Havre AC 2 Tours FC 0

It is Friday 11th May and tonight the 38th and final round of matches will be played in the French second division, known as Ligue 2, which despite the French reputation for gastronomy is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. Tours have already been relegated to the Ligue National having been bottom of the league for much of the season. Le Havre, known as HAC, by contrast, have been within striking distance of les barrages (play-offs) positions for much of the season and a good recent run finds them in fifth place and needing a win to ensure that they will play in les barrages.
My wife Paulene and I arrived in Le Havre on Wednesday afternoon and bought our tickets (10 Euros each) at the smaller of two club shops, the one in the Place Perret in the centre of the city (the larger shop is in the Docks Vauban shopping mall, about 15 minutes away on foot). There is no longer a ticket office or club shop at the Stade Océane where HAC play their home matches, although guichets do open there on the evening of the match. Place Perret is named after the architect whose practice was charged with rebuilding Le Havre after a phenomenal 80% of it was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944. Perret was a great advocate of concrete construction and his planned city centre with its wide boulevards, massive city square and classically inspired concrete buildings is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking its streets is like being in an idyllic 1950’s vision of the city of the future.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Stade Océane is at the very edge of what is a sprawling city, with its vast docks strung along the mouth of the River Seine.  The HAC website refers to shuttle buses (navettes) that run from the city centre to the stadium but it doesn’t provide details.  The bloke in the club shop didn’t seem to know anything about the navettes, disappointingly recommending travelling by car; nor did the woman at the Tourist Information centre, although she was able to supply a bus map and timetable for the regular service that passes close to the stadium.  The HAC website does however provide a link to the website of CODAH (Communauté de l’agglomération havraise) the local public transport undertaking who provide the free navettes and where I learn that buses will run every forty minutes from Quai D (stand D) of the bus station (gare routier) beginning at 6.30pm.  After the match four separate routes will run to various destinations across the city.41233756055_f38c51250b_o
Although kick-off is not until 8:45pm we are perhaps over keen and are waiting at the bus station at 6.30 where a handful of people including a nerdish looking youth in a HAC tracksuit top are already hanging around Quai D. A white Mercedes bus swings onto the stand and first in the queue is a small boy who climbs aboard and stretches up to hug the driver, who it seems is his dad. Pausing briefly to go “awww” we board the bus and after waiting a few minutes, during which time no one else boards the bus who hadn’t already been waiting for it, we set off. The journey takes us through some less salubrious areas of the city, close to the docks through streets that might be termed both ‘gritty’ and ‘urban’ amongst other things.
The journey takes about 15 minutes at the end of which we are dropped off next to some tenement blocks beyond which, across a railway track and grey concrete open space is the amazing, bright blue Stade Océane, which looks like an enormous beached rubber dinghy. A few fans wait by the entrance to a subterranean world into which the team coaches will soon descend, but we ascend a flight of steps to the concourse around theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ground where not much is happening. A friendly faced man in the mobile club shop speaks to the nerd from earlier and then peers out in vain for customers who don’t think he is selling ice creams. I take a look OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAat his stock and he tries to convince me to buy a scarf; I tell him I already have a petit fanion (pennant) from the shop in town and this seems to satisfy him. He asks me who my team are in England and is complimentary when I say it is Ipswich Town, revealing that his knowledge of the English game is perhaps not up to date.
We hang about waiting for the turnstiles to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAopen. Some people arrive and buy tickets at the guichets where club employees arrange plastic barriers and then take them away again. The huge car park beyond the stadium fills up slowly with a trickle of cars from the main road that runs close by. Children are being admitted free tonight and school parties gather at the south end of the stadium, where more barriers snake a path to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAturnstiles. As we lean against a concrete wall two young women hand out free copies of the A4 sized, glossy four page match programme. There is a hot food van with the rather wonderful name of Friterie Momo parked on the concourse, providing a supply of massive cartons full of chips and sausage-filled baguettes (7 euros) to an increasing queue of casual diners. I wouldn’t usually eat this in England so see no reason to eat it in France, although it is likely to taste better, but I do buy a 500 ml can of Ch’ti Blonde (4 euros) the local beer of Pas de Calais and Picardie, which at 6.4% alcohol could probably not legally be sold at a football ground in England. But French people will drink one can of Ch’ti, English people would try and drink eight or ten.


Eventually the turnstiles open; they are automatic and read the barcodes on the tickets, but entry to the stadium is not speedy because once through the turnstiles everyone has to be patted down. Then the turnstiles go haywire as the barcode readers stop working, but it doesn’t matter because people are already backed up at the security check. Happily the turnstiles begin to work again and we are both into the stadium and up the steps to the upper tier; we make our way to as near to the half way line as we can get. It is a ‘sit where you like night’ tonight in this part of the stadium because there will be displaced supporters from behind the north goal where the seats will remain empty after fans threw objects onto the pitch during the recent derby match with Quevilly-Rouen.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Stade Océane is only six years old, it cost 80 million euros, it has a few more than 25,000 seats and the two I sit in were more comfortable, spacious and felt much more solid than the average football stadium seat; they even have a smooth spring action to tip up. I sit in two different seats because the bloke just along from my first seat is puffing an e-cigarette, which emits clouds of sickly fruit scented vapour that make me feel slightly ill; he also has quite a pungent body spray so it is doubly necessary to move a bit further away. I can’t believe that his natural smell was so bad that he had to go to such desperate lengths to cover it up.
The players warm up on the pitch as the ground fills up; eventually the ground will be almost exactly half full, which with a nice sense of numerical symmetry is about twice as full as it is has been for most Ligue 2 games this season. The teams are introduced in the customary French manner with the stadium announcer providing players’ first names and the crowd shouting out their surnames, it’s a lot of fun but I don’t think it would work as well with English surnames. Banners display the club crests and the teams enter

the arena. There is a band of ultras in one corner at the southern end of the ground they wave flags and then sing the national anthem, the British national anthem, which for Le Havre is the club song. (https://youtu.be/Wy2MhV8sFyw) Havre Athletic Club is France’s oldest football club, founded in 1872 by a bunch of Englishmen from Oxford and Cambridge universities, so possibly a Tory cabinet, and this English connection explains the use of Thomas Arne’s tune.
Le Havre kick-off the match towards the empty Tribune Nord wearing what is possibly an Oxbridge inspired kit of Cambridge blue and Oxford blue quarters with Oxford blue shorts and socks. Alternatively, the two blues could be of those of the sky and the sea as HAC are known as Ciel et Marine (sky and sea); two things that are prominent in Le Havre and somehow define the city and it situation. Tours meanwhile wear all white, but with blue and white checked sleeves. Havre are quickly on the attack passing the ball zippily on the lush playing surface and soon earn a corner and within four minutes the beautifully named Zinedine Ferhat crosses from the right and Jean-Philippe Mateta sends a fine header into the bottom left hand corner of the Tours goal. Six minutes later and a precise through ball from Jean-Pascal Fontaine precedes a right foot shot from Mateta and Havre are winning two-nil, with Tours having explained graphically why they are bottom of the league. That’s all that needs to happen this evening, if Havre can keep the score as it is they will be in les barrages. To an extent it seems that they realise this and after such an exciting opening ten minutes the game settles down to be not quite so exciting.
It takes twenty minutes for Tours to have a shot and despite the score the Le Havre supporters don’t seem overly thrilled; perhaps they are not wanting to tempt fate by celebrating too soon. The ultras provide another rendition of the club song, but the most interesting development is in the stand where some people complain to a steward about

two blokes who are stood at the top of the steps watching the game. The young steward is pressured into asking them to sit down or at least move because it seems they are blocking the view, which they may well be. The older of the men, who looks well in his fifties gesticulates and argues but eventually moves, walking past his accusers and jabbing his index figure at them angrily; it’s marginally more entertaining than the match, although Tours are now having more shots and their Baptiste Etcheverria is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thual for a rather violent assault on the impressive Zinedine Ferhat. Meanwhile, the other man who had been ‘outted’ for standing moves to stand at the side of the stairs and lights a cigarette.
All around the open sections of the ground there are people standing in the area at the

back of the lower tier, and skulking in the Tribune Sud behind the completely empty away supporters’ area are masses of police, all just watching the game apparently. I don’t know if the police were expecting Tours fans who never turned up; perhaps they were delayed, but heard the score after nine minutes and decided not to bother; it is a three and a half hour drive after all. With about five minutes to go until half time some rhythmic clapping breaks out and then the ultras sing another burst of ‘God Save The Queen’ as they hold their scarves aloft like English football fans used to before the Premier League spoiled everything.
Half-time arrives and I head downstairs to release some of that Ch’ti that I drank before the match and have since processed as nature demands. Passage downstairs however, is

difficult because bizarrely and surely contrary to safety requirements, the bottom of staircases E3 and E4 are blocked off with Heras fencing. This may be an odd attempt to keep the people who have paid 10 Euros for a seat out of the centre of the stand where normal prices have been charged, but it just has the effect of making people in the cheap seats walk through the central section to get to an open staircase. Down in the lower concourse children are playing on bouncy castles and the light shining through plastic outer ‘skin’ of the stadium creates a bluish hue. At the back of the lower tier people stand and smoke.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The football returns and the scoreboard encourages the fans to get behind the team; “Faites Du Bruit” it announces, “Make Some Noise”. The ultras obey but no one else much does. On the opposite side of the stadium is the directors box and it amuses me a little that above this are the words “Shopping, Restaurants, Loisirs (leisure)”, as if advertisingOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the thoughts of the wealthy people in the seats below. In the players’ tunnel a man in a suit, presumably a club official, lolls casually against the concrete wall with his hand on his hip, perhaps summing up in his casual posture the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

apparent attitude to the ongoing failure tonight to promote supporter safety in the Tribune Est (East Stand) opposite. A procession of people descend the steps of the Tribune Est expecting to be able to go down the staircase to the toilets or buvette, but of course they find the foot of the stairs closed. A small girl gets quite distressed until led away by her older brothers and an elderly man looks equally perplexed when he finds his way barred. There is no easy way to the other staircases except by walking along whole rows of seats and asking people to stand up to let you through. I just hope there is no need to evacuate the stand quickly.
As the game approaches its final minutes, at last a tangible sense of anticipation and excitement returns to supporters other than the ultras. There is clapping and singing and the fans at last seem confident that their team is capable of holding on to a 2-0 lead against the league’s bottom club and despite three minutes of time added on they do. Le Havre qualify for the play-offs where they will be at home to Stade Brestois 29, another club from a great French port that was also bombed heavily by the allies towards the end of World War Two. We leave the supporters to celebrate without us in order to head for the navette, because we’re not sure what time it will leave.
It has been a good night, but a slightly disappointing one nevertheless. The Stade Océane is fabulous, but has not been shown at its best and its management tonight has been nothing short of alarming. Everything is in place for football to be memorable in Le Havre, but the club really needs that promotion.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Paris St Germain 2 Les Herbiers 0

For an Ipswich Town supporter FA Cup ties have become something of a rarity, and more than that, a disappointment. Despite winning the FA Cup itself, albeit forty years ago, (incidentally, only thirty-six of the current ninety-two league clubs have ever won the Cup, and Norwich City are not one of them) Town have failed to honour their past and have not even won an FA Cup tie since 2010, when they triumphed away at Blackpool. Starved of cup glory therefore, the opportunity to go to the final of the French equivalent of the FA Cup, the Coupe de France, is not to be missed. This year the final tie is between the current holders Paris St Germain and Vendee Les Herbiers Football (VHF) a semi-professional team who currently play in the Ligue National, the third tier of French league football. Francophile that I am I ‘signed up’ for e-mails from the Federation Football Française (French Football Association) a couple of seasons ago and my wife, who I shall introduce to you by name shortly is on Paris St Germain’s e-mailing list, so we both received invitations by e-mail to buy tickets for the final. For just 19 Euros each, yes, 19 Euros, about £16.50, we have tickets at the Stade de France for the show piece, end of season finale. I have paid more this season to watch Colchester United versus Morecambe.
My wife, Paulene and I arrived in St Denis in the north of Paris at lunchtime and from

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Basilica St Denis

our hotel room at the Novotel it is possible to see the Stade de France in one direction and in the other the Basilica Cathedral of St Denis, where nearly 1,600 years-worth of French kings and queens including Clovis, Dagobert, Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were all buried. As if that is not enough this is considered to be the building where in the twelfth century all the elements that make up Gothic architecture were brought together for the first time; it is a most beautiful building of remarkable historic significance.

 

After a leisurely visit and a picnic in the nearby Parc de Legion d’Honneur we rest up back at the hotel before making the short walk to the Stade de France. In the hotel lobby Les Herbiers supporters are checking in and making use of the bar.
Today is the May 8th, a national holiday in France marking the liberation of the country from the Nazis in 1945; it is a glorious sunny day with temperatures up in the mid-twenties; one digital display says the temperature is 35 degrees but I’m not sure I believe it. Our approach to the Stade de France is at the end of the stadium where there is a sea of Les Herbiers supporters of all ages dressed up in red and white. Les Herbiers is just a small town with a population of about 16,000 situated in the Vendee department, some 50 kilometres south east of Nantes and almost a four hour journey by road from Paris. Today Les Herbiers and a good few places all around it must be completely empty.
Last night on French TV sports journalists were debating whether this cup final between Paris St Germain, with an annual budget of 340 million Euros, and a semi-professional third division team with an annual budget of 2 million Euros was a good thing or not. Seeing the excitement and joy on the faces of the Les Herbiers supporters leaves me in no doubt that it is a good thing. It does not matter that it is the final and it is a mis-match. Paris St Germain will win because they now win everything, but it will still be the show piece event of the season and both sets of supporters will love every minute of it; also in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter much because there will be another cup final next year, and another the year after that, provided Donald Trump hasn’t finally caused Armageddon.
Security at all the bigger French football matches is reassuringly tight and once patted down we head up the ramp to the concourse that surrounds the Stade de France, a stadium that feels much more spacious and is much more beautiful than Wembley, although it is now twenty years old. Unable to resist acquiring souvenirs of the day, I buy myself a T-shirt (20 Euros) and Paulene a scarf (20 Euros) for which Paulene also learns the French, which is écharpe. There is a while to go before kick-off at five past nine so I get into the spirit of things joining the Les Herbiers supporters with a pint of Carlsberg (8 Euros), the price of which makes me feel that the T-shirt and scarf were massive bargains and I should buy more of them, but I don’t. The beer comes in a re-usable plastic “eco-cup” (2 Euros) of a type seen at many French stadiums and makes me feel much better in the knowledge that even though I have been robbed blind I am helping save the planet. Paulene has a bottle of water (3 Euros).
Paulene is keen to get in the stadium to watch the warm ups and pre-matchOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA entertainment and because she is a chronic asthmatic and will need to recover from the long climb to our seats. For Paulene visits to large stadiums such as Marseille’s Velodrome and the Stade Felix Boleart in Lens have in the past come with near death experiences after ascending staircase after staircase after staircase on a sort of stairway to Heaven. Whilst Paulene climbs, I callously hang around outside, slowly drinking my beer, savouring it as best I can and soaking up the ambiance with smiling, excited and inebriated French people. Eventually I head for the turnstile where I must show both my ticket and passport, the French show their identity cards. The steward seems pleased to see a “Rosbif “ and summons up his best English to say “Welcome”, which is nice. Inside the stadium I am patted down again and wished bon match before being offered a complimentary Pitch choco barre courtesy of a promotion by Brioche Pasquier an industrial French bakery whose products can be found in English supermarkets too.
Our seats are in the third tier of the stadium but are not together, Paulene sits in the second row from the front whilst I am another three or four rows back and off to the right. As I arrive at my seat, on the pitch the final ten minutes of the French FA Youth

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cup for Under 19’s, the Coupe Gambardella, between ESTAC Troyes and Tours FC are being played out. Troyes are winning 2-1 and hang on to lift the trophy amidst scenes of much excitement and generous appreciation for these young players. Although fully professional, Troyes and Tours are relatively small clubs, but in France this is no barrier to producing successful youth teams, a fact illustrated by Auxerre, a town a third the size of Ipswich having won the Coupe Gambardella a record seven times. I sit on the steps next to Paulene and after the presentation of the trophy and ensuing celebrations we watch the stadium gradually filling up until the steward just in front of us asks me to take my seat.
We are amongst the Paris St Germain supporters, although the hard core ultras are in a seemingly dedicated area in the lower tier where a platform is positioned in front of

 

them for the use of the two ultras who will lead and orchestrate the chanting. On the pitch the preparations are being made for the start of the final of the Coup de France and the celebration of French football that this represents. The teams warm up; the PSG players looking comfortable and familiar with the huge stadium, the Les Herbiers players looking slightly in awe of the setting and the vast numbers of their own supporters decked out in red and white; their home crowds in the Ligue National average about 1,300. Les Herbiers wear simple hi-vis jackets over their red tracksuit tops and look every bit the modest, provincial club that they are. The players warm up in a corner in front of their fans as if at a much smaller ground.
At last the scene is set and amidst two teams of drummers behind each goal, four separate formations of flag wavers, a huge circular FFF Coupe de France logo and two similarly massive club badges that all look like they could be used by the fire brigade to catch people jumping from high buildings, a marching band in French blue trousers with tunics decked in gold braid, a suspended image of the Coupe de France trophy and pitchside pyrotechnics the teams emerge from the tunnel. I join in as best I can with the singing of the Marseillaise, which is truly glorious and then the teams are introduced to President Macron who is roundly booed. I exchange amused smiles and raised eyebrows with the white haired bearded man stood next to me who admits he is not really a football fan, he prefers rugby and has just been brought along to the game by his two friends; he is however supporting Les Herbiers and so am I. It’s all absolutely brilliant and the game hasn’t started yet.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


We sit and Les Herbiers kick off the match wearing all red and playing towards central Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower; PSG are in their usual all navy blue kit and kicking towards the Cathédrale Basilique St Denis. Les Herbiers start well and within two minutes Joachim Eickmeyer breaks down the left, crosses the ball and Sebastien Flochon’s shot is deflected wide of the goal resulting in a corner from which Valentin Vanbeleghem shoots wide from some 25 metres out. The white-haired man and I applaud conspiratorially. But it doesn’t take long before PSG have two shots from Giovanni Lo Celso and Kylian Mbappé that hit a Les Herbier goal post, the second shot defying physics as its angle of incidence blatantly fails to equal its angle of reflection, instead the ball just bounces right back at him.
Satisfyingly for my white haired friend and me it is PSG’s Yuri Berchiche who is the first player to be booked by referee Mikael Lesage. But such events become crumbs of comfort as PSG predictably dominate and miss chance upon chance with Lo Celso again hitting a goalpost with a shot , although Les Herbiers are in fact playing extremely well, they’re just not as good as PSG. The Ligue National team do not ever resort to aimlessly booting the ball away in blind panic, but always attempt to play the ball from defence by passing it, certain Ipswich Town defenders could perhaps benefit from some coaching from Les Herbiers’ Stephane Masala; does he know there is a job going? He is perhaps one of the few successful managers of a lower league club not so far linked with the job.
Off the pitch, the far end of the stadium is a noisy, constantly choppy, but joyous sea of red and white flags, even when on 26 minutes Giovani Lo Celso surprises me at least by scoring with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area to inevitably give PSG the lead. PSG continue to dominate play but still only lead 1-0 at half-time, when I pop downstairs to buy a bottle of Evian (2.50 Euros) for Paulene.
The second half picks up where the first left off, but for the usual change of ends. Within five minutes it seems PSG have scored again as following a sequence of remarkable deflections and rebounds Mbappé sends the ball into the goal net. The PSG fans and ultras have celebrated the ‘goal’ but apparently under false pretences as following some sort of video conference at the side of the pitch Monsieur Lesage disallows the goal and awards Les Herbiers a free-kick. It is the first time I have witnessed the use of video technology at a match and it feels very odd because of the hiatus it creates; I don’t like it, it doesn’t feel right, although my neighbour and I gleefully cheer the decision nevertheless.
PSG probably dominate the second half more than ever and despite some fantastic saves from Matthieu Pichot in the Les Herbiers goal it eventually all becomes too much and a bit after twenty five to eleven he can’t help but knock over PSG’s Edinson Cavani whoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA scores for the resultant penalty. Pichot is booked by Monsieur Lesage for his efforts but shakes his hand to acknowledge his mistake and show he has no hard feelings; what civilised people the French are.
PSG come close to scoring again more than once in the final minutes but pleasingly Les Herbiers have a late flourish too and both Diaranké Fofana and then substitute Clement Couturier almost beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp with a snap shot and a run into the penalty box. Finally, after five minutes of time added on however, Monsieur Lesage calls time on the 101st final of the Coupe de France and PSG have won it for a record 12th time. No one seriously thought they wouldn’t, but some of us hoped.
After an overlong wait, the presentation of the trophy follows with much jumping about and littering of the pitch with red, white and blue fluttery material. A massive scrum of photographers surrounds the players who are barely visible in the unseemly melee and the players make their way to the ultras to thank them for their support and to celebrate together. Nobly the vast majority of Les Herbiers supporters stay on to watch also; this is all part of their big day out. With their celebratory juices running dry the players leave the pitch which is covered by protective sheeting in preparation for the finale to the finale a display of fireworks, lights and lasers which says thank you to the 7,160 clubs who entered the Coupe de France this season, almost ten times the number that enter the English FA Cup. Reminders appear on the scoreboard of when the last metro trains leave the two nearest stations to the stadium.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The fireworks display is a fitting end to the evening, although Paulene and I actually thought the one put on by Lille Olympique at the end of their final league match last season was better, but we can be picky like that sometimes. It has been a terrific night for PSG, the Coupe de France, French football and most of all Vendee Les Herbiers Football and its supporters and we didn’t half enjoy it too. Vive La France!

41413999984_572310fba9_o

Ipswich Town 2 Middlesbrough 2

It is Sunday, the day of rest when traditionally, indigenous western Europeans would go to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChristian church services, but nowadays most people just generally laze about if they can and nurse their hangovers. It is wrong therefore that I have to keep looking at the clock in order to be sure I shower and breakfast before twenty to eleven when I will need to catch the train to Ipswich for the final match of the season. Curse the Football League and Sky television and their ridiculous 12:30 kick off, something that could never happen in a civilised country like France where lunch is important. Other than tired, I cannot imagine how Middlesbrough supporters must feel having to travel the best part of three hundred miles to get here from Teesside.
The 10:55 train is on time and generously peopled with Ipswich Town supporters. I sit down on the end of a row of three seats; a sinewy bald man wearing last season’s Town shirt is at the other end; he moves his rucksack off the middle seat as I sit down; he reads a Sunday supplement and then The Economist. Nerd. A gregarious elderly man from Witham gets on at Colchester and walks down the train. He sees the blue shirts and asks “Any true Blues here?” He receives a few grunted acknowledgements “Haha, well done!” he says and then sits down. Seeing a lad in a Town shirt on the next set of seats he gets up again and asks “How far have you come for the match today then?” The boy answers “Braintree.” The old man laughs. “Ha, ha Braintree!” he says “ ‘orrible sodding place isn’t it? ”
It is a glorious sunny day and in Ipswich Middlesbrough supporters are gathered in the

beer garden of the Station Hotel, a pub which will miss the football season and the regular visitations from people from other towns and cities intent on enjoying a day out. Portman Road is busy, the turnstiles are open, I buy a programme (£3) and consider that people will eat burgers at any time of day. Up on St Matthews Street St Jude’s Tavern is not very busy. I purchase a pint of the Match Day Special, which today is St.Jude’s St Clements (£2.50) a light beer with a hint of a tang of orange citrus; ideal on a hot day like today. A man speaks to me who seems to know me, I have no idea who he is, he even sits at the table where I am sat. I am soon also joined by Ollie however, a much younger man and work colleague. I have a ticket for Ollie which he has purchased from Roly for a knock down price of a tenner, because Roly has a fortieth birthday bash to attend on the Norfolk Broads. Ollie offers to buy me another drink, but I decline. Ollie has a pint of the match day special too.
At about five past twelve we head for Portman Road bidding farewell to the jolly landlord who wishes us “Bon match” except in English. I enter the stadium to the strains of “Living on a prayer” by Bon Jovi, a depressing song, both because it is awful and because it recalls 1986 the year Ipswich Town were relegated from the first division and the long decline began. My first port of call is the toilet where, with a bloke stood at either end of the urinal a third man annoys me by standing in the middle with no room either side of him.
Having recovered my composure I take to a seat a row or two in front of Pat from Clacton and next to ever-present Phil, who hasn’t missed a game in 30 years and his son Elwood. The teams aren’t out yet but a guard of honour of youngsters with flags lines the

way from the players’ tunnel. Crazee the mascot is heroically waving a much larger flag, a bit like Liberty Leading the People in Delacroix’s painting depicting the revolution of 1830, although I doubt many other people think so and Crazee hasn’t bared his breasts either. A woman at the front of the stand wearing a strapless top which looks like it has been partly torn off her could possibly fill in at any moment, if required.
Rapture and applause for the conquering heroes of Reading out of the way the game begins. Town kick off in their customary blue and white towards me and the other occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. I am pleased to see the ‘Boro not opting to wear some superfluous away kit, but instead adorned with their traditional all red kit with a white band across the chest, like back in the 1970’s. I am reminded of Jack Charlton and the Middlesbrough team that had one of the greatest collection of surnames of any team ever: Platt, Craggs, Boam, Spraggon, Foggon, Brine and Woof. Today the white band bears the name of the shirt sponsor, something called ‘Ramsden Currency’. I thought Ramsden’s was a Fish & Chips franchise but they seem to have diversified into banking, hence the expression ‘cheap as chips’ I guess. Seeing as they’re from the northeast it’s probably something to do with pay day loans.
Portman Road is unusually noisy, due in part to over 1,800 Smog Monsters, as the

inhabitants of Middlesbrough are sometimes unkindly known, although a diet of ‘Parmos’ doesn’t do them a lot of favours. But Ipswich fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand are in reasonable voice and the drum in the corner is being beaten enthusiastically. It helps that Town start the game like a team on a mission to win, which I guess they are. For the first ten minutes Ipswich dominate and then Freddie Sears scores a searing goal, winning the ball wide on the right before advancing and making the ball disappear before making it reappear as it hits the back of the net.
The goal perhaps changes matters and Middlesbrough begin to keep the ball to themselves to prevent such a thing happening again. It’s not long before the ‘Boro fans are borrowing a Pet Shop Boys tune to complain to the Ipswich fans that despite their team winning they are still not singing. It’s a fair cop. Then Town’s Cole Skuse collapses Britt Assambalonga in full flight and is booked by referee Mr Coote, who sadly has a full head of hair. There is a lot of hair on display today with the ‘Boro’s Ryan Shotton sporting tied-back tinted dreadlocks which resemble a trussed up Tarantula. Adam Clayton’s tiny top notch, a sort of My Little Ponytail looks pathetic in comparison, but clearly the barbers of Teesside are doing alright off the back or head of the football club. This is why a successful football teams is said to be so good for the local economy.
In the Sir Bobby Robson stand Town fans turn “Oh when the saints going marching in ” into a dreadful dirge as if predicting Southampton’s relegation. The song subsides and with a half an hour gone the Boro fans are asking if this is a library and where the nineteenth century American literature might be found. They go on to advise that Town fans “Only sing when you’re farming” before asking the whereabouts of our combine harvesters, immediately giving away their ignorance of the farming year and the fact that no one much has their own combine harvester anymore. It’s five past one and time for a drinks break. The old couple behind me moan and groan as if this is some terrible affront to them. It wasn’t like this in their day, dehydration was a fact of life and you had to get on with it, like you did with diphtheria and fatal industrial accidents.
Thirty nine minutes pass before the Boro fans decide they cannot take it any longer and get out their Welsh hymnals and sing that “Your support is, your support is, your support is fucking shit”. I enjoy the sense of anticipation created by the repetition of the first line. Half –time arrives and Ipswich are still winning 1-0 although defending has had to become their playing style of choice. I speak with Ray and his wife Ros who is making her annual visit or pilgrimage to Portman Road. I check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there and doing well but it’s too high up to see any butterflies. It is forty years ago today that Ipswich Town won the FA Cup and as a half-time treat five

blokes in their sixties, who it turns out are members of that winning team are paraded onto the pitch with an FA Cup (there’s more than one apparently). They remain by the dugouts and a bloke with a mike asks some dull questions, before they are lead away. It would have been better if they could have been driven around the pitch in some sort of football version of a “pope-mobile” to take the applause from each stand in turn.
The second half sees Ipswich defend more and more, and more desperately, with shot after shot being blocked. Middlesbrough are much the better team in terms of being able to pass to each other and take shots on goal. Too often Ipswich hit the ball with more hope than subtlety or careful weighting so that it finds another Ipswich player. There is a skills gap, but as time rolls on it looks like it might be Town’s lucky day; but then it turns out not to be as following a corner Stewart Downing takes a shot from the edge of the penalty area and miraculously it doesn’t hit anyone or anything between Downing’s boot and the goal net.
Seventy-five minutes have passed and it’s time for another drinks break. “Ohhhh, what the heck is goin’ on?” says an angry old voice “What a load of ….” but he trails off unable to think of a word for what it is a load of. Despite having already been introduced to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconcept of the drinks break in the first half, the old folks’ understanding and acceptance has not improved. They must be quite mean spirited to want to deny a drink to people who have been running several miles on a hot sunny day. Health professionals tells us that old people do not drink enough and it would seem they don’t want other people to drink either.
Perhaps reinvigorated by the drinks break, Ipswich begin to attack again with seven minutes of the match remaining earn a penalty, which Martyn Waghorn makes into a goal and Ipswich are once again winning. There are no complaints about the lack of support now as Ipswich fans nervously urge their team to hold out against the Boro’ who set up tents around the edge of the Ipswich penalty area. The Ipswich cross bar is smote and Daniel Ayala, a former Norwich player heads the re-bounding ball into the net, but is delightfully deemed offside. Ayala does not accept the decision gracefully, which only adds to the fun.
The game enters uncharted amounts of time added on, probably because of those pesky drinks breaks, and thirteen minutes after Waghorn’s penalty a Middlesbrough corner is headed ‘home’ by Patrick Bamford, an oddly upper class looking player who could be up for the weekend from Eton or Harrow.
Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame? Yes, but the final whistle now blows and the news is that Norwich have been thrashed 5-1 by Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich have therefore finished above Norwich in the final league table and so all’s well that ends well etcetera. It has been an exciting match which Middlesbrough should have won but Ipswich could have won and that seems enough at the moment to make some Town fans optimistic, but it’s probably just the sunshine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Coggeshall Town 3 Stowmarket Town 2

The final Saturday of the football league season has arrived, a special day in the football calendar because it can mean such a lot, or so little. It can be make or break, or it can be pointless, futile, a complete waste of everyone’s time. Too lazy to search for the least important fixture of the day I opt to go to the nearest, which just happens to be the one at which Coggeshall Town will be presented with the Thurlow Nunn Eastern CountiesThurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League trophy Premier league trophy, which is in fact a substantial looking cup. But first it will be necessary to endure another ninety minutes of football.
It’s a warm sunny day in early May, blackbirds and sparrows are nesting in my garden and a nesting box for swifts, swallows or house martins has just this morning been put up under the eaves of my house. It’s the May Day Bank Holiday, which people who vote Conservative shouldn’t be allowed to take; hypocrites. Because the weather is warm and fine Mrs Brooks, who has chronic asthma, is able to accompany me today. Anticipating plenty of people wanting to see Coggeshall presented with the league trophy we set off before two o’clock. It’s a slow journey behind a farm tractor but it still only takes about ten minutes.
The sun beats down on the dry and dusty car park at West Street; the Stowmarket team Stowmarket Town FC busbus is here, provided by Squirrel’s Coaches on which I like to think an-on board hostess offers passengers nut-based snacks. At the turnstile I hand over a twenty pound note, a pound coin and fifty pence piece. In return I receive £10, a programme and a colour picture of the team that won the league on Tuesday night. Admission is £6 for me and £4 for Mrs Brooks who is over 60. Inside the ground the Coggeshall team appear to be having fun warming up on the pitch.Coggeshall Town FC Radio Essex is here in Radio Essex reporterfemale form. Near the main stand we see Jim and Keith; Keith is wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Jim has a coat and a hat. We follow them into the stand to exchange pleasantries; Mrs Brooks hasn’t seen Keith for quite some time, or Jim come to that. Keith is over seventy but points out Olly Murs warming up with the team.
Acquaintances renewed, we head for the bar where Mrs Brooks has a white wine spritzer with soda (£4.00) and I have a pint of Caledonian Brewery Coast to Coast (£3.90), a cold, fizzy beer which I drink very slowly indeed to mitigate its unfortunate repetitive qualities. We step outside to enjoy the Spring sunshine and convivial atmosphere. There are plenty of people on the deck drinking like us and chatting. There is a barbecue set up BBQaround the corner of the dressing rooms beneath a white gazebo. People are stretched out on the grassy bank to the side of the seated stand. This is lovely, a football match crossed with a village fete. “The toilets are fairly good in there” says a Suffolk accent. “ They’re bigger than when I last come” says another in reply.
What looks like a mixture of players from Coggeshall’s Under 9’s and Under 10’s teams lines up at the foot of the steps from the

changing rooms to the pitch. Coggeshall’s giant poultry mascot Rocky the Rooster joins them having been led down the steps by his beak. The Stowmarket Town team joins them too. We wait, and wait a bit more. A sort of Haka can be heard from home team dressing room before the Coggeshall team appears and waits on the steps, why they wait is unclear. Eventually however the players step down towards the pitch to be applauded by their ‘guard of honour’. Handshakes ensue and then we’re ready for the game to begin.


Coggeshall kick off aiming towards the club house and in their customary red and black striped shirts with black shorts, very good they look too. Stowmarket Town, kicking towards the West Street vineyard and the town of Coggeshall itself, sadly haven’t put as much thought into their kit today; they wear their home shirts of amber and black stripes, but because their usual black shorts would be black like Coggeshall’s they have ‘borrowed’ the red shorts from their away kit. The result is an unholy mess, all they needed was white or amber shorts and they would have looked fine, but instead they look like they got changed in the dark.a bit of a mish mash
Mrs Brooks and I sit on the grass slope between the club house and the main stand. The first notable action is when the ball is booted out and hurtles like a space capsule re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere onto the grassy bank making a man in a red and blue checked shirt spill his beer. At the far end of the ground six blokes from Stowmarket sing and bang the perimeter fence like the drunks that they probably are. In front of us a golden retriever or labrador, (who really knows the difference?) looks on and barks excitedly when the ball is hoofed out of defence or when the action gets a bit feisty.


It’s twenty past three and Stowmarket’s number seven is booked for a foul; referee Mr Harrison, a very clean cut, angular looking man raises his yellow card slowly, pointedlyOfficials and dismissively as if to humiliate and punish at the same time. The first corner of the game follows soon after, falling to Coggeshall, but Stowmarket defend it easily and within a minute take the lead as a low cross from the right is turned into the net by the lunging boot of number nine Ace Howell who has evidently wandered un-noticed into the Coggeshall six yard box. Nearby a woman applies sun screen to her arms and the smell of male body spray is wafted by on the breeze, as it does on warm days.
Seven more minutes pass and a deep Coggeshall cross from the right is knocked back into the path of number eight Conor Hubble who steps effortlessly past one defender, sidesteps another and then wellies the ball into the corner of the Stowmarket goal as if to say “ You didn’t really think we wouldn’t equalise did you?”. The Labrador gets excited. Emboldened by the goal, a few Coggeshall supporters shout randomly. “Ridiculous, ref!” is heard as a free-kick goes the ‘wrong way’ and then “Be strong” as if every now and then players are prone to inexplicable weakness and they need reminding not to be.
The shouts of encouragement seemingly have no influence on the score however, which remains 1-1 as Mr Harrison blows for half time. In the break we speak with Paul who is videoing the game and has taken time out to get something to eat at the barbecue. We then meet our next door neighbour, also called Paul who has arrived ‘hot-foot’ from Harry Potter World. Paul is here with his son Sam, who we don’t see at first, but apparently he cuffs the back of his dad’s head as he walk past. Kids of today, eh?
The second half soon unfolds before us and we stand at the other side of the main stand to get a better view of the Coggeshall goals when they arrive, because going to football is all about being optimistic. Stowmarket are now playing into the sun but stood in the metal bus shelter-like stand at the clubhouse end of the ground their fans are even more vociferous than before, although it could all be down to acoustics. The sun is reflecting man with a bike at Coggeshall Townoff the corrugated tin roof of the main stand and a bearded man with long grey hair, tied in a ponytail stands by his bicycle and looks on, which you couldn’t do at a poncey Premier League game, or even at Colchester United, and definitely not for six quid.
“Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you” sing the Stowmarket fans, confusingly already singing a song. No one responds, understandably. The Stowmarket fans sing the same song, but alter the words. “Who the fuck, who the fuck, who the fuck is Olly Murs?” is now the refrain. No one helps them out, so they make up their own answer, seamlessly switching from the Welsh hymn tune to the Latin American rhythm and beat of Hector Anulo’s ‘Guantanamera’, and singing “Shit Robbie Williams, You’re just a shit Robbie Williams”.
The second half is as competitive as the first on the pitch, but to some extent the teams are both good enough to be cancelling one another out. May be the stalemate is what is causing the Stowmarket fans behind the goal to make their own entertainment by constantly stretching their musical and lyrical imaginations, if not their talent. They get that end of season ‘here to celebrate’ feel as they call to the team manager and others in the dugout to “give us a wave”, which they obligingly do. It’s about twenty five past four and Stowmarket earn two corners either side of a fine diving save from the Coggeshall goalkeeper James Bransgrove. “Small club in Marks Tey, You’re just a small club in Mark’s Tey” sing the Stow’ Town choir once again employing Hector Anulo’s most famous tune.
Coggeshall are having more possession of the ball and are getting forward more frequently. Nnamdi Nwachuku taunts the Stowmarket full-back Ollie Brown with his pace and tricky footwork. A man in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt also taunts the full-back, repeatedly telling him he is has no pace; happily the full-back plays on with a smile. It’s nearly half past four, Coggeshall have a corner and Nnamdi Nwachuku jumps athletically, firmly heading the ball into the goal net. It might be the last game of the season but it means a lot and the players mob Nnamdi joyfully. “Twenty big minutes” shouts someone nearby in a spirit of encouragement; I wonder if to Stowmarket the minutes will be the same size as usual or smaller.
It is half past four and Stowmarket equalise, their number nine, the almost fictionally named Ace Howell slipping the ball past the Coggeshall goalkeeper, applying a very fine end to a passing move. The goal means a lot to Stowmarket, who have won their previous ten consecutive matches and presumably would like to add an eleventh. Now everyone’s minutes are the same size again. Coggeshall return to the Stowmarket end of the ground and Nnamdi Nwachuku is sandwiched between two Stow’ defenders. “Every time” bawls someone to my right as if the visiting defenders follow Nwachuku around in pairs, one either side of him.
It’s twenty to five now and Coggeshall have another free-kick, somewhere near the half way line. The ball is punted beyond the Stowmarket defence; only Coggeshall substitute Tom Monk reacts; he runs on, brings they ball under control and smashes it past Stow’ goalkeeper who has at least moved, unlike his team mates. With every goal the celebrations increase in excitement; it’s now officially a ‘five goal thriller’ as the lead has swung back and forth. The remaining ten minutes are probably going to be big again, although no one mentions it. Coggeshall almost get a fourth goal as their number four George Cocklin spectacularly hits the cross bar with a beautiful 30 yard shot which drops over the goalkeeper’s head, rattles the cross bar and bounces down on the goal line in the way shots have ever since the 1966 World Cup final, but without being goals.
The game is dragging on, Mr Harrison the referee doesn’t seem keen to stop, but of course eventually he blows for the final time this season. Then we wait and wait and

wait for the presentation of the league championship trophy. Tables and billboards are put in place. A stack of what look like small shoe boxes sit by the trophy. Bottles of Prosecco are stood on the tables. The players of both teams loaf about on the turf, the Stowmarket players look increasingly bored. Finally, a short announcement precedes each player each receiving a shoe box as his name is announced to generous applause and then the Coggeshall captain Luke Wilson lifts the trophy in a brief orgasm of streamers and pyrotechnics. Joy and happiness abounds, but for us the afternoon is finished and we go home for a barbecue of our own, leaving others to stay and celebrate.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Felixstowe & Walton United 2 Coggeshall Town 4

It’s rare that I finish work and take a trip to the seaside but this evening, having ‘logged out’ and put away the tools of my trade for another day, I find myself heading for the 16:58 from Ipswich stopping at all stations to Felixstowe, which means Westerfield, Derby Road and Trimley St Mary. It’s a bright, breezy evening as the single carriage box on rails roars into life and departs the platform ten seconds early. The frantic diesel engine growls and then subsides as if the driver is searching through a crash gearbox and struggling to double de-clutch. We pass over the bridges of Bramford Road and Norwich Road and I look along those streets to down town Ipswich with its chunky, if not gleaming towers and the Portman Road football ground, which looks massive beyond the low, humble rooftops of Ipswich’s residential streets. On a bright Spring evening Ipswich shows off its trees; it’s a fine town.
The train is fairly full of people heading home from work. Opposite me a simian looking man in a grey anorak; behind him a tall man with a crew cut wearing a red Adidas tracksuit top; he looks like a Russian cosmonaut. On the other side of the train to him is a luxuriantly bearded man with long hair hanging over bristly temples, he is wearing an infantile coat decorated with a gaudy cartoon character; the woman with him could surely do better than that. “Hello Mum, how are you doin?” says another man answering his mobile phone. The cheery conductor asks to see my ticket (£3.05 for a single with a Goldcard) and scribbles on it in biro. He hasn’t singld me out, he looks at other people’s tickets too. I only bought a single because it is impossible to get back from Felixstowe to most intermediate stations between Colchester and London after 9.25pm. I shall be cadging a lift home with two Coggeshall regulars Keith and Jim.
The journey takes about 25 minutes and is well worth the £3.05 fare, with its tour of the cuttings, embankments, bridges and viaduct of Ipswich and then the open countryside towards Trimley with its glimpses of the tops of dockside cranes. The track runs parallel to the road for some way and as we hurtle along and overtake a bus I am reminded of the Titfield Thunderbolt; Greater Anglia should have a bar on this commuter run.


Felixstowe station has a beautiful canopy and concourse which are Grade II listed, it’s just a shame a the platform is now divided in two by a surface car park. The fate of the railway station is that of Felixstowe in microcosm, one of faded, compromised Edwardian grace and occasional grandeur. Felixstowe could be posh like Southwold and Frinton and in places it is, but it has an unfortunate underbelly like most of divided Britain; on Hamilton Road a man sits on a bench wrapped in a sleeping bag. I do a spot of sightseeing, walking down to the cliff top get a glimpse of the sea and then back along Grosvenor Road, stopping off for a pint of Sharp’s Doom Bar (£3.35) in the Grosvenor Arms, a typical Greene King pub, weirdly decorated like a cross between an hotel lounge and a small town museum.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


It’s just gone six o’clock and I amble back towards the railway station and cross over the road into Beatrice Avenue, a clichéd, leafy, suburban street of detached houses with Tudorbethan gables. I half expect to see a Reggie Perrin. The ‘Goldstar Ground’ and Dellwood Avenue, home of Felixstowe & Walton United, runs off Beatrice Avenue and is much the same, but it’s got bungalows too. There are two stewards in day-glo waistcoats at the entrance to the club car park, clearly tonight’s game is a big one. I crunch my way across the beach-like car park, past the old club house which stands forgotten, forlorn and falling apart; there are tiles missing from its roof and the paint is peeling from its weather boarded walls. It could look good if restored as a cricket pavilion, but as it is it looks like it might soon be offering up spare parts for allotment sheds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The turnstiles have only been open a few minutes and there is no queue, only an array of signs, one of which refers to ‘Spectator Balls’ and would seem to be purely for comedic effect. I pay my £6 entry fee and collect a programme (£1.50) from a man sat at a foldaway table. I head towards the swish new club house, a low brick building with black timber cladding, which only opened at the start of the season; it sits behind a tarmac area in the shade of a row of small trees like a French town square. I make for the snack bar and order a chip buttie (£2 – ticket no 57) and very good it is too, with lots of crinkle cut chips served in a little cardboard box. I sit and eat at a Yogi bear-style picnic table and gain amusement from the pre-match music play list; Dancing Queen (Abba) ; Since You’ve Been Gone (Rainbow) Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen); The Boys Are Back In Town (Thin Lizzie) and so on. It’s no surprise when the stadium announcer sounds like Mike Smash, drawing out the final syllables of every sentence. Someone needs to tell him it’s no longer 1980.
Finding Keith, my driver for the night, already ensconced in the stand with his sidekick Jim, I offer to get them a drink; two coffees (£1 each) and I pop into the bar, a plain but 27966581938_1353fc665e_odurable looking room, for a pint of Guinness (£3.50), but am very, very disappointed that there is no real ale, not even Greene King IPA. I return to Keith and Jim and settle down in a seat for the evening as the crowds begin to roll in, gathering mostly in the area in front of the bar, but fanning out all around the perimeter fence too. Both Felixstowe and Coggeshall have already secured promotion to Bostik Division One North, but if Coggeshall win tonight they will be Champions; if Felixstowe win they will go top of the league and could clinch the Championship on Saturday. The excitement is palpable and clearly worth six quid of several people’s money. The eventual crowd will eventually be announced as 1,541, easily the biggest attendance in the Eastern Counties League this season and possibly since the 1960’s and nearly 700 more than watched Morecambe play Colchester United earlier this season in the fourth division.
Kick-off is delayed for five minutes because there are still queues at the turnstiles but referee Mr Aaron Farmer seems keen to get on as the teams appear on time to go through all that handshaking malarkey. The teams are announced over the PA in the style of a bingo caller. “On his o-w-n, Numb-e-r One, Dann–y Cruuuuump”, except he didn’r say “On his o-w-n”, sadly.. Felixstowe & Walton United being “The Seasiders”, it is entirely possible that their stadium announcer’s day-job is on the pier. The teams line up and we wait about as the swirly, impatient sounds of Fat Boy Slims “Right Here, Right Now” build the sense of occasion; I always think that that tune should be played at bus stops and on station platforms in the minutes leading up to arrival and departure.
Eventually, Coggeshall Town kick off in the direction of Woodbridge wearing a change kit of all blue with white sleeves, which makes them look rather fetchingly like the mighty Ipswich Town, a good omen for them surely. Felixstowe & Walton United meanwhile model their customary Signal toothpaste inspired design of red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks; they are kicking towards the town and the North Sea. Fat Boy Slim breaks off abruptly, but not before the game has started.

Coggeshall start well and quickly have a shot on goal, the Felixstowe goalkeeper Danny Crump making a diving save from Coggeshall’s number ten Ross Wall and the Seedgrowers win an early corner. Coggeshall get forward well, particularly down the left wing with Aaron Cosgrove, but gradually Felixstowe edge back, although their play is more about just getting the ball into the box. There are a few chants of “Sea-Sea-Seasiders” mostly from the area in front of the bar, but not as many as you might expect from a crowd of this size. Behind the goal at the ’Woodbridge end’ a loan voice occasionally bellows support for Felixstowe.
Coggeshall are looking the better team, but it still surprises me when Jamie Shaw heads Coggeshall into the lead from a Curtis Haynes Brown cross; the ball is seemingly cleared off the goal line but the linesman signals that the ball had crossed the line. This LAR (Linesman Assisted Referee) system really works. Then Coggeshall score again, Aaron Cosgrove displaying the sort of skill that on the night is setting Coggeshall apart from their rivals. Barely twenty minutes have been played, the night is young, it isn’t even dark yet.
The goals dampen the crowd’s ardour, but the game is played at a furious pace so there is still excitement aplenty as muscular tackles and thundering hoofs are punctuated by occasional flashes of pace and skill and a booking for each team. Felixstowe spectacularly hit the Coggeshall bar with a shot from Boardley and then a cross into the box from a free-kick is swept in from close range by Felixstowe captain Rhys Barber. It’s 2-1 to Coggeshall as everyone breaks ranks for half-time and many of us discover that the two urinals and one toilet in the clubhouse aren’t enough tonight. I take a walk around the ground to take in the sights as daylight rapidly fades and is swapped for floodlight and the unique atmosphere of the night match. Such a big crowd stood on the grass beneath the trees, it feels more like Bonfire Night.
Returning to my seat just in time for the re-start, the ground is now transformed by the floodlights. The grass seems to glow beneath the dark blue sky and backdrop of lofty trees. The score line is finely poised. It’s five to nine and once again Coggeshall’s Aaron Cosgrove runs at speed at the Felixstowe defence, this time at its very heart. Cosgrove is tripped by Dan Davis who is booked for his efforts and Conor Hubble arcs a glorious free-kick over the defensive wall in to the top left hand corner of the Felixstowe goal. Not long later Cosgrove is tripped again, this time in the penalty area, and Coggeshall captain Luke Wilson makes the score 4-1 from the spot.
Felixstowe substitute Jamal Wiggins still manages to get a second goal for Felixstowe from close range and then the game changes into a lower gear. Half chances come and go but Coggeshall are largely in control. In the stand some of the spectators betray their loss of hope, appealing desperately and randomly to players, the referee and anyone in earshot. “Keep the ball!”, “Put it up there!” “What’s he doing now? Booking the ball?” More players of both teams are booked and the referee becomes equally unpopular with both sets of supporters, as is only right. One voice has given up on goals and just wants Coggeshall players booked for swearing; has he never been to a football match before I wonder. The best of the game has passed, but it remains exciting nevertheless and Keith and I speculate about the damaged greenhouses and cold frames in the gardens of the detached houses beyond the far touch line, as numerous balls are booted out of the ground.
The crowd thins out as it becomes evident that Felixstowe will not win, and they don’t. Coggeshall Town are champions of the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League and the game ends in a burst of deserved and prolonged applause for both teams.
It’s novel to see a team win something, it’s not something that as an Ipswich Town supporter I have witnessed lately and I have had to experience the joy of winning trophies vicariously through other clubs. Tonight has been memorable.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stowmarket Town 5 Long Melford 1

The end of the football season is nigh and where promotion and relegation has not already been decided, hope and anxiety masquerade as excitement. When “mathematically” a team can still be promoted it really means they have as much chance as winning a lottery jackpot, realistically none. Attracted by this sense of hopeless futility I am heading to Stowmarket who must win their last four matches, hope Felixstowe lose their final three and at the same time overhaul a superior goal difference.
It’s a grey, wet, day in late April in which the showers for which the month is famed have seemingly joined together in an unwanted show of soggy solidarity. My train is hurtling towards Ipswich through a blur of swishing greenery; rain drops speckle and streak the windows and opposite me sits a slight teenage girl; her head consumed by a set of massive earphones; only that little head and her dangling legs are visible behind a bulging rucksack twice the size of her torso. Arriving at Ipswich I have to buy a ticket for the second part of my journey; walking into the booking hall four clerks sit in a row as if awaiting a sudden rush for tickets, only one of them acknowledges my presence and therefore, although he is at the far end of the row I buy my ticket from him. There is a twenty minute wait for my connecting train and so I sink into the soft two-seater sofa in the waiting room between platforms three and four. I gaze up through the long, gracefully shaped window of the small room at the wooden fretwork valance of the platform canopy and beyond through the steady drizzle at the reflection of a brick chimney on the shiny slate roof of the main station building. The train is late but beauty abounds.
From Ipswich it’s just an eleven minute train journey to Stowmarket (£3.65 return with a Gold Card), out past marshalling yards and Morrison’s, past the scrapyards of Claydon and along the valley of the River Gipping through Needham Market; arrival at Stowmarket is announced by Munton’s (Passionate about Malt) and the multi-coloured storage tanks of the ICI paint factory.

Leaving the red-brick station with its glorious Jacobean style gable, I walk only a few paces before entering the Kings Arms public house to enjoy a pint of Woodforde’s Wherry (£3.30). It’s another attractive little building, although plain, but its appearance is spoiled by the unsympathetic UPVC windows. In the lounge I sink again into a two-seater sofa almost identical to the one in the waiting room at Ipswich station.

There is snooker on the television and a man and woman sit on another sofa drinking tea and reading the papers. “Miserable out there, isn’t it” says the man. I resist the temptation to contradict him and say that I think it rather beautiful, if wet, so I tow the party line and say something fatuous about wondering when it will clear up.
It’s twenty past two and my mobile phone tells me it’s a fifteen minute walk to Green’s Meadow, the home of Stowmarket Town. The rain has ceased and I set off, crossing the River Gipping, admiring the Grade 1 Listed church of St Peter and St Mary and the Grade41059492994_bca1edfba5_o II* listed, but seemingly derelict eighteenth century Lynton House in front of it. The route to Green’s Meadow is along Gipping Way, past the badly spelt Bodywize Gym, Lidl and the predictable queues of shoppers at its checkout tills, who stare out through the plate glass to assuage their boredom; perhaps I should wave.39969490770_e013c32e92_o
Stowmarket Town is a part of Stowmarket Community Sports and Social Club whose premises, a low, single-storey prefabricated building, reminiscent of the temporary classrooms of my childhood primary school, sits behind a large surface car park by a roundabout. It’s not 41735827652_308b47713e_oimpressive looking, but the yellow and black signage gives it a certain unity and smartness. Entry to the Greens Meadow ‘stadium’ (£6) on match days is through the ‘turnstiles’ which are close to the half way line. There is no queue and as I walk in the referees and some players are warming up on the pitch, which on such a grey day appears almost luminous, its grass, lush, damp and very green.

 

A few people have already taken up their positions in the corrugated iron clad stand to the left where strangely a white UPVC door is propped on its side; a portal to a horizontal universe. I cross through the metal cage that is the players’ tunnel; glancing towards the changing rooms I see more UPVC windows leaning against a fence. I take a wander round the ground, a man stands on a chair to fix one of the goal nets, there is a lot of signage about toilets. I head towards the bar, which is doing a good trade as people stay

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

out of the cold and damp. I buy a plastic pint ‘glass’ of Greene King IPA (£3) and find a table where I sit and look through the programme (£1). The IPA has its familiar taste, something reminiscent of the smell of plasticine. The programme contains a lot of adverts and it’s good to see local butchers, chip shops, metal merchants, plumbers, carpet fitters and purveyors of aggregates supporting the club. I particularly like the full page advert for Emmitt Plant with its colourful pictures of diggers and dumper trucks. A bald man called Russell Hall, who wears a black shirt covered in yellow smiley faces is available for ‘adult comedy nights’, after dinner speaking and ladies/gents nights; I shudder a little and turn the page. Apart from a bored eight or nine year old, the only females I can see here are serving behind the bar.
I leave the bar and head outside via the toilet; there is a slight smell of damp in the corridor. Back outside, the teams appear from the metal cage and run through the pre-match handshake routine. Stowmarket wear their customary yellow and black striped27908577378_1bc30b2e09_o shirts with black shorts and socks, whilst Long Melford wear an Anderlecht or perhaps Fiorentina or Toulouse inspired change kit of all purple or violet, but with black and white hooped socks, as if they forgot to buy the whole ensemble. Melford kick off the match with their backs to the town, playing towards the A14 and the looming concrete bridge which crosses the adjacent railway track and River Gipping.
The men who were in the bar drinking are now stood in the corner of the ground27908515908_dc57ee32d9_o drinking. A few wear flat caps, some fashionably, some less so. “Blimey, it’s like an audition for Peaky Blinders round here” says one bloke; it’s a comment that makes me smile more than anything I anticipate Russell Hall might say. I wander round to behind the dugouts. Stowmarket win a corner and their number five heads the ball directly into the arms of the Melford goalkeeper. One of the Stowmarket coaches clutches his head in anguish as if imitating Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, or having a seizure. The Melford right-back then rather uncharitably passes to the Melford number eleven, simultaneously calling “man-on”. It’s akin to throwing him something boiling hot and yet also very fragile. He might have done better to pass to someone else.
Stowmarket are the more adept team but they’re struggling to make chances and Melford are competing equally well. A man with a rucksack on his back opens a Tupperware box and bites into a soft roll. It is about twenty-five past three and the ball hits the net in the back of the Long Melford goal, off the head of Stowmarket’s top-scorer Josh Mayhew. The public address announcer hasn’t been paying attention, the goal did arrive a little out of the blue and his announcement is a bit late. One spectator tells him the score is still nil-nil whilst another says “No, that goal was in the first half”. The excitement is too much for me and unusually I feel hungry, I stroll to the tea bar and order a bacon roll (£2.50); the bacon is quite tasty if not as crispy as it could be.
On the pitch Melford’s number seven Jose Zarzoso-Hernandez is keeping the Stowmarket right-back occupied. It’s about twenty to four now and suddenly Stowmarket are two-nil up as Remi Garrett scores from close range and a slight deflection. The announcer is fully awake now and has James Brown with him, who feels good even if he does end his celebration a little abruptly and mid-note. Melford break away but prevaricate and fail to score and a minute before half time, James Brown literally picks up where he left off, feeling good again as Luke Read scores a third Stowmarket goal, again from close range. James Brown finishes before just a hint, but no more of Tom Hark leaks out of the PA.
Referee Mr Thomas Hancock soon whistles to end the half and I get a pounds-worth of tea to wash away the remnants of my bacon roll; bits of the bread are stuck in thick pasty lumps between my gums and cheeks. Carrying my tea I step back inside the club house to catch the half-time scores (Ipswich at Reading is goalless). One end of the room is screened off and a printed notice announces that it is the Sponsors’ Area; blokes in smart casual dress are gathered around a buffet with paper napkins and paper plates. I glance out of the window and see players returning for the second half, so I join them, in a manner of speaking.
The man who earlier ate a soft roll from a Tupperware box remarks to his friend as he looks across the pitch from outside the club house, “You can see the slope from here”. “Oooh, yes” says his friend. Tupperware man then eats a chocolate coated biscuit, possibly a Nestle’s Breakaway or supermarket own brand equivalent. I walk away to stand level with the edge of the penalty area looking across towards the sweeping concrete flyover that is the A14. The view reminds me of the cover of the booklet inside39969482350_80eee01721_o the 30th anniversary edition of George Harrison’s defining triple album “All Things Must Pass”. The concrete bridge is a wonderful backdrop to the corner of the football ground, running as it does above the height of the trees, which surround the ground on two sides. The roar from the traffic is constant and I wonder how polluting it must be down here at pitch level. Do asthmatic players struggle more at Stowmarket?
It’s now four minutes past four and a long throw from Melford’s David Lopez is headed on before Will Wingfield forces it over the goal line from close range to make the score 3-1. “That was some throw” remarks the old boy stood next to me, a comment that I belatedly realise was made to me. What can I do but agree? It certainly was. Another old boy joins the first “How are ya?” he says. “Arroight” Is the reply.
-“You?”
– “Yeah, foine” says the first, with an air almost of disappointment.
At just gone ten past four Stowmarket’s Josh Mayhew scores his second goal, reacting in a split second to hit the ball hard and high into the Melford net from more than 20 metres out. Now Tom Hark is heard over the PA and the announcer calls out Mayhew’s name in the exaggerated drawn out manner of a boxing match compere. The majority Stowmarket contingent in the crowd of 179 cheered a little and applauded when the goal went in, but they don’t seem overly thrilled and don’t react to the amplified call to celebration. There are no Ultras here, but then, it is Suffolk. If the people aren’t taciturn, they’re not saying what they are.
I continue to enjoy the match and the spectacle of Greens Meadow, the green of the pitch and trees all around, the amber, black and purple of the team kits and the concrete, corrugated iron and yellow painted steel and the knot of drinkers by the clubhouse. Stowmarket make three substitutions all in one go and then at about twenty five to five Josh Mayhew completes his hat-trick and the PA gets positively frenzied as it launches Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” at us and Grunge meets the flat cap, as Stowmarket meets Seattle.
No further goals are scored, but the afternoon has grown increasingly cold as a creeping, penetrating chill seeps from the damp ground. Thanks to Suffolk stoicism or quiet inebriation there are no complaints,  but disappointingly with the final whistle the vast majority of spectators either just leave or head back inside the clubhouse without offering up the applause both teams deserve.   As the players stand in ragged circles to receive their post match de-briefs from their respective coaches, I too turn and leave, and walk the wet streets back to the railway station, and as I do so I reflect upon the joy of a damp afternoon in Stowmarket.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Coggeshall Town 4 Haverhill Borough 0

 

It’s a breezy, cool, late April evening with a threat of rain in the air; setting off along the A120 I set my car windscreen wipers to intermittent.  But it’s still light and there’s no need for headlights.  I might have travelled by bus (Service 70 from Colchester to Chelmsford via Braintree), except that I wouldn’t have been able to get home because the last bus in my direction from Coggeshall leaves before half past seven.  An overnight stay in Coggeshall would have been extravagant.

My Citroen C3 bounces over the rutted car park of Coggeshall Town car park and we come to rest facing the pitch.  The car park is not yet full, but there are a good few A Ford transit provides Haverhill Borough with a busvehicles here, including the white Ford Transit that is the Haverhill Borough team bus,  which is encouraging.  I nod and smile to the man who has parked next to me; I am impressed that the gaffer tape securing his Ford Mondeo’s rear bumper matches its silver paintwork. “Alright mate?” he says.  I follow him and his wife through the turnstile and wait whilst they nominate their player of the season; they’re regulars.  In time I pass through the turnstile myself, entry is £6 and I buy a programme too (£1.50).  I walk along the concrete path behind and above the main stand towards the club house.  The Haverhill Borough team are warming up on the main pitch whilst the Coggeshall players have a kick-about on the practice pitch.

In the clubhouse I speak to Paul who runs the club twitter account and films the games.  We talk about  marriage and being happy, but agree we’re here for the football.  Paul goes to set up his camera and I head to the bar to buy a pint of Caledonian Brewery Coast to Coast (£3.90) which turns out to be very cold and very fizzy.  I feel like I might explode as I struggle uncomfortably to suppress a series of frosty burps. I may not buy this beer again; I may not have to with its hoppy flavours repeatedly bubbling up from below.   I speak with Jim who is usually with Keith, but not tonight because Keith was double-booked.  Jim asks if will be writing about tonight.  “I expect so” I say. “You can tell you’re an Ipswich fan” says Jim mysteriously. I step outside.

Kick-off is approaching and I rest my beer on the roof of the stand and look at the programme.  Men huddle around the team sheet displayed on the outside wall of theCoggeshal Town Fc v Haverhill Borough team sheet changing rooms.  I move down into the stand behind the goal before the two teams line up side by side behind the referee on the steps leading down from the changing rooms to the pitch.  A Haverhill supporter lazily and thoughtlessly leaves open the gate from the steps into the stand, so I public spiritedly close it, joking to the referee that we don’t want any players taking a wrong turn into the stand.  He makes reference to my beer implying that it might result in such an occurrence.   I avoid burping in his general direction.  With the players safely on the pitch I wander round to the main stand.  “It’s a bit wet innit? The grass” says a man to his partner.

Haverhill kick off in the direction of the town wearing a somewhat dull all blue kit, whilst Coggeshall stand out under the lights in their handsome red and black stripes with black shorts.  Coggeshall soon gain possession and on that basis proceed to do most of the attacking. They have the first shot.  “Come on ref, keep an eye on the game” says a man angrily as Coggeshall’s number 7 is fouled.

The match is a bit scrappy, full of hoofs and meaty headers.  Coggeshall’s play is disjointed as they try too hastily to get the ball forward; if they win tonight they will be promoted to the Bostik League Division 1 North.  But it’s a fine night at West Street with a distinctive atmosphere emanating from the swears and shouts and the rattle and clatter of studs on the hard pitch, even though the grass is a bit wet, as the man said.  On the far side of the pitch the Coggeshall bench is packed with players and coaches.  But the Haverhill bench is home to just three, who look like they’re waiting for a bus; they’ve got a long wait; it’s a good job they’ve got their own in the car park.  Beyond the far side of the ground the valley leads down to the River Blackwater, lined with spindly trees leaning in the breeze beneath a mass of travelling clouds; if the pitch had been covered in poppies Claude Monet might have painted it.

“Get it tight”. “Good boy”. It’s a minute to eight and Coggeshall’s number eight places a firm shot towards a point just behind the inside of the goal post, but the young Haverhill goalkeeper makes a fine save, diving to his right.   There is banter in the stands amongst of old boys in their late sixties or seventies.  A much younger woman in the front row turns round in appreciation. In conversation a Haverhill fan relays that their goalkeeper is just seventeen years-old.  Sensing some sort of boastfulness a Coggeshall fan counters that their full-backs have mental ages of three and four.

It’s nearly ten past eight and Coggeshall’s star man, number nine Nnamdi Nwachuku shoots spectacularly over the angle of the goalpost and crossbar. There’s a corner to Coggeshall. “Who’s got the big man coming in?” shouts a concerned voice from within the stand.  Haverhill’s number eight is booked by referee Mr Gerry Heron for a foul on Coggeshall’s number seven.  Another corner to Coggeshall and an urgent voice from on the pitch asks “Who the fuckin’ ‘’ell’s got the free?”   Good question; the ’free’ shoots, but misses.

Only ten minutes to half-time and there’s a free-kick to Coggeshall. The kick is taken, a hand goes up and Gerry Heron awards a penalty to Coggeshall.  Haverhill’s number 4, a very chunky,  quite skilful but gobby midfield player is not happy; had he been incandescent with rage he might have spontaneously combusted and burned very brightly.  Fortunately he doesn’t and Gerry Heron cautions him amidst much animated waving of arms from the portly playmaker.  Back to the penalty spot. Nwachuku scores. “ Cool as you like” says a man nearby.

Coggeshall want more goals and number seven makes a run down the right in front of the stand. “Do ‘im son, do ‘im, all day long” calls a voice with rising excitement before releasing a mournful groan as seven’s cross rises almost vertically from his ankle and over the stand.  But it’s half time now and I invest in a pound’s worth of tea with a dash of Danish owned Cravendale brand milk, in the hope that it might quell the beery repetition I am still suffering and warm my chilled intestines.  I stand about and like Edward Hopper enjoy the light spilling out through the window from the club house bar and onto the deck.  It’s getting dark and the cloudy sky has turned cobalt blue.

For the second half I stand in the corner  near the goal that Coggeshall are attacking, but it’s a bit breezy and I move ‘indoors’ into the seats of the main stand, close to the old boys whose banter had amused in the first half .  It’s like sitting in front of Statler and Waldorf in the Muppet Show, but there’s five of them.

It’s now five past nine and rain is being carried on the wind into the front row of the stand, making a row of lads laugh as they get wet. “Is it raining?” asks a woman behind me somewhere. “I didn’t know it was raining” she adds unnecessarily.  Seven minutes later Coggeshall number three Curtiss Haynes-Brown advances down the left, then a bit more.  “Go on! Hit One!”  Someone shouts, so he does and he scores and it’s 2-0 to Coggeshall.

Haverhill are still resisting as best they can and there is a brief contretemps between Nwachuku and the chunky number four.  Gerry Heron intervenes but takes no specific action despite advice from the stand that “It’s that fat fucker, number four, ref!”  Haverhill take heart and with about fifteen minutes to go their number ten forces the Coggeshall goalkeeper into making his first real save of the night.  But Nwachuku soon scores another goal after making a dashing run towards goal and a bit later skips through the Haverhill defence once again to complete his hat-trick for the evening and increase Coggeshall’s goal difference to +117 for the season.

That’s promotion secured and the old fellas behind seem keen to leave a bit early, but fear that Coggeshall might score again and they’ll miss it.  One of them says that they didn’t really leave early on Saturday but the team played on without them. Someone complains that it seems a very long half,  but then perhaps sensing that people have seen enough Gerry Heron whistles for the last time; it’s not quite twenty five to ten. I’ll be home in five minutes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

Ipswich Town 0 Aston Villa 4

It is April 21st but today it feels like summer. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless blue sky and it’s warm as I catch the train to a Saturday match in Ipswich for the last time this season. The platform is busy with people of various ages and shapes. Young men show off their legs and women their bra straps. A grey-haired man with a crooked mouth wears polyester trousers and carries a rucksack. The train is on time. On the train a bare-legged man drinks Smirnoff vodka with tonic from a can and looks at his mobile phone. A smooth-faced, bald headed man wearing two hearing aids looks at his mobile phone and talks hoarsely to his grey-haired wife. At Manningtree five ‘lads’ board and share out a pack of Budweiser beers. They all wear knee length shorts with turn-ups. One wears a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and Ray-Bans, he picks his nose.
At Ipswich there are policemen in what looks like spongeable ‘battledress’ on the

platform and outside on the forecourt and on the bridge over the river and in Portman Road; the implication is that large numbers of people from the West Midlands cannot be trusted to behave nicely. In Portman Road huddles of stewards in hi-vis await the arrival of the Aston Villa team bus. Soft rolls and burgers get folded into mouths of will-be spectators and everyone is standing and waiting. I carry on and orbiting the club shop, Planet Blue, buy a programme (£3.00). Up Portman Road and round to the right St Jude’s Tavern is busy, I head for the bar, nodding hellos to the regular patrons. The Match Day Special today is Springhead Left Lion and I order a pint (£2.50). I take a seat next to the regulars, glance through the programme and talk a little with them; the regular next to me can recall Town being promoted from Division Three South in 1957, no one else here can. In a while I am joined by Mick, who treats me to another pint of the Match Day Special and I give him his birthday present, which I have wrapped in a page from an old road atlas of France, handy if he needs to travel from Chalons-sur-Saone to Dijon. It was Mick’s birthday three weeks ago, so I’m a bit late. After yet another pint of Match Day Special, which is now Wigan Junction (same price as before) it’s time to set off for the main event, the match which Mick will be listening to on the radio; he has said he is considering getting a season ticket for next season, but seems unsure. I can’t say I blame him.
Back in Portman Road people are scurrying to the turnstiles, kick-off is fast approaching. Aston Villa have a large following at the game today as their team chases promotion;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

there are several supporters’ coaches parked up behind Sir Bobby Robson’s statue, which looks as if he’s helpfully pointing the way from the coach park to the away fans enclosure. Entry through the turnstile to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand is swift, but as I leave the gents under the stand the strains of ‘My Way’ are receding and the game is set to begin.

Portman Road stadium

The stadium is looking good today, two-thirds full under a summer sky. Town kick off towards me in their customary blue shirts and white shorts, but Aston Villa disappointingly sport a dull and anonymous all-black kit that says the club has no imagination; such a pity when their first choice colours are tasteful claret and pale blue.
For one of the few occasions this season the home crowd are in good voice, but somewhat weirdly they sing “Hark now hear, The Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away…” The song trails off before the end as ‘the choir’ seemingly becomes aware that the words go on to mention Boxing Day, which is somewhat unseasonal on a day like today; but they probably never got to sing it in December, numbed as they were by the dire goalless draw with QPR. Picking up perhaps on the Town fans’ choice of a Christmas carol the Villa fans then proceed to sing an equally unseasonal ditty, “Walking along, Singing a song, Walking in a Villa wonderland”. It’s all a little odd and smacks of football supporters no longer fluent in supporting their team through the medium of song.
On the pitch, Ipswich start quite well with an early corner and with Grant Ward and Jordan Spence progressing down the right to send in crosses to the big man up front that only they can see. Town’s Luke Hyam commits the first foul and Miles Kenlock has the first shot. Perhaps this inspires over confidence in the home supporters in the North Stand or perhaps they are just being ironic, but they sing to the Villa fans “You’re support is fucking shit”. Alternatively they could just be the type of people for whom something is always “fucking shit” as they so eloquently describe it, and with the loss of Mick McCarthy’s football they had to find something else to bemoan. Off their faces on their miraculous new found optimism, Town supporters applaud an offside. But Aston Villa look like they have a plan and they also have some very sharp haircuts and luxuriant facial hair, particularly number 15 Mile Jedinak whose enormous beard makes him looksMile Jedinak like an Imam. Villa’s number 19 Jack Grealish has calves the size of other men’s thighs and by twenty past three Villa are somewhat greedily beginning to keep the ball pretty much to themselves. They win some corners and then at about twenty five past three rudely score a goal as Conor Hourihane shoots when unsportingly close to the goal.
Unusually, the goal provokes a positive response from some Town supporters who chant “Blue Army”, although sadly these chants don’t build into a crescendo of noise that pushes Town onto quickly equalise and then take the lead with a display of scintillating short passes and powerful running. The singing soon dies away and normality returns as the Villa fans employ Guiseppe Verdi in the time honoured way to ask “Is this a library?”, although understandably it’s taken them a while to realise today. Buoyed by the discovery of their own razor sharp wit they eschew any reference to opera with their subsequent chant of “You’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”. What is it with football supporters and “fucking shit”?

Three minutes before half time Grant Ward is sent off by the shiny cue ball-headed referee Mr Simon Hooper for a poorly executed attempt at a tackle. Ward’s victim Neil Taylor recovers and is consequently booed thereafter for his trouble. It’s why we love the game. Ward receives generous applause from the Town fans as he walks to the dressing room.
Half-time brings some relief as the players hide in the dressing room for ten minutes or so and I talk to Ray who is nearby with his grandson Harrison who has cerebral palsy. Ray is of the opinion that Bersant Celina is not doing much, I agree and add the simple truth that overall Town’s players are not as good as Aston Villa’s. I re-visit the gents, eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice and look at the programme which contains a marvellous picture of the late Colin Harper in which he sports extensive sideburns and a moustache as if he was a member of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; it was a great look, in 1967. I recall attending Harper’s testimonial versus a Don Revie XI, I think the final score was something like 6-5, which is what the final score should be in all benefit matches. Also in the programme is a piece by a fellow supporter I know called Steve Cook in which he talks about his late mother’s dementia; I find it quite touching. Cookie is a lovely bloke.
The footballers return before I do and I miss the first minute of play but it doesn’t matter. A bit before a quarter past four Aston Villa score a second goal through Lewis Grabban, a former Norwich City player. As he runs behind the goal to celebrate in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Grabban cups his hand to his ear, but quickly desists as if realising that he is in Ipswich so there wasn’t much noise even before he scored. Today’s attendance is announced as 20,034 and as if to torment Town fans further by reminding us of the year when Villa pipped us to the League Title, the number of visiting Aston Villa supporters is recorded as 1981.
Aston Villa are comfortably in control of this match and from the touchline theirSteve Bruce corpulent manager Steve Bruce looks on over his expanded waist, possibly affording time to imagine the enormous meal that he will perhaps later eat to celebrate the victory. I hope he has regular cardiovascular checks. Around him Villa’s coaching staff look like UPS delivery drivers in their dull uniforms. I admire the angles of the roofs of the stands at the other end of the ground.
With thirty minutes left to play, Martyn Waghorn has a shot for Ipswich and the Ipswich fans applaud, but honestly, not sarcastically as they had been doing a few weeks ago. In the 78th minute American, Cameron Carter-Vickers, one of Town’s inevitable cohort of loanees passes the ball rather carelessly to Villa’s Josh Onomah who quickly passes to Grabban, who scores for a second time.
The Villa fans, now feeling secure enough to gloat, once again ask if this is a library, but then something almost miraculous happens as a chorus of “I’m Ipswich ‘til I die” drifts up from behind the North Stand goal; it doesn’t last long, the team doesn’t respond and in the 82nd minute another former Norwich player (albeit a loanee), Henri Lansbury scores a fourth goal for Villa. I think of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Murder, She Wrote. Ipswich are well and truly beaten, soundly thrashed even and the dream that many people perhaps harboured that with Mick McCarthy gone the team would straightaway blossom into a creative, attacking force and would never look back is dashed. Nevertheless, Town fans rally and there is clapping and singing the like of which has not been heard almost since the days of terracing, or at least since 2001. It’s a bit late in the game, but the Town fans are giving vocal encouragement to a struggling team. Town are 4-0 down at home to a club managed by an ex-Canary and three of the goals have been scored by ex-Canaries, but it’s the happiest some supporters have been all season.
But I wonder if they are really supporting the team, or are they just covering their embarrassment that the football is actually no better despite Mick McCarthy’s departure? Sensibly it’s probably too soon to say, but we shall see if the same sort of support continues.
Summer is not here yet, even though the sun is shining.

Bluey at Portman Road

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has Witham Railway Station

 

 

 

 

 

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

Witham Town

As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

p4140082.jpg

by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve,  past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ipswich Town 1 Barnsley 0

April is well under way and the relief brought by the end of the football season is in sight. Ipswich Town and Barnsley both have just five matches left to play and tonight is the last evening match of the season, the last opportunity for a while to enjoy the thrill and spectacle of a game beneath electric illumination, to see the turf glow green in the drenching beam of the floodlights. Barnsley are struggling to stay in the light away from the gloomy pit that is relegation. Ipswich stand in the blinding, harsh, desert light of mid-table, of nothingness and futility, which is rather how I like it.
It’s been a grey, misty day; the sort to evoke memories of November, of autumn when Town were seventh in the league table just four points off the play-offs and anything seemed possible. But now it’s nearly five o’clock and anticipating the joy of kick-off the sun is out, Spring is back and I leave work in the manner of Fred Flintstone leaping from my desk to slide down the back of an imaginary brontosaurus whilst shouting “Yabba Dabba Doos, Come On You Blues!”. My excitement and anticipation of another Big Match is not reflected however in the scene I find as I pass along Constantine Road; there is no one much about, all is calm. Threatening notices about Ipswich Town’s use of CCTV in this area glare down at me amidst a host of signs about collecting tickets, for scouts and

the suspension of parking. One of those naughty Millwall fans has placed a sticker on the borough crest of the Portman Road street name plate, in the manner that a ‘masseur’ might advertise in a phone box. From the ‘corporation’ bus garage opposite the ground the open top double decker looks out forlornly, wondering if the football club will ever require its services again.

I walk on past a burger van painted grey as if it might once have belonged to the RAF.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Behind the North Stand the 1978 FA Cup Winners ‘mosaic’ looks like someone’s nicked a couple of tiles for their kitchen or bathroom. Some stewards eat chips around a table. I buy a programme (£3.00) in the club shop.

In St Jude’s Tavern my accomplice for the next half an hour or so, Roly, leans back in a tilting chair in the corner of the room behind a pint of unidentified copper coloured beer. Meanly, he doesn’t offer to buy his friend a drink and I reciprocate, but buy a pint of St Jude’s Woody Brew (£3.40) for myself. We talk of football, of football managers and promoting ‘from within the boot room’. We decide Portman Road has a small boot room in which there was only room for Bobby Ferguson and there’s probably nothing in there now except boots and Bobby’s old tracksuit top, memorably and unfortunately adorned with the letters BF. The discussion wanders on until Roly leaves me to ‘dine’ with the father of the mother of his daughter at Sainsbury’s. But Roly doesn’t dine, he scoffs.
I change seats and buy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50)’Edge American Pale’. I talk more football to some of the men in their sixties who are here before every game and I buy a pint of Milestone Crusader (£3.40). The clock on the wall chimes, it’s twelve minutes slow. As one, the patrons of the pub rise and depart for Portman Road, after a visit to the ‘facilities’. The ‘crowd’ outside the stadium is sparse, only slightly more so than the one within it (13, 271). The strains of Clo-Clo’s ‘My Way’ drift off into the floodlit air as I speak with Dave the steward in the undercroft of the Alf Ramsey Stand and I miss the kick-off.
Eventually settling down on a seat a few along from ever-present Phil who never misses a game, my enjoyment of the match begins. Barnsley, whose colours are red and white OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

kick-off wearing a needlessly changed kit of white shirts with green sleeves and shorts; Ipswich as ever are in blue and white. “This is the last evening one” I hear the old boy behind me say to is wife or mistress or sister as he reflects nostalgically, as I had done on the last game under floodlights this season. An offside flag is raised “He put that flag up late – I don’t know why they can’t do it beforehand” she says, unknowingly making me imagine the introduction of clairvoyant linesmen. The football is quite poor. Ipswich have two wingers on the pitch but seem incapable of getting the ball to them, preferring to play inaccurate balls ‘over the top’ to no one in particular. In midfield for Town a young player is making his debut; his name is Barry Cotter, which makes me think of the surviving Bee Gee and Rab C Nesbitt. I live in a world of little more than word association sometimes.
The conversation behind me turns to Mick McCarthy and season ticket renewal. “I want to know who the new manager is before I get my ticket, they might bring McCarthy back” she says. I think how I’d like to see a beaky nosed man with obviously dyed, jet black and receding hair introduced to the press by Ian Milne as Town’s new manager Michalis McCatharios, who has been prised away from under the noses of Greek Superleague clubs.
The man in front of me literally stuffs his face with smokey bacon odour crisps, the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

buddleia on the roof of the stand still looks down on us as it did on Easter Monday and the Barnsley fans sing “Come On You Reds!”. Town are making the occasional fitful attack, which breaks down meekly, but my veins are coursing with passion and the feeling of belonging and I embark on some rousing choruses of “Lo-lo, Lo-lo-lo, Lo-lo, Allez les bleus” in the style of a French Ultra. Phil joins in and so do a couple of the joyful young lads in the disabled enclosure in front of me. I get carried away. I stand up, I turn to the crowd behind me and wave my arms about to articulate my song like a manic, Gallic, Ralph Reader. Nothing. I carry on for a bit, but fearing that I could be ejected or sectioned for being too noisy I sit down and sulk instead.
On the pitch I like to think Ipswich respond by almost assembling a passing move resembling flowing football. The crowd murmurs. “Stop it” I shout to the team “You’ll get them excited”.
Half-time and the Barnsley supporters (276 of them) join the esteemed ranks of the few visitors to Portman Road who have not sung anything about libraries or our support being “fucking shit”. I could probably take credit for that, but will instead praise the good folk of Barnsley for being a decent bunch of people more interested in supporting their team than in castigating anyone else for their apparent or perceived shortcomings. I release some more of what I imbibed at St Jude’s Tavern and chat with ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton. Phil says it’s the thirtieth anniversary of his having not missed a match, but also recommends I sing “Come On You Blues” instead of “Allez Les Bleus” because people don’t know what I’m saying. I am disappointed, not in Phil, but that what he says is no doubt true; he should know, he’s a teacher and so is partly responsible for the nation’s general ignorance I contemplate asking a steward if they could run and get me a step ladder and a megaphone.
The second half is better than the first for us Ipswich supporters as Town begin to play less disjointedly. Egged on by my new found acolytes I chant a bit more and mid-song, at about ten past nine Town’s on-loan Gambian, Mustapha Carayol crosses the ball and Danish Jonas Knudsen sends a stylish glancing header over his right shoulder and past Barnsley’s Welsh guardian Adam Davies and into the goal net. Hurrah! How we cheer. I love a glancing header, it’s a prince among headers; that subtle twist of the neck, that obtuse angle, that flashing beauty.
The rest of the game fails to live up to that brief moment of joy, but it’s not so bad. Town do okay and Barnsley don’t really look as if they can equalise, despite fielding the 6’ 5” Kieffer Moore who, whilst he looks like he might have previously played for Sydney Swans in fact joined Barnsley from Town in January. On tonight’s showing however, it was not a mistake to sell him and he should never have left the AFL. The home crowd allow themselves some enjoyment and from my seat in Churchman’s I can’t hear any of the pointless vitriol that has marred recent matches. It’s not a popular thing to say and I am as irreligious as the next man, but there are a good number of people who would seriously benefit from being introduced to some of the salient points of the Gospels.
Happily the game is not extended unduly and it’s possibly a little before 9:35 when referee Mr James Linington stuffs his little whistle in his mouth and blows for the final time this evening. There are smiley, happy people in Portman Road once again and Phil suggests a chant of “You’re football’s alright, You’re football’s okay, Mick McCarthy, You’re footballs okay”. I catch the early train home with ease.
It is not until I arrive home that I learn that Mick McCarthy has left the club; I’m glad he won his last game for us, for him. I liked his press conferences even if his football very often wasn’t very good, but then a lot of Championship football isn’t very good and he did a decent job for much of what was for a football manager a very long time. Also, he’s just a man.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.