Ipswich Town 1 Bolton Wanderers 1

Here we go again, and it’s still July.  I will admit to not looking forward to the start of the football season because as a person who seeks fulfilment in being idle I enjoy summer Saturdays with nothing much to do, and summer is still in its prime, it won’t begin to flop into autumn for another three weeks at least, that’s when the football season should begin again. But hey, how else are we going to fit in 46 league games, at least three games trying to win a pizza pan and probably no more than two or three games trying to win two cups that are inevitably destined to end up on the sideboard of one or two of the same four clubs from London and the north-west?

 Today, it is ordained that we shall play Bolton Wanderers, last season’s nemesis who along with Rotherham United were the only team to beat us both home and away, which in the week of the last episode of Neighbours I will admit, whilst in confessorial mood, was my Australian ‘soap’ of choice.   The last time Town played Bolton Wanderers on the first day of the season was in 1961, albeit at Burnden Park, and Town of course went on to win the Premier League that season, although it wasn’t called that then.  By way of yet another private confession, last night I dreamt about today’s game and how Town drew two-all after twice going ahead with the opposition equalising twice from spectacular long range shots into the top right hand corner of our goal.  I say opposition because oddly Town were playing West Ham United in my dream although they also seemed to be called Bolton Wanderers.  Even odder is that I then dreamt that I woke up and realised I had been dreaming because all I could remember of the game were the two Bolton/West Ham goals and an empty ground.  Then I really did wake up and felt a bit disorientated.

Having happily reined in my subconscious mind I have negotiated the crawling traffic of the A12 and walked across Gippeswyk Park.  At the junction of Ancaster Road and Ranelagh Road I must decide whether to turn left towards the Bobby Robson Bridge or right towards the station hotel where I will not doubt be serenaded by boozing Lancastrians in the pub garden singing the praises of barm cakes, back to back housing and cotton mills.  Seeking the quiet life as ever, I opt for the former. In Alf Ramsey Way I purchase a match day programme in the modern cashless manner which seems to take several minutes, before heading off over Civic Drive, past the enchanted Spiral car park which used to just be known as ‘the underground car park’ and up St George’s Street to the Arbour House (formerly The Arboretum) to meet Mick and discuss life over a pint of  a beer (£3.90) from the Burnt Mill brewery which the pump clip said was Japanese, I ask the  barman where it was from, “Stowmarket” he replies.  Mick’s and my conversation rambles between spotty liver disease, the quality of television pictures, Ipswich Town’s latest signings and funerals before I buy a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a packet of Fairfield’s cheese and onion crisps (£1.00) and we discuss VHS videos of Ipswich Town’s greatest moments in history and retirement.

We leave earlier than usual for Portman Road because I have a bag of six Ipswich Town VHS videos to give to a bloke called Ash from Swaffham; I have arranged to meet Ash at twenty to three by the Sir Alf Ramsey statue, but he doesn’t turn up. I ask several people stood about if they are called Ash, but none are and two people think I have asked them if they’ve got any hash.  Disappointed but not surprised, because the world is an increasingly unreliable place, I head for turnstile number 60 to begin yet another season full of hope and likely disappointment; but you never know (that’s the hope again).

Out in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his son Elwood are already here looking fresh and revived in their summer clothes, it reminds me of what the first day back at school used to feel like.  On the pitch, be-suited stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster reads out the teams looking as if he is the best man at a wedding.  Banners festoon the front of the Sir Bobby Robson stand telling us “The future is bright, the future is blue and white”; it rhymes, it must be true.  To our right is the new scoreboard, beaming messages to us like something out of Orwell’s 1984. The stadium is alive with the sound of nigh on 27,000 people and as the game begins those in the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand break inexplicably into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, with lyrics altered to tell of eternal fighting and Norwich running away, because it’s Boxing Day.  Off to my right in the Cobbold Stand, in an equally surreal vein, it sounds as if the Bolton supporters are singing “Oh wanky wanky, Wanky wanky wanky wanky Northerners.”  But my hearing isn’t what it was and Boltonians do have thick accents.

The opening minutes of the match are messy with lots of physical effort, but little discernible entertainment.  All the Bolton team appear to be about 2metres tall and there’s not a Frank Worthington amongst them. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Bolton fans.  As nice as that might be, no one takes them up on their kind offer and in a fit of pique they impolitely tell the Ipswich fans “Your support is fucking shit”, before peevishly announcing like thwarted adolescents that the large crowd is because “You’ve only come to see The Wanderers”.   Only six minutes have passed and it’s like last season never ended; clearly supporters have wasted the whole close-season and not come up with a single original new chant between the lot of them.

A frisson of excitement shoots through the home support as a punt forward forces the Bolton ‘keeper James Trafford to play sweeper for a moment. Up in the Cobbold Stand the brief roar of excitement from the home support is an excuse to unleash what passes for wit with a chant to say they had forgotten we were here. How droll.  It’s the eleventh minute and Town win a corner as a Bolton defender heads the ball out of his goalkeeper’s hands.  Lee Evans’ exotic curling corner-kick curls too much and goes disappointingly straight into touch like a metaphor for last season. It is a quarter past three and Bolton win a corner leading to Wes Burns breaking away down the right  and putting in a low cross which is blocked. Burns is looking neater and slimmer than last season suggesting to me that his call-up to the Welsh squad and access to the bright lights of Cardiff might have turned his head.

“They love a ball up the middle don’t they?” says the bloke behind me to the bloke beside him as Bolton launch an attack like a Russian missile strike.  Fortunately for Town, Bolton’s attacks are producing few goal-attempts, but they are dominating play and look generally quicker and stronger than Town for whom debutants Marcus Harness and Leif Davis are doing little other than entertain me with the thoughts that Marcus Harness sort of rhymes and that Leif is a great first name.

The first half is more than half over and all of a sudden Bolton have a penalty from which Aaron Morley scores.  Leif Davis is adjudged to have tripped some Bolton play or other who predictably makes full use of the opportunity to fall headlong to the turf whilst simultaneously looking up pleadingly at referee Mr Samuel Barrett, who is not to be confused with Samuel Beckett.  Disappointment reigns. But unusually the goal against proves a turning point in Town’s favour and for the rest of the match Ipswich are the better team.  Corners are traded as the half hour approaches and in the Town penalty area some male posturing ensues.  “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” chant the inhabitants of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and the Bolton supporters sing the same thing.  Nobody seems to know who anybody is.  It could be the result of dementia but it’s probably because third division footballers are generally not household names, with the exception of course of Town’s number 17, Ed Sheeran.   Bolton’s number three Declan John becomes the first player to be booked in a possibly not unrelated incident.

The 37th minute has arrived and another of the day’s debutants, Freddie Ladapo, has a shot deflected away for a corner which Conor Chaplin passes into the penalty area for Lee Evans to side foot into the goal net in a moment of combined thought and invention that was two steps ahead of the entire Bolton team and probably a good 27,000 other people too.  The sadness and shame of having gone behind in the first game of the season is instantly forgotten.  “ You’re not singing any more” chant the home fans to the Boltonians delving delightedly into bottomless wells of Schadenfreude.   More is to come almost, as a beautiful interchange of passes down the right between Janoi Doncaien,  Conor Chaplin, Wes Burns and Sam Morsy ends with Freddie Ladapo having a shot blocked almost as soon as it leaves his boot.

Two minutes of the half remain and having already given away a penalty on his debut, Leif Davis then makes a bid for immortality as he also becomes the first Town player of the 2022-23 season to be booked; it’s a good effort from him but no one will ever rival the appalling Town debut of Mark Fish, who funnily enough also played for Bolton Wanderers.   Three minutes of time added on are played and then it’s half-time.  I consume a Panda brand liquorice stick and talk to Ray, who tells me that his son Michael and his grandson Harrison are missing today’s game because they are respectively in Greece and Scotland.  We share our doubts over the validity of the penalty and the efficacy so far  of the left land side of the Town team. 

The game resumes at eight minutes past four with the mystifying partial rendition by the Bolton fans of Manfred Mann’s 1964 Number One hit record ‘Do-wah-diddy diddy’ (although it was originally recorded the year before by American band The Exciters).  On the field of play, things are more mundane with the usual procession of corners and stuff that you get in football matches.  It’s a little bit after a quarter past four and Trafford spectacularly tips a Lee Evans header over the cross bar; five minutes later and the first of a host of substitutions materialise with the luckless Lief and ineffective Harness being replaced by Greg Leigh (not to be confused by Prog-Rockers with Greg Lake) and Tyreece John-Jules (impossible to confuse with anyone).   An hour has gone Freddie Ladapo shoots tamely at Trafford before Leigh gets back to acrobatically head away a Bolton cross.

As the final third of the game progresses the sky begins to cloud over a little, there are flying ants taking to the air and landing on the shirt of the bloke in front of me;  seagulls circle over the Portman Road car park; it’s stiflingly warm.  It’s a dog day afternoon; I think of Al Pacino.

Ending a sequence of three ever worsening fouls, Bolton’s Conor Bradley chops down Tyreece John-Jules particularly dirtily and is booked. “You dirty Northern bastard” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers reciting possibly football’s greatest chant. “Small Town in Norwich, You’re just a small Town in Norwich” is the Boltonian’s weak response, which does little to dispel the rumours that Bradley hasn’t washed, is Northern and was conceived outside wedlock.

Both teams continue to make substitutions like they’re going out of fashion, making four each with Sone Aluko and Kayden Jackson replacing  Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo for Town.  Ipswich dominate, pinning back Bolton and making them play sardines in their own penalty area.  It’s a niggly game as both teams display their frustration at being unable to beat the other.  The crowd is announced as 26,688, and it seems wakes week has come early with 1,392 pale and pasty-faced folk from the mills and the mines making up the numbers in the Cobbold Stand.  Pat from Clacton wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus with a prediction of 26,679; she seems a little shocked but I can tell she’s excited by her win, it’s been a long time coming.

Back on the pitch Luke Woolfenden is the second Town player to be booked.  A Wes Burns header brings another corner, Sone Aluko shoots past the post and so does Tyreece John-Jules, who also has a shot saved and then in the best opportunity of the whole game Wes Burns runs deep into the penalty area before placing one of those crosses usually labelled ‘inviting’ in front of Sam Morsy.  Morsy sends Trafford the wrong way with his shot but the ball strikes the fortunate keeper’s legs and is cleared.

After six minutes of time added on the game ends.  It’s a shame not to start the season with a win, yet again, but it was a tough match against a strong team and Town did recover from going a goal behind, and on balance these are all good things.  One swallow does not make a summer seems an appropriate homily for the occasion, because every occasion needs a homily; although in this case it’s not so much a lovely, swooping, screaming swallow as a scrounging, step-sibling murdering cuckoo.

Ipswich Town 2 Visitors 2

Today is one of the lowlights of my football season; one of Ipswich Town’s two fixtures against the nation’s most odious club, the club that stole the identity of the original Wimbledon Football Club.  If the EFL had even the merest shred of decency they could still own up to their mistake in allowing the theft and expel the thieves from the Football League, but of course they won’t do that.

Boycotting today’s fixture is unlikely to provoke some sort of Damascene moment for the EFL and with my winless team in desperate need of my hope, support and will that they should win, I know that I must make the journey to Portman Road.  On the bright side, two years ago today I was undergoing open heart surgery to replace two heart valves eaten up by Endocarditis and I survived. The saintly people of Basildon hospital pulled me through and I’m here today to take my chances with the pandemic in a mostly un-masked crowd of 18,622, so I have a lot to be grateful for.

Regrettably still not confident of the safety of public transport, I drive to the match thereby hurtling us all towards climatic oblivion that little bit faster. I park my trusty Citroen C3 on Chantry estate and stroll down through Gippeswyk Park (bequeathed to the town by Felix Cobbold), as very occasional raindrops fall upon me, and on other people as well I imagine.  In Ancaster Road a man walks by on the opposite pavement eating crisps from a ‘family size’ bag. I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge, from the middle of which all views of the football ground are hidden behind the offices of Suffolk County Council.  I arrive in Constantine Road to a busy scene of coaches and buses arriving from the countryside, and queues of supporters snaking from the turnstiles across Sir Alf Ramsey Way; it might just be the humidity but there is an air of expectation and excitement which I haven’t sensed for years.  A woman in leggings and a droopy cardigan holds aloft a clutch of ‘Turnstile Blue’ fanzines. “0nly a pound” she calls, so I hand her a two-pound coin. “I’ll just get your change” she says. “I should hope so” I reply as she delves into the depths of her cardigan. Unsure of what to do next with a half an hour or more of continued breathing to waste before kick-off, I queue to get into the Fanzone. It’s warm and I fancy a drink.  Arriving at the marquee where I believe beer is being served, I am in time to be turned away with several other thirsty people willing to part with their money, by a woman in a day-glo tabard, whose defence presumably is that she is only obeying orders. Apparently, the policy is no more drinks after two-thirty, which seems rather mean-spirited and pointless.  Feeling like I’m losing one-nil already without the game having even started, I leave the Fanzone and head for turnstile number 59, having first shown my vaccination credentials and, because I have more money than I know what to do with, purchased a programme (£3.50).

Inside the Sir Alf Ramsey stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, but minus his son Elwood, and Fiona, Pat from Clacton, Ray and his son and grandson Harrison all arrive in time for kick-off too. The old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me aren’t here again, but Pat from Clacton has been in touch with her and they’re okay, although they’d been to Lowestoft and he’d had a fall; Pat tells me he’s over ninety.

The knee is taken, proudly we applaud, and the game begins. The visiting team, who sport a suitably anonymous all-red kit get first go with the ball, which they boot in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Behind me blokes with Ipswich accents discuss the team. “We int had a decent centre-half since Berra, have we” says one truthfully.  Three-minutes in and visiting number five Warren O’Hora, whose name makes me think of Star Trek and unfeasibly short skirts, is booked by referee Joshua Smith for a foul on Town’s Kyle Edwards, a player whose dribbling ability might earn him the description ‘slippery’.  Unusually, the visiting goalkeeper gets the opportunity to dribble too today, taking the ball around two Ipswich players in quick succession in his own penalty area.   A lovely smell of pervading damp rises up from the pitch into the stand.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing the visiting fans to the tune of Cwm Rhondda, and they have a point , even if poorly made; but then we are probably complacent, lacking the nervous energy borne of guilt from following a club that is ‘stolen goods’.

The visiting team are dominating possession and their number nine Scott Twine, who scored twice against us last season for Swindon Town is particularly industrious.  Fourteen minutes have passed and Macauley Bonne heads a Wes Burns cross over the bar, in a manner which he perfected in the previous game versus Newport County, although curiously this time he wins a corner.  Two minutes later Bonne atones spectacularly, driving the ball high into the goal net past Fisher from 15 metres on the half-volley, having collected a punt forward from Kane Vincent-Young. Bonne proceeds to create a template for all future goal celebrations, running behind the goal with his arm aloft blowing kisses to the crowd before being consumed by a ball of hugging team-mates in the corner of the pitch.   This is surely where the season starts and as if to mark its birth the Boney M fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand break out into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, albeit with somewhat altered lyrics. 

The goal has lifted the Town players and the crowd. When Lee Evans fails to control a carefully placed kick from goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, a collective sigh of disappointment is exhaled from the stands as if we’re watching the dissolving, falling embers of a slowly dying firework.   Watching Town being a goal ahead is a giddying experience and it feels like we’re winning by more than a goal to nil. When the visitor’s Ethan Robson strikes the cross bar with a shot the reality of our fragile lead returns, particularly given that it happens at the end of a two man move which began seconds beforehand with a corner to Town.   Over in the West Stand in the seats behind the dugouts I notice a figure in a bright red cagoule; I think of the 1973 Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now.

 It’s nearly half-time. The blokes behind me leave their seats. To my left someone rises from their seat and shuffles along towards the gangway, they will want me to stand to let them past; I want to tell them to sit back down wait for the half-time whistle, but I don’t.

Half-time arrives. It’s been a satisfactory half inasmuch as we’re winning, which is unusual, but it is doubtful that the score will remain 1-0.  I both celebrate our lead and console myself about what the second half may bring by eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, before going to speak with Ray.  We discuss full-backs and the replacement today of Matt Penney with Hayden Coulson. “The opposition don’t get much change out of Penney” says Ray.  “The same couldn’t be said of Adam Tanner” I reply.  

The second half begins very quietly indeed, with the crowd seemingly observing a hushed, embarrassed silence as if someone had said or done something during the interval that was in bad taste and everyone knows about it.  Four minutes into the half, Kane Vincent-Young is booked for a foul on Mo Eisa as he surges towards the penalty area.  The amusingly named Harry Darling sends a free header into the arms of Vaclav Hladky. I imagine a scenario in which Darling is booked. “Name?” asks the referee. “Darling” says Darling.  “You won’t get round me that way” replies the referee.  My childish reverie is broken as Wes Burns strikes a shot which hits the far post and defies physics, as for a moment the angle of incidence does not equal the angle of refraction and the ball deflects out into the penalty area instead of into the net.  It’s the sort of thing to be expected when playing the devil’s club however.

Today’s attendance is announced as 18,622 with 501 from the town whose advertising slogan suggested that it would be nice if all towns were like it, proving again that advertising is mostly about lying convincingly.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the visiting new town neurotics.  Town’s Luke Woolfenden stretches to tackle Scott Twine and Twine goes down. Woolfenden is booked. “You’re a fucking wanker” bawls a voice behind me at the referee, perhaps because he knows him and does not hold him in high esteem, but more probably because he just disagrees with his decision.  The free kick is some 25 metres from goal in a fairly central position. Twine strikes the ball over the defensive wall and whilst Vaclav Hladky gets both hands to it he fails to stop it squirming into the net; the scores are level, Woolfenden is culpable. 

Matt Penney replaces Hayden Coulson and then Wes Burns is replaced by Tommy Carroll almost fifty years to the day since Tommy Carroll last played for Town (23rd August 1971 versus West Ham United). Although Town have seized a degree of control of the game, still the visiting team dominate possession. “How are we letting them control the fuckin’ tempo” says an exasperated voice behind me, unexpectedly introducing an Italian word after a rude one. His concern is premature however, and soon afterwards Scott Fraser breaks into the penalty box down the left, crosses and Macauley Bonne sweeps the ball past Fisher at the far post.  Ecstasy ensues once again. Eighteen minutes remain and surely Town will win.

Three minutes later Lee Evans is facing his own goal some 30 metres away from it; then, in the style of someone dropping off to sleep he allows Matt O’Riley to rob him of the ball and enjoy a free run at goal, which ends with a simple equaliser as O’Riley wrong foots Vaclav Hladky and rolls the ball into the net.    “Mr Grimsdale!” shouts Evans, although he denies he was ever influenced by Norman Wisdom.

As if to make some sort of unwanted point about lovable losers, the visitors bring on a player with the unlikely name of Charlie Brown, whilst Town replace Scott Fraser with Armando Dobra.  The visitors continue to keep the ball mostly to themselves although Town threaten when they occasionally have it.  But the optimism has evaporated. “Is this a library?” chant the visiting supporters trying to convince us that they’d know what one was like and that they know Italian opera.  Five minutes of additional time are to be played, which gives a visiting player time to hit the town cross bar with a shot, but nothing more happens of note.  The final whistle blows to the sound of boos from those Ipswich “supporters” most likely to make interesting subjects for psychological case studies.  The sweary man behind me is moved to admonish those who boo, so he’s not all bad, even if his swearing is now worse than ever.

I applaud a few players for their efforts as they leave the field, but don’t hang about. It has been a very good game, and we haven’t lost against a team who, it pains me to say it are pretty good too.   I don’t feel I can ask for much more given that two years ago I was undergoing major heart surgery, I’m just glad I was here to see it.

Paris FC 2 FC Metz 1

DSC00331It is a cloudy, autumn Saturday afternoon as my wife Paulene and I board the RER suburban, electric, double-decker train at Meudon Val Fleury for the short journey (2.05 euros each) to Pont du Garigliano from where it is a further twenty-five minute tram ride (1.90 euros each) down busy, tree-lined boulevards to Stade Charlety, the current home ground of Paris FC. Today at 3 o’clock Paris FC will play FC Metz in Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2. If you plan your journey on the website of RATP, the Parisian transport company, several options are listed according to whether you want the quickest journey, the one with fewest changes, the one with least walking or one which provides disabled access. But with every route the website tells you the amount of CO2 emissions for your journey, our journey ‘cost’ 29 grams compared to a colossal 1758 grams by car; it’s Martin & Paulene 1 Global Warming 0 and the match hasn’t even started.DSC00220
It may be a grey day, but this is Paris, City of Lights and perhaps appropriately therefore the stadium floodlights are already shining as the tram draws up at the stop. On the next street, the Boulevard Jourdan is lined with the white vans of the Police Nationale and on the opposite corner the Le Gentilly bar and restaurant is surrounded by dark uniformed

police with riot shields and helmets. The Le Gentilly appears to be the chosen pre-match meeting place for the fans of today’s visiting team FC Metz who are top of Ligue 2 having won all of their seven games so far this season. In 2016 the Metz v Lyon game was abandoned after Metz supporters threw firecrackers at the Lyon goalkeeper, so they have ‘previous’. But the police presence still looks like overkill for what is a Second Division match at a club whose home crowds do not often exceed 3,000.
We hadn’t got around to buying tickets on-line so we pay a bit more and buy our tickets (15 euros each) at the guichets at the entrance to the stadium. We take a wander around, making a circuit of the stadium; spotting the respective team buses, Metz fans queuing

 

for tickets (only 8 Euros in the away ‘end’) and even more ‘tooled-up’ police. On a concrete support beneath the Peripherique is a poster for the Union PopulaireDSC00221 Republicain, a sort of French UKIP who peddle the somewhat stupid sounding ‘Frexit’, not that it’s any more or less stupid than ‘Brexit’.
Stade Charlety is named after the French historian and academic Sebastien Charlety who was associated with the nearby Cite Universite de Paris. Naming a sports stadium after an intellectual is pretty much unimaginable in England; just think of West Ham United not playing at the London Stadium but at the AJP Taylor Stadium or Tottenham at the Simon Schama Stadium. Stade Charlety dates originally from 1938 but was re-built in 1994, the architects being Henri Gaudin and his son Bruno, and a damn fine job they did too. The stadium is oval in shape, a segmented concrete bowl, partly single and partly two-tiered, sitting beneath a sweeping, curving, rising and falling roof floating on steel supports, with four floodlight towers each leaning and raking forward as if to peer over the roof at the pitch. The stadium has 20,000 seats and conveys the drama, excitement and sense of occasion that a stadium should.DSC00209
Keen now to experience the stadium from the inside we walk through the turnstiles and our tickets are scanned by hand held devices before we are patted down and wished “Bon match” in the habitual way of French football. In a corner at the back of a stand is a very talented and entertaining band of five brass players and a drummer providing a soundtrack to the pre-match build-up. We both pick up copies of the free eight pageDSC00223 colour match programme (only one page is an advertisement) and are each given a free Paris FC flag. I reflect on how I have been a season ticket holder at Portman Road for 35 years and as ‘thanks’ for my loyalty and thousands of pounds all the club has ever given me is a baseball hat, a metal badge and a car sticker; I’ve been here less than five minutes and on the strength of just one 15 euros ticket Paris FC have already given me a programme and a flag. I like that the programme is called ‘Le Petit Parisian’ making a virtue of Paris FC’s ‘small club’ credentials, a poignant contrast no doubt to the behemoth that is Paris St Germain. According to Planete Foot magazine, Paris FC drew average crowds of just 3,070 last season and this season have a budget of 11 million euros compared to PSG’s budget of about 560 million euros; this against a background of PSG having evolved out of Paris FC as a ‘breakaway’ club in 1972.
Bowled over by Gallic generosity and with hearts lifted by the music of the little band we head for gangway 109 off which we can sit where we choose. Seats chosen I head back into the concourse and to the buvette to buy a bag of crisps (2 euros) and plastic cups of mineral water and Orangina (5 euros for the two, including the re-usable Paris FC branded cups). Paris FC has no club shop as you might find at an English league club or at the larger French clubs, but there is a hatch between the buvettes from which two young Franco-African women are selling replica shirts, scarves and assorted merchandise. Unable to resist a souvenir I buy a pennant or petit fanion (5 euros) which, when I get back to Blighty I shall hang it in the toilet with all the others.
Back at our seats the quarter of the stadium behind the dug-outs is filling up with flag toting Parisians and a sprinkling of Metz fans, who probably live in Paris. The Metz fans who have made the 330km journey from Alsace are all corralled on the other side of the stadium in a section of the upper tier, with a battalion of stewards and police seemingly watching their every move. As three o’clock approaches the public address system begins to play a sort of minimalist electronica with hints of John Barry, which gathers pace, building as the teams walk side by side onto the pitch to shake hands before a back drop of huge banners showing the club crests and the Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2 logo. A man in aDSC00234 suit, Paris FC scarf and pointy shoes, who looks a bit like the late Keith Chegwin parades before us with a radio mike as he announces the teams.
The teams line up with Metz in a change kit of all white and Paris FC in all navy blue. FC Metz kick-off playing in the direction of the tram stop, and generally north towards the Pompidou Centre far beyond, whilst Paris FC play towards Orly airport. From the start Metz are neat and energetic, passing well and closing Paris FC down quickly whenever they win the ball. In front of us and to our right a group of thirty or forty Ultras (possibly the ‘Old Clan’ group) are rallied by a young bloke with a small white megaphone which looks 44906431821_ffcf83e1cb_olike it is only a toy. He faces his colleagues and misses virtually the whole game. The Ultras stand and clap and sing without pause and one of them bangs a drum. “P -F -C, P-F-C” they chant, for that is how Paris FC are commonly known. One guy has a beer in his hand meaning he can’t clap, so he just slaps his head with his free hand, taking a second to tidy his hair when he’s finished.
Despite Metz looking the more accomplished team they don’t test the Paris goalkeeper and it is the home team who manage the first decent shot at goal from number twenty-six Dylan Saint-Louis, which Metz goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja dives low to his right to save. Metz continue to look confidant and strong but PFC are matching them. It’s only just gone ten past three and PFC left-back, number eighteen Romain Perraud strides forward, he rides a block tackle stumbling over a leg but taking the ball with him and looks to go for goal. He is over twenty metres from Oukidja the man between the Metz goal posts and I don’t expect to see the ball go flying in to the far top corner of the net and dropping to the grass inside the goal, but it does. It is a spectacular goal, easily the best I have seen so far this season. A goal behind, Metz have further troubles as they have to make a substitution and Senegalese Opa Nguette is replaced by Malian Adama Traore due to injury.
Conceding the goal has not dampened the Metz fans’ spirits however, as they continue to wave their own flags and banners. Behind us to our left another group of PFC Ultras DSC00254(possibly the ‘Ultras Lutetia’ group) have their own somewhat bigger drum and bigger flags but no megaphone, well not as far as I can see anyway. A fine drizzle is falling now and the stadium announcer who strutted about in pointy, shiny shoes before kick-off shelters beneath an umbrella. Rain drops run down the back of the transparent covers to the dugouts and it feels every bit like a quintessential autumn afternoon at the football. It’s marvellous and not only because this is Paris.
At last, after over twenty minutes of play Metz manage a shot on target, but it’s an easy save for Vincent Demarconnay the ‘keeper for PFC. Despite Metz’s failings in front of goal they still look a good team and this is an entertaining game, well worthy of the live TV coverage it is receiving this afternoon; the large cameras at the side of each goal look oddly old-fashioned however and conjure memories for me of Grandstand and Sportsnight with Coleman. It’s just gone half past three and Metz win a corner on the far side of the pitch from which their Zambian number thirteen Stoppila Sunzu sends a powerful header down towards the goal line; for a split second it looks like it must be the equaliser but the ball meets the boot of Romain Perraud and skews off his foot for a throw. Perraud has effectively scored twice for Paris now, without him they might be a goal down, rather than a goal up.
Half-time is less than ten minutes away and although they are the underdogs Paris FC are playing well and deserve their lead, then what seems like disaster strikes, compounded by it being a gross injustice. In an incident similar to the sending off of Ipswich Town’s Toto N’Siala at Sheffield Wednesday earlier this season, PFC’s Julian Lopez slides along the wet turf to get the ball, which he does, a moment later however

and Metz’s Thomas Delaine arrives and falls over Lopez‘s leg, twisting as he falls. The referee Monsieur Pierre Gaillouste, who has an annoying and unnecessary habit of running quickly up to players whenever a foul occurs, does so again and shows Lopez the red card. We are all outraged. It was not a foul, if anything Delaine fouled Lopez. As a neutral this should be pure theatre to me, but the injustice is intolerable and I decide that Paris FC must win.
The sending off has distorted the match and I cannot really see that Paris can hold on, but in injury time they win a corner which Metz forget to defend and the wonderfully named Cameroonian defender Frederic Bong heads the ball into the middle of the Metz goal to double PFC’s lead. I leap from my seat and stick it to Monsieur Gaillouste and his inept refereeing. Half-time soon arrives and I can enjoy it. I return to the buvette with the thought of a celebratory beer but the queue is too long.
The game begins again and within a minute Habib Diallo scores for Metz with a header from a cross by Thomas Delaine. I fear the worst for PFC now but Metz fail to capitalise and PFC defend brilliantly. Metz show growing frustration, Traore looks to the heavens as he sends a low, bobbling shot bouncing weakly past a post and Marvin Gakpa is booked after following through with a challenge on the PFC goalkeeper. The Metz coach Frederic Antonetti, a balding, solid man who wears what I would describe as a Marks & Spencer jumper patrols the area in front of his team’s dugout, shaking his head and looking displeased. I think I can smell a cannabis cigarette, but it’s not from Monsieur Antonetti. On the other side of the ground the incidence of flag waving has definitely reduced. Now Renaud Cohade, who I thought was the main force in the Metz midfield is replaced by the Algerian Farid Boulaya and as the electronic substitution board is held aloft Paulene casually asks how many double A batteries I think it takes.
Paris FC are restricted to defending in depth but they are succeeding and cannot expect to do too much else with only ten players against probably the best team in the league. There are still twenty minutes left as PFC’s Ivorian Edmond Akichi, billed in the programme in his own words as a midfield battler goes down and a stretcher is needed to carry him off. Number six Romenique Koumane replaces Akichi but suddenly Akichi is up on his feet again appearing to say he wants to play on, only for him to even more suddenly double-up in pain up clutching his knee before being helped away.
There are less than ten minutes to go and PFC are holding out well and even almost score a third goal as Souleymane Karamoko breaks down the right and into the penalty area; the ball goes out and he goes down. “Penalty!” I cry, because anything has been shown to be possible with this referee, but it’s a corner which number twenty-seven Jonathan Pitroipa, who is from Burkina Faso, heads very wide. There are four minutes of added time to endure, but PFC survive them whilst all Metz do is to collect another booking, this time for Emmanuel Riviere as he flicks a passing foot at the PFC goalkeeper, or at least that’s what the referee thought.
The final whistle brings unbridled joy, something I don’t often experience at football matches any more. This has been an excellent match, one the best of the ten or so I have seen in Ligue 2. I hadn’t expected a lot from a crowd of just a few thousand (the attendance will later be reported as 5,097) in a 20,000 capacity stadium with a running track around the pitch, but I was wrong. Despite swathes of empty seats there has been a really good atmosphere in the small part of the stadium that is open and with minimal stewarding it has felt a bit like an English non-league game. I have loved seeing so many African players, it’s been like a mini African Cup of Nations and Paris FC have played superbly well to beat a good, but on the day ineffective Metz team, who nevertheless remain one of the favourites for promotion. I have nothing in particular against Metz, but it was great to witness their first defeat after seven straight victories. If only my team Ipswich Town could now get their first win.

FC Sete 0 Stade Bordelais 1

The town of Sète is a fabulous seaport, fishing port and resort in Languedoc, it nestles by the sea where a rocky outcrop meets a saltwater lake. It has trawlers and its own network of canals and narrow streets, which give it the character of a cross between Venice, Naples and Lowestoft with a bit of North Africa thrown in thanks to its ferry links to Morocco. It has a population according to Wikipedia of about forty three thousand. Of all the places I have ever been I think Sète is one of my favourite towns anywhere.

FC Sète were early members of the French professional football league, winning the title in both 1934 and 1939 and the Coupe de France (French FA Cup) in 1930 and 1934, being the first club to win ‘the double’ in France. After 1960 the club declined and then, having been in Ligue 2 as recently as 2006, were relegated to the regional leagues in 2009 due to financial problems. But promotion to the second amateur tier (CFA2) in 2013 was followed by promotion to the top amateur tier in 2015. The club remains at the amateur, fourth level of French league football, which is now known as League National 2 and is divided imto four regionally based leagues with sixteen clubs in each.

So far this season Sète have won just one of their four games but are undefeated; their opponents today are Stade Bordelais from Bordeaux20170909_173047.jpg near the Atlantic coast, some 380 kilometres away by road; they have won one and lost two of their four games so far. Kick-off is at six pm and we arrive about a half an hour beforehand, parking in the spacious gravel topped car park at the side of the Stade Louis Michel, although other spectators prefer to park in the road outside. Entry to the stadium costs €6 and we buy our tickets from the aptly porthole-shaped guichets 20170909_173102.jpgoutside the one gate into the ground. Just inside the gate a cardboard box propped on a chair provides a supply of the free eight-page, A4 sized programme ‘La Journal des Verts et Blancs’. Also today there is a separate team photo and fixture list on offer.

The Stade Louis  Michel was opened in 1990, but its pre-fabricated concrete panels somehow make it look older, but in a good way; 20170909_173348.jpgthe brutal angular concrete of the main stand, the Tribune Presidentielle, could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s, channeling the inspiration perhaps of Auguste Perret or even Le Corbusier. The concrete panels on the back of the stand are lightly decorated and sit above wide windows; a pair of curving staircases run up to the first floor around the main entrance, 20170909_175009.jpgabove which is a fret-cut dolphin, the symbol of the town and the club. The stand runs perhaps half the length of the pitch either side of the halfway line and holds about twelve hundred spectators, as well as club offices and changing rooms. Opposite the main stand a large bank of open, 20170909_173643.jpg‘temporary’ seating runs the length of the pitch, it is built up on an intricate lattice IMG_20170909_223051_287.jpgof steel supports. Behind both goals are well tended grass banks; there is a scoreboard at the end that backs onto the carpark.

There is now not long to wait until kick-off and the teams line up; 20170909_175652.jpgSète in green and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks, Stade Bordelais with black shirts with white shorts and socks. There is a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off before the real one, taken by a youmg woman with a green and white scarf draped around her shoulders.  Eventually, referree Monsieur Guillaume Janin gives the signal for the game to start in earnest.

Its a grey, overcast afternoon, but not a cold one and the game quickly settles down with both teams enjoying attacking bursts in turn. The visiting team perhaps look slightly more accomplished, a bit more knowing, particularly at the back where their number four is the only player to have a tattooed forearm. He has long, lank hair and a beard and looks like he might have ridden into town on a Harley-Davidson rather than travelled over from Bordeaux with the rest of the team. The Bordelais number two is a 20170913_130330.jpgman mountain with a wide shock of bleached hair on the top of his head, and thighs the size of other men’s waists.

There’s not much of a crowd here today, three or four hundred perhaps and I count just eleven people on each of the grassy banks behind the goals and about the same number looking lost amongst the expanse of empty seats opposite. A few spectators stand and peer through the metal fence below the main stand, but most are up in the plastic, backless seats where we sit in the company of greyhaired men, idle players, club volunteers, wags and their children. A man in front of us wearing double denim reminds me of a petit Yosser Hughes, not that Yosser Hughes ever wore double denim.

The first real scoring opportunity falls to Stade Bordelais after seventeen minutes as a ball over the top of the Sète defence puts their number nine through on goal with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.  But he must have been dazzled by the dayglo yellow kit of the bald and bearded goalkeeper, who makes a startling, even dazzling save from close range.

It’s only a quarter past six, but the floodlights are coming on; every now and then there is a metallic rattle and rush behind us as a passenger or freight train speeds by on the track between Montpellier and Perpignan, which is just the other side of the road behind the Tribune Presidentialle. Sète win their first corner of the match and I am surprised to hear rythmic clapping rise from the ‘posh’ seats at the centre of the stand, but Sete has no Ultras so someone has to get behind the team; it’s a lesson that would be well learned by many club owners and officials in England.

It’s now half-past six and a ball forward is headed down to the feet of the Bordelais number ten; he feints one way and then the other to shake off the defender and shoots past the luminous Sète goalkeeper to give the away team the lead. Before the game resumes the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper is given timeout by the referree to throw a ball back to a bunch of children who have been playing their own game on the grassy slope behind his goal.

It’s six-thirty seven by the scoreboard clock and Sète win another corner to elicit more rythmic clapping from the centre of the stand; sadly it doesn’t produce an equalising goal only spiky, bitter shouts of disappointment. In the final minute of the half Séte’ s number five is booked for a trip, which leads to a Stade Bordelais free-kick within striking distance of the goal, but the opportunity is spurned.

I can’t deny I’ve been looking forward to half-time as I nimbly nip down the stairs to the buvette, 20170909_173408.jpgFC Sete.jpgwhich is close by at the corner of the stand where we are sat. The reason for my eagerness is that Sète is the home of the tielle, a small, spicy, calamari and tomato pie, with a bread like case. I love a tielle, and I love that they are specific to Sete, and are served at the football ground as a half-time snack. I only wish there were English clubs that served local delicacies. Middlesbrough has its parmo, but I can’t think of any others. Do Southend United serve jellied eels or plates of winkles? Do West Ham United serve pie and mash? Do Newcastle United serve stotties? Did the McDonald’s in Anfield’s Kop serve lobscouse in a bun? I need to know. Sadly, I don’t think my town Ipswich even has a local dish. Many English clubs don’t even serve a local beer; Greene King doesn’t count because it is a national chain with all the blandness that entails.

Having eaten my tielle (€3) with relish, by which I don’t mean some sort of pickle, but rather enthusiasm, I wash it down with a small beer (€2) and I treat my wife to a bottle of cold water (€1).

Reflecting my sense of tielle induced well-being, sunshine floods the stadium some time after the start of the second half. I look out across the pitch to the backdrop of the tree covered rocky outcrop that is Mont St Clair and all is right with the world, except that Sete are still losing; they substitute their number ten for number fifteen, but their opponents counter ny swapping thier number eleven for a thirteen.

Sète don’t look particularly like scoring, despite the change in personnel, and Stade Bordelais almost double their woe as a corner kick is headed firmly but deftly against the far post from an unlikely distance by a player whose shirt number I didn’t quite catch. The Stade Bordelais number nine is very quick and slaloms between two or three Sète players before being outnumbered. Sète’s eight becomes a fourteen. There are twenty minutes left and a free-kick to Sète is saved at full stretch by the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper. Sète’s eleven is replaced by their thirteen, a player and father of a little girl who calls and waves to him as he warms up in front of the stand, and he waves back. But undaunted by familial pleasantness Stade Bordelais replace their number seven by number fourteen. Stade Bordelais’ number nine breaks free down the left; he gets behind the Sète defence and delivers a low cross which is perfectly placed to meet the incoming run of the number ten who, from a position near the penalty spot, embarrasses himself with a shot which misses the goal in two directions. Two minutes later ten’s failure is compounded as his time under the unforgiving glare of the floodlights is terminated and he is replaced by twelve. There are still ten minutes left, but the final act of any note sees Sète’s number nine head the ball past the post from a corner. Stade Bordelais’ defenders hold firm to win the game. No one is a match for their huge full-back, their very own, very mobile rocky outcrop.

It’s not been the best game I’ve ever seen, but it’s been an oddly calm, measured one. Was anyone booked? I don’t recall. Stade Bordelais have won with greater guile and knowledge and strength, but Sète will always have their tielle, although they’ve run out of them in the buvette today.

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