It’s Saturday 1st April and I have been looking forward to this day since at least the afternoon of the previous day. Ipswich Town hasn’t played at home since the dire, dull, dreadful, goalless draw with Wolverhampton on March 7th; that’s a three week drought of football and more. Of course I’ve been to see other teams in the interim, but they were mere floozies, Ipswich Town is my first love, my true love, the only team for whom, ultimately, the results really, really matter. I’ve won twice at Wembley with Ipswich and in Europe and together we won the Texaco Cup and have suffered relegations. Ipswich Town is ‘the wife’, although at times we fall out, we can’t be parted; we have a binding contract.
So, with a spring in my step I head off for the match; a walk to the station, a train ride and a walk to St Jude’s Tavern up Portman Road. It’s 1:30 and the turnstiles are about to open, there are quite a lot of Brummies hanging about wondering where to go and what to do, why can’t Ipswich give away fans their own “fanzone” on Portman Road car park? They do it at Wycombe Wanderers, serving terrible Greene King beer admittedly. But then, I guess a visitor with any nous would do some research and seek out the pubs serving proper beer, so why not leave the lumpen proletariat, the ‘leave’ voters to get on with it.
As I walk by there is a dog outside the away end. He’s black and friendly looking and accompanied by a lady in a day-glo tabard bearing the words “Search Dog”. Apparently the dog is sniffing out things people shouldn’t be taking into a football match, such as flares, the firey things not the trouser. The dog however, looks like it’s sniffing out what’s to be found in the gutter, as dogs do. A little further along the road there are more dogs, Labradors or Retrievers with collecting buckets; guide dogs for the blind. The club website says it’s Ladies’ Day at Portman Road today, it didn’t mention dogs.
Eventually, I enjoy three pints of ale with St Jude and talk to a white haired man who admits to not having seen Town in Division Three South, but he’s followed them for 60 years. I want to be like him in a few years time, with young whipper snappers pointing me out as someone who had seen Rod Belfitt play. The pub empties at about a quarter to three and I’m left talking with the friend I came to meet, about why I write this blog. It doesn’t matter, it’s time to get to the match and I head down Portman Road smiling to myself about the joys of beer and football. As the ground hoves into view I am struck by the sight of Sir Bobby Robson’s face on the corner of the ground. He looms over the chip van on the adjacent car park, as only England managers’ and knights’ faces should. As I pass Sir Bobby’s statue further on, I meet the white haired man from St Jude’s again, he is touching the statue’s foot for luck. If I was a Catholic I think, I should write to the Pope and ask if we might have a Saint Bobby. At the same time I think with Ipswich’s puritan and non- conformist heritage it’s wrong, very wrong to touch a statue’s foot for luck. No wonder the Town are doing so badly.
The search dog is still outside the away end as I pass by and I ask what his name is. At first I mis-hear what his handler says and think she says he’s called Cecil. The dog’s name is actually Zero. I prefer Cecil; he looks like a Cecil. Having patted the dog I enter the ground and take up my seat in the lower tier of Churchman’s or the Sir Alf Ramsey stand as it’s now known. I think that may be there should be a huge mural of Sir Alf plastered across the back of this stand too, but with a cigar in hand to reference the popular name of the stand and his success. Sir Alf earned won the League Championship and a World Cup, two things Sir Bobby didn’t achieve; you were close Sir Bobby, but no cigar, not like Sir Alf.
It’s now that time; 3 o’clock, Saturday afternoon and the game begins. Same old rubbish sadly. Town and Birmingham City are both wading through the sludge that is the bottom third of the Second Division and it’s easy to see why. Birmingham have brought along a decent number of supporters however, 952 of them and now and then they break into song, the dour, slightly unhappy, resigned “Keep right on to ‘til the end of the road”. It’s a song that was written by Harry Lauder in 1916 in honour of his son who had been killed in the war, it’s meant to be a song of hope but it doesn’t sound like it and you could say that the message of the song is that you’ll only be happy once you’re dead.
Birmingham City is a spectacularly dull club and always has been. From the middle of the country, the Midlands, Birmingham City is geographically average and generally average overall. Apart from Trevor Francis and one League Cup win there’s never been anything to write home about from Birmingham City. It’s telling that the club song is “Keep right on ‘til the end of the road”. Life is a struggle for Birmingham City, because existence is boring or sad, all you can do is keep right on’ til the end. It’s fitting therefore that Ipswich should be playing them now, because that is also how it feels at Portman Road. If we can only make it to the end of the season, may be things will be better next year. Town have been bobbing along in the second division for fifteen years, but Town fans should be proud of such consistency. It is a worthy achievement to avoid the twin scourges that stalk Second Division clubs; the apparent ignominy of relegation to the Third Division and the moral degeneration brought on by the financial crapulence that comes with promotion to the evil Premier League; the league of greed. Nevertheless, carefully treading this middle ground can be a bit dull, particularly as it’s nice to watch good football, and winning and good football usually go together.
Speaking of dull, the first half passes largely without incident, although Ipswich’s Cole Skuse goes off injured at the very end. Interesting name Cole Skuse; the only other Cole I can think of is the fantastic Cole Porter. The surname Skuse has medieval Cornish origins and is to do with living near Elder bushes, which makes me think of the taunting Frenchman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So it was appropriate that Skuse should be replaced by Kevin Bru, Ipswich’s own Parisian Mauritian. Hopefully, as the two players pass on the touchline Monsieur Bru tells Cole “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”.
The second half begins and within two minutes Birmingham are in the lead; a shot is saved but the re-bound becomes a close range goal. Ipswich don’t respond at all well and carry on not having shots on goal and not passing to one another and not doing all the things associated with playing well. With an hour gone the Ipswich public in the North Stand react. They hadn’t got behind their team before now and still they don’t as instead they opt to sing to manager Mick McCarthy that his “football is shit”. Then, again through their preferred medium of song they tell club chairman Marcus Evans that he is a cunt and chief executive Ian Milne that he is a wanker. Spleens are vented and the North stand end of Portman Road is awash with bile and rude words; apart from the Birmingham supporters who are shocked and anxious in equal measure due to their team being a goal ahead, the rest of the ground is its usual comatose self.
The Ipswich players continue not to give value for the entrance money or the huge wages necessary to buy the ridiculously ostentatious cars parked in the club car park. A slow hand clap is attempted by the West Standers but fortunately fails; beaten by their own apathy. But then when all looks lost in the developing maelstrom of self-loathing and poor football from both sides, Grant Ward finds space wide on the right and crosses the ball. In keeping with the type of game it is, the cross is so poor that it sails straight into the goal to give Ipswich a barely deserved goal to equalise Birmingham’s barely deserved goal. How we cheer, once we’ve got over the shock.
There is still twenty minutes to go and some of us foolishly hope the lucky break will see Ipswich go on to play like a proper football team and score another goal or two. Of course that doesn’t happen and the final whistle is met by a stampede for the exits, or as much of a stampede as a host of over sixties can manage and the usual chorus of boos. Outside in Princes Street there are two police dog units, but I can’t see any dogs; only two policeman who are possibly trying to look inscrutable in an attempt to hide the fact that they have lost their dogs. Mind you, one of the dog units is from Norfolk; I thought there were quarantine laws.
On the train home I talk to a chatty man from Witham, well he talks to me really. He’s been watching Town since the 1950’s like the white haired man I met in the pub. He’s disappointed with today’s game like everyone else, but he clearly still loves it all and will be back again on Tuesday for the Wigan Athletic match, as will I. The moral of the story is that real football fans ‘keep right on to the end’ which those Birmingham fans knew all along.