Ipswich Town 4 Accrington Stanley 1

Before starting this account of Ipswich Town’s latest fixture I must let you the reader know that I am sick and tired of people droning on repeating that 1980’s advertisement for milk whenever Accrington Stanley is mentioned. There is no excuse for not knowing the name of Accrington Stanley and that child in the advert was an ignoramus and possibly an imbecile and deserves to suffer from calcium deficiency.

Today I am extremely excited; as excited as a Liverpudlian child with weak bones or a deficiency of vitamins E, B6 and B12 should be when offered a glass of milk. Today for the first time in five months I am returning to Portman Road to watch the latest chapter in the Superblues’ epic march back towards world domination, and today Town face the famous Accrington Stanley. The last game I saw was Town’s tepid one-all draw with Sunderland in August, soon after which I was found to have pneumonia, was put in a coma, diagnosed with Endocarditis, given open heart surgery to replace two valves eaten away by bacterial infection and placed on a two-month long course of industrial strength anti-biotics. Sunderland AFC was not implicated in these events.   Unlike Gloria Gaynor, who after all these years is still all about what she will do, I actually did survive, thanks to the fantastic NHS and at last I now feel fit enough to once more brave the streets and terraces of Suffolk’s capital city. Consider Emyr Huws’ return to the team after long-term injury, Andre Dozzell’s return to the team after torn ligaments, Ian Marshall’s return to the team after being run over by a shopping trolley; roll them all into one and you will come close to how I feel today. Today is, as those who speak in modern parlance say, ’massive’ or at least quite big.

It is a grey and windy Saturday, becoming of early January and the trains are not running. Refusing to pay train fares to travel by Corporation bus, yesterday I experimentally sought the assistance of fellow Ipswich Town supporters on social media and attempted to politely solicit a lift to Ipswich. With the sole exception of a sensible answer from a kind man in his sixties called Ian, the responses I received were at worst rude, ignorant or stupid and at best unhelpful. These responses included one from a man whose profile indicates somewhat worryingly that he is chairman of governors at an infants’ school, whilst another respondent claimed to be three years old after I notified him that his initial response implied he was not able to offer me a lift and that was all I needed to know.  Depressed that idiots and dumb arses trying to be smart arses are also Ipswich Town fans, I muse that at least Ian proves that decent people do exist and today I convey my gratitude to him as we travel up the A12 in his grey Volkswagen Tiguan. We talk of football and our plans for the pre-match period. Once the VW is parked up we go our separate ways, departing each other’s company with the reciprocal wish that we might enjoy the drive home on the back of a good win.

It’s only a quarter to one and Portman Road is still open to motor traffic; I assiduously keep to the pavement because it would be a waste to be mown down by a car now, having dodged death only a few months before and at public expense too. After stopping to buy a programme (£3.50) I continue up the gentle incline, across Handford Road to St Matthews Street, passing a few early-arrivers walking in the opposite direction.  I have time on my hands and rather than fall prey too early to the demon drink I walk on past St Jude’s Tavern to Francesco’s Hair Salon at 61 St Matthew’s Street.  My long period of convalescence has left me looking like Howard Hughes and I need a haircut, so I get one (£15.50) courtesy of a charming lady hairdresser with whom I chat about going to football, Christmas, family, drinking enough fluids and fruit.  Francesco’s is incidentally the same establishment where Bobby Robson would get his hair cut.  Although Francesco has moved premises since Sir Bobby’s time, I nevertheless can’t helping feeling I would have had Bobby’s endorsement for this match-day tonsorial, although it is only in my imagination that I see him smiling back at me from the mirror giving me the thumbs-up.

Looking like a new man I leave Francesco’s and make the short walk back to St Jude’s Tavern; upon entering I think I hear a small voice say “Martin”, but I pay no attention believing I have just happened to walk in on the end of a conversation about relatives of the polecat or cast members of ‘That was the week that was’.  I proceed to the bar, but before I can order a pint of today’s Match Day Special (£2.50) my friend and colleague Roly is at my shoulder and wishing me well, for it was he who spoke my name.  I have not seen Roly for several weeks and we talk agreeably, making jokes of everything we can think of, none of which we will remember.  Soon, my mouth parched from incessant conversation, I get a second pint of the Match Day Special which today is Mr B’s Hexagon, a name which refers to the shape of the honeycomb, but which I as a lover of all things French prefer to think of as celebrating the mainland part of metropolitan France, which the natives often refer to as l’hexagone due to its approximate shape.  I treat Roly to a half a pint of the same drink; he is on reduced ration because later he will be driving home in his second-hand Vauxhall Astra.

Before we leave St Jude’s for the match Mick pops in to give me my season ticket which he has been using whilst I have been confined to my sick bed. Mick doesn’t stay for a drink but lingers long enough to tell us how he met his friend Chris at the railway station and they had a drink in the Station Hotel, which on match days is dedicated as the ‘away supporters’ pub.  Unable to spot any away supporters Mick asked a bouncer where they all were; the bouncer turned and pointed to two blokes drinking quietly in the corner of the bar.  Later the number of away supporters attending the match will be announced on the Portman Road scoreboard as 155 in a crowd of 17,536.  I do not believe that 153 of these 155 Accringtonians are teetotal and I am pleased therefore that they paid no heed to being confined to the ‘away pub’ and sought their pleasure like free men and women, wherever they could find it.

Time passes and eventually with glasses and bladders drained Roly and I descend Portman Road in time for kick-off, the day remains dull and defined by grey cloud. I dodge my way across the stream of supporters flowing out of Portman Road car park and into Sir Alf Ramsey Way; I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile seven after a brief internal dialogue about which is the luckier number, seven or eight; I decide I don’t believe in lucky numbers. I say a hearty, smiling ‘hello’ to the lady turnstile operator and a little bizarrely also bid her ‘goodbye’ as the turnstile clicks; my excuse is that I am out of practice with this match-going lark, but i am also feeling a lot of love for the world and everyone in it.  After another brief visit to the toilet facilities I ascend the steps from the concourse into the lower tier of the stand to reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Ray, the old dears who formerly sat behind me, Bluey, Crazee and my view of the green, green turf and its dramatic, part human, part concrete, part blue plastic and steel backdrop.

It is with a heavy heart that I learn from ever-present Phil that Pat from Clacton is not at the game today because she is on a cruise, but I speak excitedly with Ray and his grandson Harrison before taking up a seat two along from ever-present Phil and in front of the old dears.  With all that lining up to shake hands malarkey out of the way referee Mr Charles Breakspear, whose name sounds like he might have played Association Football for Old Carthusians in the 1870’s, parps his whistle to begin the match.  Accrington Stanley get first go with the ball all dressed in a strong shade of red, which makes them look a bit like Liverpool and is ironic given that at least one fictional, undernourished child from that city has never heard of them.  Incidentally, my earliest contact with anything Accringtonesque was a short, balding bloke called Steve who I met when at university; he came from Accrington but shamefully supported Liverpool, I think if I described him as dwarfish and ugly it wouldn’t be an injustice.  My second contact with something touched by Accrington was by contrast an attractive lady work colleague who was a native of Oswaldtwistle or Ozzy as she called it, a town contiguous with Accrington or Accy as she called it. She was well versed in the names of Burnley players of the 1970’s  and rarely wore a brassiere, two possible reasons why I remember her over thirty years later.

With Town in their customary blue and white and the turf glowing green beneath the floodlights this could be a scene conjured up from a Club Edition Subbuteo set. Town start well, passing the ball accurately, playing towards me and ever-present Phil and looking keen to do well.  My attention is taken however by Accrington’s enormously tall number 5 whose name, the shoulder of his shirt tells me is Sykes, not Eric or even Bill sadly but Ross, like the fish fingers.  “Cor! He’s skinny” shouts a voice behind me. Sykes’s gangliness is however overshadowed by that of Accy’s number 36 Jerome Opuku, a player on loan from Fulham whose flailing arms and legs give him the appearance of a piece of nineteenth century agricultural reaping machinery or a drunken octopus; when tackled he collapses to the floor like a puppet that has had its strings cut.  That said he’s a half decent player.

After kick-off just twelve minutes pass and Ipswich take the lead; a glorious passing move involving the eye-rubbingly strange sight of Luke Woolfenden surging into the penalty area in open play (‘underlapping’ as ever-present Phil christens it) from his centre back position. I can’t recall having seen such a thing before at Portman Road, it’s tantamount to ‘Total Football’; a marvel, even if the ultimate finish from Kayden Jackson looks a bit scruffy as he slides on his bum side by side with an Accrington player to get the ball over the goal line.

“Come On Ipswich” chants the crowd, bemused or tentatively intrigued by the stylish football before them. Two minutes later another passing moving ends with James Norwood hopelessly mishitting the ball when well placed to score. In a rare idle moment I watch a seagull arc above the pitch, but this is a game that demands to be watched and before a half an hour has passed Norwood runs on to an instinctively reactive, first time volleyed pass from Emyr Huws and casually lobs the ball over the head of the Lambeth born Accrington ‘keeper Josef Bursik.  Time slows down as the ball follows a graceful arc, although I’ve yet to see an arc that isn’t so, and descends perfectly beneath the cross bar before striking the net.  The goal inspires a thankfully brief dirge version of “When the Town going marching in” from the North Stand and I decide that Jerome Opuku’s squad number of ‘36’ refers to his inside leg measurement.  Life is good if you’re a Town supporter inside Portman Road football ground today and just to prove the point a third goal is scored by little Alan Judge a minute before half-time. It’s the result of another fine passing move which this time has seen centre half Luke Chambers push forward in open play to set it off.  Luke Chambers mostly looks angry when he’s playing football, some might say he is pulling a determined face perhap. His snarly reaction to the latest goal today seems to imply he is claiming some responsibility for it, almost as much as Alan Judge; perhaps scoring again was his idea. 

Applause is the sound of the day as the teams clear off for half-time and I head down to the toilet before consuming a Nature Valley Protein Peanut and Chocolate bar which I had had the foresight to put in my coat pocket before leaving home almost four hours ago.  The queues for the refreshment kiosks are long and I’m pleased I am not in one.  I check the half-time scores on one of the overhead TV sets beneath the stand but get bored waiting to see anything of interest and consider how literally pointless half-time scores are.  My already cheerful mood is enhanced further however when I learn that Norwich City are losing and in my mind’s eye I see a poky, high up corner of Old Trafford where funny looking folk in yellow and green knitwear have paid exorbitant Premier League prices for the privilege of seeing their team humiliated.  I return to the stand and speak again with Ray before the teams return to play out the second half which with a satisfying sense of symmetry begins at four minutes past four.

The greyness of the afternoon deepens behind the stands making the floodlights seem to shine all the more brightly.  Predictably perhaps, the second half does not reach the heights of the first, in spite of the efforts of the glowing beams of electric light illuminating the pitch. Town begin well enough and continue to dominate possession, but the gaps in Accrington’s defence have been plugged and whilst the football is not bad, it’s been downgraded from the first half’s Copacabana-style to something more like Felixstowe-at-low-tide-style.  It’s been a game pleasantly devoid of histrionics or naughty fouls but at half past four Accrington substitute Ajibola Alese, who is on loan from West Ham United and is only 18 years old commits a foul on little Alan Judge which Mr Breakspear considers worthy of yellow card style censure. Cole Skuse replaces the wonderfully Welsh Emyr Huws, which is nice because their surnames rhyme, and then Teddy Bishop replaces little Alan Judge.   There are now two Bishops on the field as Accrington also have one in Colby Bishop, although to be honest he sounds more like a firm of estate agents than a footballer.

It’s getting on for a quarter to five and an Accrington player, possibly Dion Charles is left unmarked close to Ipswich’s goal; he shoots with his right boot; he should score but Town’s James Wilson, who makes me think of Labour prime ministers of the 1970’s moves across to deflect the ball away above the angle of the goal post and cross bar with his calf. “Lucky Ipswich” says the old boy behind me, but it wasn’t luck, it was good defending, eventually.  If it had been luck that stopped an Accrington goal it would have been of the sort that didn’t last because within a minute or so Accrington’s Congolese substitute Offrande Zanzala, who has previously played for Stevenage, Barnet and Chester, is pulled back and has a leg swiped across his chest courtesy of James Wilson. Zanzala manages to beat off a team mate who seemed to want to take the resultant penalty before he could and then scores.

There is still time for stomping Luke Chambers to get himself booked un-necessarily, which he does, and for Accrington to score two more goals, and that’s the sort of scenario that wouldn’t surprise an Ipswich supporter considering Town’s aggregate form over the last thirty years or so.  Today proves not to be the sort of day for that to happen however, and with the game into the time added on to compensate for substitutions and any nihilistic attempts to fritter away existence, Town’s third substitute, the imposing Will Keane robs an Accrington player of the ball, turns back towards the away team’s goal and sends a low shot past the man known to the French as le gardien and to Emyr Huws as the gol-geidwad.  With his hair drawn back in a scrappy pony tail Keane has the look from a distance, a long distance, of a poor man’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his record of three goals in the last four games is worthy of the big Swede.

The game ends amid much clapping and self-congratulation and after bidding ever-present Phil adieu I make a final visit to the toilet beneath the stand and then walk out into the evening, towards Ian’s Volkswagen, the soporific tones of Mick Mills on the car radio, the voices of assorted opinionated people calling to give Mick their worthless views and the journey home.

Finally, after Ian drops me off I walk around the corner to my house; a small coach drives by with the name ‘Enigma Travel’ painted on the side; “Probably on a mystery trip” I think to myself.

Walsham-le-Willows 3 Brantham Athletic 0

Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has31437733648_4ca963f0c7_o presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I parkover the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I31437744428_77524097c4_o cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.


Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I 30372602607_cb6e1eae9b_oguess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.

Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are44399647925_a9d1413cd4_o silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.

45311683771_4a2d1de6d2_o
Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.

AS Béziers 0 USL Dunkerque 0

The roadtrip from Marseillan on the coast to Béziers takes about thirty five minutes; it’s Friday evening and the roads are busy with people going home from work and others heading for the coast for le weekend. Generally however, we seem to be travelling in the right direction because it’s not quite so busy; it’s just a shame more people aren’t on their way to tonight’s match in the Ligue National at the Stade de Sauclieres in Béziers.  Then again, it is only half-past six and the game won’t start until eight.

The stadium is on the edge of the ancient town, beyond the railway tracks and the River Orb; our final approach is down rough riverside roads lined with massive plane trees whose boughs arch over it both beautifully and a little threateningly. There is a large concrete framed red brick factory for a valve manufacturer (Cameron’s) from which a railway runs out across the road and over the river via a metal lifting bridge squeezed between the trees. Factories in rural settings are another of so many things the French do well.

Having negotiated a roundabout decorated with a large steel valve we see the stadium looming up on our left, although it doesn’t look so much like a stadium as a castle wall,20170908_183641.jpg minus crenellations. I swing the car round to park at an angle between the road and the high grey wall. We walk in the road past the ends of other parked cars to the main entrance to the stadium. There’s no one much about, just a few Dunkerque fans waiting around outside and they are outnumbered by the security people; hefty blokes in navy blue uniforms and one blonde and not at all hefty woman. The guichets (ticket booths), which look like arrows might be fired from them, are not open yet, but soon one does open and once the bearded man inside has finished his conversation with someone who remains invisible to us from the outside, I hand over €20 for two tickets, children are admitted free, but we haven’t brought any of those with us.

Before entering the ground we are frisked by security. A tall stocky bloke in his late twenties asks me to spread my arms out. It’s been a warm day and it’s a warm evening and I can smell his stale deodorant as he pats down my t-shirt and shorts and then bizarrely my bare legs. I laugh, but not because it tickles. What did he suspect I would be concealing amongst the hairs on my legs? Perhaps he was checking for flares.

We walk on into the stadium through the car park, behind another high grey stone wall. A sign warns not to park under the trees when the wind is strong. We reach the corner of the stadium where there are two buvettes, a large one serving drinks and a gazebo serving chips and baguettes. Payment is by plastic orange jetons (tokens) which cost a euro each. I buy two jetons and exchange them for two bottles of water. There is an area reserved for ‘VIP’s’ behind the main stand which is fenced off from the hoi polloi. The main stand 20170908_184900.jpgis the only stand, a tall steel and concrete structure with a steep pitched roof. There are eighteen stanchions (I counted them) evenly spaced along the stand supporting a network of struts that in turn support the roof. The other three sides of the ground consist of wide sweeping terraces

closed off from use behind chain-link and Heras fencing.  It’s nevertheless an impressive arena, evocative of a bygone era, but still acceptable (with the exception of the toilets) in the context of a club that draws crowds of no more than a couple of thousand. It’s a pity at least some of the terrace behind the goal is not open however.

The stand fills up as kick-off approaches and we play ‘Spot the Wag’ as a number of slender women with perfect hair and makeup totter up the stands in tight trousers. Between her dad and her mum a little girl clutches a Barbie doll, still in its box.   The banners of the two clubs and the Ligue National are trotted out onto the pitch by six young lads20170908_195621.jpg who turn and face the stand and wait a good five minutes for the teams to appear. Meanwhile the pitch sprinklers briefly come on, first in one half, then in the other, making the boys squirm and laugh as they get wet. The public address system stutters into life as the teams are announced in the style of a French Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies. The small band of ultras, the Kop Biterrois20170908_185050.jpg , whose logo seems to be a monkey in a hat and sunglasses, are at the end of the stand and one of them beats a drum. After a minute’s silence the referee Monsieur Benjamin Lepaysant begins the match and AS Béziers kick -off towards the Cameron’s factory end of the ground. Straight from the kick- off we are treated to a cameo of how the match will pan out as Béziers indelicately boot the ball toward the Dunkerque goal, where the visiting full-back heads it weakly back to his goalkeeper, but it spins out comically for a corner to Béziers.

The Dunkerque number six, who sports Zlatan Ibrahimovic-style hair, looks quite good as he plays a couple of difficult but accurate passes and then makes a surging run forward from the back. After that however, he seems to be singled out by Béziers as a threat and is left in a heap a couple of times before he begins to feature less. Béziers’ wide players make runs forward and cross the ball to no one in particular and a Dunkerque forward shoots wildly over the crossbar and the game settles down to something less than mediocrity. At times the gaggle of ten to twelve year-olds kicking a ball about on the cinder track in front of the stand play no less entertainingly.

My wife says she sees a bat fly under the eaves of the stand, I say I think I see one too, but she claims mine was just a dragonfly or large moth. I watch the coaches of the two teams; the Dunkerque coach wears a t-shirt and jeans and has glasses and floppy hair, he looks and moves a bit like Jurgen Klopp, bouncing about the technical area, folding and unfolding his arms. The Béziers coach squats at the corner of his technical area and rises slowly, he is clearly suffering from some sort of an injury, perhaps to his hip, and he walks stiffly; I think I catch him looking enviously at his lithe opposite number.

The first yellow card of the game is shown after thirty-two minutes to Béziers’ number seventeen who has left the Dunkerque number six on the grass nursing his jaw. Nine minutes later some of the crowd, other than just the ultras raise some enthusiasm as Béziers’ win a free-kick and rythmic clapping to a 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4 pattern, followed by a shout of “Béziers!” is heard. It’s a false alarm however, as the free kick is easily caught by the goalkeeper’s grandmother.

The clock at the end of the ground shows just forty-four minutes played, but half-time is called as Monsieur Lepaysant says enough is enough. A human tide flows to the buvette and the toilets, which my wife joins only to return after the match restarts with a terrible memory of perhaps the most unsanitary khazi20170908_184645.jpg she has ever had the misfortune to visit. Worse than the North Stand toilets at Fratton Park back in the early 1970’s apparently, and no wash basin. A French girl refused to enter one cubicle. I hear the half-time scores from the other Ligue National matches over the echoing tannoy and I might be wrong, but it sounds like they are all nil-nil. I like to think they are.

Béziers begin the new half with a flourish as their number three folds in a deep curving cross; their number twenty one reaches it but cannot direct the ball at the goal. The mediocrity returns and my attention is won by a surreal sight at the top of the long, empty terrace opposite the main stand, 20170908_200252.jpg where a man is sitting at a desk.  I can only assume that this is the location for the Délègue Principal for this game, Monsieur Roger Lefebvre;20170908_200306.jpgnevertheless, I cannot help imagining my vision zooming in on him whereupon he looks up and says “…and now for something completely different”.

I think some of the problem with this match is the team kits; Béziers in their weird all aquamarine coloured kit look like the away side and Dunkerque in red and white stripes with red shorts and socks look like a plausible home team. Why that should be a problem I don’t really know, but it just doesn’t seem right. Another Béziers player is booked (number 19) after sixty two minutes, but two minutes after that they should score as a fine move, which seems to unfold in slow motion before our very eyes ends, as we knew it would, with the Béziers number nine heading over the cross bar as he seemingly attempts to not let the ball smack his forehead too hard. With twenty-three minutes remaining, Béziers’ number twenty-five performs a very smart turn indeed, before trickling the weakest shot imaginable a metre wide of the goal. Ten minutes later he surpasses this as he receives a low cross on the edge of the penalty area, controls, deftly makes a yard of space, and then completely misses the ball as he goes to shoot. Continuing this rich vein of form he then ends a rare decent flowing move with what looks like an aimless swing at the ball disguised as a terrible lofted pass, before hobbling away to conceal his embarrassment. But it’s been that kind of a match; the players have not necessarily been particularily bad, it’s just that the ball won’t do what they want it to.

Just before the three minutes of added-on time is actually added on, Béziers’ number ten heads the ball directly into the arms of the Dunkerque goalkeeper and then in added time Dunkerque twice cause confusion close to the Béziers’ goal, but are as confused about where the ball is as Béziers.

Sadly this game hasn’t turned out to be a particularily good advertisement for the third tier of French football or its toilets. Nevertheless, it has been a beautiful warm evening in a lovely evocative setting and I wouldn’t have missed it for much.

NEWS! After the game I emailed AS Beziers to ask if they  would clean the toilets in time for the next match. They replied to say that as the stadium belonged to the town of Beziers it was the local authorities responsibility; but they had in turn written to La Ville de Beziers asking them to follow up the matter. I later received an email from La Ville de Beziers letting me know they would be cleaning the toilets.