Mickey Blue Eyes
Our Europa League Group H game with Lille LOSC reminded me that back in 2010 Stephen Clarke published his tongue-in-cheek 1000 Years of Annoying the French. It was an instant bestseller in Britain, which demonstrates how much we Rosbifs enjoy pissing off our more sérieux Gallic neighbours. Junior family members immediately bought me a copy; it was an inspired choice which got me through many tedious airport delays. I have to say it was worth all the quizzical looks as I snuffled happily at its disgraceful Brit chauvinism, particularly this bit on page 524 of the paperback:
"But then, sport was an area where the Allies and French didn't see eye to eye. The Tommies seemed football mad. At Mons, in some of the first fighting in the war, the French were amazed to see British soldiers going into attack with footballs hanging from their backpacks. Whenever they could find flat ground and free time, the Brits would have a kick-about. The French were right about this British obsession - one Tommy wrote a letter home in 1914 describing the war as a giant football match. He called it a 'great match for the European Cup. The Germans haven't scored a goal yet, and I wouldn't give a brass farthing for their chances of lifting the cup.'
After their initial amazement, the French troops joined in with the kick-abouts. It was a new game for the vast majority of them, and, at first, they would get thrashed anytime they took on a British team. But with coaching from the Tommies, they improved and even began organizing matches of their own. Soon, football had become a French national sport.
In fact, you could say that France's victory in the 1998 World Cup was all thanks to the Brits. An apt date, too - it came seventy years after the armistice that allowed the young Frenchmen who survived to go home and perfect their ball control."
So there you have it. It was a working class Tommy who invented the European Cup - oddly enough not far from Lille - not Jacques Ferran and Gabriel Hanot. Rule Britannia. All very funny if you can forget the mad mass horror of the death of a generation twice in twenty-five years. Or the ancient notion that an Englishman has two traditional enemies......the French, and his wife......though not necessarilly in that order. But the Gauls never take this kind of thing lying down, as you can discover next time you are in Paris if you visit The Frog and Rosbif pub near scruffy Les Halles. Not all French spend their time in the Sorbonne Cafe de la Nouvelle Mairie discussing the finer points of Marxist philosophy vis-a-vis monetarist economics.The badinage is mutual. And any way they could ask fairly who had the last laugh footy-wise; that 1998 national team of theirs was quite vavavoom-something. England, on the other hand, has been merde for more years than we care to count. As for the Germans......
But enough of this levity. We hoped of course it would be us laughing after our match, always assuming our fans made it through the storm-soaked bocage of north west France. All film auteurs will know this is one of the barriers that almost prevented Tom Hanks from Saving Private Ryan. If official figures are to be believed we took over five thousand supporters to France, which would be a lot more than (according to Stephen Clarke, page 578) the one hundred and seventy seven French who accompanied the Allied D-Day invasion of about 156,000 in June, 1944. I quote these figures to illustrate the times then and now, and to confirm peaceful live footy is a lot - a lot - better than war-war or its lazy, desensitised computer substitutes. Meanwhile, I was once again anchored at home on medical orders, the worst kind of patient, pissed off, jealous as hell at missing out, my idea of torture extreme, watching on TV again.
Alas, pre-match news was dominated by reports of crowd trouble in Lille city centre. Laughter, it appears, was not on the local menu. At the time of writing it appears to have involved the narrow-forehead CRS, a body of whom I have some slight experience. To wit, a broken fourth rib courtesy of a CRS bâton in May 1968 in revolutionary gay Paree. (At the time "gay" had a different connotation). If my experience was anything to go by, and it is, you do not ask any CRS the time. In fact you are foolish even to think they can communicate beyond a grunt and the noise of a cracking skull. They are worse than chanmé., worse than les feuks. They are the pits of authoritarian policing. For them, a French stick has a different meaning altogether. For our part we hoped the only stick on view would be that handed out to the home side.
But it would have been foolish to underestimate the sports enemy, who stood eighth with fifteen points after ten games in Ligue 1. In other words, they are doing a lot better in their league than we are in ours. Last season they finished third. Plainly no pushovers. And we needed another win if we were to deal a successive blow in our faltering season.
Team: Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Besic, Barry, McGeady, Barkley, Pienaar, Eto'o. Romelu Lukaku subbed for Steven Pienaar with a half hour left, Christian Atsu for McGeady with ten minutes to go and, strangely, James McCarthy for Barkley on ninety minutes.
There is little to be said for the 0-0 match, which was poor reward for thousands of Evertonians who made the trip. The best you could say for it was Job Done. Even then just a straw to cling to. Sometimes it occurs to me we are having this season the season we should have had last season. Actually, it was mostly a gruelling, scrappy game in which Lille were clearly the better side for three quarters of it. If anyone was going to get La Gloire it was them. It was another grotesque, shapeless game from Our Boys. It gave me the creeps. But European football can do that to you.
This is not to say we were entirely without good things: the defence held firm for a clean sheet, Jags and Sylvain Distin made another step back to respectability and Ross Barkley had another game. Three or four times we almost broke through, only to stumble at the last or fail to deliver a straightforward pass. And when Lukaku came on it changed the game pattern for maybe ten minutes before Lille twigged the big man received little support. Apart from that, the French side were always younger, hungrier and more adventurous. Fortunately they were also erratic and overeager. For us the situation cried out for l'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace. It was a plaintive hope. In the end I was just relieved we came away without defeat.
I was glad when the final whistle went because it enabled me to do something exciting like make a cheese sandwich. It was a lot more enjoyable than hurling oaths at the TV screen. All in all, I would rather have been in The Frog and Rosbif.