Some time in the past, let’s call it twenty years ago because that’s probably how long ago it was, two people were on a day trip to the French coastal town of Boulogne-sur-mer. They found themselves, as people are want to do, drifting upwards from the ramparts of the old town to some floodlights on a hill. A sports stadium. Goalposts. A sign advertising something called US Boulogne. A football club.
One of the two people, actually a father to a son (the other one), was made to investigate. From a local tabac a fixture list was located. Plans were made. But, as the summer sun went down, reality set in. Twenty years, let’s call it twenty years, drifted past. Union Sportive Boulogne-sur-mer Cote d’Opale continued but unwatched by the two people until … plans were made and kept. And so, some time after that some time in the past, two people drove to those old town ramparts, parked their vehicle and made their way, via a splendid bar because that’s what you have to do, to the Stade de la Liberation to see the rouges et noir do battle with Avranches.
Like ‘Boulogne’, ‘Avranches’ go by a much longer name. They are Union Sportive Avranches Mont-Saint-Michel. Which is ridiculous. Even the scoreboard at the Stade de la Liberation which calls Boulogne ‘USBCO’ just went with Avranches. They wore blue to the hosts’ red and black. Fresh from their promotion from tier four of the French system they have settled nicely into life in the Championnat National (effectively a division 3 sandwiched between the professional Ligues 1 and 2 and the amateur set-ups below). This was a match between two sides separated on goal difference and it was as keenly fought as that implies. But let’s return to that in a moment.
The sights, the sounds. This is what makes sport. The setting. The other people. The journey. All these things are why we’re here. We’re not beasts. Travelling from Hastings to Boulogne via the Eurotunnel is surprisingly straightforward even if the best the terminal can offer is a dull WH Smith and a tired old Starbucks. In Boulogne, we had a Croque Monsieur and a Pelforth in a bar where dogs roamed free and only half an eye was kept on the ‘only smoke outside’ rule. When a man started distributing a large bag of frozen prawns across the counter it fitted entirely.
To the ground, an hour early. We thought we’d be the only ones there. We were wrong. We had to queue to get tickets. And we were behind two sweet old English ladies. Not just their first Boulogne match but their first ever football match. I doubt people with World Cup final tickets looked more delighted. And then, having parted with our €10 each, into the ground. Except not quite. Diverted via back streets to find the far entrance to the Depreux stand. But rude not to partake of the mammoth portion of frites on offer once through the gate. Another beer was declined though: some of us have to drive after the match.
The crowd builds. Two men on a microphone perform a routine which consists entirely of in-jokes. By which I mean, they seemed to be enjoying themselves but it was in French. The crowd, growing steadily, mostly ignore them too. But all around us now hands are being shaken, animated discussions underway, flags waved and kids belting back and forth. By the time the one of the microphone wielders gets the crowd clapping along to a Boulogne song to the tune of She’ll be coming round the mountain, those two people are already having a marvellous time.
The match is not a disappointment. That it stays 0-0 until 94 minutes have been played is one of those strange quirks of the universe. Boulogne get the ball into attacking positions with ease and then somehow the ball does not go in. Avranches, tougher and more considered than their somewhat technically minded opponents, create on the counter effectively and, again have enough chances to build a sizeable score. But nothing goes in. Every good passage of play is applauded by the crowd, every lovely bit of skill admired, every decision the referee makes open to immediate challenge. Vanishing spray is employed and mocked.
Into that final minute of the match. Boulogne, again, get the ball into the six yard box, but this time there is no defender to block, the goalkeeper has not had time to get into position and the forward cannot miss. He does not miss. The crowd goes wild. You would think they had just beaten Paris St Germain to the title. There is still time for Avranches to head over a sitter but it is done. The match is finished. The record books will show that Union Sportive Boulogne-sur-mer Cote d’Opale beat Union Sportive Avranches Mont Saint Michel 1-0.
The record books will not show that on 5 September 2014 a simple twenty-year-old idea was made good. They won’t show the sheer joy of sport. Of the pleasures of the sights, the sounds, the journey. They won’t, because how could they, explain that two men who really should know a lot better found themselves unable to speak because they had cheered so loudly. And that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as they couldn’t have been heard above the crowd.
As the two people were leaving, readying for the final leg back to Calais and under the channel, a local who’d heard them talking en Anglais turned to enquire, “Did you enjoy that?” There didn’t seem to be a reply that could properly cover all that we could say, “Yes,” we said – and plotted for when we’d be back.