The World Cup saw the re-emergence of ‘Football’s coming home’ as a de-facto National Anthem. England fans in Russia and at home hummed, sang, screamed and whistled it as hopes grew. But it didn’t happen, France prevailed and in the end, deservedly won the game’s highest prize. Across the channel, the tricolours flew, waved in celebration and with pride. France loves its football.
This article, penned by my brother George, gives you a glimpse into… well, not quite the top-flight. Enjoy…
I was a rubbish football player. Too scared. Nesh. Never did a sliding tackle in my life, never ever headed it, never clattered anyone that I can recall.
Bizarrely, in my goalkeeper phase – ten to thirteen-ish, I was mental for diving at on-rushing forwards feet. Couldn’t wait to time it perfectly, smash into them, smother the ball and feel ’em fall over me. Don’t ask me why that ‘courage’ never made it out of the penalty area – but it didn’t.
And then, at grammar school, it disappeared completely and I retreated to school scorer at cricket and the chess team. At which I was erratic but tenacious. Oh, and I became a supporter.
We now live in rural France. ‘Rural’?
My best friend described it, ‘Holy Jesus, George, you live in the middle of nowhere!’
Our second son Tom described it, ‘Put it this way Dad, it’s 26 kilometres to the nearest traffic light…’ rural.
We left London and England ‘cos of two major things. Thatcher and Hillsborough.
I wanted to go as soon as she had been elected for a second time. But Jooles, obviously foreseeing the reality, that I would leave to work and earn, and she would be much more isolated, raising our three sons, wanted to wait.
When she won a third term and we sat and watched police stuffing people back into a mess of their making – to die – she was ready to go.
By then Niall, our eldest, was eleven and was either going to start secondary school in rural France or inner-city South East London. At a choice of one of three massively under-funded Kenneth Baker guided monstrosities, and this was a no-brainer.
We left. If we looked back I don’t remember us doing it.
A new beginning
Niall started his first day at the secondary school in the village, Latronquiere, where he could speak to no-one but the English teacher.
It was a problem for all the boys, Tom and Liam starting at the Primaire and Maternelle, but Niall was at ‘big’ school.
I’ve never really questioned him too much about it, but I noticed that in solving that problem his self-confidence (you could argue the WHOLE point of education) flourished. There was never really going to be a problem you could face him with as daunting as that one was. Or seemed to be.
Another way of looking at it would be this. Back in South-East London, Niall had been doing well with Eltham Progress, his under-tens team, but was played out of position, at right-wing, ‘cos the star lad [on Millwall’s books from the age of nine] was the centre-forward.
Within our first weeks, he’d joined the Latronquiere under-11s football team. They had a real clever, petite and nippy winger called Alex Lacaze, son of the village Boulanger, Claude.
Basically, Alex crossed ’em and Niall banged ’em in. They seemed never to have had a ‘buteur’ before but they did now. I think Niall had 28 goals before Christmas including nine in one game (yes I was on the touchline) and I became a local celebrity (‘le pére du buteur’) and a fair bit of his coping with the change of life was done.
Latronquiere, basically, a one horse, one chemist, one church, two bars town had football teams at almost every age, a petite stade, and three teams at ‘full’ level.
The star of the first team was Silvane, and in another world, with different luck, you could see that Silvane could and should have ‘made’ it.
He was quick, witty, aggressive, had fast feet, could shoot and I’ve never seen a plongeur like him! He did one swallow dive one game, squealing in mid-flight and I had to call out, ‘Hey, I’m the actor in this village…’
Niall, in the twenty-odd years we lived up Latronky-bronky would make it to their first-team, and play a blinder in the one cup final they got to, making two goals, scoring the other. And sort of not leaving a whole lot of space for his brothers.
Which brings us, neatly, to…
Of the three boys, Tom was the least interested, tho’ he gave it everything he had when called upon. Liam, the youngest, was perhaps the most complete of the three of them, as a footy player. He turned out a couple of times for Latronk’s third team but for some reason, his heart wasn’t in it.
Then he found Assier.
What exactly appealed to Liam about Assier I never enquired – too darned busy enjoying it myself. Here’s the story…
Liam, now late teens, announces he’s joined the team in this village a proper drive away, announcing this ‘cos I’ll be doing the driving. His mates from school, Valerion and Yassant, play for Assier, and he’ll get a game and so off we go.
Assier itself is as odd as its footy team. Basically, it’s a bog-standard, petite French village, a confluence of three roads, all the usual few shops. A really good Boulanger – great croissants – I speak as a self-annointed expert. I have the tummy, the boobs and the tyres to prove it, sorry moobs, not boobs.
And, smack in the centre, an absolutely massive thirteenth-century abbey. The doors alone are the size of a tennis court. Serious Catholicism. And, behind the graveyard – I’ve always loved Tennessee William’s expression for it – the bone-orchard – Assier football team’s ground.
We’ve all heard of the slope at Yeovil, and even the slope at Lords – but Assier’s pitch… Let’s put it this way. If you were leading at half-time, and had to defend the goal at the top of the hill [really] for the second half – you were laughing, man. A goal kick, with a northerly breeze behind it, was like a penalty.
It was mental. So were Assier.
The first time I went to watch them, I was hooked for the entirety of Liam’s time with them. They were playing Latronquiere third team at Gorses.
Liam, as we drove there, sort of gave me a briefing on what I might see. It was doubtful they would field eleven. A whole eleven turning up was an event. A rarity. If they did, by some miracle, it was deffo guaranteed eleven would not finish the game.
Either a spectacular want of fitness [most of them] or psychopathic tendencies [at least three with a couple of others borderline] and a red card [carton rouge] would deplete their numbers. Also, Liam said, they hadn’t scored for the last six games… they were useless in other words. Hurrah.
We get there, we’re both watching, they all shake his hand but just nod to me. Except the ‘coach’ [a very odd term with no known translation up Assier way] Jean-Luc, a battered and weary stick of a man with a ready smile – he’d need it – and warm, tired eyes.
Assier fielded ten. Liam was offered a shirt but he hadn’t registered so he wasn’t insured. Watching two or three of the Assier team’s notion of tackling insurance was the least of it. Armour would have been my choice.
Then came the incident that hooked me. They scored. They went MAD.
The scorer, also psycho numero uno ran to Jean-Luc, was mobbed and celebrated by taking someone’s fag and hauling on it. I mean like Tom and Jerry hauling on it. He coughed himself puce and plunged back into the match.
Twenty minutes later he was sent off – and if you think Ronaldo does petulance, you don’t know anything, mister.
He flounced, he screamed, and he offered EVERYONE in sight a punch-up. He had to be man-handled away from decking Monsieur L’Arbitre – for whom I had nothing but massive respect – the fool – and he, psycho, eventually settled into a packet of fags and watched. Assier lost 1-5.
I kid you not, the team took this as not only a Massive Improvement in form but almost a moral victory. And I had a team to support.
Week in, week out – I even went to ‘training’ sessions and got to know Jean-Luc a little better. His marriage of despair and loyalty touched me, so it did.
Another nutshell picture of Assier. Cup quarter-final – big crowd – fifty or sixty maybe – three up at half-time and now defending the top of the hill second half – no-brainer.
Liam playing well in midfield, all tickety-boo. The opponents score. Yes, it was lucky and dubious but, was there any need for three of them to get sent off for dissent?
They lost 3-5. They were still outraged and arguing and looking for retribution the following week.
Okay, here’s the punchline…
La grande mémoire
Last game of the season, at Lacapelle, who had won the league at a canter. Assier just, just by the skin of something escaped relegation. So, on a glorious spring day – lots of folks tipped up – couple of hundred – to cheer their champions to a victory roll by trolleying dumb old Assier.
Oh yeah, one piece of info you need. In these lower reaches of French footy, the teams club together to pay the ref but each team has to supply a linesman – as they were called then. A wee flag each, they could create – er – incidents.
Assier manage to put out eleven, so you could tell it was an event. Lacapelle, in gleaming new, sponsored [ffs], kit [some local truck/tractor company] took the field to warm applause. And sacrificial Assier with never any two socks matching came out to be butchered.
Forty-five minutes later and Gawd knows how, but it was still 0-0. Lacapelle could play but that combination of courage, luck and sheer bloody-mindedness that makes footy such a wonderful leveller, saw Assier get this far.
They were well chuffed with themselves. Jean-Luc, beaming, moved amongst them, dousing the odd fag and saying, ‘Il faut continuer, Il faut continuer…’ [‘Come on lads’, basically].
I found Liam and said to him, ‘This dude you’re marking is a pompous lazy player, son. You beat him in the tackle – run forward. ‘Cos he is NOT going to chase back.’
Liam nodded, the second half began and – disaster. Someone got a knock, a bad one. He had to come off.
Now the cricket score would surely start.
The ref waited for the Assier sub, but there wasn’t one.
Finally, Jean-Luc was persuaded to make up the numbers. The stricken player was painfully undressed and Jean-Luc dressed in his kit and spindly-kneed, on he came. Forty-one years of age. He chased everything, dutifully determined to make a useful nuisance of himself.
Still, Lacapelle couldn’t score. You could feel it growing – Assier Belief. A completely unborn and unique emotion.
Fifteen to go and Liam won the ball off of Joe Bollocks and just ran away from him. He crossed the half-way line, their defence retreating before him. And then, bless his heart, as they did come to him he threaded a peach of a pass for the on-coming Jean-Luc – to take in his stride and slam it into the bottom left-hand corner.
I was at Wembley when Derek Temple won us the ‘66 cup – it was nothing on this.
As they all went completely mad I realised that a man can’t fly. Because if ever a human had the will to take flight it was Jean-Luc, at the end of that mad season, making a memory forever.
Hang on. Fourteen to go, still.
Cometh the hour…
Now Claude, ‘our’ linesman, took over. He was running the half we were defending. Correction. Duty called. He was defending.
‘Offside’ in French is ‘hors jeux.’
You never heard so many ‘hors jeux’ in fourteen minutes in your life.
The team and then the citizens of Lacapelle began to get ratty. And that’s putting it gently.
Claude is a French farmer. He is not built like a brick – he has two of them with milk for brekkie.
He’s built like Assier Abbey. And somehow, he made it known he would be very willing indeed to meet anyone who cared to argue – about anything – right here, right now. There was a footy game still going on. Except there wasn’t.
Because Lacapelle could do whatever they might – it would be ‘hors jeux.’
I can’t describe the look on their faces, and, most wonderful of all – their joy for Jean-Luc.
I, the driver, left my non-alcohol drinking son with his comrades to go and get drunk
Sometimes, you’ve just got to.