Karl Whitney has been a regular visitor to Paris this season, not to watch PSG but he has spent a few weekends taking in the events in Saint-Ouen and our adopted Red Star FC 93 – enjoy his season review.
On a Saturday in February, as temperatures in Paris dropped to minus five, I stood on a concrete terrace in Red Star 93’s Stade Docteur Bauer. The crowd edged down the terrace towards the pitch and shuffled to keep warm. I joined them – there was no other way to assuage the icy weather. Red Star were 1-0 up against Martigues with three minutes to go.
A couple of miles away, at Stade de France, the pitch was frozen and the six nations rugby international between France and Ireland was about to be cancelled. Here at Stade Bauer, however, conditions were playable. Last summer the turf was pulled up and a synthetic pitch was installed. Perhaps because of this investment, ticket prices went up: from 4 euro to 5 euro for the Première section of the stand – a canopied construction that dates back to the interwar era, when Red Star were a force in French football. Ever since then, they’ve been in decline.
The stadium in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen has no doubt seen better days: not least in its use for rugby and football games in the 1924 Olympics. Between 1921 and 1942 Red Star won the Coupe de France five times. (The club was founded by Jules Rimet in 1897.)
Nevertheless, last season the club secured promotion to the Championnat National, where the challenges were of a different order to those of the amateur division they’d just left.
After a couple of great early victories (including a 4-0 demolition of rivals Paris FC away from home) and a decent string of results during the winter, Red Star looked like they could easily keep their place in the National. What I was watching from the freezing terraces of Saint-Ouen that day in February was a team that had adjusted to promotion and seemed about to ride the season out comfortably.
Then, Martigues equalised – an unmarked header, crossed from the left.
There was a sharp intake of breath from the crowd, then vehement and sustained cursing. Then silence. The man in a duffel coat who had been playing a single note on a recorder for nearly an hour and a half, stopped.
A month earlier, I’d sat on the same terrace and watched a similar scenario play out: going into injury time at one-all, Red Star had, at the last, snatched a goal against Rouen to win 2-1. But this time the momentum seemed with the away side.
Fans began shuffling uneasily: we’d all seen Red Star blow it at this point several times, and we expected something similar this evening. Already, the team had lost eight home games, winning five, drawing none. Away, they had won seven, lost five, drawn only one. Clearly, Red Star were all-or-nothing, so going into injury time all-square never guaranteed a point. The crowd were not happy: a couple of weeks before, at the end of a game, I’d seen a fan call a player over in order to tell him exactly what he thought of him. It was constructive criticism mixed with casual abuse – the stock-in-trade of the Red Star fans.
Then, from a Red Star corner, the ball bounced around the penalty area, deflected off Martigues defenders as Red Star’s strikers tried to get a touch.
It bobbled to Geoffrey Malfleury, the skilful striker who, as a result of his quick movement and hunger for goals, had been one of Red Star’s most consistent performers all season. On the edge of the six-yard box, he snapped at the ball – the goalkeeper deflected it back out. He headed it back to goal and, at some point, it crossed the line. There were 92 minutes on the clock. They held out, and won 2-1.
Red Star failed to stoke the embers of this fighting spirit, and over the next two months won just twice. Their two key performers, Malfleury and Farid Beziouen, were thwarted by injuries and suspensions. The defence, anchored by the ever-present Samuel Allegro – a no-nonsense centre-half of the old school – struggled to cope with both the rotation of personnel and the difficulties of dealing with the higher quality of the National division. At Bauer against Niort, for example, the away side controlled the entire game, looking more physically-imposing, tactically-astute and battle-ready than Red Star.
In April, the club’s programme declared: eight games to save Red Star. They won just one of their four games that month.
Going into May, Red Star looked vulnerable. At fifth from bottom in a division that relegates four teams, it seemed like they were once again headed for the CFA amateur division.
They now had four games to save their place in National.
Putting their worst foot forward, at home against Créteil, Red Star let in a goal after two minutes. Defensive slackness.
Disregarding this blip, and urged on by the crowd, Red Star played like a team possessed. There were at least eight chances in the first ten minutes. After 19 minutes, they were rewarded for their positive play: a perfectly-placed cross allowed Beziouen to nip in behind the defender and slip the ball past the Créteil goalkeeper. One-all.
Créteil continued to look dangerous on the break, but Red Star goalkeeper Jean-Christophe Bouet was at his best to make a series of instinctive point-blank saves.
On 49 minutes, from a free kick near the centre circle, Red Star worked it along the ground into the penalty area, where Malfleury tapped it in from six yards. Although the game never really settled down, Red Star were able to hang on for the win. It was the pivotal game of their season.
The following week, they won away to Le Poiré sur Vie, securing a place in the National.
In their final home game, against Vannes, a party atmosphere predominated on the terraces – and on the pitch. Red Star, their status assured for next season, began to showboat – back-heels and step-overs were the order of the day. A spectacular long-range effort from Beziouen and a perfectly-judged chip from Sabin crowned a comfortable performance.
But, as if to prove that they haven’t lost their talent for the madcap, they rounded off their season with a 3-2 win away against Frejus St Raphael last Saturday – Red Star had been 2-0 up with just over ten minutes remaining.