Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.

Ipswich Town 2 Fleetwood Town 1

It’s a cool, almost cold, still, grey autumn day.  As I walk down through Gippeswyk Park a leaden pillow of cloud hangs over the town and Portman Road.  I march on through the gathering crowds, past people perched on car park railings folding foamy bread, heavy with sauce-laden sausage into their gaping mouths.  I stop only briefly to buy a programme (£3.50) and to put a coin in a collection box for an NHS charity, although I thought that’s what we paid our taxes for; I guess we’re being asked to make up the shortfall for the very wealthy and those companies like Amazon who could pay more, but choose not to because how else is their owner expected to be the richest man in the world and launch ageing actors who once played fictional astronauts into space.

At the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum), Mick is already sat at a table enjoying a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride. I toy with the thought of copying him but opt for a pint of Mauldon’s Phantom (£3.90), it occurs to me that the beer seems to increase in price by 10 pence every time I come here.  I join Mick to discuss how we’ve passed our respective weeks and other assorted issues of our times, including driving a hearse on the M25, cycling in Belgium, the Kray twins and East Suffolk County Council police houses. At twenty minutes to three we depart for Portman Road, as do the three people sat at an adjacent table, we follow them down High Street.

Mick and I bid our adieus near the turnstiles close to the corner of Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road, Mick’s seat is in the upper tier of what is now called the Magnus Group stand; I’m in the cheap seats at the bottom of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Having vouched for my being double-jabbed I enter the ground through turnstile sixty-one, which I select over turnstiles fifty-nine and sixty because 1961 was when we won the Second Division for the first time.  I make my way through the undercroft of the stand having put on my face mask, although few others have the decency to do likewise, and Ipswich has the country’s highest Covid infection rates.

The teams are walking out on to the pitch as I shuffle past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to my seat.  “We were getting worried about you” says Pat as I sit down, and in dipping my head my glasses fly off.  “You’ve every reason to be” I reply.  The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ plays and people join in with the na-na-nas. The floodlights are already on and with knees taken and applauded, at a minute past three the game begins. Town are attempting to put the ball in the goal just in front of me, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood.  In their red shirts with white sleeves Fleetwood look like a bargain basement Arsenal, and it’s good to see a team not change their kit unnecessarily just because they’re playing away from home; both teams are even wearing white shorts!

Just a minute of the game has passed and already the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away, and we will fight for evermore because of Boxing Day” as if to reiterate the often made point that Christmas seems to get earlier every year.  Town win a corner. “Come on you Blues” I bellow hopefully. “Is that Martin?” says Phil, turning round to Pat to ask a question to which he already knows the answer.

It’s early, the game is still settling down and the crowd are getting accustomed to what they are seeing before them. The referee Sam Allison is black; a voice behind me says “Uriah Rennie, innit”, a comment which unfortunately is unthinkingly racist, although I have no doubt it was not intended as such, but at least it does highlight the scarcity of black football referees despite there being a lot of black footballers.

Ten minutes pass and it looks as if Fleetwood almost score; Gerard Garner appearing from my low down, distant view to beat three players before having a shot blocked.  Four minutes later and Town have a goal disallowed as the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads in a free-kick, but is considered by the assistant referee to be have been offside. Another five minutes later and Bonne directs a free header at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, a large man who has made the double fashion faux-pas of wearing dark pants beneath his yellow shorts and displaying a distinct VPL.  Cairns is however one of the few footballers to share a surname with the name of a northern Australian city.  

The game has settled into a somewhat disappointing pattern of Town passing the ball about quite a bit, but not having any decent attempts at scoring a goal.  It’s nearly half past three and Paul Cook is gesticulating wildly from the touch line like someone directing traffic having dropped a few amphetamines.  Janoi Donacien wins Town a corner.  “Come On You Blues! Come On You Blues!” tumbles from the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a handful of people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand join in, including me. Toto Nsiala heads the corner kick over the cross bar from a position so close to the goal that it looked easier to score. 

 It’s gone half-past three and after Fleetwood’s James Hill fouls Conor Chaplin, his name becomes the first to enter Mr Allison’s notebook.  I like to think of Mr Allison amusing himself childishly by stroking his chin as if in deep thought and then writing down Hill’s first name as Jimmy.  Ten minutes until half-time and Sone Aluko has Town’s first decent shot at goal, but it goes past the post. Finally, as the half peters out Sam Morsy becomes embroiled in a contretemps with Fleetwood’s Jay Matete, as they literally wrestle each other for the ball; Morsy is clearly at fault and Matete is awarded a free-kick.  A bit like the weather, the half has been rather dull.

My half-time snack of a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar is the highlight of the afternoon since leaving the pub and Ray offers the opinion that Town haven’t done very much so far as he stops by to chat on his way to use the facilities beneath the stand.

The game resumes at four minutes past four and the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are soon singing “You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit you’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit,” which strikes me as being not very polite.  From the comments of the man next to me I think their “song” is directed at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, and I can only think that they too have spotted that you can see his pants through his yellow shorts, although I think it would probably have been more helpful to sing “Don’t wear dark pants, Don’t wear dark pants,  Don’t wear dark pants with yellow shorts, Don’t wear dark pants.”  

Cairns’ misdemeanor is soon punished however and with just four minutes played of the new half, Conor Chaplin turns outside the penalty area and sends a firm shot into the corner of the goal with, as the man next to me says, the goalkeeper “stranded”.  Clearly getting nostalgic for former glories, the Sir Bobby Robson stand erupt into a chorus of “1-0 to the Tractor Boys” to the tune of Village People’s 1979 hit ‘Go West’.  Feeling elated by taking the lead I risk sensory overload as I breathe in the smell of the damp turf. This afternoon’s attendance is announced as 20,099 with 133 of that number being from Fleetwood.  Pat from Clacton thinks she might have won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ coach and passes me the sheet containing everyone’s guesses.  Sadly, I have to break the news that her guess of 20,069 is not closer than someone else’s guess of 20,103, although to be fair to Pat her number looks a lot more like 20,099 than 20,103 does and she got five of the digits right; there has to be a field of experimental maths where what the numbers look like matters.

Back on the pitch and Wes Burns replaces Sone Aluko who is wiping his nose and has presumably either suddenly developed a heavy cold or has a nosebleed.    Meanwhile, back in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand Pat from Clacton tells us that she will be having a Marks & Spencer prawn salad for tea. 

It’s nearly half past four and Christian Walton makes a save from Ged Garner who had been allowed to dribble far too close to the goal.  From the resultant corner the ball is hit into the crowd where a man over the other side of the gangway from me calmly stands up and heads it back onto the pitch.  The last time I did that I tell Fiona and Pat from Clacton, my glasses flew off (Woodbridge Town, September 2018, FA Cup extra-preliminary round v Clapton).

Fleetwood’s Jay Matete is booked for a foul on Sam Morsy and meanwhile I count twenty-one seagulls on the cross girder above the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Town miss two chances in quick succession as first the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a shot saved by the bloke in the dark underpants and then Conor Chaplin sends a shot above the crossbar.  Attempting to create a diversion, Fleetwood replace Ged Garner with someone called Paddy Lane; it’s Penny’s brother I tell Fiona, although of course I do know that Penny Lane is really a street in Liverpool, and Paddy Lane is round the back of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

Town miss another opportunity as Wes Burns billows the net with a shot to make half the ground think he had scored, only to realise the ball had gone behind the post. Sam Morsy is eventually booked for persistent fouling with Mr Allison offering a fine mime, pointing in different directions to indicate that Morsy had committed fouls here, there, and everywhere.  Whilst Morsy receives his punishment from Mr Allison I am struck by the long shins of Fleetwood’s number nine, Callum Morton, a youth who the app on my phone says is English, although his stroppy demeanour, ginger hair and surname shared with a Greenock football club imply he is Scottish.  I have a premonition that he will score, which is based on the fact that he looks like he has the capacity to annoy.

Something happens across the other side of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and from up in the Cobbold stand comes a chorus of “We forgot, We forgot, We forgot that you were here” and I think to myself “Who said that?”.  Back on the grass and Fleetwood’s Johnson fouls Celina and is booked before Fleetwood string together an alarming number of passes prior to Town eventually clearing the ball. Less than ten minutes of normal time remain, and Lee Evans concedes a free-kick.  The Liverpudlian back street crosses the ball and the annoying youth with long shins heads the ball into the Town goal from unfeasibly close range.  What had felt like a comfortable one-nil lead isn’t any longer,j but as I said to Fiona, we hadn’t conceded a goal for almost two whole games, so it was unlikely we’d hold on much longer.  We would probably have conceded sooner or later even if we had to score it ourselves.

To the credit of the Town supporters, we don’t become over-anxious and we even raise a few chants of “Come on Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” and indulge in some rhythmic clapping.  On the pitch, Town remain patient, passing the ball back and forth waiting to prise an opening rather than just hitting and hoping or ‘getting it in the mixer’.  In the eighty-eighth minute a deep cross from Lee Evans is headed across the goal by the oddly named Macauley Bonne, it’s a decent chance; and then the game enters five minutes of added on time.  A draw wouldn’t be unexpected, but hope remains that we can win; this is a team that has scored twenty-eight times in thirteen games, an average of more than two goals a game, so we’re due another one.

It’s the ninety third minute; Fiona has had to leave early to catch a train because she’s going out this evening.  The excellent Janoi Donacien runs all the way to the goal line to knock back a deep, cross field ball; his flicked pass falls to Bersant Celina who sweeps it imperiously past the man in the dark underpants to give Town victory.  It’s the best ending to a match at Portman Road in years, possibly since Pablo Counago scored almost directly from the kick-off after Coventry had equalised in 2010.  Town did manage a near last minute win against Shrewsbury last November, but that doesn’t count because last season only happened on ifollow.

What started as a grey, dull, cold day has ended in a blaze of glory, the embers of which will glow all week long and at least until we lose again, which hopefully won’t be for ages; and just to add a barely needed coat of varnish, Norwich have lost 7-0 too.  Some days are definitely better than others.

Wivenhoe Town 0 Harwich & Parkeston 2

I first went to watch Wivenhoe Town in December 1990, it was a match against Bognor Regis; the Dragons, as Wivenhoe are known lost 2-1 but were flying high back then, in the Vauxhall sponsored Isthmian League or such like, but that’s not the case anymore. Today Wivenhoe Town are in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division South (there is no Second Division) and are at home to Harwich & Parkeston, a club with an equal or even more illustrious past, who are recovering from a recent spell of self-imposed ignominy in the Essex and Suffolk Border League, but are now on a run of eleven consecutive victories. Wivenhoe are on a similar run of eleven consecutive games, albeit one of consecutive defeats.
It’s a beautifully still, bright but cold mid-January afternoon as I coax my Citroën C3 over the ruts and potholes of the car park at the Broad Lane Sports Ground, Wivenhoe. Whilst I could get to Wivenhoe Town’s home by No 62 bus from Colchester, or by train to Wivenhoe and a 30 minute walk past four pubs out to Broad Lane, today I am glad to be accompanied by my wife Paulene and therefore, as a result of her unpredictable asthma we have travelled by car. The crunch of gravel beneath the wheels of the Citroën is pleasing even if the bouncing sensation over the potholes is less so and our French car makes us feel like Inspector Maigret might have done if on a day off he’d driven down to Wivenhoe to watch a match. There are only a few remaining spaces in the car park, and it’s still not much after half past two.

Getting out of the Citroën we walk across the car park to the strains of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” blaring tinnily from the PA system inside the ground; this unexpected soundtrack to this moment in our lives is a somewhat surreal experience and it’s hard to imagine finding any sort of ‘uptown girl’ in or around this non-league football club car park. I would of course like to say that Paulene could be that uptown girl, but she’s from Portsmouth.

The white painted breeze-blocks of the turnstile hut are almost blinding in the pale winter sun, but we manage to feel our way there past the bright blue and red refuse bins. At the turnstile I hand over a fresh ten pound note from which I receive no change for one adult admission (£6), one retired person’s admission (£3) and a programme (£1) . We stop at the turnstile and talk to Rich’ who has been operating this turnstile for at least the past five years now. Just inside the gate, hanging around on the forecourt in front of the clubhouse and the tea bar we find Bob, and then Steve walks over, about to pack a large burger-filled bun into his mouth. He tells us he’s dining out today. We are soon joined by ‘the Mole’ (real name Mark) and Biff (real name Ian) , all of them stalwart, long-term supporters who have been watching The Dragons through thin, thinner and thinner still. Bob tells us about his gammy knee, which needs replacing with a plastic one. Mole, who apparently acquired his nickname because people where he worked at the Post Office sorting office in Colchester thought he was a Trotskyite agitator, tells us of how there are plans afoot for the Football Association to acquire Broad Lane from the Council and the trust who currently administer it.

We are all still stood about chatting sociably as the two teams line up in the tunnel, a sliding, cream painted, metal structure that looks like it might have been made from an old bedstead. Fat Boy Slim’s swirly, anticipation-raising “Right Here, Right Now” so beloved by the people who choose the music at football grounds has usurped Billy Joel, and the teams emerge side by side behind the two men and one lady in black, Messrs Jarvis and Laider and Ms Withams. I’m disappointed not to see any sign of Wivvy the Wivenhoe dragon mascot; no scorch marks, no droppings , nothing. Multiple handshakes over with, the two teams retreat to their own halves on the pitch, to huddle in the case of Harwich whilst Wivenhoe just line-up. Harwich kick-off the game in the direction of the car park, clubhouse and the black towers of the University of Essex beyond in Wivenhoe Park; they sport an un-necessary change kit of all-red whilst Wivenhoe wear all-blue creating the classic football scene of reds versus blues on a background of green.
Harwich begin the game in a hurry and in the first couple of minutes, as we make our way down to the sunny end of the ground, they pin Wivenhoe back, winning a couple of corners and a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Harwich’s number four Shaun Kroussis sweeps the ball over the Wivenhoe defensive wall but it doesn’t get past the goalkeeper. “Gotta be fuckin’ stronger in the wall” bawls the Wivenhoe manager, although it’s hard to see how they could have stopped the ball going over the wall without perhaps also being a foot taller. By the time we reach the sunshine of the tennis court end of the ground Harwich’s period of dominance has abated and the game settles down into a terrible mess of misplaced, over-hit and failed passes punctuated by hoofs and shouts and trips and falls; it’s awful. Wivenhoe’s forwards are regularly flagged offside. “ Piss-off linesman” shouts Steve encouragingly as the flag is raised again. An advert at the side of the ground says nothing more than “Need a cab? 01206 543210” as if predicting that there are times when the game can be so bad that all you might want to do is leave.

In a rare moment of football Harwich have a shot on target. A brief chorus of “Ha-rwich, Ha-rwich” rings out from the fifty or so visiting supporters behind the goal. The quick riposte from the three Wivenhoe fans stood in the sunshine at the opposite end of the ground is one of “We thought you were dead, we were right, we were right”. Things don’t get any better on the pitch but looking for something positive to say Steve reflects that “At least we’ve brought them down to our level”. Seeking solace where we can we appreciate just how very pleasant it is stood here in the low winter sunshine; it must be a good degree warmer than in the shade by the main stand where there’s even a chill breeze. No doubt feeling blessed, Steve asks “Where do we keep finding all these colour blind players?”

It’s a surprise when Bob says it’s nearly half-time, we must have been enjoying ourselves really, it just hasn’t felt like it, and the time has flown by. I join the queue by the clubhouse and am soon picking up two polystyrene cups of tea (£2) from Janet in the tea bar. Through the window I can see the Harwich & Parkeston club officials eagerly munching their way through the sandwiches and cake that Wivenhoe has had to provide as hospitality under league rules. I take a look at the team sheet and am at first a little confused as to the player’s names because they have all been written out surname first. I hadn’t really noticed this until I read the name of Harwich’s number eleven, Rose Tyler. The Harwich number seventeen Joseph Joseph makes me think of Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as well the Beatles’ Get Back.
We stroll back towards the terrace pausing by the perimeter wall to speak with Michael the assistant Harwich manager who apologises for the first half and tells us that there was no jug of half-time squash provided for the Harwich players, which seems a bit stingy. As I wander back along the terrace I spill a bit of my tea down the front of my coat and Paulene berates me to the general amusement of a bunch of men who no doubt secretly recognise their own plight in witnessing my moment of misery. To make matters worse I feel guilty for spilling that tea when I know there are Harwich players who went thirsty at half-time.
The second half begins and pleasingly it is much better than the first and some football breaks out. Long evening shadows now extend right across the pitch and as the sun sets over the car park leaving a red smudge across the clear sky, the moon rises over in the direction of Harwich and the floodlights turn on one by one; it’s a beautiful sight.

Harwich are looking a better team now, but so are Wivenhoe and both seem to have remembered the purpose of the game. At about twenty past four we come as close to seeing a goal as perhaps you can without actually seeing one. Harwich cause confusion in the Wivenhoe defence and the ball runs to Elliott Johnson who with time to accurately direct his shot effects masterful precision to strike the ball against the Wivenhoe keeper’s left hand post. Sometimes seeing the ball hit the post is almost as good as an actual goal; I’d be surprised if the late Jimmy Hill in one of his many attempts to ‘improve’ the game hadn’t at some time suggested that hitting the post should count as at least half a goal.
The Wivenhoe supporters don’t seem to have an over-abundance of confidence in their team’s goalkeeper Aaron Reid, but contrary to their expectations he is making some very good saves. Someone asks the question whether this could be a man of the match performance from Aaron. “ To be fair, he’s overdue one” says Steve supportively. But, for the goalkeeper to be man of the match usually means that the opposing team is better and so it proves. Harwich have another attack, time stands still in the Wivenhoe penalty area and so do their defenders and Harwich number sixteen, or possibly fourteen, I can’t quite make it out under the energy saving floodlight bulbs, sends a low shot in to the net. It’s about twenty-five to five. At twenty to five much the same thing happens again and what looks like it might have been the same player moves in slow motion before scoring with another low shot. I later learn that the goalscorers are Callum Griffths (No16) and Jordan Heath (No9). I have a new glasses prescription, perhaps I should use it.

There is much joy at the tennis courts end of the ground and the Shrimpers fans are in good voice singing “Ohhh, Harwich & Parkeston” to the tune of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ and “Bus stop near Asda, we’re just a bus stop near Asda” to the tune of Joseito Fernandez’s Guantanamera. At the car park end the Wivenhoe support, which was boosted at half-time by the arrival of Rich’ from the turnstile resigns itself to yet another defeat, but still seems to be having fun, finding amusement in mimicking the whining of some of the players “R-ef, r-ef, r-e-e-ef” and by carefully and politely not mentioning how stout the lines-lady is when querying her offside decisions. Having female officials would seem to improve everyone’s behaviour, so all power to them.
With ninety minutes and not much more played referee Mr Jarvis calls time. As much as I hate to say it, it has been a game of two halves, neither of them much good for Wivenhoe but it’s been good to see one previously well regarded club seemingly back on the road to recovery. The handful of Wivenhoe fans who remain are still clearly enjoying themselves too, even if the entertainment is largely of their own making. But as an Ipswich Town supporter I know all about that and personally I think winning is over-rated.

Meudon AS 0 St Ouen L’Aumone AS 2

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

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

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

Paulene and I wander around the pitch as we drink our tea and I scoff a Kit-Kat trying to remember why Nestle products were boycotted and if they still should be; too late now, I have become complicit in their multi-national nastiness. It is a beautiful, bright sunny

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afternoon beneath a clear blue sky and the gaze of those shiny apartment blocks, which cast no shadows on one another or the pitch; this has to be how Le Corbusier imagined La Ville Radieuse.

A man in a loosely belted gabardine raincoat appears; if he was wearing a trilby hat he could have stepped from a 1940’s film. He sports a bright arm band which adds to the look, but in a slightly sinister manner; he is however the délègue principal, the FFF official who

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will oversee this afternoon’s game from the side lines. Out of the blue one of the spectators walks up to me and shakes my hand. In due course the two teams emerge from their respective changing rooms and walk through the metal gate onto the pitch before lining up side by side, then in a line before shaking hands. Introductions between the referee and players and délègue principal are made all-round, before the game kicks off about five minutes late (it was advertised as a 14:30 kick–off) with St Ouen having first go with the ball, aiming at the goal in front of the buvette. Meudon kick in the general direction of far off Stade Charlety and the 13th Arrondissement. St Ouen wear an all-green kit, whilst Meudon are all in red; neither club has its club crest on its shirts but instead bear the logo of the FFF with its cockerel.

St Ouen quickly win a free-kick as their tricky number nine goes down under a challenge; he gets up to send a neat free-kick over the red wall of Meudon, but into the arms of the very young looking Meudon goalkeeper, who strangely is one of the smallest players on the pitch, a sort of French Laurie Sivell. It is also St Ouen who have the second serious goal attempt, again a free-kick, but this time firmly hit from a wide position by their number ten. Once again the goalkeeper, whose blond hair may not be its original

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colour, saves, batting the ball away for the first of five corners that St Ouen will win this half. Most of these corners are either poorly taken or all the St Ouen players are waiting for the ball in the wrong places.
Meudon are very competitive and the game is played at a fast pace with the emphasis on passing rather than just getting the ball forward by the fastest route. Meudon come close to scoring a bit before three o’clock as their huge number eleven breaks through on the left. The St Ouen goalkeeper, who incidentally reminds me of St Etienne ‘keeper Stephane Ruffier on account of his designer stubble and very short dark hair, and is possibly the second smallest on the pitch, dives at his feet. The ball rebounds to the Meudon number seven whose goal-bound shot is headed away at improbably close range.
Meudon seem to be growing in confidence and their number ten does a few feints and jinks over the ball like a footballing Michael Jackson (Bubbles’ friend, not the one who played for Tranmere and Shrewsbury) might have done. There are a few jeers and within the next twenty seconds his ankles are swept away from beneath him by the St Ouen number three as he goes to dribble down the right touchline. It’s one of those situations that some people would try to excuse by saying that number ten had been ‘disrespectful’, but that’s just a modern buzzword, a sort of false political correctness and it is tosh; I blame Eastenders. Football is a game of skill, and dumping someone on their bum shows little ‘respect’ itself. Referee Monsieur Charly Legendre doesn’t see fit to book anyone either way.
The coaches on the side lines are animated, “Parlez –vous” one calls urging his players to talk to one another. The St Ouen coach, a portly man in his fifties sports a fine mullet and

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has the look of Maradona about him. The Meudon coach becomes involved in a prolonged discussion with the linesman Mefa Bakayoko about an offside or a free-kick which has been and gone and so no longer matters. On the field, the St Ouen number ten sends a free-kick solidly over the cross bar whilst Meudon’s number six comes as close as anyone else with a long range shot that goes wide. St Ouen’s number nine is proving industrious and creates a couple of shots for himself, one of which is well saved and Meudon replace their number three with substitute number thirteen. Half-time arrives and Paulene and I look back on a good but slightly frustrating forty-five minutes, which was too tight to be really entertaining. I head for the buvette to get a bottle of water (1 euro).
During the half-time break we stand about and as a man walks by he shouts “Ipswich!”. We could do with that sort of enthusiasm at Portman Road. As I stand I enjoy the

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contents of the many balconies that overlook the pitch from the surrounding apartments. Bikes, mattresses, plants and drying clothes decorate the bright white buildings and on one corner is a tricolour, perhaps left over from the summer’s World Cup win. As the afternoon wears on more people seem to arrive to watch the game and by the end I estimate that at least one-hundred people are here.
The délègue principal oversees the away team leaving their dressing room by a side door to the sports centre building and heads back to the pitch still wearing his gabardine raincoat, although it’s a warm afternoon; he is perhaps the anti-thesis of the banker in The Beatles’ Penny Lane and also feels as if he’s in a play, or a British TV sitcom. The bearded referee begins the game again and St Ouen soon win their sixth and seventh corners of the game, although in between their number eleven also shoots over the cross bar. At about four o’clock the St Ouen number eleven breaks forward through the middle, stretching the Meudon defence before playing a through ball to number ten who slips the ball inside the near post past the ‘blonde’ goalkeeper; St Ouen lead 1-0.
They may be losing and disappointed to be doing so, but Meudon still pose a threat and a good run and cross from number eleven meets the thigh of number seven just a few yards out, but he can’t direct the ball past the goal keeper. The first booking of the game goes to Meudon’s number two and the game enters a tetchy stage where it seems it could flare up at any moment. As at most French football matches I have seen where this happens however, there are only outbreaks of animated discussion between the players, but the referee stands back and let’s this carry on. It’s a civilised approach which may reflect the character of a country that has produced far more philosophers than England has produced ‘World Class’ footballers.
St Ouen are buoyed by their goal and their bearded number three controls a ball beautifully on his chest before advancing down the flank. The lads watching near us jeer at his skill and nickname him Fekir, and they’re right to do so because he does vaguely resemble the French international. But Meudon are not beaten yet and the large number eleven strides past a couple of St Ouen players before playing a through ball to number twelve who either wasn’t paying attention or the pass wasn’t as good as it looked. Paulene and I belatedly realise that the number twelve has replaced the number seven, who we had thought was Meudon’s best player.
St Ouen almost score a second goal as their number nine diverts a cross from ‘Fekir’ the wrong side of the post from close range, but the game is becoming more scrappy and there are more fouls. The Meudon number ten spends more time than most not being upright. St Ouen win an eighth corner and as a passage of play ends Monsieur Legendre calls over Meudon’s number nine and ‘Fekir’ and books them for a mystery offence that neither Paulene or I saw. It is now gone half past four and we are witnessing time added on as St Ouen’s number eight runs down the right and then pulls the ball back across the penalty area for substitute number fourteen to side foot beyond the small, blond goalkeeper into the far corner of the goal. St Ouen L’Aumone AS is the name that will go into the draw for the 5th round of the Coupe de France.
It’s been a reasonable game although not an exciting one in terms of goalmouth action. We turn to leave and Paulene notices a man with an Ipswich Town crest on his coat; I speak to him and it turns out he is the father of a second player from Meudon AS who is now in Ipswich Town’s Under 18 squad, Lounes Fodil.

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Lounes’s dad, who is called Mustapha (apologies if the spelling is wrong) is a lovely bloke and is genuinely pleased to meet us and invites us for a coffee in the buvette. Our conversation probably isn’t the best as neither our French nor Mustapha’s English are fully fluent, but Mustapha gets across his philosophy of football; it’s a game of skill and intelligence not brute strength. He’s been to Portman Road and has noticed the glum atmosphere, which he attributes to the dull football. Whilst we are at the buvette some of the players come in for post-match drinks and snacks, one of them (I think it might have been the big number eleven or the captain) tells me Lounes is a good player. I tell him that’s good news because Ipswich Town really needs some good players; before he leaves he shakes my hand. The man who I first spoke to when we arrived comes to the bar counter and gets out his mobile phone before showing us a montage of clips of Idris El Mizouni playing for the Under 18’s, this is when I discover that this is Idris’s dad.
After a good half an hour or more we have to leave and walk from the ground with Mustapha who leaves us his phone number and invites us round to eat; sadly Paulene’s food intolerances and allergies will make that too complicated. We thank Mustapha and say how good it has been to meet him. Hopefully we will see him again.

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LOSC Lille 1 Montpellier HSC 1

After a wet, drizzly afternoon enjoying an exhibition of marionettes at the Hospice Comtesse,

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a rather groovy establishment called ‘The Beerstro’ and then the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, the Grand Finale is an eight o’clock kick-off at the Stade Pierre Mauroy where LOSC Lille meet Montpellier Hérault in the 29th Journee of Ligue 1. Montpellier sit in 6th position in the twenty-team French league, whilst Lille flounder uncharacteristically just one place off the bottom, battling against relegation. I am with my wife Paulene and after a relaxed, light meal we head for the Gambetta Metro station. It’s a little after six o’clock and as the streets begin to dry with warm air up moving up from the south, so the Lillois are venturing out to drink, to dine and to watch football. At Gambetta station the escalator is out of action and at the foot of the stairs a ticket man greets us; somehow he instantly detects that we are English and calls out over his shoulder “Alain! Ils sont Anglais”. A smiling, balding man in glasses walks over to us “Awright?” he says and we shake hands. He continues to talk to us in English with a strange hint of an estuarine accent; he must have learnt English in Dartford or Thurrock. He explains the system of rechargeable tickets and although the ticket itself costs 0.20E he lets us have one for free and on to this one ticket we add four journeys for the trip to the stadium and back (6.40E). Alain even validates our tickets for us before we thank him and bid “Au revoir” and descend down onto the platform. What a lovely bloke. The driverless trains on the Lille Metro are frequent and one soon draws up alongside the automatic doors at the edge of the platform. We step on and sit at the front of the carriage, a siren sounds, the doors close and we’re soon hurtling along through concrete tunnels beneath the city

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above. The stadium is the twelfth stop on our mostly subterranean journey, although it is possible to alight at any of the four stops from Villeneuve d’Ascq onwards and the stadium is still easily walkable. People board and leave the train along the route at Republique Beaux-Arts, Gare Lille-Flandres, Caulier, Fives and Marbrerie, some sport red and navy blue knitwear betraying their support for the local team. Before the end of the line at 4 Cantons

Stade Pierre Mauroy, the train rises out of the ground on to an elevated section and just like the last time I made this journey I am for a minute or two Guy Montag and my wife is Clarisse (Julie Christie) in Francois Truffaut’s film of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. But it soon passes. From the Metro station it’s a ten minute walk to the stadium through a university campus and science park, past the student accommodation called residence Albert Camus; a much cooler name than Essex House, where I lived in my first year at university. It’s dusk and the stadium and its great neon name is visible through

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the black branches of the trees that line our route. The path then opens out onto a wide bridge across Lille’s peripherique motorway and Stade Pierre Mauroy is directly in front of us. To the left a broad concrete piazza is filled with French football fans, and the smell of chips and hot oil. The sun sets behind the stadium to the left, turning the clouds a blurry red and casting ruddy reflections in the puddles; adding some late colour to what has been a grey day.

It’s northern France; Belgium with added je ne sais crois, but similar quantities of frites and beer. Low buildings face the stadium across the piazza, a parade of fast food outlets and bars. Further on the crowds diminish and we pass a large area set aside for cycle parking. Although the stadium is some way from central Lille, next to the motorway and has masses of covered car parking beneath and around it, the French planners were clearly optimistic for sustainable travel and there are two concrete canopied blocks of covered cycle racks in which I sadly count just two bikes and a bloke having a smoke.

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At gate M my wife chooses to go inside, get comfortable and watch the warm ups before the match, but I want to wander about a bit and so we part. I walk around to the ‘front’ of the stadium where it faces the road and the retail park opposite. There is a trailer here from which more chips are being dispensed, the queue of ‘diners’ snakes out of the descending darkness and into the bright light spilling out from above the deep fat fryers.

I walk on, following four members of the Police National, who bristle with shields and kevlar armour. A neon display advertises a future event at the stadium, a concert by the Pink Floyd pensioner, Roger Waters; its title ‘Us and Them’ will seem fateful by the end of the evening. At the ‘corner’ of the stadium is the club shop, red letters spelling out LOSC glow in the windows and fans walking past are silhouetted in its light. Inside the shop, the colour of the club shirt, red, is overwhelming; the colour red is everywhere it seems,

WW2 night-time bomber pilots could have spent time in here to improve their night vision. But to me there is more than a hint of the subcutaneous, of viscera; this is the sort of place to give a sensitive person like me nightmares. Feeling queasy I head back outside for the fresh air and then re-trace my steps back to gate M where after the customary patting down I pass through the automatic, bar-code operated turnstile, pick up my free programme and head for my seat. Re-united with Mrs Brooks I study the sixteen-page A5 size glossy programme, which contains just three advertisements not directly related to the club. The programme is small and necessarily concise and all the more excellent for that, with everything you need to know, which is really just the squads, the league table and details of the next match. If you crave extraneous information such as forward Anwar El Ghazi’s recipe for lentil soup then there is a fortnightly club paper available in the club shop, ‘LOSC in the City’, which is also free. As I read, a superannuated looking band perform live from the side of the pitch. I think they’re playing the Sex Pistol’s ‘Problems’ but Paulene tells me it’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I’m a bit disappointed to be honest and their rocked-up version of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ doesn’t please me either , but to my possible shame in these modern times, they’re next number, Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, makes me smile. My reading and musical reverie however, is disturbed by a large bang and some chanting from outside the ground; I had seen on the local TV station that there was to be demonstration by supporters before the game because of the poor performance of the team this season, and this must be it. I walk out to the back of the stand to witness through the mesh wall and some acrid smoke a couple of hundred fans following a bloke holding aloft a red flare; more firecrackers go off and there is some chanting. Excitement over, I return to my seat. Many of the other seats in the stadium are still unoccupied, particularly those on the Virage Est (East Stand) that the Lille Ultras occupy. It is soon evident however, that the ultras were the protestors as the Virage Est sees a torrent of flag waving humanity flood towards the back of the goal.

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Meanwhile a female announcer gees up the crowd with some disco music and a dance-cam

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shows supporters boogeying insanely on the big screen above the Virage Est. People seem to be enjoying themselves at a football match which hasn’t even started yet. On the pitch everything is being set up for the grand entry of the teams. Ball boys in orange shirts are camped across the centre circle, the Ligue 1 logo is carried out and put into place along with the sponsor’s logo (Conforama – a furniture retailer) and the match ball is placed on a plinth.

Banners featuring the club badges flank the ball and plinth and another banner displaying the Ligue 1 logo and then more banners are marched on to the field, these are red and bear the squad numbers and a photos of the players in tonight’s Lille team. As if all these banners aren’t enough a short film is played on the big screen which follows a journey around the city of Lille and shows images of LOSC players projected onto its most notable sites and buildings, culminating in all the players being projected on to the Stade Pierre Mauroy. It is a mightily impressive little film and conveys brilliantly the ideal of the club and the city and its people as one, I am not a little moved by all it all and wish for a day when I see something like it in Ipswich. We shouldn’t be leaving the EU, we should be saying can we forget about ‘being English’ and instead be French, or German, or Italian or even Belgian. The final act of the pre-match rituals is the singing of the club song, to the tune of Amazing Grace.

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The words appear on the giant screen and the singing hasn’t finished before referee Monsieur Sebastien Moreira, a stocky bald man, signals the start of the game. Montpellier in all white with pale orange shoulders have the first kick, in the direction of the Virage Est but it’s as if they are mesmerised by the club song, they pass the ball about and then as the song melts away immediately lose possession. That strange, musically accompanied start aside, it’s an exciting start to the game, with both teams dashing towards their opponent’s goal at every opportunity. Montpellier’s 19 year old Jonathan Ikone, a loanee from Paris St Germain, leads the charge and his team dominate the early possession, understandably believing that against the team second from bottom in the league, they are bound to score if they keep pressing. A Montpellier shot is soon saved by Mike Maignan, Lille’s goalkeeper. Montpellier are good to watch, they’re fast and direct even if most attacks break down before anyone has a shot. Lille burst forward when they can, particularly through Algerian Yassine Benzia who has the facial hair of a swarthy Mr Pickwick and his arms look unusually long; he is also the first player to be cautioned by referee Monsieur Moreira. Montpellier’s Ellyes Shkiri is injured and replaced by Saloman Sambia, but their forty year old Brazilian captain

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Vittorino Hilton

Vittorino Hilton, a veteran even six years ago when Montpellier won Ligue 1, plays on. Although the early excitement dies down a little as defences settle into their roles, the Ultras behind both goals never waver and give constant support, their beating drums being the beating heart and rhythm of the match. Each end sings their own songs, and then call to one another down the pitch. It sounds marvellous, even though the Ultras make up no more than five thousand in a crowd of 28,609 in a stadium that holds nearly twice that number . With less than five minutes until half-time, Yassine Benzia surges forward again for Lille, running at the centre of the Montpellier defence. Leaving two, then three Montpellierians in his wake Benzia pushes the ball forward into the path of Nicholas Pepe who is sprinting into the penalty area. Pepe takes a touch and then sweeps the ball past Benjamin Lecomte in the Montpellier goal. A fast, incisive if slightly unexpected goal. Pepe runs to the corner of the pitch and salutes no one in particular in the way that players like to do nowadays, but then he’s only a young lad of twenty-two. Half-time comes and two teams of boys, one in all white and one in all black, take to the field to participate in something called the Orange Football Challenge; it’s a shoot-out which at first is a non-event as none of the boys is capable of scoring , but eventually one team wins, I think. Both teams get their photo taken in the centre circle before another competition takes place in the far goal as three blokes try to hit the cross-bar with a single kick of the ball from 20 metres. The first contestant steps up and casually succeeds, winning 500 Euros in cash as a result. Predictably the next bloke doesn’t hit the cross-bar, although he’s not too far off, whilst the third slips over and shanks his shot along the grounds six metres wide of the goal. He may never be able to watch or participate in football ever again. As the players return to the field for the second half a camera man sets up in front of us to film people in the crowd who will then appear on the giant screen; as if being at the match isn’t enough you have to be able to see yourself and be seen at the match by other people at the match, although they have actually only come to watch the match; Jean Baudrillard might have something to say about it or may be Michel Foucault. Montpellier run at the Lille defence from the start, with chunky Jerome Roussillon attacking down the left and Paul Lasne down the right. It’s about twenty minutes past eight and Roussillon receives the ball some 20 metres or more from goal; he reacts instantly and dispatches a hard, low shot between the outstretched arm of Mike Maignan and the right hand post of the goal. Montpellier have a deserved equaliser, which their small knot of fans high up in the corner of the stadium

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also deserve for having made the 972 kilometre road trip; it’s no wonder there aren’t many of them, but equally a wonder there are as many as there are. No one boos, despite the dire loss of a winning position and behind the goals the Ultras maintain their support. On the touchline the Montpellier coach Michel Der Zakarian looks thoughtful, stroking his chin in his skinny legged tracky bottoms and shapeless black coat. The Lille coach Christophe Galtier moves between his seat in the stand and the technical area, he wears shiny shoes and a dark suit; he steps out of the technical area and onto the pitch at one point when play has stopped for an injured player and is admonished by the fourth official. Galtier waves his arms about in frustration and as he turns to go back to his seat gestures at the official as if to say ‘fuck you’. My wife likes Christophe Galtier; he’s very French.

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There are three minutes added on time in which both sides press forward seeking the winning goal, but neither finds it. Monsieur Moreira blows the final whistle and almost instantly supporters from the Virage Est begin to run onto the pitch and towards the players tunnel and the seats where the directors and officials are sat. More and more supporters pour onto the field; one or two approach Lille players with a look of complaint. The referee and his assistants are the first down the tunnel. A large crowd has gathered but a cordon of stewards has quickly formed creating a semi-circle around the mouth of the tunnel. Whilst most of the people on the pitch are facing the main stand and chanting something like “ If the club goes down , then you go down” at the club officials, there are a few who are taking selfies with the handful of Montpellier players stranded on the pitch as they went over to applaud their supporters. Scenes like this always look uglier than they are and whilst there are a few kicks and scuffles as stewards feel the need to man-handle some people, the cordon of stewards around the tunnel has controlled the situation. For a football tourist like me local difficulties like this just add to the entertainment, but I do wonder what the point is of these demonstrations. The supporters didn’t complain when the new regime at the club installed previously well-respected Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa and backed him with an overhaul of the squad. Bielsa had been a fabled legend at Marseille but his short tenure at Lille was a disaster and he was first suspended and then sacked as the newly assembled team failed to perform with Lille slumping into the relegation places from early in the season. Watching people stood on the pitch not playing football is only entertaining for a short while and not wanting boredom to spoil what had been an entertaining evening we decide to head back to the Metro of Montag, Julie Christie and Alain.

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