It is Easter Monday, and it is a weekend of two league matches for every team. Traditionally, at least one of the games is a local derby. In keeping with tradition, the Football League, or EFL as it now calls or rather brands itself, sent Ipswich to Burton-On-Trent on Good Friday and has today paired them with Newcastle United the club in the second division that is furthest away from Ipswich. There’s nothing the fixture planners at EFL seem to like better than the thought of football supporters making long journeys in Bank Holiday traffic. But happily for Ipswich supporters the match today is at Portman Road, so what do they care.
This afternoon I am in the company of a Newcastle United supporter who has driven from Stockport, but he forsakes his car to make the final leg of the journey by train, because it seems like the responsible thing to do. My wife has joined us because she wants to meet this ‘Geordie’ who has impressed her by goading me on Facebook. From the railway station the three of us stroll up Portman Road towards the St Jude’s Tavern. It’s about 1:30 and Portman Road is much busier than usual at this time on a match day. Zero the sniffer dog is out and about and so are plenty of strangers in black and white striped shirts. It’s somehow appropriate that the Newcastle United kit should be monochrome because all their greatest moments were back in the days of black and white film.
There is already a good trade at the kiosks for match day programmes. Today has been anointed ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (presumably because he managed both clubs and was a Newcastle supporter as a boy) and the programme is a 100 page ‘special’ which includes a Sir Bobby Robson tribute. It costs a quid more than usual and a donation from the programme sales will go to the Bobby Robson Foundation. Also celebrating the day is the local paper, which is selling ‘Bobby Robson Goodie Bags’. The paper flogs ordinary, anonymous ‘goody bags’ at most games, so I anticipate may be a Bobby Robson novelty hat or a plastic effigy of the great man in this one; but for a pound all that’s on offer is the usual copy of the East Anglian Daily Times, a bottle of water and a packet of crisps all in a clear polythene bag.
Up at St Jude’s Tavern we chat and decide the result doesn’t matter as long as there are plenty of incidents in the game to make us laugh. St Jude’s is busy with pre-match drinkers, but from the long list of real beers there is only time to sample two before we have to head back round the corner and down the hill to Portman Road. The streets behind the stands are thronged with folk going to the match, hurrying along to their allotted turnstile; it’s like a real life version of LS Lowry’s ‘Going to the match’, or it would be if it wasn’t for the modern obesity epidemic. It will be a big gate today with the club having given season ticket holders the chance to buy up to four additional seats for a tenner each; added to which of course it is a Bank Holiday, it is ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (I feel like there should be a cheer after I type that) and the visitors are Newcastle United, the best supported team in the division. The ‘perfect storm’ is avoided however, as Ipswich have been rubbish this season and so there is no local ‘feel good factor’ and consequently the official attendance is over 4,500 short of capacity at 25,684.
We part company with our Newcastle supporting friend as he heads off to join those of his ilk in the Cobbold Stand, whilst my wife and I head for the monastic calm of the Co-op Stand upper tier. Soothed by the balm that is Sir Bobby Robson day, the biggest crowd of the season is largely a happy one and there isn’t the toxic, moronic, vitriolic atmosphere of the derby game with Norwich; the only other time more than 20,000 attended Portman Road this season. Once the game starts it becomes apparent that this could be the best Ipswich have played all season. Newcastle are frankly disappointing considering they have been top of the league most weeks since last August, but Ipswich give a far better account of themselves than usual and there is no injustice as they take the lead courtesy of Freddie Sears just a few minutes before half-time . However, there has been a private party going on in the seat next to me since about a quarter past three, for that is when my Pompey owning wife (she’s a shareholder) learned that Portsmouth had scored at Notts County, potentially clinching promotion to the Third Division. She’s barely paid attention to what’s happening in front of her since then, being consumed with what another team of Blues are doing to some another team of Magpies 225 kilometres away in Nottingham.
At half-time I find it is necessary to run the gauntlet of the sickly fragrance of the urinal deodoriser blocks that are so redolent of football stadia. Along with frying onions, the whiff of ‘urinal cake’ always conjures up the thrill of the professional football for me. Relieved, I return to my seat in time to catch the tail end of another tribute to Sir Bobby Robson in the form of some competitive cheerleading, as a dozen or more girls in white shorts and tops and a few boys in tracky bottoms jump and throw themselves about in honour of Sir Bobby in time to some energetic music, including an up-tempo version of Sir Bobby’s favourite ‘My Way’.
The second half continues in a similar vein to the first with Newcastle still disappointing and possibly still missing their 1970’s striker John Tudor, who the historian in me would have loved to have seen line up alongside Marcus Stewart. But in the 62nd minute Newcastle all of sudden and without warning cut through the Ipswich team ‘like a knife through butter’ leaving former Town starlet Daryl Murphy with a chance he can’t miss, and he doesn’t. However, nothing really changes but the score and after another seven minutes David McGoldrick restores Ipswich’s advantage as Freddie Sears’ cross carves open the Newcastle defence albeit with just a hint of offside.
Without any sense of irony or apparent memory of the many matches that they have witnessed in more or less total silence, the Ipswich supporters in the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “You’re not singing anymore” to the 1,900 odd Newcastle fans who, it has to be said, aren’t singing anymore. Meanwhile 225 kilometres to the northwest, Notts County equalised not long after half-time and the Pompey party next to me is for the time being on hold.
Ipswich are playing pretty well and if either team is likely to score again it is them. The taciturn Town fans are thawing out and some of them in the East of England Co-operative Stand dare to break into a rhythmic clap as their team passes, moves and generally threatens the Magpie’s goal in the way that proper football teams do. Then Portsmouth take the lead through Jamal Lowe; the afternoon moves up a gear and does so again on the cusp of time-added-on as Lowe scores Pompey’s third and three minutes into time-added-on Ipswich also get their third and most satisfying goal with the poetically named Emrys Huws despatching an inevitably spectacular volley from a lonely position at the far post. The game ends soon after and the Town support is as ecstatic as it knows how to be and Portsmouth, the biggest fan-owned club in the Football League are promoted back to Division Three after four seasons.
We meet up with our friend from the North again at the railway station and I offer him my condolences; to his credit he takes the result like a man, or at least like someone who has supported an under-achieving football club all of his life. However, Sir Bobby Robson and his day notwithstanding, in my household it is the Portsmouth result that really matters today and at home later that evening a champagne cork pops.