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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

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

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

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

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

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

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.