Vannes OC 1 Chambly-Oise 2

Ligue National 2 is the fourth tier of French league football; it consists of amateur clubs and the reserve teams of the clubs in Ligue 1 and 2 and is divided up into four regional groups each containing sixteen teams.  There are nevertheless many clubs at this level that have previously been in the two professional leagues, and both Vannes and Chambly fall into this category, with Chambly having had just a single season in Ligue 2 as recently as 2020; neither club has ever scaled the heights of Ligue 1 but Vannes were in Ligue 2 from 2008 to 2011 and reached the final of the Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup) at the Stade de France in 2008, although they lost 0-4 to Bordeaux.

Vannes is a coastal town and former port, which in some ways might be said to be comparable to my hometown of Ipswich due to its physical geography and former dockside and having a history dating back well over a thousand years, although based on how busy it is today Vannes seems to be thriving a little more than Ipswich at the present time, but then France is in the EU and the French realise in the spirit of egalite and fraternite that taxation and public spending allow money to be spent for the greater good.

After a lazy afternoon in Vannes spent mostly sat at a pavement café, in the gardens beneath the town walls and by the old port which is now filled with yachts, my wife Paulene and I stroll across the road from the port to the guichets where we buy two tickets (8 euros each) for this evening’s match which kicks-off at six-thirty.  Entry to the Stade de la Rabine is just up the road and round the corner from the guichets and at the gate our tickets are checked, and the stubs torn off by two redoubtable looking middle-aged women.  Entry takes us directly into the under croft of the steel framed south stand; walking along beneath the upper tier it feels like we are in a lofty cloister.  The main stand is a plain concrete and steel structure typical of many French municipal stadiums but a little newer than most.

Getting into the feel of what is effectively the French equivalent of ‘non-league’ football, I have to have a beer. An un-identified blonde beer in a re-usable plastic cup adorned with the club crest costs just 2 euros. Paulene has a coffee and bottle of water which are a euro each, but first I must exchange my cash for the Jetons (tokens) that are the only means of paying for food and drink in the ground.  I am happy to see there is also a club shop where for just three euros I add another petit fanion (pennant) to the collection that hangs above the cistern in my upstairs toilet back home. I wander about a bit and snap a few photos and then we find our seats as the PA system plays some rather strange bland electro-pop music, as it has done since we first walked in.

The main stand eventually fills up with the usual collection of old blokes, actual and would-be wives and girlfriends of players, young boys in club tracksuits who probably play for the under 13s team, and other sundry supporters of the local team.  The stand to our left is completely empty; there is one lonely man in the stand to our right and the far side of the ground is a building site on which the concrete frame that has so far been erected could be compared to a sort of modern-day Stonehenge, but only if the light was very, very bad.  The teams process onto the pitch and line up in a single row before two banners proclaiming the name of league National 2.  Three-minutes late, at twenty-seven minutes to seven after a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off involving two older men in smart but casual clothing, Chambly Oise kick off, aiming towards the goal in front of the two-tiered stand occupied by the lone supporter.

Before three minutes have passed, Chambly win the games’ first corner.  A minute later and a cross from the left is diverted into the Vannes goal by the foot on the end of the outstretched leg of Chambly’s number 19, which he has dangled beyond the defender who is alongside him.  The goal catches me by surprise a bit, as it did that defender, and I clap, drawing a look of mild disapproval from the very tall, elderly man who is folded up on the seat next but one to me.  To be honest I had thought Chambly were Vannes because Chambly are wearing an all-white kit whilst Vannes are wearing all-black and I couldn’t imagine that any club’s first choice kit would be all-black; I had therefore assumed that they were the away team.   The French Wikipedia page on Vannes OC later tells me that Vannes OC did formerly play in black and white but changed to all-black a few seasons ago; personally, as someone who still can’t get used to seeing teams of referees, I think it was a bad decision.

The quality of the football so far is not high and the crowd is quiet, particularly the lone man behind the goal, but Chambly look the better team.  In the absence of anything more interesting I note that the Chambly players do not have their names on the back of their shirts, but the Vannes players do with the exception of number 33.  Also, number 9 for Vannes, whose name is Ebrard, has one leg of his shorts hanging down, but the other one rolled up.  Paulene and I speculate as to why this is.  Is it perhaps to remind him to kick the ball now and then with his weaker foot or, in the absence of a knot in his hankie, is it something more prosaic such as a reminder to put the cat out when he gets home.

In the eighteenth minute a cross from the right by Chambly’s number 8, a short, stocky and industrious player, is headed in unchallenged by the towering number 23.  The Vannes goalkeeper Pettiogenet (number 40) gets a hand or two to the ball but cannot prevent it from hitting the net.  The goal seems to further prove the point so far made that Chambly are the better team. But slowly Vannes are improving, as if they needed at least twenty minutes to warm up, and they win a couple of corners. Ebrard looks keen and almost threatens on a couple of occasions before, as the game is about to enter its second third, he dribbles into the penalty area and tumbles to the ground as a result of a probable trip.  Ebrard gets up and strikes the ball to the anonymous goalkeeper’s right and with his right foot, the one beneath the long leg of his shorts.  The goalkeeper gets a hand to the shot but cannot keep it out, merely pushing it into the corner of the net. 

A couple of minutes after the goal the eager Ebrard concedes a free-kick as he dives in a little too keenly on a Chambly defender.  The defender doesn’t seem too bothered but the goalkeeper comes running out of his goal to remonstrate with Ebrard as if he now harbours a grudge against him for having beaten him with that penalty kick.  Vannes are now up and running and pressing for an equaliser and Kimbembe and Nzuzi link up well down the right and Nzuzi’s low cross travels to the far side of the penalty area where Ebrard has the time and space to sweep the ball majestically into the top left-hand corner of the stand behind the goal.  His attempt was a bold one as the outcome showed.

The last ten minutes of the first half are notable for Paulene spotting that a lean-to projection from the side of the building opposite looks like it has two eyes and pouting mouth.  A minute of additional time is played and I go and purchase a tray of chips (2 euros) with mayonnaise with my remaining jetons.  I return to the stand to eat my chips whilst a pair of black-headed gulls swoop into the stand on the look out for any stray deep fried food that might come their way; I guard my chips jealously and give the gulls a discouraging glare.

The match resumes at twenty-four minutes to eight. In the box like building next door to the lean-to building that looks like a face, a man is watching the game, presumably free of charge, from an upstairs window.  A short while later the windows are shut and we assume he decided it was either getting too cold to have the window wide open or he just got bored.  The second half sees substitutions for Chambly first as number twenty-seven replaces number eleven, and then for Vannes with Mvogo replacing Duclovel.  In a departure from how I have previously seen substitutions made, a woman in ‘late middle-age’ wearing a Breton jumper holds up the electronic board displaying the numbers of the incoming and outgoing players.  Paulene and I assume she is the club secretary , but alongside the referee’s assistant, the coaches and the delegue principal (an overseeing official) in his rather crumpled looking blue suit, she complements an interesting tableau of touchline figures.

The second half witnesses the first concerted outbreak of support from the crowd but in the form of the treble voices of the under 13’s who chant “Allez les Noires” over and over again, until they get bored, which thankfully doesn’t take too long.  More substitutions happen and Nzuzi is replaced by another anonymous player, the mysterious number thirty-four whilst anonymous thirty-three is replaced by equally anonymous thirty-two.  In due course the final minutes approach and there is a discernible effort from Vannes to finally equalise.  The ninetieth minute sees Vannes win a corner and in what seems like a final push both legs of Ebrard’s shorts miraculously appear to be the same length as he surges forward.  But it seems like his last hurrah and having lost the ball he stands bent over with his hands on his knees, a spent force.  Five minutes of time additionelle are announced, but Vannes can’t do enough to score and the initial judgement from the first twenty minutes that Chambly are the better team holds good.

With the full-time whistle we exit the ground the way we came in and head back to our car, where we will learn we have to pay a stonking 9 euros 80.  If you come to Vannes for more than an hour or so try not to park at Republique.  It’s not been the greatest evening’s football in truth, but Vannes OC is a decent little club with an excellent stadium and lovely people selling the tickets, the food and the drink.  I sincerely hope they get back to Ligue National and possibly Ligue 2 soon. As the Under13’s told us “Allez les Noires”.

Ipswich Town 2 Barnsley 2

Barnsley FC, Wikipedia tells us, has spent more seasons in the second division than any other club. Just to prove the point I have seen Ipswich Town play Barnsley thirty times and but for one FA Cup tie all of those matches have been in the second division.  This does of course mean that Ipswich Town are also second division perennials.  Today’s fixture, therefore, is exceptional and indeed it is the first time that Ipswich and Barnsley have ever met as third division teams; what it is to live in interesting times.

In all other respects today is a normal, sunny, late summer Saturday as I make my way down through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the railway tracks and over the river to Portman Road, where, as ever, I buy a match programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless, but slightly slow manner.  Programme in hand I march on towards the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum) where both doors are open wide; I step inside and turn towards the bar. “Gary, what the hell are you doing here?” I exclaim at the unexpected sight of my friend and former work colleague, Gary stood at the bar. “I’m buying you a drink, what would you like?” is Gary’s very quick and very welcome response.  I have a pint of something for which the pump clip says “Suffolk Punch” and Gary has a pint of some lager or other, but not one of the industrial brands. We retire to the garden where Mick is already sat with a pint of what looks like Suffolk Pride.  Gary and Mick have met before but introduce themselves to one another nonetheless; it really shouldn’t but it feels to me a bit like when your wife meets a former girlfriend. 

The pub garden is alive with drinkers wearing the blue shirts of Ipswich Town, far more so than usual.  Cheerily, we talk of funerals because Gary has been to a few lately and Mick works for an undertaker. Gary tells the story of two people he knows who were concerned that they might not get a seat at a cremation which was likely to be ‘popular’ (perhaps well-attended would be a better choice of words), and so sat through the previous cremation too, just to be sure.  With our glasses drained, a bloke at the next table chain smoking and blokes at the table beyond talking far louder than is necessary, we depart a little earlier than usual for Portman Road.

Bidding farewell to Gary and Mick in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, because their season tickets are in what used to be the Pioneer stand, I carry on to the Constantine Road entrance where a man in a suit compliments me on my ‘Allez les bleus’ T-shirt as he checks my ticket. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all supported Town in French” I say to him a bit weirdly, although he seems to accept the idea.  I enter the stadium, taking the rare opportunity to use turnstile 61, which today is operated by a young woman who is very possibly the nicest looking turnstile operator I have ever seen at Portman Road.  I arrive at my seat in time to see the teams walk on to the pitch and hear them announced by former Suffolk Radio presenter Stephen Foster, who once again looks a bit like a best man, microphone in hand in his grey suit.  My attention is briefly snagged when I think I hear that the Barnsley number ten is called George Benson, but checking the handily placed scoreboard I sadly see that he’s actually called Josh Benson, but the idea was good while it lasted.  Naturally, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with this son Elwood and so are Pat from Clacton and Fiona as well as the man who I think is from Stowmarket; I can see Ray and his son Michael and his son Harrison down at the front of the stand.

With knees taken and applauded Barnsley get first go with the ball as, wearing their traditional kit of red shirts, white shirts and red socks they aim the ball towards the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end. Town of course wear their traditional blue shirts and white shorts and as the teams line up it looks like a re-enactment of my childhood Continental Club Edition Subbuteo set, albeit without the strange poses of the plastic players.  Despite a high level of background noise, it takes just one minute and twenty seconds for the visiting Barnsleyites to deliver a chant of “Is this is a library?”.   Up in the Cobbold Stand there are several well filled red shirts in the away section and a bald-headed, middle-aged bloke in what looks like full kit, makes me think of Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden the PE teacher in Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Kes’.

Beside me today is a man in a bright orange hi-viz jacket emblazoned with the name of Veolia, the French waste disposal company. “Come on mate” he shouts, possibly to Freddie Ladapo as Conor Chaplin shapes up to thread a through ball beyond the enormous Barnsley defenders. “Come on, early pressure” continues my neighbour, “Pass it around, pass it around”.  He’s living every moment of his own live commentary.  A radio commentator might say that Town have started ‘on the front foot’ and by way of proof the bloke behind me announces that “ the pressure is unreal” .  The first two shots on goal however are by Barnsley players. There is a lot of jeering from the Barnsley fans and it sounds as if someone may be being ejected from the ground, around me people stand up tall and peer to their right to see what’s happening, they remind me of meerkats.

It’s the tenth minute and people rise and applaud as one in memory of a baby who has died.  On the pitch the game is interrupted by a foul and then carries on.  Neither side is exactly peppering the opposition goal with shots and the match is tense and physical; it’s engrossing but not exciting. Barnsley make an early substitution due to injury, reducing the aggregate of the numbers on their shirts by three as number 22 replaces number 25.

It’s the eighteenth minute and Wes Burns and Liam Kitching race for the ball, the enormous Kitching sticks out an arm to impede Burns and holds his shirt, Burns holds Kitching’s shirt and the linesman flags for a free-kick to Barnsley.  It’s a biased decision favouring the defender who had been first to foul, it would have been better to have made no decision at all.  “Pressure” shouts the bloke from Veolia out of the blue. Barnsley substitute, and former occasional Town player James Norwood can be seen trotting from the bench to the dressing room. “He’s injured already” says the bloke behind me. “Going for a Nando’s” says the bloke next to him.  “Come on Town, we haven’t even got out of…” bawls the bloke beside me trailing off, seemingly unable to remember what it is we haven’t even got out of.  If this was going to be a driving analogy I would guess “first gear” is what we haven’t got out of, but if this was going to be an analogy about going to bed it might be “our trousers”; admittedly however this would be an unusual analogy .

It’s the twenty seventh minute and Wes Burns is victim of over physical defending and Town have a free-kick about 20 metres from goal. Conor Chaplin steps up to send a sublime shot over the defensive wall and into the top corner of the Barnsley goal.  It’s a marvellous, beautiful goal and Town are winning. “They’ve gotta come out now” says the bloke behind me, suggesting that he believes some of the Barnsley players will now reveal that they enjoy the company of other men.

Six minutes later and following a series of Barnsley free-kicks the ball is crossed to the far post where Jack Aitchison heads it across goal and inside the far post to provide an unexpected equaliser. “It’s all gone quiet over there” chant the Barnsley fans conveniently forgetting that they are in a library, so it would be quiet wouldn’t it?  They compound their error by chanting “You’re not singing anymore” when apparently, according to their earlier chants we weren’t singing anyway.  Like ‘leave’ voters who don’t want to queue to have their passports stamped when only going ‘next door’ to Holland or France they seem to want their cake and to eat it too.

Leif Davis and Sam Morsy have shots blocked and Davis heads past the post as half-time looms.  When three minutes of added on time are announced, Barnsley’s number two Jordan Williams is sprawling on the grass. “Ha-ha” calls a Nelson Munce-like voice from somewhere behind me.   It’s been a good half of football but not a thrilling one if one inexplicably forgets Chaplin’s goal,  so the Nelson Munce soundalike has gained a higher profile in my mind than he probably deserves.

Half-time is the usual round of talking to Ray and Harrison and Michael and eating a Nature Valley Honey and Oats Crunchy bar.  Ray asks what I know about solar panels, and I tell him I have them on my roof because my mother in-law died. 

The game re-starts at two minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon making a fine save, diving to his right to ensure a decent passing and running move by Barnsley does not end with a goal.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fookin’ thing” chant the Barnsley fans in their South Yorkshire dialect. “Your support is fookin’ shit” they continue before rounding off their medley with a rendition of “Top o’ the league, your ‘avin’ a laff”.   It’s the fifty -third minute and Freddie Ladapo has an attempt cleared off the line. “Get up ya fairy” calls the man from Veolia at Luca Connell as the Barnsley player writhes about in the centre circle before being attended to by a physio. Today’s attendance is announced as being 25,001 with 613 being Tykes and Colliers from Barnsley.  On the Clacton supporters bus the winner of the guess the crowd competition is just two out, guessing 24,499, although misleadingly the guess of 25,050 gets more of the actual digits correct and therefore almost looks closer.

The game is nearly two-thirds over and Barnsley’s Callum Styles is booked for a cynical block on Wes Burns.  Barnsley win a corner. “I’m getting worried you know” admits Pat from Clacton beginning to lose her faith that Town will win this match.  “Come on Town, defend” shouts the bloke beside me giving helpful advice as the corner kick is taken.  The corner is defended as suggested and when play next stops Barnsley make another substitution, James Norwood replacing Jack Aitchison who walks off so slowly and gingerly that he looks like he might have suffered a sudden attack of diarrhoea.

The sixty-sixth minute and the Barnsley supporters think they’ve scored as the ball rattles into the side netting in front of them at the end of another decent move.  Relief and schadenfreude combine to transform the mood of Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand who are able to jeer at the stupidity of their northern neighbours.   With the game into its final quarter Town introduce mass substitutions. Stephen Foster announces that there will be three, but only tells us about Kayden Jackson replacing Freddie Ladapo and Marcus Harness replacing Tyreece John -Jules.  The forgotten substitution sees Kane Vincent-Young appear in place of Leif Davis.  As happened at Shrewsbury last week, the change quickly produces results and Wes Burns runs down the right and into the box before producing a low cross which Sam Morsy side-foots into the net.  Town lead, and are on top to the extent that three minutes later Marcus Harness scores a third, only for alleged referee Steve Martin to disallow it for reasons unknown.  Unlike his American namesake, this Steve Martin seems to be the man with no brain rather than ‘The man with two brains’ and should in future be known by the same name as Steve Martin’s dog in his 1979 film ‘The Jerk’, alternativley ‘The Jerk’ would do.

As if having an idiot for a referee is not bad enough Town soon suffer further by failing to defend a corner and allowing Barnsley’s Callum Styles, a man who according to the app on my phone is shorter than Conor Chaplin ( I think the app must be wrong) , a free header which he places just inside the far post.  If only the man from Veolia had shouted “Come on Town, defend”.  As I remark to Fiona “ I think that is what is called giving him too much time and space”.

Despite the disappointment of gifting Barnsley another equaliser Town press on for another winning goal and dominate the remaining fifteen minutes, reducing Barnsley to desperate clearances rather than considered passes out of defence.   Wolfe is booked for fouling Sam Morsy and a Wes Burns shot is pushed away for a corner by the outstretched arm of the Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins, who I like to think was named after Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sone Aluko replaces Conor Chaplin with five minutes of normal time left.  James Norwood is booked for diving and happily does nothing to suggest it was a mistake to let him go. Anderson of Barnsley is booked for kicking the ball away when a free-kick is awarded; it’s a display of bad sportsmanship and unneccessary nastiness which seems common to this team of mostly mardy millennials.  Fiona leaves early to get away for a family barbecue, despite the fire risk due to the drought, and a ridiculous eight minutes of time added on are announced.  Town win a corner from which George Edmundson heads against a post; Kane Vincent-Young sends a header towards goal, but it is kept out with a flying save; Aluko and Harness both have shots blocked.

 It’s almost five o’clock when The Jerk ends the game and walks off to the boos of the crowd, including mine.  We now expect Town to win, and only the referee and some uncharacteristically forgetful defending have prevented that today, but that’s not so unusual, and at least we didn’t lose. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose as it might say on a future T-shirt when we all start supporting Town in French.

Ipswich Town 1 Crewe Alexandra 0

I first saw Crewe Alexandra in January of 1983 in a Friday night fourth division match at Layer Road, Colchester. Crewe lost 4-3.  Watching fourth division football was a release from the tension of following a declining Ipswich Town in our first season without Bobby Robson as manager and without the saintly Arnold Muhren in midfield.  The fourth division was fun and my friend Stephen and I had adopted Colchester United as our fun ‘second team’, although Stephen also professed a liking for East Stirling, and as we drove down the A12 we would add to our amusement by making up deprecatory poems about Col U’s opponents.

What are you gonna do

Crewe

when we beat ya four-two

Crewe

We’d rather watch Scooby-Doo

Crewe

Than watch you

 Crewe

It explains why your supporters are so few

Crewe.

We were young and didn’t know any better, although I still believe beat poetry has a place in professional football.  Back in 1983 Crewe Alexandra were perennial strugglers and were destined to finish the season twenty-third in the twenty-four team fourth division, one place higher than they had finished the season before; they had finished bottom and second from bottom in 1979 and 1980 too, whilst Ipswich were making hay whilst the sun shone at the other end of the Football League. Times change.

Today it’s a grey, cloudy day and rain streaks the windows on the back of my house blurring and obscuring the views of the garden and turning every window into a bathroom window.  I log onto the ifollow in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots, it’s like Junior Choice but without Sparky’s Magic Piano, and Brenner Woolley has replaced Ed Stewart, which is just as well given that Ed died in 2016.  “Alongside me” says Brenner is Mick Mills. Good old Mick.

Kick-off is nigh, but the novelty of the new Saturday afternoon routine of football on the radio or the ifollow has begun to wear off and lose its lustre. Attempting to re-invigorate it I have foregone my usual pre-match ‘pint’ and today I am sticking up two fingers to those of the football licensing authorities who would crush our enjoyment and am pouring a ‘pint’ (500ml) of Adnams Broadside which I will proceed to drink during the game and in sight of the pitch.

The game begins with Brenner telling me that it is Crewe that are kicking-off and playing from right to left.  Brenner draws our attention to Omar Beckles because he used to play for Shrewsbury Town under former Town fuhrer Paul Hurst and alongside Jon Nolan and Toto Nsiala.  I recall the 2018 League One play-off final in which Beckles was terrible; but on the plus side his surname sounds like a Suffolk town and his first name reminds me of the marvellous HBO tv series The Wire.  The referee is Mr Trevor Kettle, which is also a great name, for a bloke with a whistle.  Brenner adds even more biographical detail for the Crewe team, telling us that Michael Mandron played for Colchester United.  Brenner surpasses himself referring to Mandron the next time he touches the ball as “The big Frenchman”. Mandron was indeed born in Boulogne and amusingly, on his Wikipedia page under the heading ‘Personal Life’ all it says is that he “…supported Real Madrid when growing up, while he also followed the results of Paris Saint-Germain.” What a fulfilling life he must have outside football.

 In the absence of any decent on-pitch action from Town Brenner reveals that Town manager Paul Lambert is stood with “…arms folded, in his black overcoat”.

Fifteen minutes pass and as an Ipswich supporter I am not enjoying the match; Crewe are selfishly keeping the ball to themselves most of the time, whilst Ipswich rarely have possession in the Crewe half of the field.  A caption appears in the corner of the screen revealing that possession of the ball is 57% to 43% in Crewe’s favour.  “Crewe the better side, at the moment” says Brenner honestly, but offering hope that things can change.  I don’t know if it’s the feebleness of Town’s performance that’s getting me hot under the collar or if I’ve got the radiator turned up too high but I’m feeling warm and am compelled to take off my jumper uncovering  my “Allez les Bleus” T-shirt beneath.

Crewe’s Ng has a shot which Brenner tells us Tomas Holy “throws his cap on”, although given the weather today he would have done better to have worn a sou’wester.  Over twenty minutes have passed and Gwion Edwards has Town’s first shot at goal, if you exclude Andre Dozzell’s hopeful punt which hits a Crewe player before it has travelled a yard, which I do; Gwion’s shot travels harmlessly wide of the Crewe goal.  Eight more minutes pass and Tomas Holy blocks a shot from Crewe’s Lowery who is unmarked about six metres from the goal; Lowery should probably have scored.  Such is the absence of any decent play from Town that Brenner and Mick begin to talk about the weather.  Mick starts it, making just a passing reference, but Brenner picks it up and carries on “…it has been terrible weather hasn’t it” says Brenner, sounding like a housewife chatting with her neighbour over the garden fence.

There are ten minutes until half time and the ifollow stutters, a quadrant of a circle flashes on the screen and play stands still.   The picture moves, and then stops again and does so three or four times more.  The feed returns in time for me to hear Brenner listing Town’s forthcoming fixtures, the last of which is against Crawley Town in what Brenner reveals is now called the Papa John’s Trophy; at last a sponsor to do this competition justice.

On the pitch things don’t improve “We’re just watching the game at the moment” says Mick, not of Brenner and himself, but of the Town team. Half-time arrives as a blessed relief but as the teams leave the field the ifollow pictures show that Paul  Lambert is not sporting an overcoat as Brenner had described earlier but is actually wearing an anorak or a parka.  This not only calls in to doubt Brenner’s knowledge of jackets and outer garments, but also for a man who earns his living from painting an aural picture of what he sees before him, his inability to accurately describe a coat has shaken my faith in the accuracy of his commentary.  Seeking solace in tea and nut based snacks I put the kettle on and unwrap a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.

At four minutes past nine the game resumes on the ifollow.  The pictures are soon interrupted by buffering and I miss Town winning a corner and then another.  Six minutes pass “This is a different game so far second half” says Mick, not quite forming a proper sentence but making himself understood nevertheless.  Mick is right, as he so often is.

Andre Dozzell is booked for the fifth time this season, which is an incredible feat for a player of his supposed ability; he needs to learn how to tackle or not bother.   Oliver Hawkins has a diving header saved by the Crewe goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen.  Town are no the longer the feeble team they were in the first half, but Crewe haven’t given up just yet and construct another intricate passing move “Almost gymnasium football that they play” says Mick. “Yes, almost 5-a-side” says Brenner clarifying the matter for those listeners who might be sat at home wondering what the hell ‘gymnasium football’ is.

It’s the 62nd minute. Town win a corner; it is taken short, little Alan Judge crosses the ball and big Oliver Hawkins heads the ball into the goal.  Despite having not played as well as Crewe for most of the past hour, Ipswich are winning.  My happiness is tempered within ten minutes however as without warning the ifollow goes completely berserk and transports me back to the 55th minute and I get to see Andre Dozzell being booked for a second time.  The only good thing is that he’s not sent off, but I quickly realise that I can fast forward to the present day and catch up in time to see Kayden Jackson replace Oliver Hawkins.

  Crewe make two substitutions replacing Owen Dale and the “Big Frenchman” with Daniel Powell and Chris Porter and the balance of the game swings back in Crewe’s favour. Town are forced to defend for much of the last fifteen minutes. “McGuiness makes one of his customary leaps” says Brenner growing tired, and Wintle shoots from distance, his shot going “…down the throat of Holy”.

The ifollow starts playing up again with more buffering and Brenner and Mick’s commentary takes on the character of a tribute act to Norman Collier.  Service is restored with the good news that  Leiston, Lowestoft, Needham and Felixstowe are all winning their respective FA Trophy ties.  It’s a quarter to five and I turn the kitchen light on to create my own little homespun version of floodlit atmosphere.  Keanan Bennetts replaces Freddie Sears, and Brenner refers to Tomas Holy as “The giant Czech keeper”.  Kayden Jackson is booked for idiocy and Gwion Edwards is booked too, but for Andre Dozzell style tackling.  Brenner adds colour to the grey afternoon and his commentary for the benefit of radio listeners describing “Ward just drying the white ball on his blue jersey”.

There will be five minutes of added time for assorted delays and possibly the ifollow buffering.  Crewe continue to press for an equaliser; “This is a bit awkward to watch Mick” says Brenner seeking support from his side-kick whilst audibly squirming in his press box seat.  More bad news for Mick is that Boris Johnson’s planned broadcast to a disinterested nation has been delayed until 6.30 and therefore the post-match phone-in will take place.  As Brenner unfeelingly tells him, Mick can’t go home early but must “…do a full shift”.

At last the game ends with Town blagging their way through the remaining minutes and even succeeding in retaining possession for a short while to frustrate their opponents.  Brenner asks for Mick’s summary “We’d not be telling the truth if we said Ipswich deserved to win the game” says Mick almost apologising for what he is saying as he says it.  But he’s right, even though trying to play decent football in the third division is possibly doomed to failure. 

Mick’s thoughts are abruptly cut short as the ifollow feed ends and I am left alone in my kitchen trying to think of words that rhyme with Brenner.

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has

Witham Railway Station

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

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I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

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railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

Witham Town

As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

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On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

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I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

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arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

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by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

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With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve, past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

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Long Melford 2 Newmarket Town 1

Long Melford is a big village, one of the most appealing and attractive in Suffolk according to Suffolk Tourist Guide.com with, according to Wikipedia, a population in 2011 of some 3,518. Melford, as it is known locally, is just a few miles north of Sudbury, it used to have a railway but since 1967 and the evil Doctor Beeching, the line now terminates at Sudbury. If you want to get to Long Melford by public transport therefore, it is necessary get the No 753 bus from Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds. Like the train service from Marks Tey, the bus service runs hourly, but as this is England the trains and buses are not properly co-ordinated; the train to Sudbury arrives at 13.08 and the bus conveniently leaves at 13:30, reaching Long Melford Post Office ten minutes later. On the return journey however, the 754 bus passes Long Melford Post Office at 17:11 and arrives in Sudbury four minutes after the train has left, at 17:20, so there is nearly an hour’s wait in Sudbury for the next train at 18:16.
Today however, I am driving to Long Melford’s Stoneylands ground because I have agreed to give a lift to a man called Roly, who lives in nearby Borley. I happen to know Roly’s house is within walking distance of Stoneylands because Roly has walked it before, but I was in generous mood when we discussed by text message going to the game and very slightly inebriated.
It is a grey, still, cold winter’s day as I make the twisting, undulating drive through Chappel, home of the East Anglian Railway Museum, Mount Bures with its excellent Thatchers Arms pub, Bures with its large empty bus depot, the edge of Cornard and through busy Sudbury before taking the turn towards the wonderfully named Foxearth. In Borley, Roly’s Victorian cottage home is a scene of domestic bliss; his partner Sarah reclines on the sofa with their young baby Lottie, whilst Penny the dog rolls over at my feet and wriggles excitedly. But I don’t linger, there is football to go to and within

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minutes Roly and I are bouncing down the pitted, puddle filled private road that leads to the football ground and my Citroen C3 gets a taste of what it must have been like to be a Citroen 2CV carrying a tray of eggs across a field somewhere in the Auvergne.
Getting parked takes longer than it should as the man in the car in front seems to want to park as close to the entrance as possible, which means reversing gingerly and at first unsuccessfully into a narrow space despite the presence of acres of car free space just 15metres away. There is an air of the village hall about Melford’s ground from the

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outside and indeed the club’s nickname is The Villagers. There is no turnstile as such here, just a few metal and plastic barriers herding would be spectators towards a kiosk of the type that used to be at the exit to municipal car parks back before the days of Pay & Display, when a bloke stamped your ticket and took your money as you left. There is a short queue to get in because it takes the

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grey-haired woman in the kiosk a little while to root around for change from a plastic tub. A board on the side of the kiosk announces the price of admission, but in reality it’s just a green smudge of felt tip pen; fortunately I’ve done my homework so I know from the club website that admission is £7 including a programme.
Once inside, Roly buys me a bottle of Nethergate IPA (£3.50) in the bar, which is the least he could do after I went out of my way to drive him here, selfishly he gets one for himself too. We drink bottled beer because sadly the hand pump on the bar is covered over with a tea towel, which is very disappointing. The woman serving is struggling for change and asks rhetorically how she is expected to run a bar with a float of just four pound coins. I empty my pockets and find just short of ten pounds in change, which she is happy to exchange for a ten pound note; I’m 40p up!

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We sup our beer in the company of other middle-aged and older men stood around tables as men do in bars, but soon we are aware that the teams are coming on to the pitch. We leave the clubhouse just as the line-up for the obligatory handshakes is dissolving away into the two halves of the pitch. Newmarket Town are the visiting team today and they sit seventh with 53 points from 31 games in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League table; Melford are 16th with 39 points from 32 games. It’s a clash between a village known for antique shops and a town known for horse racing. I suspect that watching local football puts us firmly outside those two spheres of activity although weirdly I think, there is an advert in the match programme for “Wealth management advice”, whatever happened to plain old financial advice?
The 1970’s pop blaring from the tannoy stops abruptly as Newmarket, nicknamed predictably as the Jockeys, kick off towards the dull, suburban estate-style houses at the Sudbury end of the ground. Newmarket’s club colours are yellow and blue, but for some unknown reason today they are wearing a rather ugly all red kit with white stripes below the chest, as if they’d brushed their teeth before coming on and dribbled Colgate down their stomachs. Melford play towards the dilapidated wooden fence, shelter and open fields to the north, wearing their signature black and white striped shirts and black shorts. Melford’s kit is embellished with name of the excellent Nethergate Brewery, who have newly built premises at the entrance to the village by the turning to Foxearth.
Newmarket start well, passing neatly and getting forward, but Melford suddenly win possession, breakaway and have a shot, and so it continues. Both teams have a lot of players with beards. Newmarket have the ball most of the time, but Melford spring the occasional surprise, getting the ball to their number seven Hassan Ally who is always in the right place, but never quite makes the final telling cross or pass. The Melford cross bar is hit by a header and then at about twenty five past three a long ball to the right is chased down by Lewis Whitehead who shoots across the Melford goal keeper; Newmarket lead and a number of middle aged men cheer unexpectedly. No one in the crowd is wearing club colours but for a Bedlington Terrier in a red coat, so the presence of away supporters is a surprise.

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Half-time arrives and Newmarket would seem to be in control. Roly has already treated

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or ‘tret’ himself, as he would say in his quaint rustic dialect, to a cheeseburger (£3.00) from the food bar which the programme tells us is called Deb’s Diner. The concluding paragraph of the joint managers’ column in the programme says “Whatever happens, we hope you enjoy your afternoon here in Long Melford, get yourself something to eat and drink…” and Roly has clearly taken note. I don’t ask him if it was an early tea or late lunch or just a celebration that his NHS health check during the week had shown him to be a well man, clearly capable of absorbing the ill-effects of junk food, for the time being at least.
We go into the club house again for two more bottles of Nethergate IPA and to catch the half-time scores on the TV and are much heartened that Ipswich are winning 2-0 at Sunderland. The club house is recently refurbished after the roof fell-in last year and there are several marvellous photos on the walls of past achievements such as Suffolk Senior Cup wins. A trophy cabinet contains a couple of old brown leather footballs which impress me more than the cups and trinkets. When there is a cosy clubhouse, half time is never long enough and it’s soon time to re-join the rows of middle-aged men hanging over the rail around the pitch.

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The second half is not the same as the first, roles are reversed and it is the Villagers who more frequently have the ball at their feet whilst the Jockeys chase about in vain and are pushed back into their own half. For the second half we stand on the opposite side of the ground to the clubhouse near the dugouts and in front of a coniferous hedge, carefullyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and neatly cut into a modernist architectural shape; behind the hedge a close-board wooden fence is in places nailed to its thick trunks. In its neatness the hedge is only matched by the Newmarket goalkeeper’s haircut, but is less contrived. There is more noise on this side of the pitch as the coaches of both team teams shout and urge their teams on.
As the game continues Melford dominate more and more and Newmarket are getting tetchy. Whilst there were hardly any fouls at all in the first half, tiredness and desperation and swearing are introducing a new kind of entertainment. A Melford player goes down and the Newmarket number two complains to Mr Pope and anyone who is listening, because Mr Pope isn’t, that Melford have some right prima donnas, although he pronounces it pre-madonnas. Another foul and a free-kick on the edge of the box and then another. Then, whilst Roly is in the toilet, Melford win a third free-kick. Despite referee Mr Pope taking time to book the perpetrator, Roly still isn’t back by the time Ross Waugh scores, apparently with a header, although to be honest it was one of those messy goals and I had lost track of the ball.
There are only eight minutes left and the blokes in trackie bottoms and sports coats onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the touchline are visibly tense. The Melford number ten Scott Sloots is hurt and is substituted; as he hobbles off the pitch one or two of his own players seem to be complaining that he is taking his time. “Come on ref, make him get off quicker” I hear. I hadn’t previously realised that there was a point where team togetherness and the will to win would clash. But nevertheless, Melford continue to push forward and in the final minute of injury time there is a run down the left, the ball’s in the box, a shot is blocked and Hassan Ally is in the right place to score from the rebound. Rarely have I seen such elation from a team sixteenth in the league to a winning goal; both coaches burst onto the pitch to celebrate with the team as if this was a most crucial victory. I’m all in favour of making your own fun but this seems to be going a bit far.
To his credit, Mr Pope the referee makes nothing of the exuberance of the Melford coaches and in no time at all the match is over. Roly and I stroll round to the club house to make final use of the toilet before applauding the Melford team from the pitch. It’s been a very entertaining game with a dramatic finale and I’ve made 40p.