Believe it or not, the weekend wasn’t entirely devoid of meaningful football, for me at least, thanks to a quick answer to a question from my French partner Suzanne. I’d booked a trip to Lyon a while back and thought there might be the chance to take in a Lyon Duchere game. She checked; seems they would be playing away in the Coupe de France (an early round), against l’US Pont la Roche, on Sunday afternoon. What about, she suggested, driving south on Saturday, to around Tain l’Hermitage, going to either Charpoutier or another recommended wine outlet and also taking in a visit to the chocolate museum in the town (she has her weaknesses too), staying the night at a farm around Mersez, go to the game on Sunday, then drive back to Lyon (she does like to plan ahead)?
There are some questions which require careful thought; there are others to which a failure to reply in the affirmative before said partner has the option to reconsider having afforded me the possibility of wallowing in plenty of my favourite reds in return for a stroll around a chocolate museum merit a large tattoo of ‘plonker’ across the forehead. So off we duly went, despite a weather forecast which suggested that if we were lucky we’d only get moderately wet.
And wallow we did. The chocolate ‘museum’ (http://www.citeduchocolat.com/fr) was more than acceptable: EUR10 to go in, carrying tasting samples with additional free selections along the way, followed by more freebies in the shop. All very educational. Then on to my kind of shop (http://www.hermite.fr/). On the table as we entered were bottles to taste of Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cote Rotie. I mentioned that St Joseph was my preferred tipple and their immediate reaction was to take a bottle from the rack and open that to taste too. Even I had the decency not to say that I also liked Cornas, and anything else they might suggest from the area. The first Crozes Hermitage was a perfectly pleasant entre, the sort of unpretentious red that if any pub/bar within striking distance of The Valley were to offer would put an end to all our usual pre-match deliberations. The second one was a step or two up from that, splendid. Have to say that the Cote Rotie is a little too delicate for my peasant’s palate, the Hermitage was a slight let-down (the lady said she had tasted it that morning and it was fine but that now seemed too aerated, perhaps the cold; she added that it did need a few more years to be at its best and was ‘difficult’ to drink, which prompted the appropriate response from me), but then the St Joseph sent me into raptures.
Some of the second Crozes Hermitage and of the St Joseph safely purchased, along with a bottle of sweet white for Suzanne, and it was just a matter of carrying them, plus the chocolate, back to the car to drive east to Marsez and the farm. All perfectly welcoming and agreeable, save for the suggestion that breakfast was to be taken no later than 10.00. Later, despite reservations about my ability to be able to navigate our way back the short distance on dark, French country roads (Suzanne is a very fine driver and has many other splendid qualities, but she would agree that a sense of direction is not among them), we drove to St Donat to a recommended restaurant (not expensive and very friendly, perhaps in contrast to the one in the town with a Michelin star). Starters of foie gras and a mushroom concoction in mushroom puree, then St Jacques (Suzanne knows what she likes) and pork (so do I), followed by an assortment of desserts (the slice of lemon tart was a bit limp but the rest very good – especially for the reminder that while we are close to the Ardeche should get some chestnut sauce, delicious with vanilla ice cream and Chantilly). All washed down with a recommended Crozes Hermitage, Domaine des 7 Chemins, which proved to be all I could hope for.
After breakfast at the ungodly hour and a decent stroll around the area (pour la sante), we drove back west to be in place for the football (ah yes, there was a reason for this post). Just happened to see on the road a sign for Domaine des 7 Chemins, so yours truly the navigator kicked into gear. We found ourselves driving along (I kid you not) Rue de Syrah until we arrived at the vinyard. Now it was around 11.45 on a Sunday, so hopes of it being open for business were not high. Indeed, on the door ‘ferme’. But every problem has a solution, in this case a French one. When you find yourself at a vineyard which declares itself to be closed, but you see a couple of French men sitting around outside, push out of the car an attractive woman to go and talk to them. A couple of minutes later the place was duly opened, ‘by exception’. Not long after that, having admired their various awards (although in France so many seem to be handed out that you have to find a real wine lake-filler for there not to be trophies/certificates lining the walls) and availed myself of another glass, we emerged carrying more bottles. I look forward to reacquainting myself with this one (http://www.crozes-hermitage-vin.fr/domaine-des-sept-chemins) in the days ahead and would heartily recommend you do the same.
The difficulties in finding the location for the game – we thought the stadium might be at Point de l’Isere but it proved to be at la Roche de Glun - were offset by a couple more glasses of red in different locations along the way, plus a quick stop to get a couple of jars of said chestnut sauce/puree (and a little Serrano ham). OK, ‘stadium’ is a little too grand. We were informed that l’US Pont la Roche ply their trade some four divisions below Lyon Duchere (seems that at this stage of the Coupe de France the games are regional and the smaller team is always given home advantage). And more power to them. There was a bar (no wine but a demi of beer for EUR2 a go) and changing rooms, but basically it was a case of three football pitches side-by-side. As the middle one had corner flags planted and a metal rail running alongside the pitch, it seemed to be the one for the day. Admission price? Well, zero. No suggestion of trying to milk the occasion, rather everyone (probably a couple of hundred, players and officials included) enjoying the opportunity for a potential giantkilling.
Not surprisingly it proved not to be one for the purist. The pitch was not exactly flat, and with the corniche that marks the boundary of the Ardeche only a stone’s throw from the far edge of the pitch and storms in the region periodically a gale blew across the playing surface. And one had to add in the fact that the match officials were, well pants (bless them, they tried their best). The linesman in front of us seemed rather confused by his role, keeping his flag down and shouting ‘advantage’ after one agricultural challenge, then turning his back on play to run down the line only to miss the fact that the ball had gone out. The referee was kitted out perfectly and had the air of authority of a minor French bureaucrat (which he presumably was). He was consistent: he gave free kicks for almost all minimal contact outside the box but nothing within it, gave regular lectures to players after ‘fouls’ but kept his card in his pocket (until very late on when presumably he remembered he had a quota to work to), and looked on with indifference when early in the game a home defender went flying in two-footed off the ground. He missed the ball (there was never much possibility of that) and fortunately the Duchere player. As there had been no actual contact, not only was there no red card, he didn’t even give a foul. If the Duchere players were a little circumspect after that, who could blame them?
In truth, whatever the conditions, Duchere played poorly in the first half, seemingly unsure whether to try to pass the ball forward or loft it on the chance that the prevailing gale might spark an opportunity. One botched header from a great position from a corner was all they had to show, while at the other end aside from a moment when the Duchere keeper went walkabout and a sliced shot from a decent position the goal was not threatened. At the break by not taking control of the game Duchere had given heart to the opposition and an upset, while not clearly on the cards, was a distinct possibility.
Perhaps some harsh words were exchanged during half-time as Duchere did begin the second period with more intent. A little more urgency and better passing saw Pont la Roche under pressure and less able to clear their lines. And the breakthrough came in perhaps predictable circumstances. After a genuine hack from behind the free kick was lofted towards the far post. It became gale-assisted and cleared both the Duchere player and the keeper, going on to hit the inside of the far post and drop a couple of feet over the line. Hard lines for the Pont la Roche keeper, but on the balance of play just about deserved.
Duchere then had chances to put the game to bed. Their winger somehow failed to bundle the ball in at the far post, perhaps unsure which part of his body to use to apply the necessary touch, then a driven low cross evaded everyone in a crowded box. After these went begging, it was really a case of whether the late, desperate efforts of La Roche might produce an equaliser and extra time (seems it would be decided on the day, with penalties if necessary, all of which might have delighted the other 198 in attendance but perhaps not us, or at least not Suzanne who was beginning to think about the pork with mustard she was intending to cook back in Lyon). There were a couple of penalty appeals, which were never going to get the time of day from this ref (and to be fair the decisions looked correct), and the La Roche keeper up for a stoppage-time corner. But in the end Duchere safely negotiated passage to whatever the next round brings, the people of l’US Pont la Roche were left to refocus on what they do best (providing greedy Englishmen with lots of his favourite red wine), and we were clear to get into the car shortly before the heavens opened.
Is there a conclusion, beyond the fact that no doubt there are plenty of Addicks out there who were desperate to hear of the cup fate of Lyon Duchere (for the record their start in the league has been less than impressive, although a 4-0 victory in their last game has taken then clear of the relegation zone)? Probably not, save perhaps for the fact that at least now I am better prepared in the event that I end up losing a certain bet, one struck in the wake of last January’s transfer window debacle, one that I was then and will be happy to lose.