Coggeshall Town 1 Stowmarket Town 2

An evening in late March and a chill breeze blows along the valley of the River Blackwater. Individuals and people in small groups stride purposefully in the diminishing light through the quiet streets of Coggeshall and across open meadows. At the edge of the town along West Street, the floodlit turf of ‘The Crops’ football ground, draws them in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tonight is a big night in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division. Tonight Coggeshall Town (3rd in the league table) play Stowmarket Town (top of the league) in a re-match after their initial encounter was controversially abandoned well into the second half as one of the linesman complained of not being able to keep his footing on the frosty pitch; Coggeshall had been 2-0 up at the time.
The Crops is a great name for a football ground, particularly for one in a small country town like Coggeshall (pop. 4,727 in the 2011 census), with its half-timbered houses and fully-timbered medieval tithe barn. Just to over-do the bucolic-ness of it all the football team are nicknamed the Seed Growers too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Crops is dug into the side of a field that slopes down from West Street towards the winding narrow river. The path from the turnstiles to the club house and changing rooms runs behind and above the low main stand with its four rows of seats, characterful uneven fascia and dark corrugated iron roof. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the front of the stand a large sign reads ‘Chelmsford Plastic Warehouse’; I like to think this is an actual thing, like plastic flowers or the Plastic Ono Band. Either side of the stand a steep-ish grassy slope runs down to the pitch-side. The changing rooms occupy a dark wooden building with steps leading down to onto a corner of the pitch. Dug into the ground behind the goal at the clubhouse end is a long low covered terraced with a corrugated tin roof like a utilitarian municipal tram shelter. You can stand behind this ‘tram shelter’, rest your beer on the roof and get a good view of most of the pitch, though you can’t see the near goal-line or a large part of the goal come to that.
For an evening match it’s possible to get to Coggeshall on the number 70 bus from Colchester, but it’s not possible to get back again. Coggeshall has no train station and never has done, so with no lights on my bike, tonight I must make use of the large car park at the side of the ground;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it’s almost completely full but could be fuller if people had smaller cars or didn’t indulge in ‘greed parking’, taking up more space than they need. According to Parking News (genuine trade paper of the parking industry) this has become more prevalent due to increased levels of obesity. Fat bastards. Entry to the ground is a bargain £4 tonight, the admission reduced because over 200 people had already paid to the see the first match on 21st January, which was never completed. The small but colourful and glossy programme costs £1.00.
The teams take the field, Coggeshall in red and black stripes like AC Milan, Stowmarket in yellow shirts so pale they are almost beige, and red shorts, like a washed out Watford. The Stowmarket shirts bear the Nike logo, but with their insipid colour they look like they’re from Primark. Both teams are clearly tense and the game begins with fouls and squabbles, protests and pleas, and the referee quickly needs to take control. The confident Stowmarket No5 sneers at Coggeshall’s diminutive No8 and insults him, “What’s up midget-boy?” he asks. Rude. These are two well organised and committed sides and what develops is an opera of constant shouts and calls, curses and oaths combined with a ballet of runs and leaps and turns. Under the floodlights it’s a sporting son et lumiere, but with a hint of surreal comedy as a giant cartoon cockerel watches impassively from the sidelines; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s Rocky the Rooster, the Coggeshall mascot.
Goalless at half-time, in the second half the match becomes a drama as with an hour gone Stowmarket score a penalty; but Coggeshall quickly equalise with a goal of beautiful simplicity, grace and speed. Their fleet of foot No 7, frizzy hair buffeted by the breeze, runs at the defence then threads through a perfect pass for the number 9 to chase and poke past the Stowmarket guardian. Coggeshall hopes are reborn, but the drama builds as with the game entering its final ten minutes hesitancy in the Coggeshall defence allows Stowmarket to score again. All the time this drama is played out before a tiny chorus, the Stowmarket six, a group of visiting supporters who chant and shout from within the tram shelter, their cat calls amplified by its tinny echo. “He’s got his IQ on his shirt, He’s got his IQ on his shirt” they sing to or about someone, it’s not obvious who. As Coggeshall strive to equalise a final twist turns the play into a tragedy as a poor tackle fells the Seed Growers’ Matt Southall; he’s too badly hurt to move immediately and there is a ten minute hiatus as a host of people in big coats run on and off the pitch and concern mounts. Some of the 310 strong crowd leave. Eventually Matt leaves the field to applause, but on a stretcher; his ankle is damaged and a long evening in A & E awaits.
The remaining five minutes produce half chances at both ends, the netting behind the goals does its job in catching stray shots and Stowmarket use up the time doing nothing whenever they can. But this tale has run its course and the game ends to scenes of gay abandon amongst the Stowmarket camp who may well win the league championship now, whilst Coggeshall’s disappointment is tangible, it’s clear this game mattered a bit more than most of the others.

Needham Market 0 Havant & Waterlooville 0

Needham Market is a very small town just nine miles from Ipswich; it is home to about four and a half thousand people and Needham Market Football Club.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For a long time (90 years) the football club minded its own business and merely kicked about in local Suffolk leagues and then the Eastern Counties League. But in 2010 the Eastern Counties League Championship was nabbed and five years later so was the Ryman League North Championship. So today Needham finds itself in the Ryman League Premier League, which is quite something for a club from such a small town and they now get to travel all over the south-east corner of England.

 
The trip along the A14 to Needham is quick and easy but the town also benefits from an hourly train service from Ipswich. If you go by train you not only help to save the planet but you also get to use Needham Market railway station, built in 1849, a thing of beauty and a joy ever since. From the station it’s a gentle uphill walk to Bloomfields, Needham’s rustically charming home since 1996. It’s a typically bright and breezy early Spring afternoon and today The Marketmen as they are known are at home to Havant & Waterlooville from HampshireOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, whose nickname is The Hawks. It costs £10 to watch this standard of non-league football and for another £2 a programme can be had. The teams enter the arena to the strains of Oasis’s, ‘Roll with it’. The Hawks are second the in the league table and Needham third; anything might happen so to ‘roll with it’ seems like wise counsel.
The Hawks have a good following in the crowd of 434 and they have mostly taken up residence in the barn-like covered terrace behind one goal, known as the David (Dillon) Lockwood Stand. Havant and Waterlooville are towns just outside Portsmouth and on today’s evidence their supporters are a kind of mini version of the Pompey fans. They keep up an impressive din in the first half with a number of well adapted versions of classic songs. The first one up, to the country and western tune of Country Rose begins with a namecheck for player Jordan Rose but goes on to provide helpful detail about local geography “ Jordan Rose take me home, To the place where I belong, Westleigh Park, Near Rowlands Castle, Jordan Rose take me home”. Having such a long name as Havant & Waterlooville might be seen as a hindrance to imagining catchy chants but this is overcome with some nifty editing such as “We love you Havant, ‘looville; We love you Havant, ‘looville; We love you Havant, ‘looville; Oh Havant and ‘looville”. It’s just a shame ‘looville sounds like another way of saying toilet town.
The entertainment in the first half was largely off the field, although Havant did have a shot after about twenty minutes which was saved and the re-bound was headed into the net, but disallowed thanks to a zealous linesman; a goal for either side would have been nice really. Strangely the disallowed goal incited one Needham fan to turn to the Havant supporters, grin inanely and shout “Who are ya? Who are ya?” This was a somewhat odd and unnecessary question given that the away supporters had been loudly singing about Havant & Waterlooville since kick-off. Some people just don’t pay attention.
Unfazed by this solitary outburst Havant continued with their repertoire producing what seemed like a faithful rendition of “Under the Moon of Love” with no references to any Hampshire football clubs or players, but I could be wrong because the voices of some of the ‘choir’ were a little slurred. Following on was a version of “Glad All Over” but substituting the words “and I’m feeling glad all over” with “and we’ve got Ryan Woodford”. This capacity to celebrate through the medium of song otherwise unheard of players with the most prosaic of surnames is one of the joys of lower league football. The songs of Havant and Waterlooville had been the highlight of the first half and overall it had been a bit like watching a match at Portman Road with the home supporters looking on in complete silence whilst the away supporters thoroughly enjoyed themselves. What’s wrong with Suffolk people?
Having moved to a point not far from the tea bar as the half time whistle went OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was able to avoid the worst of the queue and settled down at a Yogi Bear style picnic table with a pound’s worth of tea to read the programme. The advertisements were especially impressive, in particular the full page colour one on the back page for “Certified high quality recycled aggregates for all your building and resurfacing projects”. This contrasted nicely with that for Boux Avenue, purveyors of lingerie, nightwear and accessories which featured a picture of a big-breasted brunette wearing a cross between a brassiere and chiffon mini-dress. Finally, there was an advert for Mark J Morsley & Associates, financial advisors, which would be very boring were it not for the fact that Mark Morsley is the Needham manager , though sans the letter ‘J’, but it has to be the same bloke; though he looks more like a financial advisor than a football manager. What that assortment of advertisements says about the type of people who the promotional team think attend Needham games I am not sure. But I like to think that the old boys in caps who make up a good part of the crowd are the target audience for all three; financially careful lotharios with a penchant for extravagant DIY.
Half-time brought a change of ends for teams and supporters with Havant fans now taking over the seated Les Ward stand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhilst Needham had the ‘kop’ behind the other goal which at last inspired a handful to once or twice shout ‘Come on Needham’ or something like it. Meanwhile the Havant fans were joined in the stand by two overweight, middle aged blokes in matching blue suits and blue and yellow striped ties. These two most stereotypical, small time football club directors had sat in their dedicated seats in the main stand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAduring the first half, but were now moving amongst the people. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother of the wonderful and yet also slightly amusing and at the same time slightly worrying things about non-league football is the presence of blokes in suits and club ties, all doing their bit for the club most laudably, but also rather anachronistically, it’s all so stuffy and respectable; it’s like the 1960’s never happened. Why can’t they just dress as if they’re going to a football match like everyone else?
The Havant supporters were becoming more and more slurred but Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson was still recognisable as they sang “Here’s to you Lee Molyneux, Havant loves you more than you will know, woh,oh,oh”. A Havant supporter succeeded in heading an errant Needham clearance over the hedge and the Havant centre forward was spoken to by the referee after the Needham goalkeeper and a defender collided; I expect he had sniggered, which could be deemed contrary to the FA’s ‘Respect’ campaign. The two corpulent directors left the stand for the board room to a chorus of “Off for a sandwich, You’re going off for a sandwich” when in reality it looked like they had already eaten a couple of plates full.
Supporters adapting popular songs, old blokes in flat caps, stereotypical club officials and a goalless draw; it’s a great game is football.33546549552_12ea903805_z

Braintree Town 1 Woking 3

 

There is something about the name Braintree that is slightly funny. Brain is quite a funny word to start with. “Is this a piece of your brain?” Basil Fawlty enquired of Mrs Richards. In a similar vein, it’s easy to say Braintree in the same the way that Mr Gumby says “Gumby” in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Try it. See?

So, it was with Pythonesque humour in mind that I travelled down the A120 before finally parking my car towards the end of the rather charmingly named Clockhouse Way, which leads to Braintree Town’s strangely named Ironmongery Direct Stadium. Ironmongery is a lovely word though, so Victorian; it’s a pity it’s paired with ‘Direct’. The company may well want to get across the idea that their products can be ordered and delivered promptly, but if your business name really counts they have left a big space in the market for a rival company called “Ironmongery Post-Haste”.
It was a little after 7 o’clock and Clockhouse Way was deserted, my only company being the smell of people’s dinners wafting from kitchen windows and extractor fans. The evidence says they eat mostly meat and gravy in Braintree, in Clockhouse Way on a Tuesday in any case; not a sniff of curry, Bolognese sauce, Bourguignon or Paella here. The houses around the north end of the stadium are like little sugar cubes, flat roofed, angular and white they date from the 1920’s and were built by the Crittall company for their workers; these houses were the prototype for the planned village of Silver End just a few miles from Braintree to the south east. The roots of Braintree Town Football Club lie in Crittall’s and the Crittall Athletic Football club.
As I rounded the corner towards the football ground I at last saw a few other would be spectators walking to the match, summoned by the glow of the flood lights. Sixteen quid lighter I was in the ground where I promptly donated another £2.50 for a programme.32763435523_29a7da7680_z Eighteen pounds and fifty pence seems a lot to watch semi-professional football I thought, even if a lot of the teams they play against in the Vanarama National League are fully professional. Oh well, I’m here now. The only food outlet in the ground is just inside the gate and I breathed in the smell of chips, vinegar and oil as I watched the teams warm up and four middle aged ladies toiled away behind me preparing their saturated fat-based fayre.

Whilst it just happens to be the name of the club’s main sponsor, The Ironmongery Direct Stadium is well named because there is a lot of metal on show here. The terraces are narrow and dominated by sturdy, tubular, orange crush barriers; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere is sheet metal fencing behind one end; the main stand (the only one with seats) is a box of steel girders and metal sheeting and on the opposite side of the ground the terrace has a long, low metal roof over it. Behind the goal at both ends of the ground even a part of the very terrace itself is made of steel. The whole place is tied together with bolts and lashings of blue and mostly orange paint; it looks a treat. Even the buckets of sand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto sprinkle on the pitch are orange,but sadly they’re made of plastic; note to self – a sales opportunity for Ironmongery Post-Haste.
I wander all around the ground before settling under the metal roof of the terrace behind the dug outs. Tonight Braintree, home of The Prodigy are playing Woking, home of The Jam. That’s Entertainment! The scene as the teams line up is a Fauvist dream with Braintree in orange shirts and blue shorts and Woking in red and white halved shirts all on a bright green pitch, made more vivid by the floodlights. The game kicks off and immediately a raucous chorus of “Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron” rattles out from under the roofed terrace from a bunch of blokes in their thirties and forties. They are a motley and shouty bunch; one of them is well over 6 feet tall and wears yellow hi-vis trousers and a vivid orange bobble hat for that ‘got here straight from work’ look. A smaller, hollow faced man sports a very straggly mullet. It’s easy to imagine this being a works outing for the men from Crittall’s foundry.
Woking start the game much better than Braintree and launch several quick and simple attacks, earning a couple of corners. With only ten minutes gone they deserve to be ahead. But the home supporters have their faith placed in top scorer Michael Cheek and his close range dribbler also earns a corner. “Come on Cheeky” is the cry from the terrace, but not in a camp way, sadly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then I get to touch the ball, which is something that’s only ever happened to me twice before at a ‘big’ game like this (at Vale Park and Upton Park if you’re interested). The ball comes flying off the pitch in my direction. “Heads” shout the shouty blokes, but I just raise my right arm and in one smooth movement pat the ball down onto the terrace from where it bounces over the perimeter wall and back on to the pitch. That must’ve looked pretty cool I think. It is met by those on the terrace with the silence of disappointment that I haven’t made a prat of myself. I‘ve put my shoulder out mind, but they don’t know that.
No doubt feeling caressed and relaxed by my touch, the ball soon nestles in the Woking net courtesy of a 20 yard shot by Cheeky. “Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron go steaming in” is the new confident chant from the terrace where no one seems to notice that it sounds like a song about laundry. The Woking fans on the open terrace behind the far goal are downcast, but only temporarily as within a couple of minutes the exotically named Delano Sam-Yorke is given the simple task of tapping the ball over the Braintree goal line to equalise.
The action is frenetic and the Braintree right-back, who has the most nobbly bald head I have ever seen, hits a post for Braintree before Sam-Yorke scores again, this time a glorious shot high into the net, to give Woking the lead. From under the roof of the terrace a volley of effing and blinding escapes, along with noisy calls to “sord it aaart”.Woking are worth their lead however and have earned the applause of their supporters when it’s time to troop off for half-time into the changing room, which oddly looks a lot like a council bungalow. Meanwhile the home supporters abuse the referee angrily for perceived mis-judgements which favoured Woking.
Perusing the team sheet (free tonight because the printer is a bit ropey) the name of Woking’s No 3 Terell Thomas makes me smile as I imagine a footballing cad sporting a moustache, cravat and gap between his front teeth. I also like the surname of their No 2, Jake Caprice, although so far he seems pretty reliable. Half-time ends and the second half begins and the supporters have changed ends like the teams; this is what football should be like. I stand with some Woking fans now; visitors from a strange town, they look better fed and better dressed than the locals of Braintree. There is one very tall, upright, and rather prim looking lady stood on her own, who is very neatly attired with red and white scarf and bobble hat. I overhear a very respectable looking couple nearby whisper “Wendoline” to one another as she passes by, which being familiar with the work of Aardman Animations is exactly what I’d thought. I smirk knowingly at them and want to ask if they know Paul Weller.
Woking still look the better side, they are quick in attack whereas Braintree are ponderous and a bit aimless. When Woking score a third goal about twenty minutes before the end the Woking fans cheer very loudly, clearly relieved that they feel the result is now safe. I move along the terrace to be nearer the dugouts which are as high as the eaves of the stand. It’s an evening for coats and a man near me turns to his friend and says how glad he is he “wrapped-up warm” tonight. The Woking manager Garry Hill wears a short, dark coat over a shirt and tie and office worker trousers, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe could have just got here from a job in the city. He is animated and between encouraging shouts to his players he has a gesture driven conversation with his coach; with his wide range of hand movements if Garry Hill didn’t have that job in the city he could be a bookie at a race course. In contrast the Braintree Town manager Hakan Hayrettin OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAstays wrapped up in his massive polyester manager’s coat inside the Perspex dug-out; he barely moves and looks like he’s digesting a heavy meal. Hakan leaves the animation and shouting to a coach in a shapeless blue coat, who has Ken Dodd hair and patrols the ‘technical area’. As an aside, why does football insist on calling that oblong in front of the dug-out a ‘technical area’? What’s so technical about a rectangle of turf and a few white lines? It must have been the FA who coined the term, the same FA who based a nation’s coaching ethos on the so very technical ‘get it in the mixer’ approach of Charles Hughes.
As the game heads towards its conclusion Braintree make a host of substitutions as they seek to penetrate the Woking defence, but tonight Woking are simply too good for them. To their credit however, the Braintree supporters in the crowd of 572 mostly stay on until the bitter end and they still seem to retain the faith and will be back again on April 8th to see The Iron take on Dover Athletic.
On balance it was a good night despite the result, but tonight I particularly enjoyed the shirts of both teams, oh and also of course, I got to touch the ball.

Wivenhoe Town 1 Walsham le Willows 4

 

It’s been a beautiful week and I’ve become well acquainted with bright blue skies and bright yellow sunshine as I’ve sat and stared out of the window at work. Now at last it’s the weekend and the skies are grey and cloudy, there’s a wind, spits of rain in the air and the sun is nowhere to be seen as I walk through my sunken dream.  This afternoon I am in Wivenhoe for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League fixture between Wivenhoe Town (aka The Dragons) and Walsham le Willows (aka The Willows).

Walsham le Willows is everything its name suggests, a bucolic village in deepest Suffolk; Wivenhoe is a tiny town or a big village just outside Colchester. The old part of Wivenhoe nestles beside the muddy, marshy river Colne and is commonly perceived as quaint or picturesque, with narrow lanes and boats and wonky half-timbered houses and pargetting and stuff. People come to Wivenhoe for a Sunday afternoon jaunt to sit outside the quayside Crown & Anchor pub with a prosecco or pint of Old Essex Git and a plate of “pub fayre”. Back from the quayside Wivenhoe sprawls out, its buildings like the growth rings of a tree, so that a journey from the centre to the edge is an architectural journey through time. Well, it’s a bit like that anyway, but may be more so if you’re one of the academics or arty weekenders who populate the pretty parts of the town.
At the very, very edge of Wivenhoe at the cross roads of Elmstead Road and Broad Lane, beyond the houses and separated from them by a field of some crop or other is the Broad Lane Sports Ground. In recent years the bit of the sports ground Wivenhoe Town occupies has become the Maple Tree Cars Stadium; that’s since the ”naming rights” took on a financial dimension rather than just being the tradition of away teams calling it “that shit hole”. Sat behind its blue and white painted gates and shaky looking brick pillars, across the barely surfaced car park it’s a bit grim looking, especially on a grey day like today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Wivenhoe Town was bank-rolled by the owners of the Wivenhoe Port (since closed and transformed into desirable waterfront residences) and that was when the ‘stadium’ and clubhouse was built. Since then a spiral of decline now leaves the place looking a bit dilapidated. But on the plus side it is devoid of the pretensions of some clubs, there are no reserved parking spaces for the Chairman or anyone else here.
Despite rising costs, the admission charges atOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWivenhoe have remained at £6.00 for adults and £3.00 for concessions for the past seven years or more. Rich the turnstile operator tells me that this afternoon’s attendance of 80 brings in about £370 in cash. A few weeks back the referees’ expenses came to £200; it makes you wonder if the FA really give a monkey’s about ‘grass roots’ football. Why not charge clubs a flat fee for the referees and then use about 0.0001% of the Premier League TV money to pay for the travel expenses? It wouldn’t de-rail the gravy train too much would it? It’s not the clubs’ fault if referees don’t live near the places they are sent to referee in.
Football at Wivenhoe is a social occasion and before the game there are huddles of spectators stood around in the area bounded by the turnstile, tea bar, players’ tunnel and pitch, 32711694023_1e64216326_ocatching up on the past two weeks over cups of tea, pints of beer, burgers and bacon rolls. Atypically for an Eastern Counties Premier League club (step nine of the football league ladder), Wivenhoe has a thriving club shop and blue and white hats and scarves abound and today there is a couple buying a club shirt to send to their son in America, although they won’t be staying to watch the match.
From outside you can hear the referee’s bell ring and the players line-up in the very much home -made looking player’s tunnel. The teams walk on to the pitch side by side and after the usual hand shaking nonsense they line-up against one another; Wivenhoe in their all-blue kit looking like an impoverished man’s Chelsea and Walsham le Willows in yellow shirts and red shorts looking like centrifuged blood. Walsham le Willows kick off the game towards the Miles Barbering Service stand and the dark towers of Wivenhoe Park and the University of Essex beyond.
Walsham le Willows start the game very well indeed and almost have a couple of runs in on goal before they get another one and their Number 10, a big, rather ungainly looking bloke scores, knocking a bouncing shot into the far corner of the goal; he turns away to accept the plaudits from his team with a slightly surprised look on his face. Yes, it was that easy. This is a very disappointing start for Wivenhoe because Walsham le Willows are not exactly the Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and consequently there had been hopes for a rare win. Happily for Wivenhoe, the shock of taking the lead so soon seems to affect Walsham le Willows and they allow Wivenhoe to get into the match themselves. After a couple of prototype forays forward, skilful play by the diminutive Hampson on the right results in a low cross and Wivenhoe’s number 11 carefully kicks the ball into the goal from about 6 yards. “Would you like to talk us through that one ‘keeps?” asks a Wivenhoe supporter of the Walsham goalkeeper.
The game settles down from hereon into a rather dull encounter, like the weather. The pitch isn’t helping the players in their struggle; the drying wind has resulted in puffs of dust flying up when the ball hits the ground and winter has taken its toll; there are several bald patches in the grass which look like small bomb craters or the evidence of a large stray dog having been taken short.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Walsham number three amuses the home supporters with his unerring ability to hit the ball into touch from all sorts of unintended angles, but otherwise the game is only notable for the fact that nearly all the Walsham players are very tall and all but one of the Wivenhoe players are much shorter. Hampson for Wivenhoe stands out easily as the most skilful player on the pitch. Neither team looks particularly like scoring, but in the Eastern Counties League that means nothing and shortly before half-time a corner for The Willows sees their number four take advantage of his height and, judging by the marking a Harry Potter style invisibility cloak to head a second goal for the giants from Suffolk.
At half-time I buy a pounds worth of tea and step inside the clubhouse. The etiquette imposed by the league for this level of non-league football demands that the away team committee get free sandwiches, tea and cakes at half time. At most clubs this is served in a separate room away from the hoi polloi, a board room even. But at Wivenhoe a part of the room next to the tea bar has been cordoned off with a waist high, painted wall of breeze blocks topped by a piece of decorative ironmongery of the sort you see on suburban garden gates. The remainder of the room is the route from the outside to the toilets and the bar. I whiled away the break in play stood by the wall getting the half-time results off the telly in the corner of the room and watching the away team committee devour their sandwiches and Battenburg; it was a lot of fun and I was tempted to try and catch a committee member’s eye and do that mime to tell him he had a bit of food on his chin. It was a bit like being at Colchester zoo, but cheaper.
Despite being refreshed by a pounds worth of tea my back is aching; I am ashamed to say I’m not used to standing at football any more. I therefore decide to sit down and head for what are probably the seats with the clearest view in the Eastern Counties League. Wivenhoe has about 160 seats in a well elevated stand, a stand that clearly isn’t quite as big as originally intended, with a row of naked steel girders poking skywards at the back; football’s only henge monument.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the break the match doesn’t improve, but Walsham le Willows decide to dominate. I look about the ground and am impressed by the advertisement for the Morning Star, (the revolution starts at 10 to 5) and intrigued by the one for Freedom Funerals. Is this a company owned by Mr Freedom the undertaker or is this a broader statement about your rights after death? I hope it’s the latter because personally I have always wanted my corpse to be left out on a hillside and have my bones picked clean by birds and animals.
With about twenty minutes left The Willows pretty much ensure that they will win as their number six towers over the Wivenhoe midgets to head a third goal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The greatest thing about Wivenhoe Town however is the supporters and although under strength today, the self-anointed SOBS stood behind the goal were still able to raise a few choruses of “Dragons, Dragons, Dragons”; this is in stark contrast to most clubs in this league where a co-ordinated chant is as rare as a UKIP MP but hopefully more welcome. Despite the vocal encouragement, Wivenhoe only sporadically threaten anything resembling a goal attempt however and The Willows confirm the result seconds from full-time as their number nine leaves the Wivenhoe left-back in his wake before trundling on into the penalty area where he runs the ball past the hapless goalkeeper, who had, to his eternal credit, earlier made some pretty good saves, but not this time.
At this level of non-league you never quite know when the game is going to end because there is no fourth official to count the added on time and hold up a little board saying how much longer we have to witness. But today the game didn’t drag on unnecessarily and the welcome release of full-time arrived without rancour. Despite a disappointing result, the final act belonged to the Wivenhoe Town supporters who gathered by the tunnel to applaud both the Walsham le Willows team and their own as they left the field. The result means relegation looms again for Wivenhoe Town, the supporters probably deserve better but have got used to losing and somebody has to.

Colchester United 2 Mansfield Town 0

As I stepped off the train at Colchester station the voice over the public address system was announcing the imminent departure of a train to Harwich Town. Something about the way he said “Harwich Town” made him sound like Michael Caine.  I tried to peer in through the window of the Customer Service office as I drifted past, hoping to pick him out, but I couldn’t.  In any case, it’s 2017 and everyone wears glasses like Harry Palmer nowadays, except me.

Leaving the station, it was still light as I walked to the Bricklayers Arms where a barrel of Adnams Old Ale was waiting for me to request the drawing of a pint, and in time another (£3.65 each). My thirst quenched by the dark liquid and my mind entertained by a book, the evening had closed in by the time I caught the bus to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium (£2.50 return).  Tonight the opposition would be Mansfield Town, close rivals of Colchester in the Division Four league table, with 52 points, one more than the U’s.

I sat with a former work colleague on the bus, we met at the bus stop. “Hello Martin” he said. “Hello Martin” I said. It sounded silly, but what can you do, we are both called Martin. Martin (that’s him, not me, I don’t like to refer to myself in the third person, only weirdos do that) has a season ticket and had one back at Layer Road. I ask how long he’d been a season ticket holder but he couldn’t say, so too long probably. Alighting from the bus I said goodbye because I wanted to stop and queue for a programme. Outside the ground there is a sense of anticipation created by this short queue and the cheery bonhomie of the programme seller. Programme (£3.00) in hand,I now pause for a moment and take in the beauty that is the glare of the floodlights huddling over the tops of the stands 33478017515_e15e34aa2f_zand the warm glow of spitting hot fat and cones of chips that emanates from a shiny white burger van.

It’s 7.30 now and the tannoy gets us in the mood by playing Love Will Tear Us Apart and I have a few minutes to look at the programme before kick-off. Admirably, Col U’s programme IMG_20170317_0002always features local non-league teams and tonight there is a piece on Halstead Town; IMG_20170317_0001it is hilarious. Halstead goalkeeper Luke Banner has swallowed a lexicon of footballspeak and cliché “…you never know” he is quoted as saying “If we take one game at a time and keep picking up wins and points then who knows what can happen”. Wise words Luke. Whatever you do you don’t want to be one of those clubs that plays several games at once and loses them all; that’s a recipe for disaster if you ask me. I don’t blame Luke for the banality of his comments though, I blame the reporter on the Gazette who he was apparently talking to.

The game begins and Mansfield Town are kicking towards the goal right in front of me. “Mansfield, they’re non-league” shouts a familiar voice from the back of the stand whose understanding of promotion and relegation is clearly still strained. He says the same thing another four times before half-time. The game carries on. Briggs the Colchester left back carelessly scythes a clearance onto the roof of his own goal. The empty north stand looks on sullenly, 32634760104_740916ac06_oa blue void at one end of the sparsely populated stadium barely creating echoes; it must miss that joyous throng of Portsmouth fans that occupied it at the weekend.

The game is end to end, although probably more Colchester end than Mansfield. Mansfield’s number 10 shoots over the bar from all of 7 yards but atones, in my eyes anyway, by dancing around and over the ball a bit later in the manner of John Travolta, I bet he looks good on the dancefloor I think to myself getting Mansfield and Sheffield muddled up. Meanwhile the Mansfield supporters are a stoic bunch. We’ve not heard a peep out of them. I imagine a collection of dour characters drawn from the pen of DH Lawrence. Meanwhile again, the Colchester ‘lads’ (I can’t imagine them being lasses) break into a chorus of “Oh Colchester is won-der-ful, Oh Colchester is wonderful, It’s full of tits, fanny and United, Oh Colchester is won-der-ful.” So, once we’ve kicked racism out of football we should probably get right on to sexism. No wonder you don’t see many black women at football.

Twenty minutes pass and Colchester score, a low shot from Brennan Dickenson cutting in from the left. Soon after, Mansfield’s No 2 misses the ball completely about five yards from goal; but yes, it was a difficult angle. Still not a murmur from the Mansfieldians in the stands. Eight more minutes pass and Dickenson passes the ball into the box and after a neat turn the ball is sent into the corner of the Mansfield net by Sammy Szmodics, a man whose name is somewhat notable for its S’s and M’s; his goal make us smile.

Colchester are cock-a-hoop, Mansfield are mithered and losing 0-2. The scoreboard advertises a tribute to Robbie Williams; he’s not dead too is he? Half-time comes and I buy a tea for a pound; “Tetley, it begins with the tea”33321899142_18a137fb0c_o it says on the paper cup, but that sort of play on words doesn’t impress me; I should hope it bloody does begin with the tea, although we all know it really began with the motivation of profit. That’s why a few crushed up dried leaves and some hot water costs a quid. I am going to smash capitalism one day you know; it’ll probably be between May and August when there’s no football.

Mansfield’s number 10 continued to please once the game re-started as he shot hopelessly wide of the far post when practically stood in the Colchester penalty area on his own. The the U’s support howled with derision as well they might. The second half became a bit dull after that with Mansfield hogging the ball without really looking like scoring. In a particularly dull period of play I blew on my tea and enjoyed watching the game through a fog as the condensation very slowly cleared from my glasses. Then I did the same again. “Stand up if you love the U’s” sang the sexist Colchester fans in a moment when they weren’t thinking about lady-parts.

Then a Colchester player stayed down on the pitch after a challenge, apparently hurt; only now did the Mansfield supporters stir as they subjected the injured U to a tirade of abuse. I could see fists being shaken and fancied I heard the sort of incomprehensible angry ramblings uttered by Tom Bell in the early 1980’s BBC adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers. The sudden burst of life from Mansfield didn’t go un-noticed by the U’s fans “keep the noise down over there would you please” quipped one.

The ball and players moved about as if governed by Brownian motion and it was inevitable that someone would get booked. Mansfield’s number 2 was the referee’s first choice and having been shown the yellow card he hung his head and swung his right leg stiffly as if miming “Aw shucks” and in the realisation that he would get a clip round the ear from his Ma when he got home. The score board advertised Comedy Nights the first Thursday of every month and right on queue a free-kick ended with the Mansfield No 10, who amusingly is called Matt Green, like the paint, missing the goal hopelessly once again.

Mansfield were getting nowhere fast despite restricting Colchester to breakaway attacks. Change was needed thought their manager the un-loved Steve Evans and up went the number board to withdraw Number 18. But ever the prankster it was our old friend Matt Green who started to walk off; may be it was his eyesight that had been letting him down all evening. With his dancing skills and comic timing he would have been a star in Variety, but we’ll probably need a new Bruce Forsyth before too long.

Another injury to a U’s players provoked the Mansfield support again, “Cheat, cheat, cheat” they howled. Injured opposition players seemed to be the only thing that really floated their boat. To be fair to them though, what with their rough mining heritage they probably have a fixation about soft southern jessies and if they see someone go down with all four limbs still attached to his torso they just see red.

The game was now petering out; Eddie the Eagle looked on, arms folded and Colchester just had to see out the last few minutes. When Sammy Szmodics got word he was to be substituted he made his way to the far side of the pitch first, so he had farther to walk and then stopped to shake the referee by the hand as he went off. That use of precious goal scoring time was practically enough to win the U’s the game and in the moment it took referee Mr Kinesley to blow his whistle for the last time, it was possible for most of the 2,526 in attendance to be up and on their way home.

Colchester United 0 Portsmouth 4

It’s the 11th of March and today there is a hint that Spring is springing into life. Frogs are clambering over one another in an orgiastic frenzy of amphibious, reptile love in my garden pond and standing outside I can actually feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms. It’s Saturday morning and life is sweet. A car ride, a train ride , a few glasses of Adnams Old Ale in the Bricklayers Arms (£3.65 a pint) and a bus ride (£2.50 return) later and I, along with my Pompey supporting wife and Jon, a Leeds United supporting neighbour who wants to know what it’s like to be amongst Pompey fans, am at the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium.
On this March afternoon being in the north stand with the Pompey supporters OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas a joyous celebration of their club, city and football. This was the first time I had ever been in a full stand at a Colchester game in their ‘new’ stadium and it was a slightly odd experience. The gate of 6,504 is Colchester’s second largest crowd of the season ( although the 7,003 v Leyton Orient was made up of loads of flippin’ kids) and easily double the number that usually attend this stadium which could readily be converted into an A12 service station should its current occupant’s ever leave. Despite having a majestic away following of some 2,200 or more, Pompeyites did not make up the majority in the stadium but it felt like they did. It seemed that Colchester supporters were in awe, struck dumb, incapable of getting behind their team. But then, they were spread about three stands when Pompey’s supporters were mostly all in just one.
Every Pompey away game in Division Four must to an extent feel like a home game because there are so many tiddly little clubs in the division, so tiddly you wonder how they manage to maintain professional football. With clubs such as Barnet, Accrington and Morecambe in the division Pompey can’t help but outnumber the supporters of a lot of them and where that isn’t the case they will almost inevitably make more noise than the home support. Going to away games is one of the great joys of being a football supporter; it’s a day out loaded with a morning full of anticipation, the excitement of arrival, followed by the shared experience of the pre-match drink with other supporters and finally getting into the stadium; and that’s all before the match even begins. Sometimes, the match beginning is where it all goes wrong if your team let you down, but it didn’t feel like there was any risk of that today. Despite a miserable performance at home last Saturday, Pompey had won away in midweek at Crawley Town (another tiddler of a club) and had at last moved into an automatic promotion position in the league table.

It’s a good view from all the stands at the new ‘Layer Road’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwith the steep rake of the seating giving a clear line of vision all over the pitch, so there is no real reason to have to stand. But a big following of away fans are often too excited or excitable to even consider sitting down and although club stewards are charged with ensuring everyone is safely sat on their bottom, two dozen stewards are outnumbered a hundred to one and they quickly realise there is no point. A large away support is a draw for the home fans too, because even if they don’t participate themselves they can enjoy the atmosphere created by the noise and exuberance at the other end of the ground.
In terms of attracting spectators Colchester are currently on the crest of a slump with barely 3,000 turning out for the supposed ‘derby’ match against Wycombe a couple of weeks before. The sense of unfamiliarity with their surroundings must have transferred itself from those extra Colcestrians to the Colchester team because they were rubbish. Either that, or they weren’t rubbish and Pompey were absolutely brilliant; the truth surely lies somewhere in between, as it so often does.
Portsmouth scored after about twenty minutes at the Colchester end of the ground; a ‘stooping header’ of the kind favoured by very tall players one would imagine. The scorer Eoin Doyle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA is probably only average height for a footballer though. You’ve got to love a ‘stooping header’, of all headers they are my favourite, although a towering header is more beautiful and for rarity value a crouching or squatting header would be worth seeing.
Once ahead, and with their oh so happy fans behind them like a fair wind, nothing could go wrong for Pompey, if the navigators amongst us had employed our sextants we would have seen that it was written in the stars. Once John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, probably Europe’s best known football fan arrived with his drumming entourage, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the noise and encouragement for Pompey was ceaseless. Half- time was as a blessed relief for Colchester as it was for those in the stands with full bladders. ‘Down below’ the bars and the bogs were thronged and a poster on the breeze block wall of a vomitorium (look it up) thanked Pompey fans for travelling 288 miles to make their visit to day; I felt a bit of a fraud, I would only travel about 15 miles and be home before six.
Refreshed, re-focussed and re-vitalised after the half time-break, Colchester United went 2-0 down within 90 seconds of the re-start as Kyle Bennet, who had sensibly abandoned his ‘little fish’ style haircut of last week by removing its tail, completed a move which left the U’s defence in ruins. That set the pattern for the second half with waves of Portsmouth attacks crashing on the beach in front of the Pompey fans that was the Colchester goal. This was like a glorious day at the football seaside for Pompey’s fans; if the pitch had been sanded they would have made metaphorical castles of celebration and stuck little flags with the Pompey crest in the top of them.
Two more goals followed as Pompey steamed on to leave Col U in their wake. Four-nil up with twenty minutes left it looked like Pompey would score five or six. Pompey fans filled the area in front of the seats and the stewards lined the edge of the pitch and looked nervous. Mr Westwood occupied a platform at the back of the stand in the manner of Ralph Reader back in the days when FA Cup finals were wonderful, before the Premier league had him killed. In his crooked blue and white top hat and blue and white dreads Westwood blew his trumpet and waved his arms deliriously. One fan ran on the pitch when the fourth goal went in. Later the stewards somehow allowed another very large man to get over the perimeter wall and walk amongst them; as they led him away holding tightly on to his arms, he lifted his legs off the ground so they had to carry him, you could see he felt like he was king for a day; his team were 4-0 up he could do anything he wanted.
Full-time was almost a disappointment, it confirmed the result but stopped the fun; the party was over, but when I drove past the stadium the next day I could still hear the cheering… though today it was actually my wife in the passenger seat.

Ipswich Town 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0

The walk from Portman Road to St Jude’s Tavern in Ipswich is gently uphill, enough so to hone your thirst, especially if you’re slightly desperate for a pint anyway. The walk back to Portman Road is happily downhill, which is encouraging. If it was uphill some people might not bother because watching Ipswich Town this season is an ‘uphill’ experience.
This evening St Judes Tavern, which is a very small friendly pub specialising in proper beer, or ‘real ale’ as I believe it is called is ‘rocking’. The first couple of tables inside the door on the right are occupied by ten or so blokes, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s who have London accents. They talk about Wolverhampton Wanderers, loudly, as if they have been drinking. I am a little intrigued and once I have acquainted myself with a pie and a pint of Nethergate Suffolk County bitter (a bargain fiver for the pair) I step over to them. Etiquette in the 1970’s would have been to throw a glass and a bar stool at them, but football has changed and today I opt for polite questions relating to why they sound like Arthur Daly rather than Benny from Crossroads. They are the London branch of the Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters club and seem very happy to explain that they have been Wolves fans since they were nippers. One of them followed Wolves because all the other kids in the playground supported Chelsea, whilst another had seen them on the telly in the 1950’s. I tell them that I admire them for sticking by Wolves through so many turbulent seasons and that I hope they enjoy the match and lose very heavily. It is appropriate that of all the pubs in Ipswich they should patronise, they chose St Jude’s Tavern; St Jude being the patron saint of lost causes. Mind you, it’s equally appropriate that as a Town fan that’s where I should take my pre-match libation.
A couple of pints of mild and another pie later it is time to make that downhill stroll to the match. Descending Portman Road the stadium lights glow like a beacon, 33330551675_472f04dcfa_z drawing me to them. Seriously? Do I want to do this? Return to the scene of so much disappointment and suffering? Of course I do!
Inside the ground I am greeted by a fellow supporter, older than me and keen to appraise last Saturday’s game versus Brentford. Chambers having a terrible game and the wing backs not getting forward was the explanation for yet another drawn game. Buoyed by this tactical insight I take my seat and the game begins, Ipswich kicking towards the end where I am sat. There’s no great roar of excitement or enthusiasm as the ball starts to roll, which is normal for Ipswich, but in a little while a drum beats in the corner of the North stand and there is some muffled chanting; it only lasts into the seventh minute however and the brooding silence is restored.
To be fair to Ipswich’s spectators, the game soon turns out to be the sort of contest that only inspires brooding and quiet contemplation. Very little at all exciting happens. Ipswich earn a corner and Crazee the slightly weird ‘urban’ Suffolk Punch mascot seemingly tries to rouse the crowd by rhythmically drumming, but he gives up after three short bursts as he does every week; Crazee? More like Crapee. Ipswich have a couple of shots, one of which has to be saved by the goalkeeper and Wolves have a couple too. But by and large it’s dull, with players of both teams struggling to convince anyone that they have previously been acquainted with any game that might be called beautiful.
Half-time under the stand and the video screens show clips of last season’s equivalent fixture, a 2-2 draw. Not sure why they do this; to prove that things haven’t always been this bad or to fool you into thinking that’s tonight’s match up there on the screen and you have amnesia? People sip hot drinks and fizzy beer unhappily and the tannoy plays 2-4-6-8 Motorway by the Tom Robinson Band to get the Wolves fans in the mood for the drive home; an odd choice in 2017 nevertheless.
The respite of half-time is brief and the players file out so that the game can begin afresh. The cheery stadium announcer plays the nauseating “Singing the Blues” over the tannoy to try and stir up some life. “I never felt more like killing myself, ‘Cos watching the Town is bad for your health; Oh Ipswich, sweet death will be a relief”. The half begins and now the match is probably even worse than before. It’s as if the ball is made of slippery wet soap and the match proceeds as a random series of loosely connected events. Boot, header, header, tussle, boot, header, throw, boot, barge, whistle, flick, boot, pass, pass, foul, whistle, free-kick, header, throw, boot, boot, etcetera, etcetera….. Wolverhampton gradually begin to establish themselves as the better of the two teams and whilst not exactly launching wave after wave of free flowing attacks they seem to know roughly that the aim of the game has something to do with the big white sticks joined across the top by a bar.
Despite the drudgery of the Town performance, time is passing quite quickly. The crowd are not encouraging the team, they rarely do unless they’re already two or three goals up, but there is a constant thrum of conversation. It’s no wonder they don’t get behind the team, they’re too busy nattering; are they even watching the game? 32516204133_ccf220cec3_z

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In the 84th minute Ipswich bring on substitute Keiffer Moore to signal their desperation. Moore is an enormous centre forward signed for £10,000 from non-league Forest Green who will ‘add height up front’, much as the Post Office Tower did in Tottenham Court Road in the 1960’s.  33289665826_8a7e8c598e_zA late free-kick for Wolverhampton hits the cross-bar and the relief of this for Town fans is matched by the announcement that there will only be two minutes added time.

 

Looking back I bloody well enjoyed that. I will be able to say I was there when Ipswich’s season ticket holders committed mass suicide. Gloom, despondency, pointlessness, aimless endeavour from a bunch of grossly overpaid blokes who turn up in flash suits and even flashier cars; they must feel confused. They are paid thousands every week and thousands of people come to watch them and the whole sapping event is a hopeless waste of time. You wonder why all footballers aren’t existentialists. Of course, Albert Camus was, but then, he was French.

Portsmouth 0 Crewe Alexandra 1

Portsmouth is one of the smaller cities in England (Population 200,000ish) but it is also one of the best, probably the best. What other city has a port, a naval dockyard, an historic seaside resort, two piers, a ferry service, a concrete viewing tower, a hovercraft service, four tides a day and most importantly a supporters owned football club. If you don’t think those are all things worth having then you can only be a hopeless misery or from Southampton.0The upshot of this glowing first paragraph in praise of Portsmouth is to show that for footie fans a fixture at Fratton Park is wonderful thing and far better than any of the traditional long weekend attractions of away games at seaside towns such as Blackpool, Brighton or Torquay. Incidentally, why anyone would want to stay in Blackpool I cannot imagine, what a dump! A sleazy, greasy, grubby, outside toilet of a town.
Back to Portsmouth. My prelude to the match took in a Friday evening in the Meat n Barrel pub in Southsea, a trendy establishment, which felt like a Student Union bar and had a hipster-friendly décor of bare brick walls and girders, metal light shades and school canteen style tables and chairs. It made for harsh acoustics and was reminiscent of a 1980’s New York loft apartment or squat, but the beer was good, although at £3.95 a pint it needed to be. Saturday morning brought breakfast in the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower and then a trip at 4metres per second up said tower to take in the views over Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight,which are bloody marvellous. The sun shone, clouds swirled and scudded, rain fell over the English Channel and the water sparkled. It’s only the existence of Manchester United, Chelsea and Robbie Savage that stops me believing in God when confronted with such beauty.
With my soul and spirits still soaring I arrived at Fratton Park, a wonderful football ground which isn’t that much altered from when I first attended a game there in 1979. The ground’s character comes from the two lateral stands which both date from the 1920’s, the North stand is cranked towards the pitch a third of the way along and inside is a warren of steel girders and wooden floorboards perched on an earth bank. There is still an advert for Brickwood’s beers at the back of the stand, ales that haven’t been brewed for the best part of forty years, but a part of Pompey’s heritage.
My seat was in the South Stand, a similar structure in some ways to that opposite, but designed by the illustrious Archibald Leitch, ‘architect’ of football stands all across Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. One of the joys of watching Pompey is Fratton Park itself; it is a museum piece, but that only adds to the atmosphere once the stands are occupied as the noise of the crowd echoes beneath the low roof and bounces off the wooden floorboards and staircases. Not that Pompey needs helpful acoustics, because Portsmouth supporters are arguably the most passionate and loyal of any in England. What other club would get larger gates in the Fourth Division than in the Second Division; only a few thousand down on when they were in the First Division?
It was visiting Crewe Alexandra in their boring all-black away kit who started the game brightest as they strove to quell the atmosphere that had built with the approach of kick-off. But Pompey very quickly began to behave as the home team should and soon the ball stayed mostly at the Fratton end of the ground where the Crewe goalkeeper stood. But despite there being 16,810 people in the ground, the majority wearing blue, they weren’t getting behind the team like they normally do. Expectation was high, a win for Pompey and defeat for Carlisle United would see Pompey climb into 3rd place in the league table, an automatic promotion position. But that rain I’d seen over the English Channel in the morning was now over Fratton Park and seemed to dampen spirits and the supporters weren’t their usual noisy, committed selves. There was a chill breeze too which blew away the warmth of the morning’s sun. Not good. On the pitch Pompey were like a superior life form from another planet, probing and prodding the Crewe defence as if they were hicks abducted by UFO from mid-west America, but they got nowhere; the Crewe defence was unfathomable, like why those Americans chose Donald Trump as their leader.
Despite being ‘on top,’ Pompey were not really performing. Gary Roberts, the slow-paced former Ipswich Town winger was running the midfield, but up front Kyle Bennett, whose parents may be watched South Park, skipped around a lot but was ineffective showing no inclination to kick the ball at the goal. Crewe’s defenders were big blokes and Kyle has the frame of a pasty-faced teenager and a haircut which looks like he has a small fish on top of his head; he was no match for them. Meanwhile, Pompey’s former Ipswich defender Matt Clarke could only lump the ball forward aimlessly; I can’t imagine where he learned to do that. Shocking.
In the stand I was growing frustrated like my fellow spectators, but mainly because of a teenage girl and boy who kept wanting me to stand up so they could pass by and go down onto the concourse to buy coke or burgers or some such crap. The lack of space is the drawback of a 1920’s football stand; it wasn’t built for well-fed, strapping 6ft 2 inch smart arses such as me; it was built for weedy, flat capped, malnourished tuberculosis sufferers, traumatised by their experiences in the First World War . I felt conflicted. When those youths asked me to let them by I wanted to say “ No, it’s not half-time yet” but I wasn’t going to do that. I felt guilty for having such curmudgeonly thoughts, but also for not actually telling them to go back , sit down and watch the match; added to which I was an Ipswich Town season ticket holder watching Portsmouth and secretly wondering how the Towen were doing at home to Brentford. I was a seething mass of internal conflict, but fortunately it was half-time before I knew it, although there were plenty of clues with loads of other people now going downstairs to the concourse to beat the queue for the khasi, beers, teas and burgers, which are what people really go to football for after all.
Despite the relative disappointment of the first half there was still a tangible air of optimism for the second half. Pompey had had more possession and more clearly wanted to win, rather than not lose like their opponents, so surely that would count for something. Well, it didn’t. Crewe Alexandra, if anything, played a bit better and although they won a few corners and somebody fell over in the penalty area Pompey were probably less threatening towards the Crewe goal than they were in the first half. Such was their ineffectiveness, that my thoughts turned to how much Pompey centre- half Christian Burgess, with his pony tail, looked like an 18th century sailor; all he really needed was a ribbon and perhaps a tricorn hat. He could have “Mr Christian” printed on the back of his shirt like those Brazilians do who don’t play under their real names. I also mused on whether Crewe’s curly blonde-haired striker Alex Kiwomya was a relative of former Ipswich Town waif Chris Kiwomya; Wikipaedia tells us he is his nephew.
Crewe were now so much improved on their first half showing that they had the cheek to score a goal; a bout of pinball ending with a header in to a far corner of the Pompey goal which they seemed to have forgotten about. Although there was in theory plenty of time for an equaliser, the goal caused of mass exodus of Pomponians who deserted ship as if they’d got wind of an imminent torpedo attack. As large numbers made for the lifeboats Pompey continued to flounder and despite desperate substitutions their play deteriorated to the point that they could barely string two passes together. The now predictable outcome was that Crewe Alexandra emerged victorious, but I was still a trifle disturbed to hear a chorus of “What the fucking hell was that? “ from a phalanx of disgruntled Pompey fans as they headed for the exits after the final whistle.
The Pompey team had disappointed this afternoon, but unusually so had the Pompey supporters who had failed to get behind their team when they most needed it. I left Fratton Park somewhat disillusioned. Pompey is normally the antidote to miserable, moany Ipswich for me, but something had gone wrong today; I think it was perhaps that there was expectation. As a football supporter you can only ever have hope, expectation is a step too far and you will be punished for having it. Oh, but if you support Manchester United or Chelsea that is a good thing.