Ipswich Town 0 Cambridge United 1

When I first started attending Portman Road, almost exactly fifty-two years ago (April 6th1971, a goalless draw versus Everton), Cambridge United were putting the finishing touches to their first ever season in the Football League.  I remember looking out for Cambridge’s results every week and hoping they’d do well; I think I must have been excited by the idea of a new club in the Football League and the fact that they were almost local, being in the next county.  I continued to follow Cambridge’s results throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s and still recall players with memorable names and haircuts such as Brian Greenhalgh, Steve Spriggs, Steve Fallon, Brendon Batson, Alan Biley and Lindsay Smith.   Twenty years later , I had lost my youthful joie de vivre and when Town met Cambridge for the first time in a League fixture, I was much less enthused by the Cambridge United team under the management of John Beck, a man who looked and sounded uncannily like Trigger in the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses.  That Cambridge team had some talented players (Dublin, Claridge, Kimble, Fensome, Daish) but was horrible; in November they beat Town 2-1 at Portman Road and the following April held us to a draw at the Abbey Stadium; their main tactic as I recall was to keep the ball as far above the ground as possible at all times.

Today, Ipswich are playing Cambridge United in a Football League fixture at Portman Road for only the second time in fifty-two years. It’s a beautifully sunny, but desperately cold afternoon and cotton wool clouds festoon a pale blue sky, like in an imaginary art deco poster advertising day trips by rail to some chilly east coast resort.  Having been delayed by cones surrounding non-existent roadworks on the A12 at Capel St Mary, I hurry across Gippeswyk Park after parking up my trusty Citroen C3.  Two youths walk towards me across the grass.  “Alright mate?” says one, perhaps trying to impress his much taller accomplice with his cheeky enquiry of a random adult. “Yes, I’m alright mate, are you?” I reply, returning his familiarity right back at him with an enquiring raised eyebrow. 

The sound of football chants carries on the bitter north easterly wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel where Cambridge United supporters fortify themselves against the cold and their inevitable disappointment. In Portman Road, I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern, cashless way, but just like last week the technology is not working. Disappointed, but not entirely surprised, I fish for a five-pound note in my wallet and wait for my change.  Five or so minutes later, as I reach the Arboretum pub (currently known, for reasons unknown, as the Arbor House), a large Honda car draws up and out steps Ray who is being dropped off by his wife Roz. After waving to Roz and having a brief conversation with Ray , which I politely curtail as I am already late, I head into the pub and Ray heads into town to complete undisclosed errands.  Service is slow at the bar where one of the staff seems to struggle to remember which drinks he has poured and which he hasn’t; eventually I take a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) out into the beer garden where Mick is already some way through his own pint of something similar.   We talk of solar power, dizzy spells, Mick’s son continuing to work whilst suffering from Covid, cycling and Germany’s admirable, open and honest attitude towards its past.  With a little under half an hour until kick-off we leave for Portman Road after first taking our empty glasses back to the bar.

Bidding Mick farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Group West Stand, I walk to the Constantine Road entrance and then past the serried ranks of the players’ cars;  mostly black or grey Mercedes and Audi SUVs; they look like hearses . I enter the ground through turnstile 61, which I choose in preference to turnstiles 59 and 60 because Ipswich were Football League Champions in the 1961-62 season. I hope for the day when they open turnstile 62.  I thank the turnstile operator and he thanks me, but he doesn’t wish me ‘bon match’ or that I have a lovely time, and I can’t deny that I’m slightly disappointed by this. 

My first port of call inside the stand is the lavatory where the sound of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown is echoing round the tiled walls, I think the two men standing either side of me at the urinal are singing along to it, which strikes me as a little odd, but nevertheless I join in.  It’s only when the song gets to the chorus that I’m not sure if the two blokes actually were singing or if it wasn’t an aural ‘illusion’ created by lavatorial acoustics. With flies zipped up and hands washed, the teams are now on the pitch. With hellos said to Pat from Clacton and Mark, who is again in Fiona’s seat because she is on a cruise, and mental notes taken that ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood are both here, it is almost time for the game to begin.  In the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand a banner reads “Something tells me I’m into something good”, revealing an unexpected enthusiasm amongst North Standers for the hits of Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits.  I like to believe that they perhaps hope Herman of the Hermits and Hermann Hreidarsson are one and the same.

With knees taken and applauded it is a minute past three and Town kick off in their traditional blue and white kit, whilst our opponents display a regrettable lack of imagination by wearing all-black in the manner of antipodean rugby teams, old-style referees and the baddies in cowboy films.  A cloud of smoke drifts across the pitch, evidence of some pyrotechnics, the smell of which makes me think of Apocalypse Now, it must be the smell of victory.  “U’s, U’s” chant the Cambridge supporters between bouts of rhythmic clapping; ”Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, seemingly confused about the time of year and who we’re playing, although to be fair it is cold enough to be Christmas. 

Two minutes in and Bersant Celina has a shot on goal, but it’s an easy catch for the Cambridge goalkeeper Dimitri Mitov.  “He might of saved it” sniggers the bloke behind me making the all too common grammatical error of using the word ‘of’  instead of ‘have’.   “Blue Army” bawls the bloke next to me, who is slumped back in his seat as if it’s part of a three-piece suite. “Ally, Ally, Ally-O, I-T-F-C, We’re the Blue Arm-y” continues my neighbour. “No Noise from the Ipswich Boys” chant the Cambridge fans re-purposing Village People’s ‘Go West’; they should be sat where I am. Five minutes later and a cross strikes Cambridge’s James Brophy on the arm; VAR might deem it a penalty if we were in the Evil Premier League, but we’re not, so we have the game’s first corner instead.

We’ve seen 14 minutes go by and Town aren’t yet into their stride, and as if to make the point Cambridge succeed in getting the ball into the Ipswich goal net. Mark and I have resolved ourselves to the crushing disappointment of going a goal behind so soon into the match when the linesman comes to our rescue; it was offside. Two minutes later and Tommy Carroll volleys a shot over the crossbar.  Town are still not dominating in the manner which we have quickly come to expect, and Cambridge have the cheek to win a free-kick from which the ball is laid back to Adam May, whose shot is deflected away for a corner and then Christian Walton athletically tips a George Williams header over the crossbar.

It’s getting on for half-past three and James Norwood successfully chases a ball over the top, but his chipped cross is to no one in particular, and then a Town corner eludes the looming head of Cameron Burgess.  As the promise of a goal subsides Pat from Clacton tells me how the Clacton supporters’ bus was pulled over by the police today near the Holiday Inn hotel, only for the policeman to board and say “Oh, you’re Ipswich”.  I like to think that he probably also mistakenly stopped a couple of coach loads of pensioners on an afternoon excursion and several buses from the Copdock Park and Ride.

With time ticking down inexorably towards half-time, Conor Chaplin’s cross is headed firmly into the arms of Mitov by Bersant Celina and a Dominic Thompson cross is hit low towards the Cambridge goal by Sam Morsy, but not hard enough to get past the goalkeeper.  At the other end of the pitch Luke Woolfenden saves possible embarrassment with a superbly timed tackle on Cambridge’s Joe Ironside as he threatens to break through on goal.  Embarrassment soon follows however as Dominic Thompson is victim of some dubious play acting by George Williams, and inexplicably James Norwood steps into the fray like some sort of deranged avenging angel and along with Sam Smith gets a personal viewing of referee Mr Craig Hicks’ yellow card.

Symptomatic of it having been a frustrating half, Town have another penalty appeal for handball rejected and a woman with a voice like a wailing banshee a couple of rows behind me launches a blistering high pitched verbal assault on the linesman.  It would be amusing if only it didn’t hurt my ears so much.  Her justification for her outburst is apparently that when someone is paid to do a job she hates to see them not do it.  Town are awarded a corner however, which is scant consolation to me, and a Conor Chaplin shot then squirms into Mitov’s arms before another Cambridge corner and three minutes of additional time.

Mark and I hope that half-time will elicit words of wisdom from Town manager Kieron McKenna, and the avalanche of goals into the Cambridge net that we were hoping for will eventually come to pass.  In the stand half-time brings a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar for me along with a chat with Ray who says he can’t see the point of peanuts if not they’re not roasted and salted; I tell him that the magic ingredient is chocolate, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

The match resumes at eight minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon diving low to his right to stop a header from Joe Ironside.  Conor Chaplin then shoots wide and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 26,515 with 2,009 from Cambridge; the referee Mr Hicks then makes a decent attempt at tackling Sam Morsy, although Sam seems far from impressed.  Town win a corner and Wes Burns shoots wide of the right hand post and then Conor Chaplin shoots wide of the left.  Two minutes later and Ironside is awarded a free-kick for a somewhat pointless and innocuous foul by Luke Woolfenden.  The subsequent free-kick is whipped across the penalty area and rebounds off Dominic Thompson at the far post and into the goal. 

Ten minutes later and things aren’t looking up until Pat from Clacton gets out her bag of sweets. They’ve been sitting around for a week or two she tells us. Mine is one of those chewy ones that look like an extruded strip of sugar cut into bits; I’m not good at identifying flavours, but I think it’s probably raspberry, and it cheers me up as much as much as anything else other than an Ipswich goal probably could right now.  Tommy Carroll and Conor Chaplin are replaced by Sone Aluko and the oddly-named Macauley Bonne.

It’s gone half-past four and James Norwood gets Mitov to make a save and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne drops a header onto the roof of the Cambridge goal.  Matt Penney replaces Dominic Thompson to whom fate has been rather mean today.  Cambridge United win a free-kick with fifteen minutes of normal time remaining and their supporters chant “Cry in a minute, you’re gonna cry in a minute”, which may be a chant unique to them, although I think I might have heard it when a team is about to be relegated or lose a play-off tie.   The free-kick is a waste of time and no one gets tearful as predicted, although ironically the only person who might have done so was the Cambridge number 26, the cutely named Harvey Knibbs ,  who rolled around like a big baby to win the free-kick.  Janoi Doncaien is booked.  Twelve minutes remain and Sam Morsy has a shot saved by Mitov but then a major diplomatic incident breaks out all around me as Pat from Clacton complains to the bloke behind me about his and his associates relentless swearing.  Mark backs her up. The bloke behind me opines that this is an important end of season match and he’s just showing some emotion, but he doesn’t agree to stop swearing, believing it seems that the purchase of his ticket gives him certain rights to express himself by ‘effing and jeffing’ , as Pat calls it.  The screechy woman a couple of rows behind then also becomes involved before stewards are called and the bloke behind me is accused by the man who is with the screechy woman of threatening to strangle him with his own scarf.  Eventually the sweary blokes leave and peace is restored, although rather impressively I think, the bloke behind me later returns with a steward to apologise to Pat.

“Is there a fire drill, Is there a fire drill?” sing the Cambridge fans resorting to opera to serenade the departing Town supporters who have either given up on a Town goal or whose modes of transport will turn back into pumpkins if they’re not home on time.  The game peters out over the five minutes of added on time and almost inevitably Town lose, perpetuating our record of never having beaten Cambridge United in a league match, something also true of mighty Cheltenham Town.   I had expected a Town victory today, but it would not have been deserved; the team performed as if the players had all been given some disturbing news just before kick-off, as if someone had told them perhaps that large German SUVs aren’t cool and are much less environmentally friendly than smaller cars.

Ipswich Town 0 Cheltenham Town 0

It’s been a while since I’ve been to watch the Town at Portman Road, having forgone the last six matches thanks to the pandemic.  But it’s been a lot longer since I last saw Cheltenham Town play (7th September 2002 at Layer Road, Colchester to be precise), and it’s a lot longer still since Cheltenham Town played at Portman Road (19th March 1938 in the Southern League).  Add to the weight of history the fact that because I am not in my nineties, I have never seen Ipswich Town play Cheltenham Town at Portman Road, and you have the recipe for an evening of excitement to rival that of the last match I saw live, Town versus Barrow in the FA Cup, a truly awful goalless draw as I recall.  On days like this I don’t miss the Championship one little bit.  What’s being in the third division for if it’s not for playing the likes of Cheltenham Town?  Live for the moment and breathe as deep as you dare.

Rocking up on Anglesea Road at twenty-seven minutes to seven, I park my trusty Citroen C3 on a single yellow line and head for what I call the Arboretum pub, but the current occupiers label the Arbor House.  Eight minutes later I have hurried as quickly as I could through the bar, pausing only to mumble a request for a pint of Lacon’s ‘Jack Valentine’ (£3.80) through my face mask, and now I sit in the peace, solitude and creeping cold of the softly lit beer garden.  Amusing myself with the wonders accessible on my mobile phone I sip my beer and get into the funky groove of the righteous soul music climbing out of the plastic speaker in the corner of the garden shelter in which I’m sat. If I didn’t know I was in Ipswich I’d think I was in 1970’s Harlem as the sounds of Sir Joe Quatermain and Free Soul ((I got) so much trouble in my mind (1973)); Smokey Robinson (Baby that’s backatcha (1975)) and the Bobby “Blue” Band (Ain’t no love in the heart of the city (1974)) move my feet and my boogie body.  Beginning to feel like I’ve stepped back in time and looking forward to seeing the likes of Ian Collard, David Johnson and Colin Harper at Portman Road tonight I suddenly return to the now with the realisation that for £3.80 I could probably have bought everyone in the pub a drink or may be two in 1973, although I would have been a tad underage to have done so.

Leaving my reverie in the pub garden I head for Portman Road, my heart leaping a little as I catch a first glimpse of the glare of the floodlights in the night sky.  I approach the ground along Alderman Road to manufacture that ‘going to the match’ down terraced streets feel.  In the back of the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand supporters already in the ground appears as silhouettes on the stairs and through the plate glass windows of the concourse.  Having purchased nothing with coins of the realm for over a month I recklessly buy both a programme (£3.50) and a Turnstile Blue fanzine (£1). I walk between the rows of fumy supporters’ buses lined up opposite the old tram depot and approach the Sir Alf Ramsey stand from the Constantine Road gate, eventually returning to Portman Road through turnstile number 60. I’m back.

In the stand I reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never missed a game until he caught Covid; they’ve missed me, or at least that’s what they tell me; they’re nice like that. With seconds to go before kick-off Fiona arrives too and I say hello to the man who sits to my right, who I always imagine is older than me, but possibly isn’t.  The game begins; Town getting first go with the ball, but I am quickly struck by how disappointed I am by Cheltenham’s kit. In my mind’s eye, a phrase that reminds me of my favourite Small Faces song, I see Cheltenham Town in red and white stripes, but tonight they sport a sort of knock-off Arsenal shirt with pinstripes and a Raglan sleeve.  The Raglan sleeve incidentally is the least desirable of all the sleeves for use on a football shirt.

Aside from the shirts, the football is fast and frantic, with Wes Burns uncontrollably shooting over the cross bar from close range after five minutes, and Bersant Celina making a weaving run before dipping the ball over the cross bar not five minutes later as Town confidently dominate their sartorial inferiors. The ostentatiously bald-headed referee, Mr Andy Davies, unexpectedly makes me think of the similarly hairless, on-loan St Etienne goalkeeper Paul Bernadoni, before a man behind me with a slightly Northern or Midlands accent annoys with a laugh that sounds like Disney’s Goofy.  “Unlucky, unlucky, unlucky; keep going, keep going, keep going” says an oddly repetitive woman from behind as another Town attack comes to nought and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand show signs of life, breaking into Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, to sing as ever of ceaseless fighting despite Norwich having run away, and all apparently and mysteriously because of Boxing Day.   High up in the Cobbold Stand the Cheltenham followers reveal a lack of originality matched only by their lack of memory as they chant “We forgot, we forgot we forgot that you were here” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. With my attention back on the pitch, I can’t help but guffaw as Cheltenham’s  Reece Hutchinson hurls himself headlong to the ground in a wonderfully unconvincing attempt to cheat his way to a free-kick.  What was I thinking, staying away to avoid Covid when I could have been a part of this rich tapestry?

Ipswich’s dominance is total and is such that two of our three defenders, Janoi Donacien and Luke Woolfenden are seen exchanging forward passes within twenty-five metres of the Cheltenham goal.  Then a deep, angled Tommy Carroll cross is met with a diving header from Conor Chaplin, only for Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans to palm the ball away in front of Bersant Celina, who is taken too much by surprise to attempt to kick the ball back at the goal.  I’m just thinking how we haven’t been able to exploit Kayden Jackson’s ability to run very fast, when he suddenly breaks down the left, but when he comes to cross the ball he seems to have become over excited and at the far post the ball skids off the forehead of Conor Chaplin at such speed that it must have caused a friction burn.  It somehow feels as if everyone is just a bit too eager,  but out of the blue at the North Stand end Christian Walton fails to clear the ball successfully and his scuffed effort falls to a Cheltenham’s theatrically named Elliott Bonds, but fortunately Bonds’ left footed shot sails hopelessly high above the goal.

Town’s onslaught resumes and Cheltenham show the first sign of resorting to non-footballing tactics to relieve the pressure. “Oh, get up you wanker” says a polite sounding woman behind me as a red-shirted defender lays prostrate on the turf following a gentle collision with another bloke in a football shirt.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Cheltonians predictably in a quiet moment, and equally predictably no one responds.  Kayden Jackson delivers a slightly limp shot into the arms of Owen Evans and with the first half half-over, Town win their first corner, from which Tommy Carroll shoots impressively wide to the extent that the ball arcs away from the goal and stays on the pitch; Bersant Celina spots the unlikely trajectory and crosses the ball back into the ‘mixer’ but there’s no happy end to the incident.

 The second half of the first half plays out in a succession of Town corners and missed goal attempts.  Much of the first half football has been as exciting as it’s ever been at Portman Road in the past twenty years, but the plain truth is there has been no one to put the ball in the net.  As the half draws to a close Wes Burns turns to lash the ball back into the area in front of the goal from the by-line, but the ball strikes Hutchinson’s outstretched arm or possibly arms; VAR would doubtless have recorded the crime but instead Town are awarded another corner from which Luke Woolfenden deftly diverts a graceful header very precisely over the cross bar.

With the half-time whistle the Cheltenham players jog hastily and as one from the pitch, as if someone had just said “last one back in the changing room’s a sissy”.   By contrast Town’s players seem either less enthused, or just less sensitive to childish name calling.  It seems more likely they are lost in thought, grappling to understand how they are not two or three goals up. Forgetting about football for a bit I pop down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad.  Behind us stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster hands over his microphone to comedian and TV personality Omid Djalili, but sadly his words are completely scrambled by the hopeless public address system. Meanwhile Harrison’s dad offers me what the Tim Horton’s website enticingly describes as a ‘mini donut style cake ball’.  I am warned that it will probably taste of maple syrup; but contrarily it tastes of cinnamon. Whilst not ungrateful, and happy to ingest either cinnamon or maple syrup flavoured foodstuffs I am happy not to be offered another.

Cheltenham Town kick-off the second half by lumping the ball down field in the traditional manner.  Town soon get back to winning corners, but with much less frequency than before and somehow the speed and excitement of the first half has departed, leaving in its place mis-directed passes and an unsporting belief amongst the Cheltenham team that they could break away and score a goal of their own.   I remain full of hope, but either Town have lost their mojo or Cheltenham have worked us out.  The game descends into more of a battle with half an hour to go as Cheltenham’s Charlie Colcutt becomes the first player to enter Mr Davies’ address book for a heinous foul on Wes Burns and then the substitutions begin with Kane Vincent-Young replacing Dominic Thompson and the oddly named Macauley Bonne appearing in lieu of Kayden Jackson.  Cheltenham stopper Lewis Freestone is next to have his name etched in copper plate in baldy-Davies’s book as ten minutes later the Cheltenham number six ruthlessly chops down Conor Chaplin.

One bright spot in the second half is the announcement of the night’s attendance of 21,318, of whom 251 are supporting Cheltenham.  Pat from Clacton announces to Fiona and I that the winner of the Clacton supporters’ coach guess the crowd competition is the squirrel that steals the food from the bird table in her garden. I explain to Fiona that squirrels are very clever animals, but I didn’t know they enjoyed coach travel.

Following speed, excitement and accurate passing, enjoyment now leaves the game as Callum Wright of Cheltenham hangs about too long in a prone position on the turf and draws the vitriol of the Sir Bobby Robson stand for his trouble.  “Wanker, Wanker!” roar the lower tier to Wright’s bemusement as he is soon substituted with Aaron Ramsey.  “How could they tell?” he must be wondering to himself as he looks for hairs on the palms of his hands.  Time is running out and in desperation a chant of “Come On You Blues!” is sent out into the ever more chilly night air.  But the chant is only repeated twice more, almost as if everybody feels a bit self-conscious about shouting for any longer than that.  

The final ten minutes are miserable as Cheltenham players spend an unusual amount of time apparently suffering from cramp, something that I thought only happened in extra time in Wembley Cup finals.  Sadly, the ever-unresourceful Town fans can only think of chanting “Boring Boring, Cheltenham” rather than urging on their own team to victory by turning Portman Road into a frightening cauldron of noise.  Cheltenham do waste time, but what professional football team doesn’t when they are close to claiming a hoped for but not necessarily expected away point?  

“Come on Ipswich, score in the final second” I say to creation as the sixth minute of added on time ebbs away. But the final whistle blows, and it feels a bit like we’ve lost.  That’s the trouble with expectation, especially when you’ve not had any for a while.  Not to worry, I think I’ll still be back again next time.

Ipswich Town 3 Bristol Rovers 0

It’s the first Saturday in September and the weather has broken, although to be truthful it’s been looking a bit cracked for a while now.  Autumn approaches.  It rained overnight and whilst there are glimpses of sunshine it is straining to penetrate through the clouds and worst of all it feels cold.   But on the bright side, today sees the start of the football season and mighty Ipswich Town, the vessel in which the hopes and dreams of a good many of the people of Suffolk are invested will be playing Bristol Rovers in what I refer to as the League Cup, but the football club, media and those who don’t know any better call the Carabao Cup.  I didn’t used to know what Carabao was, I erroneously thought it was a wrongly spelt American name for a reindeer, but because of the League Cup, and thanks to Wikipedia,  I now know that it is a domestic water buffalo from the Philippines and also a drink; not a proper drink mind, like Adnams Broadside, tea, Noilly Prat, milk, red wine, Fuller’s 1845, espresso coffee, Crémant, pineapple juice, Champagne, lime cordial, Belgian Trappist beer , hot chocolate or malt whisky but something called an ‘energy drink’.   The sponsorship of football competitions is a curious thing and only adds to the feelings I have that I live as an outsider on the fringes of society, with the Milk Marketing Board being the only sponsor whose product I can honestly admit to ever having set out to purchase.

Kick-off is at three o’clock, but of course due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is not safe for a large crowd to gather and therefore no one is going to Portman Road today. Sadly, I shall be denied the joys of travelling on the trains of Greater Anglia, the pre-match pints, the quickening anticipation-filled walk down Portman Road and the click of the turnstile.  Today I will not hear the moans of the home supporters nor the witless abuse of the away supporters; I will not receive the suspicious glances of luminous stewards nor feel the soft artificial fur of Bluey and Crazee as they brush past me with their out-sized heads and weird hoof-hands; I will not become engrossed in conversation nor share see-sawing emotions with Mick, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, the old dears, Ray and his grandson Harrison, or Pat from Clacton with her bag of sweets and lucky charm, the masturbating monkey.

Not thinking of what I am missing, I enjoy a light lunch of home-made spicy carrot soup with my wife Paulene whilst resisting the temptation of a beer, despite a choice of Adnams Ghostship, Adnams Ease Up IPA, Fuller’s Bengal Lancer, Chimay, Chimay Brun, Orval, Westmalle and Faro Foudroyante from my ‘beer cupboard’.  We watch the Tour de France on the television, losing ourselves in the French countryside as an escape from the memory of lockdown. We talk and reminisce about holidays and trips to France.  It’s a quarter past three.  Flippin’ eck! The game has started and I hadn’t realised, this is what life is like without the discipline of the railway timetable to get me to the match.   I leave Paulene somewhere in the Haute Garonne and find my radio, which is already tuned to BBC Radio Suffolk, because I like a laugh.  I decided long ago that watching Town on the ifollow is not worth £10, particularly when I’ve already spent over £300 on a season ticket, so I settle down in an Ikea Poang chair in the back bedroom with Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills. Elvis Costello was right ” Radio is a sound salvation”.

Very quickly I learn that Aaron Drinan is pronounced Dry-nen and doesn’t rhyme with ‘linen’ as I previously thought it did, which I think is a useful start and then Mick Mills tells me that a half-chance for Bristol Rovers is the first time they have threatened Town’s goal so at least I can now be confident that we’re not losing.   Brenner and Mick witter on and Brenner tells me that Tomas Holy “puts his foot through the ball”; I wait for the referee to stop the game to extricate Holy’s foot, but rather confusingly the commentary carries on with Brenner describing the ball as being passed “along the deck “and I now wonder if the game has been moved from Portman Road to an oil tanker; it’s common after all for the size of such ships to be measured in terms of football pitches.   I’m still not sure of the up to date score but Brenner is hoping for a result in normal time, which implies the scores are still level and that he’s got better things to do after five o’clock than commentate on this.  The absence of any crowd noise then strikes me for the first time and I am conscious of the shouts of the players echoing through the stands left cavernous and empty.  Fittingly in all this blankness, Brenner at last reprises the score, it’s still nil-nil; I haven’t missed anything then. Phew.

Mick Mills is not a man to ever sound at all excited, but he feels moved to say that our left hand side has ‘come to life’ and produced two or three ‘moments’.  That’s what the game is all about I think to myself and am heartened to hear Mick provide balance by wishing that the right hand side of the team could do the same.  Brenner takes back control of the commentary and I learn that today Paul Lambert is wearing a big over coat, which is most unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in a black v-neck sweater; perhaps the added security of his five year contract has led him to invest in a more extensive wardrobe, but I do worry that it’s a bit early in the year for an overcoat and surely this can only provoke more abuse from his critics on social media. 

As I drift off into reverie about what is an appropriate coat for a football manager on a cool early September Saturday, Brenner announces that “Sears was not going to miss” and Town are 1-0 up.  It’s twenty-eight minutes past three, I clench my left fist and softly whisper a sibilant ‘Yes’ to myself. “It was easy to get the ball down the corridor to Sears” says Mick Mills and once again I’m a bit lost trying to imagine where I’d seen any corridors at Portman Road, except beneath the stands, and worrying that if the ball was in a corridor surely it should have been a throw-in.  I thank our lucky stars that our level of football is not subject to VAR.

With Town a goal up the game soon sounds like it has become a tad dull, or it could just be the commentary.  Mick Mills increasingly seems like a comfortably retired man in his seventies, but the I remember that he is.  Brenner meanwhile goes off piste and begins to talk about Town’s next game at home to the Arsenal Under-23 team in the now despicably compromised, credibility-lacking EFL Trophy, expressing his interest in seeing “…how good the latest crop of kids at the Emirates are”.  If he’s so interested in bleedin’ Arsenal perhaps he should clear off to BBC London.   Hopefully as annoyed as I am by Brenner’s concern about a club that isn’t Ipswich Town, Mick tries to break the mould by injecting a hint of excitement into the commentary and announces “That was a super pass from Dozzell” but he spoils it rather by pausing and then adding   “so that was good”, as if his use of the adjective “super” was in retrospect going a bit far.

I look at my watch and find that it’s approaching half time and I think I discern from the commentary that Town have a corner.  They do, and now it’s 2-0 courtesy of what Mick Mills dubs a ‘fabulous goal’ from Luke Chambers. “Luke Chambers is pretty deadly in the opposition box” says Mick leaving me to fill in the blanks that he can, on occasions, be quite deadly in his own box too.  Half-time arrives and unlike at Portman Road I don’t make an undignified dash to the khasi but stay in my seat. This is no doubt in part due to not having a bladder full of the remnants of two or more pints of beer and partly because at Portman Road I am not pleasantly paralysed through sitting on a comfortable chair.  For remaining seated I am rewarded by hearing Mick Mills refer to Aaron Drinan as Aaron Dry-nan although he instantly corrects himself to make Aaron’s surname rhyme with linen a la Brenner Woolley.  Mick goes on to tempt fate horribly by saying that he “…cannot see Bristol Rovers coming back in to this”.  I admire Mick’s forthrightness, but recent experience nevertheless leads me to offer a small prayer for him, and his opinion, despite my probable atheism.  I take a brief trip downstairs to France to bring the gospel to my Christian wife that Town are winning 2-0.  She asks if I am sure I have tuned into the right radio station.

The second half begins at the ridiculously late time of 4:06pm, and it’s not long before Mick Mills is telling me that the game has become a “…little but drab, a little bit boring”; if anyone should know about that it’s monotone Mick.  Personally, I am finding the experience of sitting in my back bedroom listening to the wireless quite exciting and probably more interesting than if I had had to fork out a tenner or so for a match ticket plus as much again for the train fare, beer and perhaps a pie, all requirements if I was to attend in person.  I am further enthralled when Brenner advises me as the ball is booted off the pitch that “…the ball is dipped in some sort of sterilizing solution when it goes in the seats over there”.  I can’t help wondering why this is necessary; who normally sits in that part of the ground? What sort of unpleasant residue have they left? Why hasn’t that corner of the ground be cleaned since last March?

Moving on, Mick Mills is providing the most enjoyable moments of the commentary and, as he did in the first half, he gives praise but then tempers it.  “That was a wonderful corner by Judge” he says before qualifying his statement by explaining “It was…………good”, once again suggesting that given time to think about it perhaps his initial assessment was a little too enthusiastic.   It’s either that or he just doesn’t know that many adjectives.  But there is no doubt that lurking beneath Mick’s inherent reticence and quietude there is a passion and he soon lets it out with the statement “There’s a lot of football in the team”.  As for Brenner he can’t help but betray a certain cynicism, no doubt borne of over fifteen years commentating on the mighty Blues; “Good play from the Blues” says Brenner, before adding with perfect timing “At the moment”.

The second half is clearly not totally thrilling, but the impression received is thankfully that Town are playing within themselves and have the measure of these “Pirates”.  The game plays on and I am guilty of paying more attention to Twitter than to Brenner and Mick as I seek to discover how the likes of Whitton United, Long Melford, Ipswich Wanderers, Stowmarket Town and Framlingham Town are getting on.  I admit I haven’t really been paying close attention to the commentary but am nevertheless surprised at four thirty-three to hear Brenner say that Town are now 3-0 up, and although I will admit to reading Twitter I wonder how I could have missed hearing the goal go in. I am left to suppose Mick’s less than excited general delivery and Brenner’s overriding interest in the Arsenal’s “kids” could explain why neither commentator had succeeded in grabbing my attention.   Fortunately, Twitter can also tell me that it was Freddie Sears who scored the third goal, in the 68th minute as well as actually showing me the first two goals and then the third as well.

Time moves on inexorably and it’s now four forty-nine, and Brenner confirms that it’s been “all over really” since Freddie Sears scored Town’s third goal, as he stifles a yawn.  Fittingly the commentary peters out a little with periods of silence punctuated with commentator clichés letting the eager listeners know that Bristol Rovers don’t have “enough left in the tank” to change the result and that Town have been “good value” for their lead.  “Three-nil, Ipswich Town” says Brenner, saving up his allocation of useful verbs and adjectives for another day, perhaps when Arsenal’s “kids” might be playing.  “Town, winding the clock down” says Mick.  “According to my watch we’re just about there” are Brenner’s final words, as if prompting the referee to blow his whistle, which miraculously he then does.

Pleased that Town have won and pleased that I can leave Brenner and Mick alone together and return downstairs to my wife, I turn off my radio.  I haven’t really had a clue what’s been going on all afternoon but I do know that Town have won a cup tie, scoring three times in the process and not conceding, even if I only noticed two of the goals and it feels as if it all happened in a far off universe, but being divorced from the proceedings the result is all that matters.  Back to reality, if not normality; a glass of beer and fish and chips for tea.  As Ray Davies of the Kinks told us in Autumn Almanac, “I like my football on a Saturday”.

“Radio, it’s a sound salvation”

Brightlingsea Regent 1 Merstham 1

Until 1964 I could have journeyed all the way to Brightlingsea by train via Colchester and Wivenhoe, but the treacherous activities of the evil Dr Beeching mean that it is now necessary to leave the train at Colchester and then catch a number 62 bus. My excuse today for not using public transport is that the bus journey alone would take me the best part of an hour and it would also prevent me from stopping off on the way home to buy much needed mushrooms, salad and bananas at Waitrose. Today therefore I am making the 32 kilometre trip by Citroen C3 and saving the planet takes second place to future breakfasts, lunches and a boeuf bourguignon.
It’s a bright and blowy Saturday afternoon and wispy clouds scud across a pale blue sky. The B1029 twists its way across the flat lands of the Tendring peninsula and down into Brightlingsea from the north, past medieval All Saints Church with its impressive tower, sitting high on a hill outside the town; part place of worship, part lighthouse. Brightlingsea itself arrives as a sprawl of mid-twentieth century houses around a much older central core and a waterfront. I miss a turn, but having gone round the block I find my way. Residential North Road, all pebbledash and net curtains leads to Brightlingsea Regent’s home ground, currently called the Taydal Stadium, but more traditionally referred to as plain old North Road.
I reverse the Citroen into a space at the end of a line of other similarly neatly reversed family saloons. It’s a very short walk to the turnstile where I tender the correct money for entry and a programme (£10 + £2). Just inside and I am assailed by a lady with copper coloured haired selling draw tickets (£1 each); although not a gambling man I can’t help but feel it would be rude not to buy one, so I do. Come half-time ticket No372 will win, I’m sixteen tickets too late; if only I hadn’t missed that turning into Spring Road. It’s not quite twenty to three, so optimistically I think I might have a beer and therefore take a look in the bar; sadly there’s no hand pump, so I don’t bother; I can’t be doing with that cold stuff full of burps. At one end of the room however is a very brightly lit trophy cabinet which shines like a beacon and could easily attract magpies or ward off shipping from the mud banks in the Colne estuary; it has a slightly incongruous appearance in the otherwise very plain surroundings.
Back outside I seek out the ambience of non-league football. North Road is a hotch-potch of low stands and covered terraces confined within a steel fence backed up against the gardens of dull suburban houses. Beneath the cover outside the clubhouse people are eating chips from small polystyrene trays and drinking beer from plastic cups. The hatch in the club house wall beneath a sign that reads Regent Snacks is doing a steady trade.

Several free range children run about the stands and path around the pitch; today’s match is sponsored by the Brightlingsea Regent Youth Section which no doubt accounts for this. From the public address system, the names of the teams are announced. “First, the Mersham team” says the disembodied voice, mispronouncing the name of the visiting club and annoying at least one of their twenty or thirty supporters who are preparing to choose a goal to stand behind. As I drove to the ground this afternoon even the BBC Radio Essex announcer made the same mistake; I can only attribute this to being in a County where much of the population can’t pronounce the letters ‘th’ as anything other than an ‘f’ or a ‘v’, but ‘Mersfam’ would sound silly.

I take a walk around the perimeter of the pitch and then the teams emerge from the corner of the ground by the club house, walking in two neat lines behind the referee Mr Karl Sear and his leggy assistants Leo Del Rosso and Ashley Butler. The standard mass handshaking ensues before Merstham break from a team huddle to kick off towards a row of ugly bungalow roofs which form the backdrop to the goal at the clubhouse end of the ground. Merstham wear yellow shorts and socks with black shorts, whilst Brightlingsea sport a natty kit of black and red striped shirts with black shorts and red socks and kick towards the suburban back gardens of houses on Regent Road, one of which rather unexpectedly and splendidly has crennellations. It’s a colourful sight.
The opening minutes of the game see Merstham, who are third in the excitingly titled Bostik Premier League, but only five points ahead of twelfth placed Brightlingsea, spending as much time in the Brightlingsea half as Brightlingsea, but gradually the game evens out into an inconclusive midfield struggle. Brightlingsea have a shot cleared off the line which the home crowd are convinced was a goal. Fortunately there is no VAR to make shouting “Linesman, you’re useless” a redundant exercise, so somebody shouts it. On the covered shallow terrace behind the Merstham goal the self-styled Brightlingsea Ultras sing “Can you hear the Merstham Sing?” A respectable looking middle-aged woman quite quietly says “No swearing, please” and the Ultras complete their chant singing “I can’t hear (pause), anything, wo-oa, wo-oa-oah”.
I wander round to the dugouts, interested in what the coaches and managers are doing. The Merstham manager is smartly dressed in a mid-length, navy blue rain coat, shiny black shoes and neatly pressed trousers; he sips from what appears to be a paper cup of coffee, although I guess it could be super-strength cider, but that wouldn’t really fit the pattern established by his wardrobe. The Brightlingsea manager wears a woolly hat, trackie-bottoms and football boots; he glugs from a plastic water bottle which he chucks to the floor when he’s finished. This is the Surrey stockbroker belt versus Tendring. Merstham is on the edge of Reigate, a town 21st out of 401 in a league of average tax bills drawn up by Chartered Accountants Hacker Young for 2011-12.

“Go Manny” shouts the Merstham manager, not just when number eleven Emanuel Ighorea has the ball, but whenever anyone else does too. “Come inside, keep sucking it in” he adds complicating matters. His subsequent plea to “Get the ball” seems sensible if perhaps over simple. On the Brightlingsea bench there is the same concern for their number eleven, Harrison Banner. “Look at Banner, look at Banner!” is the exasperated call, followed by “For fuck’s sake” suggesting that if anyone did look at Banner they forgot to do anything else.

With half-time approaching I move on to behind the goal where the Merstham fans are congregated in a long line. Merstham enjoy a little flourish at the end of the half and all of a sudden number ten Fabio Saralva has the ball with no one much around him, he steps forward to the edge of the Brightlingsea penalty area before launching a shot into the top left hand corner of the Brightlingsea goal; ‘keeper James Bradbrook’s dive is despairing and Merstham lead 1-0 from a very fine looking goal. Understandably the Merstham supporters are thrilled by this event and I can’t deny being impressed somewhat too. I wander round past the players’ tunnel which looks like it might once have accommodated primates at Colchester zoo and wait just a few yards from the tea bar for half-time. The final action of the half sees referee Mr Sear wave his yellow card at Merstham’s number nine Walter Figuiera whom the referee has seemingly ‘had it in for’ all afternoon, to the extent of calling back play for a free-kick to Merstham as he was about to cross the ball. As the players leave the field for their half time cuppa the Merstham fans gather at the players’ tunnel and I add my voice to questions to Mr Sear about his attitude towards Figuiera; he doesn’t answer, confirming his guilt to my mind.

I queue for a cup of tea (£1.50) and consider why tea costs more the further up the football league pyramid one goes. I fish the tea bag from my cup and drop it in the bin next to the table on which the milk and sugar is placed. An elderly man with a flat cap and a stick tries to flick his teabag from his cup to the bin, but his tea bag falls on the ground with a wet splat. “That’s you out of the basketball team” I tell him, he smiles sympathetically. I stand my tea on the brick perimeter wall to allow it to cool. “Haringey are losing again” says an excited voice behind me “Potters Bar are winning at Worthing”. No one responds, but another voice declares that the hot chocolate is lovely. “Best in the league, since they cleaned the machine” says someone else. I look through the programme. It’s an attractive glossy publication and I am reminded why it is so disappointing that some clubs no longer produce one. Where else would it be possible to learn that Regent’s number nine Michael Brothers brings some “top banter” to the dressing room?
At four minutes past four the game resumes and Brightlingsea look to have had the more inspiring half-time team talk, getting forward more consistently than they managed before and they win a couple of corners. “Head it, head the ball” is the considered advice from the stands, as well as a more violent sounding “Attack it!” “Come on you R’s” sing the Ultras. At twenty past four a Brightlingsea corner is cleared but only to a point a few yards outside the penalty area from where it is lobbed high back towards the goal. Necks are craned but only Brightlingsea’s Jake Turner moves his feet and follows the flight of the ball and the two come together about five yards from the goal where he sweeps it unchallenged into the net past a surprised looking Amadou Tangara, the Merstham goalkeeper.
The remainder of the second half is more open than the first with both teams having chances as the sun is engulfed behind hazy cloud and the floodlights come on. Substitutions are made and the PA announcer attempts to induce excitement by lifting the tone of his voice on the final syllable of Clarke Gilbert, as he replaces Michael Brothers; it has no discernible impact. Having equalised, the urgency they had at the start of the half deserts Brightlingsea somewhat, but it remains an entertaining match. There’s a worrying few minutes late on however as Brightlingsea’s number seven Jordan Barnett appears to have some sort of fit after a collision with his own goalkeeper and after several minutes of uncertainty he is stretchered off.
Today’s attendance is announced as 231 and as the sun sinks towards the horizon the telephone wires across North Road are silhouetted through the descending gloom, looking a cat’s cradle. I stroll past the Merstham fans assembled behind the goal at the Regent Road end of the ground. “Come of Merstham” they shout. “Who’s that? Mersham?” I ask innocently. Happily they seem get the joke, I think. I head past the main stand towards the exit and with the final whistle am handily placed for a swift departure.
I make the short walk back to my trusty Citroen reflecting that I have not witnessed a classic match, but it has had its moments and the result is a fair one, which counts for something in this unfair world.  Waitrose awaits.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.