Gone, not with a bang, not even a whimper

As I was idly flicking through my emails on my Blackberry, a headline caught my eye. It chilled my blood. “Eriksson and Bradley favourites to take over at Villa Park, ” it said. It could only mean one thing. Martin O’Neill, the best thing to happen to AVFC in many a year, has left the club.

Villa fans are shocked and trying to come to terms with the tragic news just days before the start of the new season. It appears O’Neill felt the introduction of the recent “sell before you can buy” policy was contrary to the terms of his original agreement with Randy Lerner. Failure to climb into the top four, who enjoy Champions League football and its associated financial rewards, leaves the club’s best players vulnerable to predators with deeper pockets: players such as Gareth Barry and, now, James Milner.

I sincerely hope that the Swedish gentleman named above will not replace (as if anyone could) O’Neill. There’s no way he could fill those shoes. One of the Villa fans on the Teamtalk website has suggested a direct swap with the England manager. I think England would benefit more than the Villa from such a trade.

Of course, I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the football season is here again, though it feels as if it never went away. OGCN have started, where they left off, with a home draw against Valenciennes, which they should have won. Apam has gone ,while Loic Remy is still playing for the club. But I expect him to be Premiership bound before the month is over, to balance the books.

Allegedly season tickets sales are down 40% at the Stade du Ray. But it’s understandable really: a small, decrepit, stadium and an increasingly disenchanted fan-base.  The best players are sold at the beginning of every season to cover costs. 

Good luck Martin and thank you for everything. I wish you well in your next role. You don’t fancy a spell in the South of France do you?

Slim margins

And we're off!

Over 200 local cyclists supported yesterday’s Telethon ride from St Laurent du Var to Mandelieu, and back. As usual, the ride was monitored, marshalled, fed and watered by a large number of volunteers without whom this type of activity would simply not be possible. So, thanks guys, I had a great ride.

My clubmates wisely rode at the head of the peloton, generally a safer place to ride. I managed to hang with them, only sliding back briefly on the Garoupe climb. However, I did bob back and forth trying to say hi to those riders that I know, particularly from other clubs, returning each time to my beloved’s side.

The weather was fine but cold and even I acknowledged that it’s time for full-fingered gloves and thermal leggings. I tend to resist wearing the latter as long as possibly largely because of the time it takes me to get into them. I bought them when I first started riding. I thought I might need XL but they were too large in the beam and so bought L, without trying them on. The difference between XL and L seemed to be largely in the width of the legs and the past two winters I have taken at least 10 minutes to struggle into or out of them. My beloved reckons if he’d filmed the activity for YouTube it would have been one of their funniest and most popular videos.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I took them out of the drawer to wear this morning for the Departmental Championship. Well, all I can say is that the new regime is having some effect. While, they are still snug in the lower leg, I could slip into them with relative ease – whoopee.

Our reign as departmental champions (10 consecutive championships) was going to be under threat today thanks to either the non or late renewal of licences by a large number of members. Thankfully, the young, the old and the ladies (all high points’ scorers) turned out in their droves and I’m now anxiously awaiting the result.

Yesterday afternoon, we listened to my beloved boys in claret and blue win easily at home against lesser opposition, before heading off to watch the OGCN v Marseille derby match. I made the fatal mistake of underestimating how cold it was going to be. My layering of cashmere and down was insufficient: I should have worn old faithful. This is a black, down anorak purchased in the late 80s at half-price, but still nonetheless expensive, and which was my constant companion for football matches in the English Premiership. In fact, I recall wearing it for a whole season one year, even including the matches in July and August. It doesn’t get too many outings in Nice, just the odd match over the winter period.

OGCN, despite losing 1-3, played a blinder (a technical football term) in the first half: equalising not long after OM’s opening goal which was a brilliantly executed counter-attack, against the run of play. Sadly, we lost Apam just before half-time for elbowing Heinze. It was always going to be a struggle to contain OM with just 10 men. We ran out of steam in the last 10 minutes, succumbing to a further two goals, one of them from an OGCN old-boy – the curse of the returning player.

Highs and lows

My Premiership side, AVFC, started the season by losing 0-2 at home to Wigan! Wigan! Then lost  in the Europa Cup 0-1 away to Rapid Vienna. All in all not an auspicious start to the season. Last week end, they won 1-3 away at Anfield. We’ve not won there since 2001. Villa nearly always play Liverpool early on in the season and despite  good performances from the lads we would generally be undone by a goal of the month (if not the season).  Things were now looking a whole lot better.

Villa won 2-1 on Thursday in the home leg against Rapid Vienna. They could have, should have won by more. An aggregate score of 2-2, with away goals counting double, meant Villa were out for the count. Not even a case of falling at the first hurdle, more a failure to get out of the blocks. Yesterday they beat Fulham 2-0 at home. Never playing beyond themselves, just doing enough to snuff out Fulham. Nerves steadied once more.

My local French side, OGC Nice  started the season brightly with an away win (0-2) at St Etienne and a home draw against Rennes: so far, so good. Last week end they played away at Bordeaux: last season’s league winners and a team in impressive form. A team who are home to one of the best manager’s in the league and easily (IMHO) the best looking player, Yoan Gourcuff, pictured here.

Yoann Gourcuff
Yoann Gourcuff

OGCN suffered what every commentator agreed was a 4-0 crushing defeat. This Saturday, they were home to Montpelier, a recently promoted side. They lost 0-3! Commentators again concluded that it was a crushing defeat which could have been oh so much worse had it not been for our Columbian goalkeeper, Ospina. The only man to be awarded a score over 5 in the newspapers for his efforts. In fact some commentators went so far as to say that they had never, ever seen such a pathetic performance. The defence went missing. Literally in the case of Apam, usually our most reliable defender, who was sent off for two yellow cards. Remy tried hard, but as the lone striker ahead of a clueless midfield, his efforts were never going to amount to much. I wasn’t there (too busy watching the Vuelta Prologue) but I would guess that they were roundly booed off by the crowd.

First game

Yesterday evening I went to my first home match of the new season where OGC Nice were taking on Rennes and facing not only the curse of a returning

Nice v Rennes
Nice v Rennes

player in Rod Fanni but also a returning manager in Antonetti. Watching the players line up at the start, I had forgotten that Rennes are one of the biggest sides, in terms of the height of their players, in the 1st division while we’re one of the smaller sides.

The first half started in a lively enough fashion, and with the ground at almost capacity, the fans were very vocal. But it then descended, possibly thanks to the heat, into a bit of a boring kick-around. Incredibly, Nice scored just before half-time: a real screamer from Ben Saada. This was cancelled out two minutes later when Nice conceeded a penalty in a hand ball, goal mouth bundle.

The second half was much livelier, but neither team looked capable of scoring again and Nice were unable to profit from their numerical advantage once Rennes were reduced to 10 men. The draw was a fair result. To my mind more worrying was the number of scouts sitting behind us watching and taking notes on the players. I know the transfer window hasn’t closed but, please, hands off our players, particularly Remy and Apam.

There are two glaring differences between watching Premiership football and the French first division: alcohol and away fans. Yesterday’s match took place at 17:00. No one would have gone for a drink before the match though it’s entirely possible that fans may have stopped off on the way home to share a glass of wine and discuss the finer points of the match. This means I’m not leaping to my feet every five minutes during the match to let someone get past me to go to the toilet. Nor am I overcome by alcoholic fumes from those in the neighbouring seats.

There are away fans at the match. Generally, there’s so few that it’s possible to count them. They are segregated on their own in a corner of the ground and guarded by a couple of stewards. These will be the fans that have travelled to Nice on the Stade Rennais coaches. The biggest away crowds are generally Marseille and St Etienne. Equally, there will be a number of away fans sitting with the home fans. You would never be allowed through the home-side turnstiles of a Premiership game wearing a strip from the opposition. If you did, you would immediately be ejected by the stewards. Here there’s no problem, the French, largely family, crowd is very laid back.

In conclusion, while the standard of football in the Premiership is superior to that of the French, alas the behaviour of the fans is not. I much prefer the easy, non-threatening ambiance of French matches.