Dijon Football Cote d’Or 2 Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace 1

The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it.   The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000.   But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it.  If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.

It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses.  We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium.  Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government.  But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’.  We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do.  The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus.  From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible.  From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.

A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park.  We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us.  Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built  this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934  and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco.   Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.

We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”.  It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen.   At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt.  I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron. 

Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger.   France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.

Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop. 

Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs.  Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones.  I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.

Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand;  it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift.  I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and  having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand.  The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like.  The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand.  We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke.  From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful.  We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.

There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004.  Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet.  Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros).  The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked.  The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.

As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard.  That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners.  The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that.  All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.

After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud.  It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league.  Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.

Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome.  Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012.  This game is not dynamic.  Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation.   Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.

With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate.  Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time.  Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty.  Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected.  Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal;  Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).

I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill.  Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.

The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before.  But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves.  A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to  Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise.   As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard.  Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.

I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat.  With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon.   Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going. 

Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards.  The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on.  Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2.  If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain.  It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering.  This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner.  In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six.   The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate.  What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.

The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift.  Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered.  We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us.  One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard.  Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent,  and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop.  Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers.  I love going to football matches in France.

Ipswich Town 3 Leeds United 2


And so, in the words of what was reputedly Sir Bobby Robson’s favourite song, Ipswich Town face the final curtain of this singularly unsuccessful season in Football League Division Two.  There have been a few regrets, some too painful to mention or admit to, but we’ve seen the season through, we’ve  laughed and cried and not really succeeded in doing what we had to do; there have been a lot of doubts and we’ve had more than our fair share of losing.   I can’t imagine anyone would own up to it being their way of doing anything, unless they set out to get relegated.  It is with a sense of blithe resignation therefore that I set off for Portman Road beneath cloudy grey skies into the teeth of a cold northerly breeze.   It’s not even ten o’clock yet and I curse Sky Sports and their dictat on reality, which is that if something doesn’t happen on subscription television, it doesn’t really happen.  There are supporters of both Ipswich Town and Leeds United at the railway station and sadly, Chelsea.  The train is three minutes late although the electronic display claims it is on time; another example of the truth being what we are told it is.  The train is busy with Bank Holidaying passengers; middle-aged women dressed up to the nines cackle excitedly, one wears a semi-transparent wide brimmed-hat like a gossamer sombrero.  Legs apart blokes stand by the sliding doors and drink cheap lager from shiny blue cans.  An invisible cloud of acrid body spray creates a tickling sensation in my nose, it spreads and transforms itself into a stabbing pain in what feels like the root of a tooth, I reminisce about hay-fever.

In Ipswich a state of emergency has been declared and would-be passengers vie for space in the railway station booking hall with a platoon of police, all hand-cuffs and hi-vis. On the station ‘plaza’ more police; fashionable police in baseball hats with riot-helmets swinging casually from their utility belts.  Opposite in the garden of the Station Hotel the marauding Yorkshire hordes enjoy some drinks and a barbecue, the smell of charcoal smoke wafts across the river. I head for St Jude’s Tavern taking a detour along Constantine Road past the Corporation bus garage because Portman Road is closed. The Leeds United team bus sweeps by, it’s blacked out windows hiding its precious cargo from the gaze of the common people; a BMW waits where parking has been suspended; it’s always a BMW.  At the corner of Portman Road early diners wrestle with paper napkins of meat-based, bun encased lunches, jealously guarding their sauce and onions. I buy a programme, a souvenir of the end of a sixty-two-year-long era.

St Jude’s Tavern has been open five minutes, but already a bevy of fifty-something drinkers crowd around the bar.  “We’re all going on a League One tour” chants one before expressing his excitement at the prospect of an away match against Southend United.  I turn to the barmaid “It doesn’t get much better than a day out it Southend, does it” I say with a hint of sarcasm.  She looks confused, so I ask for a pint of the Match Day Special which is St Jude’s Elderflower Bitter (£2.50).  It doesn’t taste too good. “It’s the elderflowers” she tells me and swaps it for a pint of Nethergate Venture at no extra charge.  It makes me think of the ‘French’ John Cleese in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. I talk to one of the regulars about his replacement knee and elderflower cordial before Mick arrives; he buys me a pint of Elgood’s Plum Porter (£3.60), which is characteristically kind and generous of him.  Mick and I discuss his current affliction with bursitis (Housemaid’s Knee) and I wince at the size of the bump on his leg.

Time passes quickly and I am soon drawn down Portman Road by the beaming blue face of Sir Bobby Robson peering between the bright green foliage of the trees beyond Handford Road.  I enter the ground from Constantine Road past the array of planet-destroying, over-sized, show-off cars owned by the players and through the little used turnstile number 60. “It’s a quiet little number having this turnstile, isn’t it” I say to the young woman enclosed in her brick and mesh cubicle, she smiles nicely and doesn’t disagree.  I stroll to my seat via the WC facilities beneath the stand where I hear the recorded stadium safety announcement; “If you hear this sound  – wooooh, wooooh…” says the disembodied female voice with a faintly Irish accent.  I imagine a woman from Donegal called Sheila who is capable of creating the strange whooping sound with her natural voice, like some sort of gainfully employed banshee.

Emerging up the steps from beneath the stand my eyes are met by a long blue and white banner at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground.  “There is a light that never goes out” it reads.  I like the music of The Smiths and Morrissey as much as the next miserabilist, but wonder at the relevance of this random snatched lyric and also if Morrissey will be pursuing a royalty.  The lyrics of the Smiths are an odd choice if looking for uplifting words, and I would like to see the banner that announces “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”.  Recovering my joie de vivre I see in my mind’s eye a banner at Carrow Road which reads “Ha ya got a loight boy?” and wonder what other lyrics from popular song are suitable to ‘celebrate’ relegation. I decide that “Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, no one was saved” sums up my feelings nicely and I imagine makes Morrissey jealous that it isn’t one of his lyrics.

As ever, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton are here today, but far fewer of the seats about us are vacant and I marvel at the increased level of support the club has garnered from becoming the plucky underdogs.  Town kick-off towards us in their traditional blue and white shirts, befouled by the hideous logo of a firm of on-line shysters.  Leeds United are also the lackeys of an on-line betting company, but with a nicer logo and they wear yellow shirts and socks with blue shorts, looking like Newmarket Town, but with more expensive and exotic haircuts and tattoos.

Having had first kick, Town quickly lose the ball to their opponents and struggle to get it back.  “Marching on together, We’re gonna see you win” sing the Leeds support presumptuously from the top tier of the Cobbold stand.  Below them in front of the executive boxes a couple of rows of Leeds fans sit with flags spread out on the seats in front of them, they look like they’re all together in a giant bed.  If they were Norwich supporters they would be.

Eleven minutes pass and I’m a little bored already,   Ipswich are sadly not doing much but chasing Leeds players and the ball. For a few moments Leeds play the ball around across their penalty area like a French or Brazilian team, confident in their ability to pass and control the ball, Town captain Luke Chambers looks on, mouth agape.  The Leeds United goalkeeper Kiko Casilla appears to be somewhat bandy-legged; I ponder the likelihood of anyone from sunny Spain suffering with rickets.

A smattering of Leeds fans swing their scarves about their heads like slingshots, recalling the Gelderd Road end of Leeds’ ground in the 1970’s whilst the Town fans in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand sing “Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury” which is a worthwhile boast because the Shropshire town is a one of the Football League’s loveliest, up there with Oxford and our very own Ipswich.  It is the nineteenth minute of the game and Town win a corner, bucking the trend of Leeds dominance. Andre Dozzell’s kick fails to travel beyond the Leeds defender at the near post however.  A conversation ensues behind me the final words of which are “We need a new team, mate”.  On the touchline Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa adopts his customary squatting pose.  The Argentine is sometimes considered to be an eccentric character and his moving to Leeds having managed Lazio and Marseille rather proves the point; he was a legendary figure at Marseille, adored by the Ultras and I am proud to say I saw him sit on a cup of coffee at the Velodrome, which may be why he is choosing to squat today.

The game is not living up to expectations and to pass the time the Sir Bobby Robson Stand goad the Leeds support by singing “Top of the League and you fucked it up” which is a bit rich from supporters of a team that has been bottom of the league virtually all season.  Compared with our own team’s performance this season Leeds United are world beaters. “One Mick McCarthy” sing the Yorkshiremen in response, which is fair enough, but easy to say given that he’s only ever bored them until they cried with his attritional, joyless football as manager of the opposition.

I’ve been watching this game for almost half an hour and all of a sudden a couple of passes send our angular on-loan German Collin Quaner through on goal with just Casilla to beat; Casilla comes out of his penalty area and runs straight at Quaner who pushes the ball beyond him and hurdles the Spaniard’s lunging frame before crashing to the turf.  The lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand bay for blood but referee Mr Gavin Ward proffers only a yellow card in the direction of Casilla, possibly because he couldn’t conceive of the current Ipswich Town team of having a goal scoring opportunity, let alone being denied one.  But the resultant free-kick proves Mr Ward wrong as the ball sails high into the six yard box and no one is able to send it decisively in any direction, so it drops to the ground and Town’s Flynn Downes is nearest and able to hook it into the goal net.  Ironically, it’s the sort of goal that owes a lot to the methods of Mick McCarthy.

“We’re winning a game, we’re winning a game, how shit must you be, we’re winning a game” sing the Town fans, once more invoking the sound of ‘Sloop John B’.  Surfing on a wave of a single Beach Boys tune the Sir Bobby Robson Stand ill-advisedly seek to push home their perceived advantage. “Premier League, you’re having a laugh, Premier League, you’re having a laugh” they chant to the tune of Tom Hark.  If only they’d stopped to think about the probable response.  “Championship, you’re having a laugh” is the inevitable short-vowelled response.  A battle of wits, it’s not.

Happiness reigns until the final minute of the half when Myles Kenlock omits to prevent Luke Ayling, who incidentally sports the day’s daintiest coiffure, from crossing the ball and Pole Mateusz Klich is allowed a free shot at goal, from which he scores Leeds’ equalising goal.  It’s disappointing of course and a little ‘out of the blue’ but not really unexpected.  What I have come to enjoy most about this season is how little it now hurts when the opposition score; I have perhaps achieved some kind of state of grace.

The half-time break allows time to relieve myself of more surplus liquid, consume a Panda brand liquorice stick and gawp up at the half-time scores on the TV screen beneath the stand.  Once again the statistics shown on the TV screen are inaccurate, with neither team apparently having had a player booked.  If that stat is wrong, and it blatantly is, I cannot trust the others.  Thwarted again in my search for truth I climb back up the steps into the stand and talk with Ray, a reassuringly honest man.  I tell him that next Saturday I shall be watching Dijon FCO v RC Strasbourg at the Stade Gaston-Gerard; Ray tells me that he’s heard good things of Dijon, “they’re mustard” he says without any trace of embarrassment.  In fact Dijon face relegation, so even Ray lied, albeit in the name of ‘comedy’.

The second half begins at thirty-four minutes past one, and before twenty-five to two the Towen are winning; Collin Quaner passing to Andre Dozzell in the sort of space usually only seen between Ipswich defenders.  Dozzell scores with aplomb; it’s the first time Towen have scored as many as two goals at home since New Year’s Day.   Leeds are quick and inventive but lack accuracy, although they still get chances they contrive to waste them. “That’s a ruddy good save” says the old boy behind me appreciatively, but with an odd hint of grudging reluctance as Bartosz Bialkowski dives to his left to tip a shot away for a corner.  “One Bobby Robson, There’s only one Bobby Robson” sing the overly nostalgic and sentimental supporters in the stand that bears the dead man’s name.  The Leeds supporters are not similarly moved to mention Don Revie OBE, despite the marvellous picture of the man in the match programme in which he looks a bit like Grouty (Peter Vaughan) in the TV sit-com ‘Porridge’.  It’s easily the best thing in the programme.

All is going well and I dare to dream of seeing Town win.  But I should know better by now.  Ayling of the hair crosses the ball; the weirdly named Kemar Roofe hits the cross-bar with a close range shot and the ball seemingly just bounces off Stuart Dallas and into the net.  There is a suspicion amongst Town fans that Ayling’s pony tail was offside and that Dallas handled the ball into the net, and to make the point ever-present Phil is off his seat and waving his arms in anger and frustration, but referee Mr Ward pays no heed; if he only knew how many consecutive Town games Phil has seen he might be more sympathetic. Heartless, ignorant git.  

As the Towen kick-off the game once again a long line of riot police string themselves out along the front of the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the disabled enclosure, sitting themselves down on the cold concrete floor.  To a man, woman and child, the occupants of the stand are bemused.  “Do you think they’ll get piles?” asks the old dear behind me, laughing.  Ever-present Phil may be disgruntled but he’s never been known to lead a pitch invasion, neither has Pat from Clacton nor Ray, nor the old boy behind me, despite his occasional vitriolic tone.  Ray’s grandson Harrison has got a pretty nifty new wheelchair so he’s not likely to throw it onto the pitch in a fit of pique, even if we helped him pick it up.  Perhaps Police Intelligence (ha-ha) has identified me; I do have previous after all, having fallen foul of the stewards on separate occasions for banging a tambourine, sitting in the seat behind my allotted one and taking photographs; I might be considered dangerous, I like to think so, but really, as my own Smith’s inspired banner might say “ I’m not the man you think I am”.

With my mind racing Town’s defence lose concentration too and after a corner to Leeds Kemar Roofe drops to the ground after contact, of a sort, with Town captain Luke Chambers, who appears to have tried to tickle him.   Mr Ward is decisive and doesn’t stop to think twice, or perhaps even once as he awards Leeds a penalty and sends Chambers off, which is a pity because it’s his name that features on the front of the match programme and he was also voted the supporters player of the year.  Mr Ward should really do some research before refereeing his next match; today he is just making social faux pas after social faux pas.    I doubt we’ll ask him back after this.

The ticklish Kemar Roofe dusts himself off before stepping up to take the penalty.  What happens next is probably the funniest most blissful thing I have seen at a game since Robert Ullathorne’s back pass at Portman Road in April 1996, as Roofe appears to cross himself and then deftly kicks his own leg away from under him and sends the ball high and wide, appropriately towards the roof of the stand; I can’t swear to ever seeing the ball land, perhaps it hasn’t.  If Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had taken the penalty they couldn’t have bettered Roofe’s effort for pure slap-stick. I’d like to see it again in flickering black and white, slightly speeded up. If goals that go in are followed by Tom Hark or Chelsea Dagger over the public address system, moments like this deserve the Looney Tunes music and the scoreboard proclaiming “That’s All Folks!”

I feel satiated, enough has gone on this early afternoon to tide me over until next season.  It might be disappointing not to win having twice had the lead, but this is 2019 in Ipswich, it’s good enough.  But no, for the first time this season at Portman Road fate has something good in store and in the final minute of normal time Casilla and a Leeds defender both jump for a cross at once and succeed in knocking it on to Collin Quaner who has time and space to simply kick the ball into an open goal for another moment of high comedy and delirium.

The game ends and the season ends and at last Ipswich have a decent win in front of the Portman Road crowd.  But I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Leeds; I grew up hating them like everyone else but they are part of the landscape of my football following life and I like them to be there looming large.   I hope they get promoted if that’s what they want; although they should be careful what they wish for.

So Town have been relegated and will be a third division club next season, but it’s been rather fun getting here and Portman Road is a far nicer place to come now than it was last season. I just hope it’s as good or better come Christmas.  Relegation isn’t so different to promotion really; we will still just end up playing a load of different teams to the ones we played this year.  As a fan of the Smiths might print on a large banner  “What difference does it make?” Norwich may have been promoted and we have been relegated, but let’s see who wins more games next season.

Paris St Germain 5 Olympique Lyonnais 0

It’s Sunday evening at Meudon Val Fleury suburban railway station and due to engineering works I didn’t think the RER trains were running, they weren’t when I tried to get home from central Paris last night just after midnight, but life is full of surprises and some of them are nice ones. So my wife Paulene and I eschew the almost door to door service of the 289 bus and opt for fewer carbon emissions with a short train ride and a twenty-minute walk to get to Parc des Princes.
It’s an uneventful journey apart from the sight of a coach, with curtains drawn across the windows and led by two police motorbikes, driving across the Pont d’Issy les Moulineaux. Was it the Olympique Lyon (OL) team, just OL supporters or may be a gendarmes’ night out? Nobody knows; well we don’t.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Tonight’s match is the highlight of the weekend in Ligue 1, one of the ‘classique’ games that sees PSG play either OL or Olympique Marseille; the capital against France’s biggest other cities and North versus South. PSG have been dominating French football for the last six or seven years, but OL won Ligue 1 for a record seven consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2008, and with a new stadium hosting crowds in excess of 50,000 they should, in theory, be capable of challenging PSG. So far PSG have won all of their eight league matches this season (a record in itself), but this will be their first game against a club that might be expected to compete with them. OL beat Manchester City in the Champions League a week ago but are already as many as ten points behind PSG in the league.
Kick-off is at nine o’clock and it is almost dark by the time we approach Parc des Princes. There is a roar of traffic along the Périphérique where the red and white lights of the31291864528_a05c5770de_o scooters, cars and trucks make a surreal, atomised tricolour with the deep blue night sky before they disappear beneath a corner of the stadium; in the streets there is a hum of crowds and footfall along the wide boulevards. There are police in abundance; tonight they’ve brought not only their usual vans and bikes but a full size single-deck bus. Then there is a hiatus in the street, armed police are strung45116788112_465d898a34_o across the Route de la Reine and our path to the stadium is blocked. There is no clue why, and then just as mysteriously we are free to go on our way again. The grocery shops are busy as people buy pre-match snacks and a couple of bars are busy, but not to the extent that a pub as close to an English ground would be. Our route to the ground is now carefully directed between metal barriers feeding us toward the correct stand; we are in Borelli, entrance N. Tonight a ticket is notOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA enough to get you in the ground, the French show their ID cards whilst we show our passports.
The nine o’clock kick-off has given ample time to eat dinner with a drink or two so there is no need to buy pre-match refreshment this evening. But the French like to linger over dinner and the seats around us do not fill up until just before kick-off, some after that. This is a big match. The Ultras are back in force in the Auteuil Tribune after being absent for the Red Star Belgrade game, but there is a good following from Lyon also, all waving blue and red flags, chanting and holding their arms aloft as if undergoing a religious expereince. As The PSG team runs out to carry out its on-pitch warm up, the tannoy announces “L’equipe de Paris” (The Paris team) and some raucous grunge is played as pictures of the players striking poses appear on the two giant screens. As Gianluigi Buffon stops shots in a practice goal near the side of the pitch a stray ball flies into the crowd just in front of me. The ball firmly smites a man on the side of his head, but he feigns insouciance and enquires after the well-being of the person next to him as if the ball hit them rather than him. Odd behaviour I think, perhaps he’s concussed.
With the approach of kick off the Ligue 1 anthem, a brassy, punchy little number greets

our ears, the teams and officials walk-on side by side and a brief display of fireworks explodes into life. It’s all very dramatic and slightly pompous. The pomp is put into mundane context soon afterwards as the banners displaying the club crests and Ligue 1 logo are dismantled without ceremony on the space behind the goal and folded up, they no longer look so grand, but more like a colourful two-man tent.
The game begins and early play is tight with both teams’ forwards being crowded out, but Lyon soon suffer a severe blow as Nabil Fekir, their captain and member of the

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World Cup winning squad twists an ankle. At first he receives treatment and carries on, but not for long and is substituted by Maxwell Cornet in just the seventh minute. That’s disappointing for Lyon and for me; I had wanted to see Fekir play. Two minutes later Lyon’s Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes compounds Lyon’s misery as he foolishly tries to race Kylian Mbappe to the ball, which appears to be going out for a goal kick. Lopes doesn’t reach ball, but he does reach Mbappe and referee Monsieur Antony Gautier rightly points to the penalty spot. Neymar scores; rolling the ball gently to the right as the goalkeeper dives left, exactly as he did against Stade de Reims ten days before.
It’s been a messy start to the game and it doesn’t improve. Lucas Toussart is the first player booked after he commits a high tackle on Marco Verratti, but PSG’s Presnel

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Kimpembe then out does him by eliciting a red card from the top pocket of Monsieur Gautier for an assault on Tanguy NDombele. Weirdly, the dismissal is not instant as at first Monsieur Gautier goes to show a yellow card, but then looks again at the foul using the ‘VAR’. It is almost as having been caught Kimpembe is then tried before the verdict is reached. It would have been a nice touch if having reached his verdict the referee placed a black cap placed on his head before showing the red card. Only a few minutes after Kimpembe’s dismissal Neymar is booked for poleaxing Jeremy Morel, and after Lyon make another enforced substitution due to injury, Marco Verratti is also shown a yellow card after fouling Maxwell Cornet. Edinson Cavani is then substituted so that PSG can prop up their depleted defence, although the football press will later desperately try to make more of it, as ever failing to grasp that football is a team game. Other decent fouls go unpunished in terms of cards, but there are plenty of free-kicks to keep fans of set-pieces happy. The net result is no more goals and four minutes of unwanted additional time, but this is put to good use as Toussart trips Mbappe and receives a second yellow card from Monsieur Gautier and to end the half both teams have just ten players. If you like your football fast and violent, with every kick of the ball being matched by a kick of a player, it’s been a terrific half.
Half-time is an opportunity to rest and recuperate and I watch the electronic advertisement hoardings changing their messages. Although we are in Paris it is interesting how many of the advertisements are in English, another symptom of how clubs like PSG see themselves less as belonging to Paris and more as global brand. One advert for the Qatari National Bank mystifies me with its weird slogans “When you set your life goals, We can make the time right”. It all sounds very positive and inspiring, but what the hell does it mean? Equally hollow are the signs that read “Indonesia Stay Strong”; superficially all very laudable and who doesn’t wish the people of Indonesia well after the recent natural disasters? But slogans in a football grounds thousands of miles away don’t help them; perhaps a slice of PSG’s £500 million budget might though, if they really want to help.
The second half arrives and for a while Lyon look a threat. There is still only one goal in this game, a mere penalty at that, not a proper goal and Lyon are not being outplayed. I start to think PSG might not necessarily win this game. Neymar is setting up Mbappe however, and twice he puts him through on goal with just Lopes to beat, but he misses the first and his second shot is saved. Again Neymar puts Mbappé through and again he misses and then it happens yet again. I genuinely don’t think Mbappé has yet played as well for PSG as he did for Monaco and am on the verge losing patience with him. I begin to wonder if is he too young, if there too much pressure on him having been transferred for such a massive fee. Then with just about an hour of the match gone Neymar sets him up or a fifth time and this time he scores hitting both posts in the process and PSG lead 2-0. Five minutes later Mbappé scores again after interplay between Marquinhos and Verratti. Three minutes later Mbappé has a hat-trick as PSG hit Lyon on the counter OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAattack. Finally, after a further five minutes Mbappé scores his fourth goal and PSG ‘go nap’ as an attempt to set up Neymar sees the ball return to him with the invitation to score, which he accepts.
Mbappé and Neymar are incredible. Their speed and skill is wonderful to see. This is not like normal football and when PSG build up a lead like this they transform into a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters; this is pure footballing circus. When two minutes from time Neymar attempts an audacious and spectacular overhead kick, the crowd roars in appreciation. But this is all in sharp contrast to the first half, it is as if having two less players on the field, albeit one of them one of their own players has created that extra bit of space that Neymar and Mbappé use to run amok.
This was an unexpected result, even by the high standards of free-scoring PSG, but it has been a very strange game not least because two players were sent off before half time; then Mbappé contrived to miss four good chances all of which he is more than capable of scoring from, only to then go on and score four times in thirteen minutes. At the end of the match the PSG team line up as one to salute the Ultras at the Auteuil end and an extended love-in ensues with much jumping about and singing shared by players and supporters. The team are clearly very excited by the win and this has been a very special night, the like of which I am not sure I have ever seen. The closest I can come to it was when Ipswich beat Norwich City 5-0 but despite the joy of that night I don’t honestly think it matched the passion shown here tonight.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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