seem to have just one striker, number nine Shaun Avis who the programme tells me has scored 15 goals in just seven games this season, which is rather impressive.  He looks lively but misses the two chances he has, taking the ball around the Mulbarton keeper Tom Wright by the corner of the penalty area, but then going for the spectacular and achieving it with a spectacularly high and wide shot before also glancing a free header wide of the goal.

Paulene and I take a stroll around to take in the ambiance of ‘The Pit’, which we both agree is a much better name than ‘The Nest’ not just because it is devoid of unfortunate associations with Norwich City, which is very important in Suffolk.  It’s a name that makes me think of Clive King’s children’s novel ‘Stig of the Dump’  and I imagine a variation of the story in which a boy makes friends with a team of Neolithic footballers and helps them erect a goal, which looks uncannily like Stonehenge.   This is a lovely football ground, the steep sides of the former quarry and the tall trees acting like natural substitutes for tall stands and creating a sense of enclosure which few non-league grounds even at much higher levels can rival.  Sadly it’s a grey day today but it must be beautiful in the sunshine; even today there is birdsong and  the tall trees sway eerily in the wind; wild flowers grow behind the goal lines and one corner of the pitch is covered in daisies, albeit closed up ones.  Sadly, it’s not yet possible to walk all around the pitch but a concrete path behind the dug-outs and right hand goal form the man stand is due to be completed in the close season.

Back on the pitch, Mulbarton appeal for a penalty. “Handball!” shouts someone, “Rubbish” shouts someone else in response from the stand.  Either way no one seems to much like referee Mr Saunders and someone else shouts “Referee, you’re getting worse”.  I am slightly suspicious of Mr Saunders myself, his hair is just a bit too neat; he could be a Jehovah’s witness or a Mormon. Meanwhile on the near touchline to the stand the grey-haired, be-spectacled referee’s assistant reminds me of a conductor on the Eastern Counties buses I used catch to school.

Half-time arrives and I depart for the clubhouse where there is a short queue at the bar for teas and coffees.  As I queue the half-time draw is made; ticket number 501 wins first prize and the man behind me in the queue discovers he is the winner, but at least I get my tea before him.   The tea (£1 per ‘cup’) is poured from a large pot into china mugs, this is sadly something that happens almost nowhere else in senior football any more but it should.  If a football club is happy to get the china out it makes you feel like a human being, not as if any old plastic or polystyrene receptacle will do just to get another quid out of you; it feels like they want people to enjoy this tea, as if they care; and a very good cup of tea it is too.  We drink our tea in the small brick stand, a homely and utilitarian structure with wooden benches, it’s beautifully dilapidated and I hope it’s never demolished to make way for one of the boring modern, ‘meccano’ stands.

Paulene and I are refreshed and the game begins again at precisely three minutes past four. Within six minutes Lakenheath are ahead.  No one seems quite sure why, although importantly Mulbarton players do not seem to be complaining, but Mr Saunders awards a penalty to Lakenheath and  top scorer Kelvin Enaro scores his twenty eighth goal of the season,  booting the ball to Tom Wright’s right as he collapses to his knees.   With a goal lead Lakenheath are more relaxed; the pace of the game is a little slower and the passing more accurate and more controlled, there’s less anxiety.   Mulbarton look even less likely to score than they did in the first half, but do claim the first booking of the match as their number seven, the splendidly named Dom Doggett,  incurs Mr Saunders’ wrath for a foul.  It’s not long before Doggett is substituted for number fourteen, Charlie Norman. 

For a while the game drifts and I listen to the birdsong and enjoy the lush greenery of the quarry banks.   A tall, grey-haired man walks up into the stand carrying a match ball. “Man of the match Dave? What did you do, score a hat-trick?” asks a voice at the back.   Eventually Lakenheath win a corner and the action steps up a gear. “Come on Heath” shouts a man in the stand; it’s not a very imaginative nickname for the club but it follows the pattern set at nearby Mildenhall who are known as ‘The Hall’.  Personally, I reckon they should be known as ‘The Quarrymen’ .   After one corner, follows another as a shot flashes past the post, deflected away by the Mulbarton defence.   It’s twenty-five past four and Frank Gammon sends a kick deep into the Mulbarton half, the bounce fools the Mulbarton defence and number eleven James McCabe runs on to poke the ball over Tom Wright’s head and puts  ‘The Heath’ (‘The Quarrymen’) two-nil up. 

With the second goal the game changes and seems to lose the reserve it showed earlier. Lakenheath miss open-goals and hit the cross-bar whilst Mr Saunders the referee becomes rather officious and begins to wave his yellow card about with gay-abandon, booking players on both teams, mostly it appears for whinging and whining rather than anything particularly serious.  I think it’s his way of adding to the entertainment, everyone loves a good moan about the referee.   But happily if there is any ill-feeling it doesn’t last and with the final whistle Mr Saunders and his assistants stand together to receive the handshakes of both teams.

As the stand empties out after the game we stop and talk for several minutes with three people in orange hi-viz jackets, who are temporarily working on the air base, it’s almost as if we don’t want to leave.   Driving back home along the B1112 Paulene and I reflect on our afternoon at ‘The Pit’ and both agree that we’ve had a most enjoyable time and importantly have witnessed a Suffolk team beating a Norfolk one which in my mind at least helps redress the recent imbalance between Ipswich Town and Norwich City.   We look forward to returning on a sunny day.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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