Local derbies? Who needs them? Saturday’s result does of course mean that the run without a win against our nearest neighbours will be extended at least until next season. But I find that only a minor irritation, especially in view of other, more pressing concerns. I’m not suggesting that matches against the Spanners are not passionate, intense affairs, just that we’ve never judged our standing by the outcome of them. If we’re in the same division as Millwall something is fundamentally wrong, we’re having a period of underperformance (unless it’s that freak season when they somehow managed to join us in the top flight). While joining those expressing the hope that they don’t get pushed into leaving their ground, I’d happily accept not beating them for the next 50 years if it meant we didn’t actually play them. Some things are just written, like the rule that Palace never survive a season in the Premiership; that’s still in place, the current aberration is merely the exception that proves the rule.
I may not be in attendance at The Valley for the time that Duchatelet remains in charge (or becomes more intelligent, which is frankly too much to hope for) but I did manage to take in a game on Friday night. I find myself installed in Lyon for 10 days (possibly longer if the threat of Arctic weather proves a reality) and my partner Suzanne and I had the opportunity to see our first Lyon Duchere game in National, France’s third division, after last season’s promotion (their second in about five seasons).
It was the first game back after the Christmas break, on a cold, dark night (National games are normally played on a Friday evening), with Duchere taking on Pau. Now Duchere have been playing a blinder so far in the higher league. They won their first two games of the season and three of their first four, heading the league early on, only losing to Concarneau, who are now top. A bit of reality (or complacency) set in after that, and of the next eight matches only two were won, two were drawn, and four lost. Still not bad for the new kids in town.
In those first 12 games Duchere had conceded some 17 goals, a relatively high total for the league. As unlikely as it may seem, I can only conclude that they then had an email or some form of contact from our beloved owner, it is the only reasonable explanation for what followed. He must have informed them that if you don’t concede a goal during a game you won’t lose; that if you actually score one and don’t concede you will win the game, giving you three points; and that not losing and winning some games is a positive combination whereas not scoring and conceding goals is not. Clearly Duchere acted on these invaluable insights as they went on a run of four clean sheets in five games, winning three of them.
As a result going into the game they’d pulled themselves back up to sixth in the 18-team division. Pau went into it fourth from bottom, occupying a relegation spot (as far as I can tell four go down, two go up automatically and the third-placed team could). However, they were only six points below Duchere with a game in hand, so nobody was expecting an easy win for La Duch (at least we weren’t).
The first half proved to be an even and rather cagey affair. Pau shaded it by virtue of passing the ball better, more crisply, and having a dangerous Lookman-lookalike playing behind the front two, with Duchere looking more to the ball over the top and lacking precision. Actual chances were few and far between and for all the approach work the closest both sides came was when in quick succession both goalkeepers came for high balls from set pieces they had no chance of getting, only for the headers to go over the bar. Just before the break Pau did get a forward played in but his shot was well parried by the Duchere keeper. Goalless at the break – and at the time I’d have put money on that being the eventual outcome.
However, Duchere improved markedly in the second half, on the solid foundations of a strong defence, and Pau wilted. Duchere began to get more joy from quick passes out wide rather than through the middle and the Pau defenders struggled to cope with the pace and low balls driven across the box. Pushed back, Pau now struggled to make any impression going forward and the chances for Duchere started to materialise. One ball squared from the left saw the Duchere forward get on the end of it at the far post, the goal at his mercy. But instead of bundling everything over the line he tried to place an effort on goal and a defender somehow blocked it; the ball didn’t go dead and was pulled back only for the rasping drive from outside the box to go inches over. Next time around Duchere did put the ball in the net from another low cross but the linesman cut short the celebrations. Add in a blinding save by the Pau keeper and it was increasingly looking like one of those nights.
Indeed, Pau seemed to have weathered the storm going into the last 10 minutes. They’d made changes seemingly to tighten up, with their Lookman taken off, while Duchere made a switch up front to introduce a nippier guy. The most remarkable passage of play saw I think four consecutive fouls, including one pretty bad one by a Duchere guy arriving late, all let go by the indulgent ref with the result that we were playing on with two Pau and two Duchere players on the ground. By now it was snowing and both teams could have been forgiven for taking an honourable draw and getting to the warm baths. But with the clock running down one more low ball into the box was to prove decisive as this time Duchere’s nippy sub managed to get something on it from an onside position. It wasn’t pretty but it counted.
Pau didn’t have it in them to mount an effective riposte in the time remaining (five minutes of normal time and three extra) and so Duchere made it three wins and a draw from their last five, deservedly on the second-half performance. With a couple of games in this round called off because of the weather, they have moved up to fourth in the table, with 28 points from 18 games. But their good form will be put to the test in the next round as they travel to take on for a second time Concarneau, who are on 31 points from 17 games, two clear of second-placed Quevilly Rouen with Boulogne in third.
Rather strangely, as far as I can tell three of the top four in National are currently teams that were promoted to the league last season (by coincidence the fourth is Pau), the exception being Boulogne. So it’s not just Duchere that have adapted well to the higher standards. Nevertheless, that La Duch are punching well above their weight is apparent from attendance figures.
I was rather disappointed on Friday to see no evidence that their promotion has led to stronger support but thought numbers might have been affected by the weather. Not so. The stats show that Duchere have to date averaged 239 in nine home games, putting them at the bottom of this particular table. I’m not privy to the club’s finances, but I’m guessing that unless they get a decent pay-out from the French league it is hard to make ends meet. They’re still charging just EUR5 to get in (meaning an average gate receipt so far this season of EUR1,185), there’s no sign of any away fans lifting numbers (we did hear one shout for Pau but it could have been their coach driver), and it’s quite possible that without the local ‘derby’ they enjoyed against Olympique Lyonnais B in the lower division Duchere’s average attendance will be lower this season than last. And now they have to travel around the country for games (the lower divisions are regional).
The idea that a club with an average attendance of 239 might be challenging for promotion to a country’s second division did prompt me to indulge in a little research. The average crowd for a National game is only 1,120 (the highest this season being 3,022, for the splendidly-named La Berrichonne de Chateauroux; heaven only knows what they sing), with 10 of the 18 clubs failing to reach 1,000. Yet the league includes for example Paris FC, the third club of Paris (after PSG and Red Star FC 93) with an average attendance of 561, and GS Consolat Marseille, the second-biggest team in that city, average 284.
Of course overall attendances in France are materially lower than England. Ligue 1 has PSG (44,507), OL (40,618) and Olympique de Marseille (33,933) but the numbers fall away after that, with an overall average of 20,378 (compared with 36,452 for the Premiership in the 2015/16 season) and only nine of the 20 teams above 20,000. In Ligue 2 the average drops to 7,021 (17,583 for the Championship), a total that would be much lower without the top two (RC de Lens on 26,862 and RC de Strasbourg on 15,408); no other team averages over 10,000. But whereas the average for France’s top division amounts to around 56% of that for the Premiership, the percentage drops to around 40% for Ligue 2 against the Championship, and to just 16% comparing the third flights.
And the reason(s)? The size of France has to be one. Heading off from Middlesbrough to get to Southampton for a match would involve a trip each way of around 295 miles. Quite an effort, but nothing to match around 622 miles if you wanted to get from Lille to Marseille. I’m assuming that away support is much lower in France than England, in all divisions. Also, as is evident from the above, there are very few local derbies in France. According to Wikopedia this is due not least to the Vichy regime’s decision to create new football leagues with just one team from each region, prompting many to merge, plus the fact that public subsidies for football clubs have over the years encouraged mergers rather than funds being spread around. The last top-flight game between two teams from the same city was apparently in 1989/90.
However, there does seem to be something else, less tangible. As a generalisation – but one which Suzanne puts forward, not me – the French are just not interested in football (or much else) unless they are winning. The national team is usually ignored or lambasted except when winning the World Cup/European Championship. If France are down 0-1 with 10 minutes to go Suzanne will usually shrug her shoulders, say ‘it is done’ and go off to do something else. I kid you not, she did that for the 2016 Euro final. It’s the same for rugby. As a result it seems there is just precious little interest in supporting the small second or third team in a city.
Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that Duchere buck the trend, that the area, which would not be listed among Lyon’s most chic, really gets behind its team. Like us a few years ago they are on the up. Just two more promotions and Duchere would have a truly famous local derby to look forward to.