Signing off ‘View from Abroad’ for the season, Barney Pell returns to round up his thoughts from an enviable vantage point across the channel.
By Barney Pell
Other clubs: it’s all relative
Here in Lille, the fans aren’t happy and here’s why. Their team has just finished third in the French Ligue 1, bested only by moneybags PSG (QSG as they’re dubbed by the press, in reference to their Qatari bankrollers) and freshly-flush AS Monaco (Russian billions). The manager, René Girard, has just been named manager of the year by his fellow professionals (the UNFP, equivalent of the PFA). Earlier in the season, the goalkeeper, Nigerian Vincent Enyeama, went over eleven games without conceding and now holds the second longest run of clean sheets in French football history. The team boasts the second best defence in Ligue 1 (behind PSG) and plays in a brand new stadium in front of over 40,000 spectators. Salomon Kalou is top scorer and the side is bejewelled with internationals. They won the French title in 2011 and have hardly been out of the top six since.
But no, the fans are not content at the Lille Olympique Sporting Club and vent their feelings regularly on the Kop and in the local media. It’s because the team doesn’t play very exciting football. (LOSC finished joint ninth in the goalscoring charts.) It’s because they’re still a selling club, with Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy and Eden Hazard amongst the most recent departures. It’s because the fans see Paris and Monaco getting away from them and because they hold out little hope for Lille’s chances in Europe next season. It’s because, in the words of chairman and majority shareholder Michel Seydoux, it was an exploit to win ‘the poor man’s championship’ by finishing third. ‘C’est vraiment bien de gagner le championnat des pauvres’. The captain, veteran Florent Balmont, is exasperated with it all and wonders aloud what more the players could have done than occupy third place since September. There is thus a disconnection between the fans’ expectations and the club’s current approach.
This reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of the disappointment suffered by Manchester United fans this season, not having won the Premier League for nearly a year. The media dutifully investigate their travails, harping on about the difficulty of succeeding Alex Ferguson like it was 476 and the fall of the Roman Empire all over again. This week we hear that failure to qualify for the Champions’ League will lead to a projected shortfall of £30million – the money a club won’t make is now headline news!
If it’s not them it’s Liverpool we read about, and their twenty-four year wait for the title. With only two FA Cups, three Community Shields, one Champions’ League, one UEFA Cup and two UEFA Super Cups to tide them over since 1990, one can readily understand Liverpool fans’ frustration. How they must gnaw their 60s pop vinyl in despair.
Scoring lots of goals
Let’s haul this back around to the Sky Blues. First, by way of disclaimers, some sops to the blowhards. We Coventry fans cannot be properly fulfilled while the team plays in League One. Nor obviously can we be serene in outlook whilst our club plays in another town, legal matters remain unresolved and there is recurring talk of deductions, relegation and liquidation.
Despite all that malevolent jazz and hedge fund carry-on, it’s been since we went down that I’ve felt the least negative about the Sky Blues for a country while. Marry, I am no grin-faced Pollyanna, nor has any man worthy of his own front teeth yet held me to be one. I am a catastrophist, a cross-bearing pessimist who expects nothing other than for Coventry to kick me while I’m down, most every weekend. And yet. Must we all drag round with sour countenances until we win the Champions’ League? I say not and here’s why I haven’t really missed our years finishing nineteenth in the Championship:
For so long this season we were the top or second-top scorers in the division and few of us can have experienced anything similar. Why, footballs were raining into trembling nets and for a few months, the majority of these nets- a-shaking were behind the away goalkeeper. We kept coming back, opening up leads, levelling matters in the final minute. It seemed like there was finally something about us. Clarke and Wilson were ‘combining’, if you’ll allow me a go with the commentator’s lingo and with Moussa flickering more and more regularly behind them, anything seemed possible. Pressley sounded like he knew what he was doing. (Unfortunately, so did Leon Clarke, but that’s another story, already treated amply elsewhere on this blog.)
So, as the club undergoes its worst travails for generations, yet have I found myself less thoroughly down than for years. What I want is something to enjoy. Some or any of these things of cliché: free-scoring, being on a roll, high-tempo stuff, last-minute comebacks, not giving anything away at the back, terrific goals. Goals. Having the division’s top scorer, a proper tricky winger, even the best defence would do. Getting behind our manager, a man with a vision and a football philosophy. The sense that the club is going somewhere and following a plan. At times in 2013-14, against all the odds, we have had some of those.
Going up the LOSC
I’ve been to watch Lille play. Offered cheap tickets by a friendly couple, I (and my wife) followed guiltily the stations of the cross (a fifteen-minute journey from home) to Lille’s massive new debt-blighted stadium in March, much as unfaithful French husbands limp randily over the border to the DSKlub in Bernissart, liberal Belgium. Better to see some action than none at all at home. Sitting up top and at the back, I got dizzy and had a sequence of small anxiety attacks from the sheer size of the bowl whose rim I was occupying.
As surprised as I was at first to hear the South Stand growl with distemper and whistle les Dogues as they struggled to beat unfancied Breton outfit Guingamp 1-0, it made sense. Here was dour fare, with players having difficulty stringing a few passes together and one or two (Ryan Mendes, Pape Souaré) visibly having trouble doing anything much of benefit at all. Even though Lille were containing Guingamp more or less comfortably (except the livewire striker Yatabaré) and still looked more likely to score, this wasn’t what the diehards were paying to see. The fans wanted more than to watch the conservative management of a common-or-garden domestic encounter, innit. As we know, geezers need excitement, if their lives don’t provide ‘em this, they incite violence. Common sense, simple common sense.
So it isn’t just about the winning, but the mere taking part won’t do either. Geezers need excitement. What examples can I recall from recent history? The FA Cup quarter on telly against Chelsea in 2009. Mifsud’s goals at Manchester United in 2007. Danny Fox’s free kicks. The Dennis Wise effect. Kevin Thornton’s winning goal at Hull in 2006 (I don’t get to many games). Finishing eighth in 2006 and hoping to push on under Micky Adams. The dramatic change in results when Eric Black took the reins in 2004. David Thompson’s free kicks. Michael Owen in St Etienne against Argentina. Darren Huckerby, Peter Ndlovu or Dave Bennett beating their man, Micky Gynn getting the ball. Gary Mabbutt’s knee.
Finally, I wasn’t sure whether to include this in the list of kicks above and was determined not to write a whole piece on it, but (for hardened thrill-seekers only), how about… the outcome of the judicial review in June?
A bientôt les amis!