Charlton Athletic 0 Ipswich Town 0

Mystifyingly, I often wake up on a Saturday morning in reflective mood.  It might be the relief of having made it through to the end of another working week, it might be the effect of a surfeit of alcohol the night before, although I usually consume no more than two bottles of beer and a glass of whisky, or may be it’s the leisurely Saturday breakfast of bacon and eggs, but I suspect it’s really the prospect of football.  Why?  Why, do I persist after all these years when it is clear the best days have gone? Those days of glory that coincided with my youth, my halcyon days when I had prospects and was full of hope and expectation.  Town won the FA Cup and I passed my ‘A’ levels and went to university.  I was completing my final exams at university just as Ipswich Town were winning the UEFA Cup; I made it to Amsterdam but missed the first leg of the final to the demands of academia.

Forty years on and I’ve not fulfilled that early promise and my team has mirrored my decline.  There have been moments of brief, flickering success, but mostly it’s been an existence defined by mediocrity and under-achievement.  People expected more; I expected more, but it never happened.  The fact is I probably never cared enough,  and now as punishment I am left supporting a football team that doesn’t seem to care enough either and I am reduced to writing this blog. I never expected my team to brush aside the opposition, to treat all-comers with disdain in the manner of some sort of Marie Antoinette eleven, if such a thing were possible; I have usually been happy with an away draw, but equally I didn’t expect Town to lose 0-3 at Wimbledon last Tuesday night.

Today is bright with every indication of Spring, but it’s a bit chilly and kick-off is at 12:30 because of a fixture clash with a family funeral of national interest, apparently.  Life goes on, but has been moved forward two and a half hours, although I don’t remember kick-off being moved when I needed to go my father’s funeral, but heck, I’m not the Queen; I expect she still wanted to watch Reading (The Royals) on the ifollow.

I tune into BBC Radio Suffolk just in time to learn that for the third game running a minute’s silence will be observed. If I’d tuned in a few seconds later I would have spent the best part of a minute fiddling with the dial mistakenly trying to find the radio signal.  A minute’s silence on the radio is a curiosity, the two things are completely at odds with one another, although this one does include a brief rustle of paper at one point; commentator Brenner Woolley’s notes being ruffled by a Spring breeze perhaps.

The game begins, I don’t catch who gets first go with the ball but hear Brenner tell us that Charlton are wearing red socks, I somehow missed him say if they are wearing red shirts and white shorts too,  but imagine that they are.   I sip my pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Dark Star Revelation (4 for £6 at Waitrose) and hope to witness a revelation on the football pitch.  “…coffee cup in-hand, the Ipswich Town manager” says Brenner adding a smidgeon of detail which sets me wondering if he’s drinking espresso or cappucino, flat white or de-caff.  “Holy wandering into that glorious Spring sunshine” continues Brenner and I have a vision of our goalkeeper strolling by a pavement café.

Basking on my blue bean bag in front of the French doors I catch the warmth of the sun and all seems well and so it is. “That was good for Ipswich Town says Brenner as James Norwood heads towards goal. “It took a good save from the man in yellow” says Brenner making me wonder if it was the Charlton goalkeeper or a club steward who kept the ball out of the net.  “Town close to the perfect start” is Brenner’s summation, whoever was responsible.

It’s good to hear Brenner say after five minutes of play “Town, the better team so far” and with his confidence clearly buoyed he treats his listeners to some clichéd commentating as the Charlton goalkeeper plays the ball; “Amos, who made that good save early doors in this game”.  As the ball travels from one end of the pitch to the other he’s soon describing Tomas Holy as “…the big Czech” and I hope for a day when Tomas’s squad number will reflect this by having lots of noughts on the end.

Ten minutes have passed and suddenly I realise that Brenner has been commentating incessantly with no side-kick to help him out, to give his vocal chords a rest or explain at length the nuances of the team formation.  Brenner like the true pro that he is, is flying solo today. Later Brenner will refer to ‘technical difficulties’ with the broadcast by which I suspect he means that after Tuesday’s game, the BBC simply found it impossible to find any ex-Town player willing to travel to South London and back to waste ninety-minutes of his life watching Town fail to score again.

“Paul Cook just in his T-shirt, and tracksuit bottoms” says Brenner trying to convey how Spring-like the scene is, but pausing just long enough after the word “T-shirt” to make me think Paul Cook is naked from the waist down.   Sometimes I fear Brenner doesn’t appreciate the impact he can have on people whose appreciation of the Town is hanging on his every word; then again, perhaps he does.

It’s half way through the first half of the game.  “Still Ipswich nil, and nil-nil between Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic” says Brenner emphasising in a slightly peculiar way that the score is still nil-nil. “Ipswich can’t afford this surely” adds Brenner, seemingly not realising that it is well within the capabilities of the current squad to not ever score again. 

Twenty-three minutes pass and “James Norwood down on one knee” says Brenner, and I wonder if players are now ‘taking the knee’ during the game in order to overcome criticism that adopting the pre-kick-off pose has become nothing more than a hollow gesture.  It transpires that Norwood is injured and he is soon replaced by the ‘free-scoring’ Kayden Jackson. I finish my beer and Brenner speaks sympathetically and a little weirdly of the departing “former Tranmere Rovers man” whose injury record has seen in him in and out of the team all season; “He can’t get a run, poor thing” says Brenner.

I am missing the contributions of Mick Mills or Stuart Ainsley, but Brenner’s doing his best.  “Stephen Ward who has the arm band” he says, filling me in on who is captain in lieu of Luke Chambers who is a mere substitute today; “left arm” adds Brenner, providing the detail I had been craving about exactly where the arm band was.

A half an hour has passed,  “Holy made a right mess of that” exclaims Brenner as the “big Czech” stretches for and fails to gather a deep cross, forcing Mark McGuinness, whose name always make me think of the IRA,  to clear a shot from Stockley from just in front of the goal. “Nil-nil at The Valley, in the sunshine” confirms Brenner, lending a sort of Brigadoon quality to the location.

Less than ten minutes until half-time and the oddly named Keanan Bennetts hits the ball “…high over the bar”.  “Town a million miles away from taking the lead” says Brenner exaggerating ridiculously about exactly how high Bennett’s shot was.  Forty minutes gone and Brenner reveals that “We will get Mick Mills’ thoughts at half-time”.  “Good old Mick”, I think to myself.  “Same old Andre Dozzell” I think to myself as the former Town legend’s progeny is booked for the tenth time this season; this time for what Brenner calls a “rather cynical challenge”.  I console myself with the thought that ‘cynical’ is probably better than ‘stupid’, so perhaps he is improving.

Two minutes of time are added on but it makes no difference to the half-time score. “What did you make of the first half?” asks Brenner of Mick Mills.  “We pretty much maintained the dominance of the game….they can be satisfied with what they’ve done” says Mick amongst several other things that I’m not able to remember, although I do recall  that he is impressed with Teddy Bishop today, who he says has played more as a forward than a midfielder. As for Charlton, MIck is not impressed.

Refreshed and revived by tea and a Nature Valley brand peanut and chocolate protein bar I return for the second half, which doesn’t start well, with Brenner once again unable to resist indulging in commentator-speak. “Worrying sign there for Ipswich Town there, early doors” says Brenner creating his own worrying signs, but at least he also feels able to say “…better than Tuesday night, so far.”  Kane Vincent Young has returned to the Town team again today after injury and he soon wins a free-kick on the right-wing.  “Lovely feet from the Town right-back” says Brenner revealing a hitherto undeclared interest in either chiropody or foot-fetishism.  The theme continues with Brenner speaking of Vincent-Young’s “good feet” and his “pink footwear”.

 Brenner’s solo commentary is inevitably peppered with the names of the opposition players and I am enjoying mention of Gilbey who makes me think of gin and Amos who makes me think of Old Testament prophets and my grandfather’s uncle.  Best of all however I am enjoying each frequent reference to Purrington; what a great and silly surname it is.  I have lived with seven cats during my lifetime, Friday, Dusty, Spud, Oscar, Kenny, Daisy and Poppy but if I ever own an eighth cat I shall call it Mr Purrington.

“Headed in by Innis” says Brenner suddenly.  “Bugger” says one half of my internal dialogue whistl the other kicks an imaginary Mr Purrington. “Headed into the six-yard area by Innis” continues Brenner, blissfully unaware of the numerous palpitations and heart attacks he has caused across England’s most easterly county.  It’s nevertheless the closest to a goal that there’s been in the second half and it was Brenner’s fault.  Perhaps aware of his own error Brenner goes on to speak more gibberish; “The referee felt that Downes was twisted in the ground” he says incomprehensibly, before getting over-excited as the ball is given away “cheaply” by McGuinness; then “Purrington chops Bennetts in half”, presumably having toyed with him first.

Armando Dobra replaces the two halves of the oddly named Keanen Bennetts and for Charlton Ben Watson replaces Darren Pratley, who Brenner tells us began his career at Crystal Palace, which he then informs us is “not a million miles away”.  Given that The Valley and Selhurst Park both have SE postcodes, it’s not the most illuminating piece of commentary Brenner has ever given and smacks of a possible lack of things to say and a definite lack of research into the geography of South London.  In fact, for the geographically minded, travelling via the A215 the two grounds are some16.8 kilometres apart.

Just over an hour of my life has been lost since kick-off, and Gwion Edwards shoots weakly at Ben Amos, “Another good chance for Ipswich Town goes begging” says Brenner.  A further ten minutes drift away into eternity; Freddie Sears and Myles Kenlock replace Teddy Bishop and Stephen Ward.  With Ward’s substitution Andre Dozzell is given the captain’s arm band, but Brenner omits to tell us which arm he puts it on, whether he wears it round his head or just stuffs it into his jockstrap.

“Kenlock there and he needed to be” announces Brenner as the substitute full-back justifies his existence on the planet by clearing a shot that had initially been pushed away by Tomas Holy.   “Next time you hear from Mick Mills will be in a week’s time” says Brenner now ignoring the game in order to tease us with the promise of jam tomorrow.  It’s also a sign that the game is nearing its finale.  “Getting a bit more chilly at the Valley” says Brenner suggesting, to me at least, that life and warmth in SE7 will fade away when the game ends. “Eleven minutes to go of the ninety” continues Brenner. “Final ten minutes of the game” Brenner adds, a minute later.  “Free-kick, Tomas Holy, seven minutes to play” says Brenner after a further three minutes, although I haven’t been counting. Sixty seconds pass.  “Six minutes to play” says Brenner, giving no indication that he’s been clock-watching.

It’s the eighty-ninth minute and Brenner tells of “Paul Cook having a brief chat with Purrington, patting him on the back”, perhaps he was stroking him I wonder, or offering him some catnip.  There are three minutes of time added on to be played. “Three minutes away from yet another nil-nil” is Brenner’s take.  Charlton win a late corner. “Got some tall boys in the Ipswich penalty box” says Brenner giving the impression that the home team have shifted in some chests of drawers from somewhere in a desperate attempt to break the deadlock. It’s a prelude to “some silliness in the Town area” as Luke Woolfenden and a Charlton player initiate some general shoving and pushing which proves contagious.  In the absence of goals I’m all for a “bit of silliness”.  Sensibly, the referee Mr Hicks treats it as youthful high spirits and doesn’t bother to air his yellow card.

The Valley several seasons ago

Happily, the game soon ends and Town chalk up their fourth nil-nil draw in the last six games, a record of mediocrity that I feel even I would struggle to match.  The verdict on social media however seems to be that the performance from the team was better and it was only a lack of ability that prevented Town from scoring a hatful of goals.  In the absence of Mick Mills, Brenner is my man of the match but I’m already looking forward to Mick’s return next Saturday.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Ipswich Town ended a sequence of defeats and general under achievement with victory at Home Park, Plymouth on 6th December last year, just three months and a week ago.  It doesn’t seem a quarter of a year ago, let alone a third of a football season since that victory, but oddly it seems that time has simultaneously both speeded up and slowed down since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns.  The experience finds me in reflective mood this morning and I dull the pain by steam cleaning the shower, ‘hoovering’ the kitchen and filling a  five year old hole in the kitchen ceiling, which was created when a new light fitting was installed. 

Yesterday evening I signed up to witness the third game of the Paul Cook era at Portman Road on the ifollow, and without crossing the threshold of my semi-detached suburban home, my Saturday afternoon is consequently mapped out for me, as every Saturday afternoon has been since some time back in August.  Not being a particular fan of television since the demise of Quiz Ball in December of 1972, I was surprised to find that at first I quite enjoyed the novelty of seeing the Town courtesy of the cathode ray tube in the corner of the living room, or it’s flattened, somewhat swollen, wall-mounted, modern equivalent.  Town had never been regular performers on the telly, even back when we was fab in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, but now all of a sudden we are; it’s just a shame we are no longer worth watching as entertainment but only as an exercise in eternal optimism, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.    Today therefore it now feels like mere habit that makes me log on to my lap top as three o’clock approaches.

By way of a change today I shall be watching the match against Plymouth in the kitchen.  It has been agreed that the living room is the room in the house that is most like Wembley Stadium, and therefore best suited to my wife Paulene watching her team Portsmouth play Salford City in last season’s final of what used to be the Associate Members Cup, but is now merely an occasional playground for the youth of the Premier League clubs and a vehicle for the peddling of takeaway pizza.  By Paulene’s own admission it is a particularly pointless fixture because whoever wins the enormous slice of tin-plated pizza or whatever the trophy now is, will get to keep it for just twenty-four hours because this season’s final between Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers is to be played the very next day.

As the ifollow transports me to Portman Road, the quality of the transmission is at first poor and creates the impression that the sound engineer, if there is one, is a devotee of the late Norman Collier. Happily the technical fault is only temporary and the airwaves are crystal clear as I hear BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley ask Mick Mills how he assesses Ipswich Town’s play-off ambitions.  Reassuringly Mick presents the argument that it’s best to finish sixth in the league table.   “If you hit sixth spot anything can happen from that position” says Mick raising the possibility that sixth position in League One is some sort of portal to another world where Luke Chambers captains England to the third-place play-off in the World Cup, Paul Cook has a head of hair to rival that of Carlos Valderrama, Marcus Evans offers Lionel Messi whatever he wants to see out his playing career at Portman Road and the Football Association is run by a race of highly intelligent squirrels.

The game begins and in making a minor adjustment to the position of my lap top I accidentally press the off button.  Quickly turning the lap-top back on the picture returns sans commentary just as an Alan Judge free-kick whistles over the Plymouth cross bar.  The resultant corner kick is cleared and sound is restored just as Brenner speaks poetically of a throw-in being awarded against a Plymouth player as the “ ..ball skims over the laces of his right shoe”.   Brenner has many quirks which make his commentary satisfyingly unique and his insistence that the players are wearing shoes and not football boots is just one of them.   Down on the touchline meanwhile, we are told that Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe is “…barking out instructions”, although there is no word from Brenner about his footwear, but we can guess he’s not wearing Hush Puppies.

It is only the fourth minute of the game and Town score courtesy of an ill-advised back pass by Adam Lewis. “Troy Parrott couldn’t believe his good fortune” says Brenner, obviously not really having any idea what Mr Parrott does or doesn’t believe but making something up which he thinks sounds plausible. “That is a dream start” says Mick, giving us an insight into how retired professional footballers still think about the game even in their sleep.

Without warning ,the ifollow pictures stutter and I imagine living rooms and kitchens across Suffolk in which Tractor Boys and Girls point at their lap-tops and TV screens as one and chant “ You’re not very good, you’re not very good, you’re not very, you’re not very, you’re not very good”  to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown.  Back at Portman Road, Plymouth’s Panutche Camara does something to inspire Brenner to say “Camara, a bit of a live wire customer”.  Unusually for a player not from Britain, Brenner makes no reference to Camara’s nationality ; Camara  is from Guinea-Bissau; I can only guess that he can’t decide whether someone from Guinea-Bissau is a Guinean or a Guinea-Bissauan.

Plymouth Argyle are poor, their play consisting mostly of mistakes and passing to Ipswich players.  Sympathetically, Myles Kenlock makes a couple of mistakes of his own, which is thoughtful of him. Andre Dozzell is “…trying to pull the strings in midfield” Brenner tells us just as Dozzell turns attack into defence with an incisive 20 yard pass back across the half-way line to  centre-half James Wilson .  It’s the tenth minute and Kayden Jackson is clean through on goal, he must score!  He doesn’t.  “That was a real chance for Kayden Jackson” says Brenner “Was it” says Mick using a little heard affirming intonation   “Totally dominant, Ipswich Town – can’t remember the last time I said that in a game” says Brenner, and no one else can remember either, although if they can they should send their answer on a postcard to BBC Radio Suffolk or text 81333 and as Brenner would tell you, start the message with the letters SFK.

In an idle moment Brenner tells us of when Plymouth last won at Portman Road; it was eleven years ago and Paul Mariner was their manager and he gave his coat to someone in the crowd as a memento but left his glasses in the pocket and had to contact the club to get them back.  Remembering the story too, Mick tells it again but with more words and added superfluous detail.  When Mick has finished the story Brenner tells us that he remembers it too, almost as if he wasn’t the one to tell us about it in the first place and that we wouldn’t remember that.    A short while later Brenner once again tells us again that Andre Dozzell is trying to pull the strings in midfield.

The match is unusually enjoyable and Town’s attacking play gives Brenner the opportunity to try out some football-speak seldom heard in his recent commentaries.  “Trying to get Jackson on his bike” says Brenner as a long ball up the wing drops off the end of the pitch.  Another similar attempted pass on the opposite side of the pitch has little Alan Judge not getting to the ball either , “ …his legs weren’t going to get him there” says Brenner, perhaps implying that he should have borrowed Kayden Jackson’s bike.

A quarter of the way through the game and with Town still “…by far the better side, completely on top” Brenner looks ahead to the forthcoming Town games at Portsmouth and Wigan, which he rather weirdly refers to as “Paul Cook derbies” on the basis that Paul Cook previously managed both clubs; it’s a disturbing insight into how the mind of a football commentator works.  Mick Mills meanwhile keeps his commentating firmly based in reality and rather than indulging in such nonsense he tells us how twice Myles Kenlock has saved Town by dealing with crosses in central positions that a mysteriously absent   James Wilson should really have cleared.  “Myles Kenlock has dealt with them really, really well” says Mick delivering praise which would smack of nothing more than solidarity amongst left-backs if spoken by any lesser man.

Almost a third of the game has passed and Plymouth win their first corner, which is played deep to what Brenner rather indelicately and peculiarly describes as “the backside of the box” .  The sun comes out in Ipswich and it sounds like Brenner refers to Troy Parrott as Troy Carrot, but it might be my hearing or the poor quality speakers on my Sharp Aquos television set,  which is connected to my Lenovo lap-top by an HDMI lead – or so I’m told.

After a flowing Ipswich move almost results in a second goal, Flynn Downes goes down injured. In the ensuing hiatus in play Brenner asks Mick what are his thoughts on Ipswich Town’s season.  “Ipswich?  This season?  Says Mick,  sounding somewhat incredulous.  Mick is about to take us on a footballing journey back to last August, but it quickly It transpires that Brenner hadn’t meant to ask about the whole season, only about this game.  “Oh goodness” says Brenner with a note of panic in his voice “Don’t start re-capping this season”.  It’s a moment that perhaps reveals that Brenner thinks Mick could have talked for England as well as playing football for them.  Flynn Downes goes off to be replaced by Teddy Bishop. “Downes looks really down” says Brenner  possibly but probably not making a mildly tasteless pun.

Three minutes of added on time are to be played, Brenner tells us that Plymouth are in white; it seems a bit late to be  telling his BBC Radio listeners that; without Brenner’s guidance they have probably all been imagining Plymouth in a range of materials, colours and designs from puce-coloured chintz to flesh-toned gingham taffeta.  It seems that Plymouth have also worked out which colour shirts they  are wearing and according to Brenner “ You wouldn’t rule out an equaliser”.  But they’ve left it too late and Mick’s half-time verdict is that “Yes” Town deserve their lead because of the length of time that they dominated the game.

Half-time tea and ginger Christmas tree biscuits follow.  Paulene appears looking sad and dejected; the Portsmouth versus Salford game is absolutely awful and she has had to turn the sound down to avoid the terrible commentary with its constant hackneyed, fawning references to the former Manchester United players who are bankrolling Salford City. For Paulene the weekend will only get worse with Pompey destined to lose a penalty shoot-out and their hamster-like manager Kenny Jackett resigning in a fit of self-loathing.

After scrutinising the half-time match statistics and enduring an advertisement for the ifollow which, if it were true, would make you wonder why anyone ever went to a real game because watching football on a lap-top or tv screen is clearly far, far superior, the game begins anew.  Kayden Jackson is soon hurt and is according to Brenner, “ on all fours”, it’s a pose that he seems to like to report whenever he can.  Mick then embarks on an extremely lengthy description of a cross-cum-shot from Myles Kenlock; Mick’s eventual conclusion is that Myles didn’t know what he was trying to do.

After seven minutes of the second half Town should be 2-0 up, but Kayden Jackson’s pass from the by-line is met with a simply awful attempt at a shot from little Alan Judge who is about 10 metres from the goal.  Six minutes later and completely out of character Brenner refers to a Plymouth player (Conor Grant) as wearing a boot, not a shoe.  Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is replaced by Luke Jephcott . “ Strong boy,  he knows where the back of the net is” says Brenner, now heavily into  ‘Ron Manager’ mode.

Amazingly, neither Mick, nor Brenner says it but the match gives every impression of being a game of two halves.  “Plymouth….are in charge of this game” says Mick.  Substitutions are made.  Hardie for Lewis for Plymouth; Skuse and Drinan for Parrott and Jackson for Ipswich.  “ Positive move by Plymouth, sensible move by Ipswich” is Mick’s well considered opinion.  Brenner asks Mick what he thinks of Cole Skuse.  “ I like Cole Skuse, I like Cole Skuse” says Mick repeating himself for emphasis and possibly because all he could think of to say was the same thing twice; but no one will notice, he’s on BBC Radio Suffolk, not Radio 4’s Today programme.  Mick speaks of the criticism that Cole Skuse receives from some sections of Suffolk’s football watching public.  “ I don’t understand; I do understand it”  he says, succinctly summing up the mind boggling complexities of the situation.

As Mick takes a rest Brenner tells us what Paul Cook is wearing, “ a hooded coat zipped up to just below his chin”, he’s also wearing a beanie hat . I feel reassured to know that our new manager is suitably dressed for a windy March afternoon  in which there have been occasional heavy showers.

Plymouth are dominating possession. “ Watts along the deck” says Brenner describing a pass along the ground in a manner appropriate to a team from the city that contains Western Europe’s largest naval dockyard.  Plymouth’s McCloud hits a half volley from 20 odd metres having received a pass form Town’s Luke Chambers; it’s an easy catch for Tomas Holy.  “ Wind and hail” says Brenner as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Town win a corner after a passing move started by Cole Skuse.  “ Skuse read it lovely” says Mick like a true footballer as he describes Cole’s interception which pre-empted the passing move.  “ I do worry about Plymouth getting themselves level in this game” says Brenner showing uncharacteristic bias to the home team.  Plymouth still dominate possession but Ipswich are winning corners on the break.  Camara is unmarked and heads wide of the far post for Plymouth.  “That was a let off for Ipswich Town” says Brenner ,not telling a word of a lie.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge and Jack Lankester replaces Gwion Edwards.  Reeves and Lowe replace McCloud and grant for Plymouth. Twelve minutes of normal time remain.

Town win a further corner which is played short. “Strange corner” says Mick as the ball is passed around the box and crossed in from the opposite side.   Town continue to play ‘on the break’. “It’s a strange way for a home team to play “ says Mick, sounding a little baffled.   The game enters the four minutes of time added on for assorted stoppages and the substitution of nine of the twenty out field players. The oddly named Keanan Bennetts gets the chance to run at the Plymouth defence but concludes what is not much more than a gentle trot with a limp cross to no one in particular.  “ He just completely wasted it for me” says Mick sounding a little hurt.  “ Town in the top six as things stand” says Brenner triumphantly, before revealing a previously unknown interest in and implied knowledge of the larynx  “Paul Cook shouting, not doing his voice any good at whatsoever”.

With Town in possession of the ball the game ends and victory is confirmed. “It’s been a fabulous day for Ipswich “ says Brenner getting a completely carried away.  A more cautious Mick Mills is “Happy with the result, but not the performance” and questions why Teddy Bishop “doesn’t do things in the game”.    It’s a good question and one which might be asked of nearly all Town’s midfield players and forwards.   We haven’t finished sixth yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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