I didn’t think I would be, but I am a bit excited at the prospect of Ipswich Town’s first game of the season. It’s the 47th first day of the season since I started watching Town in 1971, so I should be getting over it by now, but it seems I’m not; despite the misery of last season, despite the fact that I despise the players because they are ridiculously over-paid and choose to spend that money on ostentatious Range Rovers, tattoos and dodgy haircuts; despite the fact that Ipswich Town is a miserable club which has forbidden me to even bang a tambourine in support of the team; despite the fact that the atmosphere in Portman Road is funereal most of the time and despite the fact that my season ticket costs over £400. What the heck’s the matter with me?
So, it is in a confused state of mind that I board the 12:57 train for Ipswich. But that’s the human condition. Across the carriage a tanned man with piercing blue eyes, dressed from head to toe in hi-vis clothing shouts into his mobile phone “Hello….. hello?….can you hear me?” Pause. “I’m now on it now”. I and I imagine everyone else in the carriage assumes he means he is on the train, rather than on a rocking horse or night boat to Cairo; he doesn’t sound like he’s lying, but you never know. Directly opposite me sits a younger man with a beard, he’s wearing a back to front baseball hat, sunglasses, deck shoes and shorts which show off his pale, hairless, skinny legs. He is listening to his phone through earphones. I wouldn’t want to sit on a train looking like that, so I don’t; I am a free man.
It was a sunny day when I left home, but a tumble of dark clouds are rolling across the sky and now, emerging from the railway tunnel into Ipswich station the sky is battleship grey and about to open fire. I hurry towards the St Jude’s pub with my umbrella at the ready, not pausing to admire the banners on the lamp posts proclaiming the partnership of Ipswich Borough Council and Ipswich Town Football Club, which make a grand addition to the streetscape. What better way to promote the town than through pride in its football club. I walk up Portman Road which the police appear to have blockaded at one end with a big white truck, probably because they can.
In the pub, the usual crowd of pre-match drinkers is there and I drink a pint of Springhead Brewery’s ‘A touch o’ the black stuff’ (£3.40) and a pint of ‘Old Growler’ (£3.60). I meet a couple there who aren’t going to the game however; he has better things to do and she loathes football, which two reasons are probably why most people don’t go. We discuss plum trees, retirement and living in France. By the time we are finished drinking and talking it is now raining heavily so on the walk back to the ground, despite employing my umbrella, I get wet trousers. It crosses my mind that this grim, grey, soggy and oppressive afternoon might be a portent of the season to come for Ipswich Town. One has such irrational thoughts on the opening day of the season.
Inside the ground with a drained bladder I take my seat and the game begins.
There are some 2,000 Birmingham City supporters here today which is appropriate because it is Birmingham City who are the visiting team.
Inevitably it is they who are providing that ‘atmosphere’ supposedly redolent of British football grounds. They sing that they have Harry Redknapp, which doesn’t seem like much to be proud of given that he managed Portsmouth to virtual extinction and both Southampton and Bournemouth went bust after he left. At Portsmouth it is reported he received 10% of transfer fees and when this dropped to 5%, money amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds was deposited in a bank account in Monaco in the name of his pet dog. Redknapp was found not guilty of tax evasion. Tellingly perhaps, Redknapp is quoted in the programme as saying that if he gets the tools he will do a good job; by tools it seems likely he means cash for transfers. He doesn’t sound like he’d want to manage Ipswich and I’m not sorry. Having celebrated their team’s manager, to the tune of ‘Roll out the barrel’ the Brummies regale us with a heartfelt rendition of another of their own compositions, ‘Shit on The Villa’; which unfortunately for me conjures a picture in my mind of blokes squatting beneath the street lamps of the Aston Expressway with their trousers round their ankles, Andrex at the ready.
Five minutes into the match and the rain stops, the clouds clear and the sun is now shining, the pitch glows an unnatural, almost luminous green. Some football breaks out. Town have a shot on goal and the locals applaud. “We forgot, We forgot, We forgot the you were here” chants the Brummies’ male voice choir, which suggests a worrying level of short term memory loss, although that might be explained by excessive pre-match alcohol intake in the Station Hotel where notices in the windows announce “Away Fans Only”.
A bit before 3.30 pm there is a break in play as a recumbent Jordan Spence receives succour from the physio. It’s time for drinks all round on the pitch whilst the ever vocal visitors from Birmingham break into a turgid rendition of “Keep right on to the end of the road” showing their continued love for music hall in this worrying age of drum n bass and Ed Sheeran. Happily Mr Spence recovers, although he continues to wear a pair of sickly green boots. The programme today contains an article about Town’s Jordan Spence entitled “Spence Force”; a title which being a play on the phrase “Spent Force” doesn’t seem at all complimentary, as if saying his best days are gone. Someone really needs to tell programme editors that just because something is a pun or play on words doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate as a headline. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to future articles about Luke Chambers, Grant Ward, Cole Skuse and Teddy Bishop entitled “Torture Chambers”, “Ward of Court”, “Poor ex-Skuse” and “Bash the Bishop”.
It’s been a fairly dull first half and the silhouetted girders of the Cobbold stand roof are as beautiful as any football we’ve seen. Ipswich are playing neatly enough but not looking like scoring, despite a corner count of four to nil, and it almost seems sarcastic when a chant of ”Ipswich, Ipswich” emanates from the lower tier of the North Stand. But to their credit the home crowd is showing patience and understanding as they applaud an over-hit pass that Freddie Sears quickly sees he should give up on as soon as he starts to give chase. There is more applause as Grant Ward finishes an embryonic one-two pass and move with Dominic Iorfa by sending the ball into touch. Is this applause support or sympathy? That opening day optimism is a powerful emotion that won’t be put down.
There’s only five minutes to half time and following a corner Town’s England U19 starlet Andre Dozzell slips to the ground as he turns away from the goal. It is immediately apparent he has hurt himself and the Birmingham goalkeeper David Stockdale admirably goes over to ’the boy’ Dozzell to reassure him and calls the referee to stop the game and let the physio on. Quickly the first aid crew attend and Town’s electric buggy glides across the turf bearing a stretcher; “What the fucking hell is that” sing those musical Brummies denying any apparent knowledge of the existence of golf carts or milk floats. Feigning ignorance of such things can only serve to reinforce the impression that the West Midlands accent creates for the rest of the population of the UK that Brummies are thick bastards, whether they are or not.
The first aid team give Dozzell oxygen to alleviate shock and pain and he has to be taken from the pitch on the electric cart, but to generous applause from all around the ground, suggesting that not all the Brummies are as thick as they are pretending to be. Half-time arrives and I seek respite under the stand with the latest scores and a Traidcraft chewy cereal bar that I brought with me because Ipswich Town haven’t yet shown any inclination to provide ethically sourced snacks and refreshments. I meet a former work colleague under that stand whose wife is queuing on his behalf for coffee, she’s not a football fan and I get the impression she is here under duress, so she probably hopes she’ll miss that start of the second half.
I have a quick look through the programme hoping for something bold and original for the new season, but the layout and design is boring and offers nothing more than a sort of menu across the top of the page to make it look like it’s on a website. But it’s not on a website, it’s a paper publication. There are thick glossy pages and lots of them, but like at every other professional club it’s full of the usual platitudinous pap; there’s not even a victory for style over content this season it seems.
The second half begins and Ipswich look more positive than they did in the first half and so it proves and with just five minutes gone a low cross from Jonas Knudsen is passed into the Birmingham goal by debutant Joe Garner. Oh how I cheered and clapped and acted like a consummate fool! That misunderstood feeling of excitement, that optimism has been rewarded.
From now on Ipswich are the better team and do not look like they are going to lose. Birmingham win a few corners near the end but they have little composure or control. In the second half I take more interest in the football than I did in the first and don’t look around the ground so much, although there is a small disturbance off to my right and much masturbatory inspired gesticulating from the Brum fans towards persons unknown amongst the Town contingent. The stewards stare into the crowd trying to spot the culprits. At the end of the match this antagonism carries on with some Brummies coming into the Churchman’s stand looking to tolchock some Ipswich droogs. As a result the exit onto Portman Road is closed by police with a steward in enormous earphones turning people back. There is much muttering and displeasure as everyone has to file through the players’ car park and leave via the practice pitch or the gates in Constantine Road. The one advantage of this is that I get to pass the sign in the car park which thanks me for my visit, which is nice. Other exits from the stadium do not offer this courtesy, implying that if you’re one of the few who have driven to the stadium, probably in an unnecessarily large car which the club have let you park on the premises, then you’re much more welcome than if you are just one of the 18,000 who have had to cough up your hard earned cash to come in through the turnstile.
The first match of the season is over and those early clouds have rained pennies from heaven all over town; it’s been a good afternoon; the Town have won and not played too badly at all. It’s just one game admittedly, but it’s an early two fingers to those people who furiously didn’t renew their season tickets because the football was rubbish, but also an endorsement for those people who played nicely and applauded when well–intentioned passes went astray. For proper football supporters it’s not about winning, it’s about being there. Yeah, but we won too!