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 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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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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AS Béziers 1 Red Star 0

My return to the Stade de Sauclières in Béziers is an important one because of the toilets.20170908_184645.jpg After the Dunkerque match I had e-mailed AS Béziers about the state of them. The club secretary replied telling me that the Ville de Béziers, the Borough Council, was responsible for this because it was their stadium and my e-mail had been forwarded on to them. I then received an e-mail from Monsieur Pintavy in the sports department of the mayor’s office telling me that they would do the necessary work before the next fixture.
So it is with a mission in mind that we arrive at the semi-rural setting of the Stade de Sauclières a little more than an hour before kick-off; but whereas on our previous visit it had been possible to park almost in front of the guichets, tonight there is a traffic jam outside the stadium, with cars parked all along the road and on the dusty, untended pitch that is behind one end of the stadium. Children and youths of both sexes in blue and white track suits are everywhere, along with their mums and dads who are wearing ordinary clothes. Parking our car on the roadside verge a good 250 metres up the road we make our way back to the stadium gates through the chatty, happy but mostly dawdling young French people. Fortunately, everyone has complimentary tickets so we don’t have to queue to pay our 10 Euros each at the guichets; only to be patted down on our way into the stadium. It is a cooler evening than when we were last here a fortnight ago and I am therefore wearing trousers instead of shorts and so never find out if it really is the local security policy to pat down bare legs. I don’t see the young man who had done this a fortnight ago; perhaps someone had complained. It wasn’t me, I only e-mailed about the toilets.
Once inside the stadium precincts we round the corner beneath a floodlight pylon and approach the toilets towards the rear of the main stand; now within a few metres of the door the fresh smell of pine toilet duck wafts alluringly towards us, the now opened door reveals the gleam of bright, white porcelain. Monsieur Pontavy and “Béziers Borough Council” sports department are true to their word, the system works, as I’m sure would the cistern if there was one. Vive La France!
I hang around outside the toilet whilst my wife uses it; this is because although the toilet is clean, the lock on the door doesn’t work. We then prepare to go up into the stand, but not before I notice that the stadium backs on to the River OrbOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA; there is a large white sign with red letters on the bank that spells danger. The Canal du Midi is over the road opposite the guichets and so it turns out the Stade de Sauclières is actually on an island or at least an isthmus. We go up into the stand and observe that all those French children in blue and white tracksuits are now sat on the terrace behind the goal by the entrance. Meanwhile, I wonder to myself if there is a club shop because I have developed a desire for a souvenir. In faltering French I ask a bloke in a hi-vis tabard who tells me there is one under the stand, but it’s not open now. I ask if it is open at “mi-temp” and quickly and smilingly he says his first words to me in English “Half-time? No”. It seems these are the only English words he knows; how odd. I return to my seat, but then decide to go and see for myself and it turns out that souvenirs are on sale at the buvette, although not all the staff, even in the buvette, seem to know this. Eventually, I come away with a petit fanion (pennant) for the somewhat inflated price of 7 euros (bloody Brexit!), but it’ll look nice hanging with the others in the spare toilet at home.
Flushed with success I return to my wife and my seat to await the start of the match. The track-suited children are now in the centre of the pitch and are lining up for a photograph. It turns out AS Béziers have organised a special night for all their youth and children’s teams of which there seem to be quite a number.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Clearly, AS Béziers has a firm place in the community of the town and tonight they are celebrating it. Why have I never witnessed such a thing at an English Football League club? Perhaps I haven’t been anywhere on the right day.
I have been looking forward to this match for several weeks because Bezier’s opponents tonight are Red Star, an almost legendary French club. Red Star is France’s second oldest club, founded in 1897 by none other than Monsieur Jules Rimet himself, the man after whom the World Cup trophy was named. The club is from the Paris suburb of Saint Ouen, the former docks area of the French capital. The club has a rich heritage and is known for its politically left-wing support, which has a strong anti-fascist stance. The club also has a really good badge; a red star inside a green circle. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine my horror therefore when the Red Star players walk out onto the pitch wearing yellow shirts and green shorts, the colours of Norwich City. Happily, the kit isn’t theirs, but is a spare AS Béziers kit; although it isn’t clear why they needed to wear it as their usual green shirts and white shorts would not clash with AS Béziers’ all blue kit. Would they?
A cocktail of smells assaults our nostrils as the stand fills up; a mixture of Gitanes, perfumes and salt and vinegar. The game begins and referee Monsieur Cedric Dos Santos is soon explaining to Béziers’ number 21 that fouls are wrong, although the first player to be booked is Red Star’s number 12. Things then only get worse as a punt forward bypasses the Red Star defenders and Beziers’ number 17 pokes the ball past the only player in a Red Star shirt, albeit a day-glo orange one, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfrom a spot close to the one called penalty. The Bezier’s supporters at the other end of the stand sing something to the tune of Yellow Submarine, the last three words of which are Allez, Allez, Allez.
There are only five or six Red Star supporters here tonight but two of them are very vocal with shouts of “Allez Red Star” and plenty of clapping too; they have a small banner which proclaims “Gang Green” one of the Red Star ultras groups.

After going behind, Red Star increasingly look the better team, they have more skill and they win a remarkable succession of free-kicks all down the left flank. But the Red Star goalkeeper does also make one spectacular flying catch, a replica of one I saw Ipswich Town’s David Best make in about 1973 and which has stayed with me all these years.
Half-time comes and goes and Red Star get even better in the second half, but they don’t score. Some of their players are displaying wonderful levels of skill for a semi-professional team, everywhere there are flicks and dinks; the number eleven crosses the ball beautifully with the outside of his right foot. But they don’t defend as well and as AS Béziers’ number 17 chases a punt forward, the Red Star 29 chases him and sort of rolls into him. Monsieur Dos Santos awards a free-kick and cautions 29 for a second time resulting in his being sent-off. I usually like to see players in yellow and green sent off, but not tonight.
The imbalance in player numbers makes the task harder for Red Star but they continue to be the far more skilful team, whilst AS Béziers are big and physical and play on the break and by falling over when tackled. The Gang Green retain their faith with chants of “Come On l’etoile, Come On l’etoile” to the tune of Auld’s Lang Syne, adding Scottish into the strangely random mix of English and French that characterises their club.
In odd moments where the action stops as players play dead and Monsieur Dos Santos waves his yellow card about I notice that there are some massive insects fluttering about in the beams of the floodlights tonight, although it is also possible that there are some very small bats; but I’m not Chris Packham.
Red Star’s number 2 makes a brilliant run down the left and pulls the ball back only for the goalkeeper to make a spectacular save and then the Red Star ‘keeper pushes away a header, diving down low to his right in equally thrilling fashion. But it doesn’t look like Red Star will equalise, although they probably deserve to win. A second booking for AS Béziers’ number 29 comes too late to even things up sufficiently in terms of player numbers and despite a clearance off the line in time added-on the home team claim the points; their trainer jabs the air in front of him in that odd way football people do as if they can’t quite work out the difference between happiness and anger.
I feel quite deflated. This is Red Star’s first defeat of the season and I had hoped to see them win, but instead I’ve seen them play in yellow and green, have a player sent off and lose. Football, like the sea, is a cruel mistress. The Gang Green pack up their banner and move down to the steel fence around the pitch to applaud their team and we head off up the Chemin Moulin Neuf and back to our car, disappointed but pleased to have had good value for the meagre 10 Euro admission fee and to have seen French local government in action.