Ireland 1 Italy 0

Ireland v Italy 34

Ireland 1 Italy 0 (Lille, 22nd June 2016)

The Irish seem to like a drink. I arrived back in Lille at around Midnight, after the Czech v Turkey game down the road in Lens, to find that so much beer had been drunk and spilled in Lille city centre that the pavement felt like one of those 80s pubs with a sticky carpet. A liberal scattering of broken glass and a conspicuous lack of pubs still open made me wonder if there’d been trouble in the town, or maybe Lille police are just a bunch of killjoys taking no chances.

With very few Italian fans about, the city belonged to Ireland, turning the place into a sea of green. Not all were quite the welcome happy-go-lucky stereotype Irish fan though. One, sat at table in a café just off the Grand Place, was feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking to such a degree that he’d slumped sideways in his chair, mouth open, asleep verging on comatose, with the knuckles of one hand dragging on the floor. I’m sure the café owner was delighted to have such a delightful customer at a prominent corner table, advertising the high calibre clientèle his café could attract.

After battling queues at the metro station, with increasing numbers not letting half the ticket machines being broken hold back a hot and sweaty sing-song, the 10 minute walk to the stadium was a cooling relief on a muggy evening. High spirits saw fans try to kick plastic footballs through the high up open windows of a hotel near the stadium. They were subdued a tad by what would thankfully be my last half-hour scrum at a security check-point, before emerging on the concourse of the newly built Stade Pierre Mauroy.

The stadium holds 50,000 but although it looks very smart from the outside, with LEDs along the exterior creating a wall of TV style images, I’d not been too sold on pictures I’d seen of the interior. This was mainly due to the very heavy mechanical roof, which even when open, seemed to overpower the rest of the stadium.

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As it turned out aesthetics really weren’t the problem. The roof was shut, which was very disappointing on a sunny evening, but a hot and humid day and a shut roof made for an oppressively warm and humid atmosphere inside the stadium. I’ve been to football in Thailand, Japan, and other tropical places in the far east, and I’m not sure I’ve watched a game anywhere so uncomfortable – I swear there were clouds forming inside by the roof, even if in reality it was probably smoke from a flare.

Whatever the heat, it did nothing to deter the Irish fans in backing their team, with “The Fields of Athenry” blasting out from the three sides of the ground that were predominantly green. They knew they had to win, something which seemed a tough call on paper, with Italy having won their opening two games, and looking quite impressive. Earlier in the evening I’d chatted to an Italy supporter, from Scotland oddly enough, who expected an Irish win. “This is effectively a friendly for Italy, and Italy doesn’t do friendlies” was his take.

How right he was. Not that Italy rolled over and died, but they seemed to have no ambition beyond not losing. For Ireland it was a case of could they make that breakthrough? They never stopped going, an even as time ticked by, you just got that feeling a goal was coming. And come it did, with just five minutes left. Just as fans were probably beginning to wonder if wearing that false ginger beard was not a good look for being picked out by the stadium cameras, despondent, an old-fashioned cross was met head on my Robbie Brady, taking advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy Italian marking, to send the stadium’s large green contingent wild.

A dramatic end to the game, and a fittingly dramatic end to my little six-game tour. The holiday itself would effectively end at about 1 am in brasserie round the corner from my hotel – one of the few central bars still open. A bar where I learned that my appalling schoolboy French is still better than whatever they teach in Ireland, and that if you ask for a “glass of vin rouge” in a northern (English) accent, the similarity between “glass” and the french word “glace” (ice) causes no end of confusion. Then again, as an Englishman, I’d spent the last few nights cheering for Wales and Ireland, and that’s probably confusing enough.

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Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2

Czech Republic v Turkey 32

Czech Republic 0 Turkey 2 (Lens, 21st June 2016)

If the Wales v Russia game was the best overall game of my six, this game and overall day would sadly be the most disappointing. Lens isn’t really on anybody’s tourist itineraries, but after flying up from Toulouse earlier in the day, I had planned to make something of a day of it. I’d pencilled in a trip to a series of preserved WWI trenches just south of the city for starters, but even that was scuppered by EasyJet moving my flight back nearly three hours, leaving me with perhaps a couple of hours at best in the town.

Unfortunately Lille airport is something of a shambles when it comes to ground transportation, and it took nearly an hour to get a taxi, as Lille only seems to have about five of them. There was a bus, but that only departed about 10 minutes before I got the taxi. This meant that after checking into my Lille hotel and dumping my bags, I had the misfortune of the next train to Lens being a slow stopper service, which didn’t get into Lens until nearly twenty past seven.

Lens’ small centre would probably be fine if I’d had a decent amount of time to find somewhere and stop for a meal, but time pressures meant I’d be choosing an eatery based on speed rather than quality. Just off the main square, more of an elongated triangle, like a slice of cheese really, I found the venue for a food pit-stop. I’ve eaten in a few luxurious-looking places over the years, and this wasn’t one of them. In fact I think I was drawn in somehow, by how terrible it was.

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Clearly someone had just taken over a recently vacated shop unit and knocked up a presumably makeshift cafe. Or I could be wrong, and this could be a whole new range in minimalist dining. The chipboard work-surfaces of the bar and serving areas were set off nicely by the old truck tyres they were resting on. Clearly the owners had thought having four starkly blank white walls would be too much, so at least one side had to be decorated along about half or its length. And what says “class” more than four widely spaced magazine posters of naked/topless women sellotaped to the wall?  Other touches, included the other side of the room having a hyrdraulic pallet-loader against the wall, next to a couple of gaps in the parquet flooring. As for the food…well, lets just say they spent all the money and imagination on the decor. It filled a hole, but it would probably have been put to better using filling the holes in the floor instead.

Still, if there’s one very good thing about Lens it’s that the ground is only about half a mile from the centre. No being crammed onto shuttle buses or trains to a city’s edge. Here you could walk there, and see the steelwork of the ground as well for much of the journey.

Other than being at an end, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was in the ground. I was hoping it was the near end, and also in the Czech end of the ground, as I wanted them to win. I found I was in the far end, which involved another UEFA-inspired grand detour to get there, although not quite as bad as some of the others. I’d also be in the Turkish end, which was a disappointment.

I was in the lower tier behind the goal, and it turned out the Row 12 was a lot lower than I hoped. I could see over the crossbar, but not by much. What I couldn’t see over was the human pillar sat right in front of me, who must have been about 6’4″, and made me think of contacting UEFA to see if my ticket could be re-classified as “obstructed view”. I spent the who game peering round him. Even when I realised the seat behind me was empty, and moved back a row, I still couldn’t see over him.

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If that wasn’t enough, the cameraman operating the boom camera behind goal thought it was fine to leave it up even when not in use, providing yet another obstruction.

Other than that, the ground was great, being a traditional looking ground, and looked vastly bigger than the Toulouse stadium I’d been in the previous night, despite it only holding 5000 more.

Further disappointment came with the game. I wanted the Czechs to win, and obviously they lost. In fact they were awful, and could probably have been beaten by more than two. Barely a peep out of their fans too, although they didn’t have a lot to sing about. Plenty of noise, plus the obligatory flare of two from the Turkish fans, chanting away in the curiously tuneless Turkish way, celebrating a victory which they clearly thought would take them to the next round, but if fact in the end didn’t.

At least I caught the earlier-than-advertised 11.36 back to Lille. I guess over the whole day I was at least owed something that would go right, but even allowing for the disappointments, I was still glad to have gone. Tournament games are an experience like no other in the game, and you take away from it far more than just a game.

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Wales 3 Russia 0

Wales v Russia 33

Wales 3 Russia 0 (Toulouse, 20th June 2016)

If there’s a game I saw that would stand out as a highlight of the six I’d see, it’d be Wales v Belgium, not just for the game itself, but for the whole day. It was certainly eventful. I’d nipped along on the train to see the medieval walled city of Carcassonne in the morning, and got stuck in a train station for two and half hours in a barnacle of a town on the route back. I’d planned for a quiet drink in a pub near my hotel, but it turned out that The Melting Pot pub, rather than being somewhere that’d be less busy, turned out to be a Welshman magnet, with crowds forming on both sides of the road.

After the game it’d be shut, presumably by the police, and I’d end up in a much smaller bar directly opposite my hotel. Thankfully it’d be far less crowded, but there were still enough celebrating Welshmen to drink it dry of draught beer, and most of the bottled beer as well. In fact by 2 am they were down to bottles of white beer, which the owners felt the need to apologise for when serving. At some time around midnight Ian Rush turned up. If he’d hoped for a quiet nightcap, he picked the wrong place. And contrary to what the milk marketing board told us, milk is not what Ian Rush drinks. Maybe he’s hoping for a late career move to Accrington Stanley.

Perhaps my favorite post match moment was seeing a group of Welsh lads a 2 am pleading for a beer, only to be told that all the bar could serve now was champagne. They thought about it for a second, before buying a bottle of that instead, sipping away in their red polyester replica shirts.

The game itself was great. There’d been worries about violence from Russian fans, but the only Russian fans to draw attention to themselves were three women who turned up dressed in outfits that were a strange blend of skimpy and traditional. Even the police wanted a photo.

They turned up at the stadium in Toulouse, the smallest stadium in use for Euro 2016, which looked even smaller inside. Quite how it squeezes in 32000 seats is a mystery to me. It’s not a bad stadium though, being one of those that looks much better when you are there, very light and airy, although going the on a nice summer evening probably helped. It’s also very nice when you are in the back row, just on front of the executive boxes, and a guy in one of them doesn’t mine bringing out the odd free beer and passing it across.

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Despite the result dumping England down to 2nd in the group, and setting them up for an infamous fixture v Iceland, I wasn’t bothered. I knew England would be stupid and draw 0-0 as it suited both teams, and it was hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of the Welsh fans and team, who turned up just to enjoy it, and hopefully get out of their group, and achieve much more. Such a contrast to England, who take the field looking like they hope they won’t be splashed across the back pages in shame after failing yet again to clear the bar of expectation, even when it’s set so low that limbo-dancers would struggle to get beneath it.

Bale aside, the Welsh team has few stars or big names, but it has belief and organisation. Again, this is in contrast to England, packed full on “names”, who take the field with all the composure of Shaggy and Scooby going for a ride on the ghost train, and whose relentless managerial pandering to those big names who can’t be dropped, results in a tactical plan akin to a man trying to tile the roof of his house with blancmange.

They were helped by a Russian team who showed so little life that the ref must have considered stopping the game and checking if any of them had a pulse at some stages, but Wales were brilliant, and 3-0 was the least they deserved. Perhaps most deserving all were the Welsh fans who braved buying tickets in the Russian section, even if the Welsh flag one of them pinned up on the wall didn’t last long. The celebrations, however, would last a long time, and in was probably a good thing I didn’t have an early start the following morning.

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Iceland 1 Hungary 1

Iceland v Hungary 05

Iceland I Hungary 1 (Marseille, Euro 2016, 18th June)

Marseille doesn’t have a great reputation. I’d heard tales of it being a dirty and dangerous city, a real gritty and edgy kind of place. News footage of drunken English idiots throwing chairs, and tear-gassings hardly helped.

I saw nothing like that. I thought it was a great city, located around an attractive harbour lined with bars and restaurants, with enough else there to see and do to make it a perfect place to stay for a few days.

I didn’t see any hint of trouble either – something which goes for the entire 12 days I was there – even if some of the thousands of Hungarians in town did have a slight whiff of menace about them. In truth, they did little more than drink a lot and sing “allez Magyarország”, but the police were worried enough to put a double line of stewards and riot cops in front of the black t-shirt wearing ultras who stood at the front of the Hungarian section in the Stade Velodrome.

Contrary to reports about cities being declared alcohol-free on match days, I don’t think I saw any bars shut before or during a game, and only Lille had (some) bars shut after. In fact the only problem I had was the otherwise glorious Marseille weather deciding to dump June’s quota of rain in the city in a half-hour spell, just as I was about to set off for the game. There are worse places to be stuck than a pub though.

One of those places would definitely have been in the queues to get into the stadium. I’m fully appreciate the need the need for security searches, but sadly UEFA’s organisers don’t appreciate that if you are going to do a thorough search of everyone, you need to have enough people doing that search to stop chaotic half-hour queues forming to get in.

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Once in though…oh my. The stadium is huge. In reality a really big stadium such a Wembley probably is higher, but the way the ground curves, and especially the upturning curved roof, just make the place seem incredibly tall, not to mention steep. Standing at the back, the very back, of the upper tier of the highest stand, is enough to make you seek something to hang onto. My own seat was 19 rows further down, but still felt quite high enough thank you. I actually wouldn’t have minded being a couple of rows further back. There was a Hungarian fan in the row in front who was bouncing about at every twist and turn of the game. I admire the enthusiasm, but given the chance, I’d have gaffer-taped him to his chair.

Although I wouldn’t say they were the best fans I saw due to a limited range of songs, they probably were the loudest, aided by the great acoustics of the Stade Velodrome roof, and the vast number there for the game. That meant that despite favouring Iceland, due to the novelty value as well as the presence of ex-Reading midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, I wasn’t adverse to Hungary scoring.

Gylfi, no doubt, wouldn’t have been pleased with such disloyalty, especially as his goal from the spot looked to be giving Iceland a first major finals victory. With a minute left through, a cross was turned into his own net by an Icelandic defender, and the 20000 or so Magyars in the stadium went wild. With the fireworks being lit in the Hungarian end, plus a few thrown on the pitch, perhaps a little too wild for some.

 

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Portugal 1 Iceland 1

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Portugal 1 Iceland 1 (Euro 2016, 14th June) 

I can’t say I had high hopes for St Etienne. It’s not exactly high on the “must see” list of places to visit in France, being a mainly industrial/mining town, 45 minutes by train from its more glamorous neighbour, Lyon. Rail strikes had raised the possibility of not being able to get there at all, although thankfully there were enough services to the city to mean that even if two thirds of them were cancelled, there were still enough.

St Etienne is famous for its football team though, and St Etienne are 10 times winners of the French league, winning it nine times between 1964 and 1981, although 1981 was the last of those wins. Rivals Olympique Lyonnais are relative upstarts, although their seven French titles in row  in the 2000s would have turned St Etienne even more green than usual, in envy.

As it turned out, the centre of St Etienne wasn’t too bad, with a few pub/restaurant-laden streets that were sought out by fans, mainly clad in the blue, white and red of Iceland. Quite a few of them sounded surprisingly English, belting out “Gudjohnsson’s on fire, your defence is terrified…” and “We all dream of a team of Sigurdssons”, with just the odd Icelandic chant thrown in for good measure.

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Rather than having a new stadium, like their rivals up the road, St Etienne renovated their Stade Geoffroy Guichard, and it was one I was looking forward to. It’s walkable from the centre, although I took the tram. This turned out to be another poor “taking the best route the gate” choice, although it wasn’t entirely my fault. UEFA, in their wisdom, had decided to shut several roads to create hospitality areas, meaning to make the trip of just over a hundred metres from the side of the ground I was on, to the other side, where I needed to be, involved a nearly mile-long detour.

There were more niggles in the ground. It’s a good looking stadium, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until half-time, when I took a stroll to the Iceland end. I had a Category 1 €145 ticket, and while I couldn’t complain about the view of the pitch, the overhang from the upper tier gave me a letterbox view of play, and a lower-tier-only view of the rest of the ground.

If the crowd outside the stadium seemed mainly Icelandic, inside it looked like the Portuguese had the edge in numbers. In terms of possession Portugal definitely had the edge throughout, and when they went ahead I’m sure the press were preparing clichés about “plucky” Iceland. Iceland equalised though, to the delight of the fans, Icelandic or English, and few not wearing red & green shared Cristiano Ronaldo’s “why is the world so cruel to me?” emotions as his injury-time free kick failed to come off.

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Belgium 0 Italy 2

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Belgium 0 Italy 2 (Euro 2016, 13th June)

Not much point recapping the games for these Euros round-ups, as they’ve all been on TV, and covered extensively in the media. Well, I say they’ve all been on TV. One place that’s not true is in France, where only games in Group A, France’s group, were shown on normal TV. The rest were only available on BeIN Sports, which doesn’t seem to be a channel readily available in hotels, or at least not in 5 of the 6 I stayed in.

That did mean I was forced to watch many games from bars, which is a terrible hardship I know, but with 8 hours of football on, a degree of pacing yourself is required. Perhaps none more so than in the King Arthur pub in one of Lyon’s pub/restaurant districts, where each beer seemed to be 5.2% proof. Some Belgian fans were in there singing away about “we’ll drink ’til the sun goes down” during the first game. Given the strength of the beer, and that fact that they were already well-oiled at least six hours before than sundown occurred, it seemed an ambitious target.

The Belgians liked a beer through, and got on famously with the hundreds/thousands(?) of English fans who’d stopped off in the city en route from Marseille to Lens, especially with it offering the chance to take in two games locally before travelling up for the game v Wales.

The first of those game was at Lyon’s new stadium, like so many large new ones, out at the edge of the city, which meant being crammed into trams that were never designed with transporting 60000 people at once in mind. Getting back would take nearly an hour and a half.

Going wasn’t too bad until the light spits of run turned into a total downpour at about 100m from the stadium, which walking from the tram stop half a mile away. A small Hyundai stand, the kind of which seems to exist at numerous sporting events despite being completely ignored by everyone, suddenly became immensely popular with the fans. This could have been because they’d suddenly taken an interest in Korean car manufacturing, or could be that the stand had a roof. Fans squeezed in, and the nervous looking man running the stall looked rather frightened about the car being damaged.

“The weather in France, is fooking shit” sang a group of drenched northerners trudging by, already too wet for taking shelter to make any difference. Yet, 15 minutes later, it was back to blue skies, which is how it’d stay for the rest of the day. For the Belgians, on the other hand, it was the result which would cause a return to the gloom.

 

I also took a took a Lyon’s old stadium, already sprouting weeds despite still being in use 6 months ago. The stadium was in a sports complex, and characteristically I managed to choose the metro stop which was on the far side from there was an open gate, and also I chose the longest possible route round the complex to get there too. My knack for guessing such choices never ceases to amaze me.

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Wimbledon 2 Plymouth 0

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AFC Wimbledon 2 Plymouth Argyle 0, League Two Play-off Final (30th May 2016)

Just a brief recap, as I’ve been to Wembley for play-off finals etc, several times before, this time to see probably one of the more popular play-off wins for neutrals.

I actually wasn’t too fussed who won. Partly because I have a slight, only slight, soft spot for Plymouth, mainly due to playing Subbuteo as a child. I loved the game, despite have no interest in football at that age. As a result, when all my friends were buying Liverpool, Man Utd, Nottingham Forest and QPR as their teams of choice (this being the late 70s) I opted for Plymouth Argyle as I liked the fact that they played in green and had a strange name. An 8 year old supporter of the European Champions really doesn’t like being knocked out of the “friend’s house living room carpet Subbuteo Cup” by Plymouth Argyle, I can tell you.

I’ve also rather uncharitably found AFC Wimbledon to be a bit of a footballing Jade Goody, mocked and loathed by all until death, only to take on saintly status afterwards. And as much as I fully understand why every AFC Wimbledon fan will loathe MK Dons with an everburning passion, I’ve never liked the football fan fundamentalism you get these days, one aspect of which is that every football fan must also bitterly hate the Dons too, or they aren’t a proper fan. I’ve no love for MK at all, and I certainly think the way they got their league place was appalling, but I don’t hate them any more than I hate the crooked chairmen who almost drove other clubs to the wall. I wouldn’t expect Wimbledon fans to hate Robert Maxwell because he almost killed Reading.

That aside, there is no doubt at all that Wimbledon’s rise is a definite “feel good” story. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were taking the field not too far from me at Sandhurst Town, in their first ever Combined Counties match. The Football League must have seemed a very long way away then, but here they are, not only back in the league, but gaining their first promotion too.

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In truth, despite the near 58000 crowd, the game wasn’t a great advert for League Two. I’ll be charitable and say nerves affected the players, as it’d be hard to see how either were challenging for promotion based on the composure on display.

The first half is probably better forgotten, but the second did improve a bit, and it was Wimbledon who always looked more dangerous. Plymouth, despite their 35000 fans supporting them, just didn’t turn up on the day.

It looked like a game that would be settled by a single goal, and when Wimbledon’s Lyle Taylor glanced in a cross from the right, it was hard to see Plymouth coming back. They pushed forward, but were creating nothing. All they did do was leave gaps at the back, which Wimbledon really should have exploited far more than they did. Clear runs at goal somehow failed to produce telling shots, and a header was tipped over the bar from close range.

Just as the fans’ whistles were getting louder, and Wimbledon seemed to be wanting to play all their football near the corner flag, a burst towards goal bought a weary challenge and a penalty.

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Already in the 7th minute of seven added on minutes, it looked to be the clincher, regardless of whether it was scored or not. The game would be over, surely. That was probably part of the reasoning behind letting Adebayo Akinfenwa take the kick. “Beast”, as he is known, due to his considerable bulk, was playing in his last ever Dons game, and was clearly keen to sign off in style.

If there’s ever a player you’d think would put his weight behind a shot, it’s Akinfenwa, but instead he calmly sent the Argyle keeper the wrong way, stroking the ball in to his right. Game over, and cue the celebration, with “Beast” taking off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing the “Beast Mode” logo of his clothing brand, as he ran, or at least jogged, round the edge of the pitch taking the applause.

The only surprise was that the game hadn’t actually finished, and the ref called everyone back for a rather pointless 90 seconds, before blowing the whistle, and then the party really could begin.

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PSG 2 Lille 1

PSG v Lille 28

Paris St. Germain 2 Lille 1, French League Cup Final (23rd April 2017)

This wasn’t my first trip to Paris. In fact it was my third. The first was way back in 1977. Although my memories, as a 7 year old nipper, have mainly faded, one that stuck with me was that my Dad was too tight to pay the fee to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, so we could only go up to the 2nd stage.

On my 2nd trip I righted this wrong by making going to the top the very first thing I did, persuading a group of dithering American tourists that they had to do it too, as they’d probably never come back and get the chance again. That trip up the tower was at almost midnight, with the opening hours specially extended due to it being Bastille Day the following day. I had no idea about Bastille Day, and was very surprised to emerge at from the Arc de Triomphe metro station the following morning to see the place surrounded by tanks, and began to wonder if France had fallen to a military coup.

The view at night was terrific. Unfortunately, my camera back then was utterly useless, being just a cheap disposable one – this was back in 1999 – and not a single picture I took that night came out. This meant that on my third trip to the city, I was determined to complete a quest to not only go to the top, but to have some pictures as well. In truth, my Dad’s customary Yorkshire frugality had a point, as the view from the very top isn’t really any better from the middle. You just pay an extra €6 for the thrill of being higher up.

Something else I’d failed to do in France was watch a football match there, which is quite surprising considering that as the crow flies, France is nearer to my house than Derby. The problem has always been a mixture of TV rearranging games at very short notice, and a fondness for Friday night games. It wasn’t an immediate concern. I’d be going to six venues for Euro 2016, so I knew I could let going to a club game slide for another season.

For this weekend, I’d actually planned to go to Lewes, and have a look round the castle and the old town centre, before taking in a game at the fantastically named “Dripping Pan”. I’d was hit by curiosity in the week though, and checked out the Stade de France website for any games potentially next month. I saw an advert for the upcoming League Cup Final at the stadium on Saturday. I didn’t even know France had a League Cup, but more crucially, there was a button offering the chance to buy tickets.

I clicked on the link and saw decently priced tickets, then checked out Eurostar prices – only mildly extortionate – and decided to take the plunge and go for it. Earlier trains were cheaper, but they’d have meant getting up at silly O’Clock to get to St. Pancras, and in any case, the kick off was late enough to mean I could arrive for lunch, and still have the whole afternoon to whizz round Paris (+ a few hours the following day too).

And by late kick-off, it really was late, not starting until 9 pm. Such late kick offs were something I’d have to get used to in June, with no fewer than five of my six games in the Euros having that same late night slot. After a beer (€7.50!) and half of an Irish breakfast (I couldn’t eat it all after an afternoon snack of a Nutella & coconut crêpe proved far more filling that I imagined) in a pub near the Pompidou Centre, I set off at about 7.30 for the regional express train from the nearby station that went direct to the stadium.

It actually took me longer to find the right platform than it did to take the train the stadium. Parisian Metro interchange stations are the work of a fiendish mind, combining a lack of signage with a network of twisting, turning, multi-level passageways so labyrinthian than you expect to see a minotaur appearing round each corner.

The approach from the station is slightly reminiscent of Wembley Way, without quite visual impact, due to trees blocking the view, and a motorway overpass cutting across. It still had the same legion of food stalls and knock-off scarf sellers though. These weren’t actually too bad. Not really favouring either team, I picked up a half & half scarf for €10. They aren’t something I’m keen on as a rule, but for a final it made sense, especially for someone one who doesn’t have any colours to nail to the mast.

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Part of me favoured Lille, for being underdogs, but part of me felt I should be loyal to the city I was staying in. I was also niggled by Lille’s stadium. I have a lower ticket for Italy v Ireland in the Euros, as was quite pleased to be in Row 23, with a decent view, until I found that someone had inexplicably decided that in Lille, the front row isn’t Row 1. In Lille, the front row is Row 16.

Not surprisingly, considering the terrorist attacks of November, part of which took place at this very stadium, security was extremely tight. A first ticket check took place at the underpass for the motorway flyover. All tickets were then checked against the names on each ticket as fans queued to get in, and once inside, fans – every single fan – was given the most thorough frisking I’ve seen at a game.

I’d never really been that taken with the Stade de France before. It looked a little too grey, and a little too much of a bowl. It was definitely one of those that look far better when you are there though. Somehow the camera flattens stadiums, and you never get that feeling of being inside the bowl of the stadium. This was one of those though that makes you go “wow” when you emerge for the first time from the stairway.

The roof certainly looks far better in person. You could uncharitably claim it looks like a large lavatory seat, but it hovers over the stadium with almost no visible means of support, like Saturn’s rings floating overhead. Add in the setting sun (some of those 9 pm games in June will still be daylight at HT) and it was already impressive, and then they decided to put on a laser show.

I’m usually the sort who regards the phrase pre-match entertainment as an oxymoron, but with dancing girls doing their stuff, and lasers drawing patterns on the pitch, it was impressive. I wasn’t sure what I’d have seen pre-match at Lewes if I’d gone, but I suspect dancing girls and lasers wouldn’t have figured too highly. Maybe they have burning crosses for Nov 5th games, but I doubt it.

The ground wasn’t full. In fact this would be the lowest crowd for a final since it moved to the Stade de France in 1998, but there were still nearly 69000 people in, most in PSG blue, but a sizeable chunk in the red of Lille. In fact on the side I was sitting, fans of both teams mixed together, waving their red or blue flags as kick-off approached.

I’m not sure what kept numbers down. Maybe PSG fans were getting a little blase about winning. Being heavily bankrolled, they do win quite a lot these days. They’d already won the league by such a margin that in terms of points, 2nd place Lyon were nearer 19th place Toulouse than PSG, 27 points clear, while they were bidding to win the League Cup for the third year in a row.

They nearly got off to the perfect start. Just 20 seconds into the game Angel Di Maria found the ball being cut back to him around the penalty spot, but he squandered the chance of a dream start by hitting the ball straight at the keeper.

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It set the tone though for a lively game, where PSG always seemed to just have the edge, but Lille offered enough threat to make the 36 point gap in their league positions look unlikely. In a game where momentum would shift from one team to the other, PSG edged in front shortly before half time. A ball into the box was only punched to the edge of the area, and it was crashed back on the volley back at the goal. A slight deflection took it away from the keeper to put PSG 1-0 up.

Shortly after the break, the game would swing back to Lille. A free kick just outside the box was lifted over the wall into the bottom corner, with the PSG keeper only able to watch helplessly as it hit the back of the net.

The even game looked to take a big swing in Lille’s favour with 20 minutes to go. PSG’s Adrien Rabiot “took one for the team” with Lille breaking at speed from the own half. Sadly for him, he’d picked up a yellow earlier in the half, and his hands went to his Keegan-permed head as he realised the implications of his actions. Eleven days earlier their Champions League dream had ended, and now the domestic treble was at risk, with PSG down to 10 men.

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The sending off sparked Lille’s players, and their fans, who been slightly subdued, as oddly is the way with the showpiece final, and the underdogs were now looking the likelier winners.

The game took a massive swing the other way again though, four minutes later. A kick upfield was met by a Lille defender, but rather than clear, he could only head it backwards. Di Maria pounced onto the loose ball, running towards goal, only to see Lille’s keeper rushing out to try to get to the ball first. It was a bad misjudgment, as Di Maria was always going to get there first, and he clipped it past Vincent Enyeama towards the empty net. Defenders ran back, but there was too much pace on the ball, and it’d hit the back of the net before the defender’s lunge could get there.

Lille battled on, but the goal seemed to drain belief from the team. If anything, PSG were creating the more dangerous chances, even if the great Zlatan was having a game that even he wouldn’t declare as proof of his genius.

Lille’s best chance came with about a minute to go. In a similar situation to PSG’s first goal, a ball dropped at the edge of the box and was lashed back towards goal. Sadly for Lille, it was inches the wrong side of the post, and you got the sense that that was that.

All that was left was for the trophy presentation. The Coupe de la Ligue trophy itself is not an unattractive cup, although the thick spirals of gold that swirl around the outside suggest the man who designed it was inspired while peeling an orange. The organisers had other ideas though, dimming the stadium lights to dramatically the increase drama, but sadly also dramatically reduce the chance of anyone with perfect 20/20 vision from being actually able to see the cup being lifted. A spray of gold glitter in the main stand, with the cup being presented Wembley-style, halfway up the stand, hinted at the general direction. The decision to turn off the TV screens didn’t help either.

And then back came the lasers, much more impressive than before with the lights off now, zipping around, making geometric shapes, and reacting well with the output from the smoke machines, although from my point of view, damn near impossible to photograph.

A second cup presentation took place, still in near darkness, but at least out on the pitch this time. Sadly, it was facing the other direction, so it was again a question of using your imagination, as well as wondering who the poor sod is who has to spend the next day getting all those tiny bits of gold paper off the pitch the following day.

Not that PSG or their fans would worry too much about that. They could celebrate into the night, even if at gone 11 pm by now, there wasn’t that much of that left.

 

 

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Stafford 0 Basford 0

Stafford v Basford 16

Stafford Rangers 0 Basford United 0 (16th April 2016)

A three hour plus drive and I get to see a 0-0 draw. It doesn’t sound the greatest afternoon, does it? The hope had been for a promotion party, but the frustration of my trip up, where my detour to avoid delays caused by a crash on the M40 was further delayed by a broken down car causing a jam in Banbury, was matched by Stafford Rangers failing to nick the winner that would have seen them promoted and crowned champions of their division.

With bad weather forecast, I’d hoped to get there early so I’d be able to make my alternative of Burton Albion if the game was postponed. As it happens, that ended 0-0 too, but it didn’t matter as the sun was shining, even if only the very brave would have called it t-shirt weather.

A season’s best 1250 had turned up in hope to Stafford’s Marston Road Ground, for a club clearly at least a couple of divisions lower than where they ought to be. With the customary bargain-bin “sounds of the early 80s” CD playing over the reassuringly tinny PA system (where else, but at a non-league football ground, would you hear “On My Radio” by The Selector being played in public?) the fans filed in claiming the best spots on the terraces, or in the main stand.

The ground capacity is 4000, but even with 1250 in, you could get the feeling that anything more than 2000 would start to cause problems for people who actually wanted to watch the game, but this was OK. The amount of crush barriers about, even if a few were oddly located, suggested the ground was certainly designed for much bigger crowds. One end also had the thickest crush barriers I’ve ever seen, with the horizontal bar being about the thickness of a child’s leg, as if it would have to support the weight of a small wayward ship now and then.

At the back of this end were the remains of steel uprights, which once supported a roof. A poster at the back of the only other bit of covered terrace, down the side, told how they were raising money to rebuild the roof, which would certainly enhance the ground.

Stafford v Basford 12

The covered terrace down the side is very old school with its wooden beams and walls painted dark green like a garden shed. The view from inside was decent enough, but was relatively empty compared to other parts of the ground. Maybe the locals just wanted to make the most of seeing the sun.

With the teams swapping ends after the coin toss, to the usual groans of fans having to change ends, Stafford were kicking into the strong wind, and came out like a team on a mission. For all the effort though, the chances created were mainly scrappy. The best by far was a one-on-one that the Basford keeper saved, but generally the shots that did fire in weren’t really testing the keeper.

Basford were no mugs though, sitting 4th in the table, and were in no mood to roll over and play the sacrificial lamb, and they rode the early storm, then shocked everyone by getting a penalty. In fairness they’d looked not bad on the break, especially with the wind behind them, but this certainly wasn’t in the script. Losing the game would take promotion out of Stafford’s hands, due to their 2nd place challengers, the implausibly named Shaw Lane Aquaforce, having a much better goal difference. A fine save, down at the keeper’s left, kept it 0-0 though, to keep the dream alive. News of an away goal at Shaw Lane also increased the excitement in the ground.

The penalty didn’t really seem to spur Stafford though, so the hope was that in the 2nd half, with the wind now at their backs, they’d make the breakthrough, and goals, with their strangely large stanchions, would see some action.

It wasn’t to be though. Again, chances were plentiful, but nerves seemed to get the better of the players, with shots snatched and short passes overhit or misplaced, and other shots being attempted when no shot was on. Best, other than a deflected shot which looped up and bounced off the crossbar, was a loose ball six yards out after a shot had been blocked. With the whole goal to aim at, at it looking almost certain that this would be the moment, the shot still managed to find one of the bodies in the way, and it bounced to safety.

Stafford v Basford 33

With time ticking away, another cheer from the back of the terrace told of another crucial goal at Shaw Lane, and a renewed call from the terraces to the players, as a goal would take them up.

Stafford’s players did need perking up. You could sense they were losing belief, and you could also tell they were getting very tired against a Basford side that still looked fresh and dangerous on the break. The announcement of four minutes of additional time brought another roar of encouragement, but it didn’t help. In fact Basford went down the other end and Stafford conceded another penalty.

In an afternoon where heads had gone into hands with regularity in frustration, this was a nightmare for the home fans. Defeat wouldn’t be quite as bad as if Shaw Lane had won, but it would still give them a very hard game at 3rd place Coalville next Saturday that they’d almost certainly have to win, and Basford wouldn’t miss two penalties in one game, would they?

They most certainly did. This time it was hit straight down the middle, and the Stafford keeper just stood up and blocked it, then reacted fasted to knocked the parried ball away from danger. As a neutral I really don’t like 0-0 draws, but both of these saves, because of what they meant, made them almost as good as goals.

Ideally, that save would have been a springboard for a dramatic winner, but it wasn’t to be, and the final whistle went to be greeted by almost no reaction at all. Barring a highly improbably draw or win for rock-bottom Tividale at Shaw Lane on Tuesday, Stafford will visit Coalville knowing a draw will take them up. Given how badly wrong things could have gone, they just be grateful for that.

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Hythe 3 Chatham 1

Hythe v Chatham 44

Hythe Town 3 Chatham Town 1 (2nd April 2016)

The plan had been to go to Ton Pentre in Wales. A game in the regional 2nd tier of the Welsh Leagues isn’t an obvious choice, but the ground, deep in the Rhondda Valley, looked a picturesque setting. Alas, a check of the club’s twitter feed five minutes before I was due to leave showed the game was called off, so some hasty rearrangements were in order.

One of the alternatives had been Lye Town in the West Midlands. Another was Newcastle Town, up in Stoke. I’d got slightly tired of the M6/M40 though, so I opted for Hythe, way down in the far corner of Kent.

It had looked a good choice. The sun was out, and I was able to enjoy the novelty of the sun’s warmth for the first time this year. Hythe is certainly no metropolis, but clearly had enough of a sleepy 50s feel to attract a few tourists, presumably those who find the bright lights of Dover and Folkestone too demanding. In the centre was also the eastern terminus of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, which trundles the clearly lucrative route from Hythe to Dungeness up to nine times a day, to the delight of train enthusiasts.

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No train rides for us. Our town centre quest was merely to find lunch, which we did in the Red Lion pub. I sat and pondered, in this most English of towns, that I was probably nearer to Belgium than I was to home. It felt almost impossible, but I checked when I got home and it was true, being almost exactly equidistant between home and Ypres.

Thankfully, much nearer than both, was Hythe’s ground. It’s a slightly odd place. It’s covered on three sides by low-roofed terracing. Behind the goal, it’s a mass of pillars, making finding a spot without too many obstructions a challenge. One side had the club bar on an upstairs floor, where balconies at the pitch side of the bar serve as hospitality areas, on the assumption that nobody in such an area wanted to sit down. Somehow though, the bright sunshine had vanished, and it wasn’t really balcony weather any more.

Maybe the disappointing afternoon weather had got through to the players, as there wasn’t a great deal of anything positive in the first half. A bit of effort, yes, but both teams seemed to be kicking the ball like they were trying to punish it, and the game was crying out for a little subtlety. There were plenty of shots in the first half. It’s just a shame that virtually all of them had come from the army firing range next door, providing quite a noisy soundtrack to the half.

Hythe v Chatham 37

We were into the 2nd half, with thought of this being a 0-0 starting to take shape, when that little bit of craft necessary changed the game. Surprisingly, considering that play-off chasing Hythe had the bulk of the play, it came from Chatham. One little through ball set up a comfortably taken one on one, and Chatham were ahead.

It changed the game. Certainly better for the neutral, but oddly, not really better for Chatham. Within a few minutes it was 1-1. A free kick on the edge of the box was set up for a direct shot, and although the keeper got both hands to it, he couldn’t keep it out.

From there it was a case of Chatham holding on, but Hythe looked like a team who would nick that winner. The crossbar was hit, shots were saved, crosses turned away, good chances wasted, and crosses flapped away, only for a header to be powered in from 6 yards from a corner, in the 88th minute. Even the obligatory non-league dog was probably wagging his tail faster now.

Hopes of a comeback were very short-lived, as Hythe took advantage of an absent defence to seal the game in stoppage time, when even a vain lunge by a defender on the line couldn’t stop the ball going in. 3-1, and 3 points to delighted Hythe team, and four goals for the neutrals, when none at all was starting to look the likely outcome. Had it gone that way then finding out that our Lye Town alternative ended 7-3 might have been a tad annoying, but in the end, a decent enough afternoon.

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