Paris Loves Angoulême, 1967

FranceThe final whistle blows at the capital’s packed Stade de Colombes and the curtain comes down on the Final of the 1967 Coupe de France. Lyon has defeated Sochaux-Montbéliard 3-1 and their players start a lap of honour, excitedly clutching the trophy and the winners medals presented to them by the French President, Charles de Gaulle.

Lyon’s players end the lap in front their travelling supporters but their noisy celebrations are quickly drowned out by a growing chant of: “Angoulême!  Angoulême!” reverberating around the rest of the ground. Only a Parisian football public could be perverse enough to turn up, watch a Cup Final involving two non-Parisian clubs, then chant support for a third club, also non-Parisian, that wasn’t even playing.

For a city that was the birthplace of French football when some resident Scots set up the first club back in 1891, Paris has had a very strained relationship with the game. The city was a footballing backwater for long periods with locals unashamedly fickle and event-minded: happy to turn out for glamorous, friendly tournaments and Cup Finals, a lot less enthusiastic about the weekly routine of prosaic League matches. Crowds of 20,000 would watch Racing Club compete for titles in the early 1960s, but as soon as their team drifted out of trophy contention, attendances collapsed to a quarter of that figure.

Much to the irritation of the rest of the country, the Parisian public was perfectly happy to adopt French clubs, successful ones of course, from hundreds of kilometres away as their own. The great Reims sides of the late 50s and early 60s would switch European Cup and Coupe de France ties to the capital to cash in financially on the huge demand to watch them. In the 1970s, the wonderful Saint-Étienne team was granted a motorcade parade up the Champs-Élysées following their narrow defeat in the 1976 European Cup Final. And then there was little AS Angoulême.

Angoulême is a town in west-central France, halfway between Limoges and Bordeaux. Never a footballing centre, the 1966-67 season was just the club’s second as a professional outfit. Their Coupe de France campaign would be a memorable one that took them all the way to the semi-finals, capturing, unusually, the imagination and the support of the Parisian public en route. Lower division clubs reaching the later stages of the Coupe de France was not an unusual occurrence, but Angoulême did have a stronger connection with the capital than most giant-killers.

Racing Club had been Paris’s only significant club of note until in the summer of 1966 they undertook an ultimately disastrous merger with UA Sedan. The new entity now played most of its home games two hundred kilometres outside the capital with an amalgamated squad composed mainly of Sedan players, trained by Sedan coaches and run by Sedan directors. With all of Racing Club’s squad bar just three players deemed surplus to requirements post merger, Angoulême saw an opportunity to acquire experienced Division 1 players in the fire-sale that followed. Half a dozen Racing Club players signed: goalkeeper Miredin, defenders Phelippon, Melloni and Poirot, midfielder Samper and the winger Halberda.

Racing’s fans hadn’t accepted the Sedan merger and were left in a state of limbo. With no club to support and with many of their ex-players now contracted to Angoulême, the southern club was duly adopted as something akin to Racing Club-by-proxy. Interest burgeoned when they were drawn at home to play French champions Nantes in the Cup’s Round of 16. The match ended 1-1 and a decision was taken to move the replay 400km north to the bigger capacity of the Parc des Princes in Paris, such was the huge demand to see it.

Angoulême had support from every quarter of the city. As well as disillusioned Racing Club fans cheering on their ex-players, other locals were attracted to the underdog story. Angoulême won the replay 1-0 and Miredin acquired hero status when he saved a controversial, late Nantes penalty – one that had been unjustly awarded for an obvious dive in the penalty area.

Another top division side in Racing Club Lens were easily beaten in the next round and now Lyon awaited in the semi-final. Trailing 3-1 at half time, Angoulême came back memorably to draw 3-3. A week later the teams drew 1-1 in the replay; another week, another replay and another 1-1 draw. This was the point when the Angoulême run came to the most unsatisfactory of endings. FFF rules limited replays in the competition to two, so, in the days before penalty-kick deciders, it all came down to the toss of a coin. Goujon, the Angoulême captain, called wrongly and Lyon progressed.

Setting a limit on replays was hardly unreasonable and, in the days before penalty shoot-outs, the coin-toss was the accepted method Europe-wide for settling deadlocked matches. Still, the FFF endured days of criticism from football fans and journalists alike, disappointed to a man at the abrupt and unlucky end of the Angoulême run. French humorists collectively had not the slightest interest in a culturally lowbrow pursuit like football, yet the profile of this story attracted even their attention. Wrote one: “What’s a toss-up to do with football? Why didn’t the captains play darts for it, or run an egg-and-spoon race? Why wasn’t the win given to the team whose keeper had the best smile, the biggest feet, or the hairiest chest?”

On the eve of the Final, the Angoulême president received a letter of sympathy from France’s Minister of Youth and Sports along with a promise that he would petition the French Football Federation to adopt a more football orientated solution in future. The noisy recognition at the Final of Angoulême’s brave contribution to the competition was a touching gesture by the Parisian public and if nothing else, it served up some welcome proof that they were not always fickle. Sometimes you didn’t have to be a glamorous, successful European Cup Finalist for them to take you to their capricious, big-city hearts.

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