‘I like my football on a Saturday’ sang Ray Davies in the Kinks song Autumn Almanac and it’s convenient for the purposes of this piece to believe he meant that he liked his football on the afternoon of the first day of the weekend to the exclusion of all other days. If it had scanned, Ray might have added that a smattering of mid-week evening matches during the season are fine and the occasional Friday game as well, because as every TV commentator knows the atmosphere under lights ‘is always a bit special’. But football should not be played at midday ever, and definitely not on a Sunday. To make matters worse today’s match is the ‘derby’ between Ipswich and Norwich, the most over-hyped and unpleasant fixture of the season. It is with a heavy heart full of bitterness and rancour therefore that I set off at twenty to eleven to catch the train to Ipswich to watch this match. At least I have the recent memory of sausage, bacon, eggs, mushroom, tomatoes and a few rounds of toast plus tea and coffee to sustain me and ensure I won’t need to buy any over-priced, low nutrition, grease-based lunch inside Portman Road.
It is a grey, cloudy morning but as the train hoves into view faint sunlight can just about be discerned, but it won’t last. A few other people board the train with me and are clearly bound for Ipswich and the match. A man opposite me seems to struggle to respond to his young daughter’s questions and conversation. At Colchester a couple on Platform 4 awaiting a London bound train nuzzle up to each other and hold hands. The carriage fills up at Manningtree with an assortment of blue shirted people, mostly men. The train crosses the river, the tide is neither in nor out; if I was looking for portents, may be that would suggest the game will be drawn. A few seats away an opinionated man dominates the conversation with his fellow travellers, his piercing voice finding a pitch that cuts through the rattle and whoosh of the speeding train, or perhaps he is just shouting. Arriving at Ipswich we are welcomed by a bevy of hi-vis clad police who wait by the foot of the pedestrian bridge. Outside there are more police, and more, and more, and more. There are white police vans with mesh grilles to cover the windows, motor bikes, dogs, horses, Kevlar, helmets and batons. I thought I was travelling to a football match, but I appear to have arrived in Paris in May 1968, or Brixton in the summer of 1981.
A long crocodile of Norwich supporters; mostly ugly blokes in their twenties and thirties, are being shepherded along the pavement across the road; they chant coarsely and leer both threateningly and gormlessly at Ipswich fans across the street, who look and behave just like them. A policeman on horseback steers an errant Norwich fan in the right direction by grabbing him by the hood of his coat and dragging him back into line. Depressed, I soldier on in to Portman Road, a young policeman asks me “Are you Sir Alf?” by which I quickly surmise he means is my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, but not before I laugh and it crosses my mind to say “No I’m not, and I don’t think you’ll find him here today, he died in 1999.” I think there is a flicker of recognition across the policeman’s face that his question was a bit daft or at best poorly framed, but I’m not completely sure. I don’t know why he picked out me to ask. Perhaps I looked a bit lost, I feel it. There are metal barriers along Portman Road to usher the Norwich people into their area of the Cobbold Stand and tables are stood before the turnstiles where bags are being searched, but no one is being patted down, so it would be possible to smuggle in a flare or smoke canister or firecracker under your coat, if that was your thing.
Inside the ground I buy a programme (£3.00), talk to a steward I used to work with and then take my seat in the stand. Someone has smuggled in a smoke canister and the acrid smell and the smoke waft up from the concourse beneath the seats. The public address system drowns out the sound of any noise football supporters might spontaneously make and the stadium announcer gives a clue to his age and catholic tastes by playing Bon Jovi and Heaven 17. The teams come onto the pitch and everyone has been given blue pieces of card to hold up to ‘turn the stadium blue’; it doesn’t look that impressive and would look better if some bands of seats had been given white cards to hold up; at least the club has tried however. I am confident of an Ipswich win today based on the law of averages: Town having not recorded a victory in any of the last eight matches between the clubs it’s about time they did.
The game begins with a roar of enthusiasm and there are people stood up in the seats in front of me, which results in the drafting in of extra stewards. The lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey isn’t usually populated by people who would stand during a game, indeed it’s likely that standing to pee is as much as many of the regulars can manage. But the front of the Alf Ramsey Stand is close to the seats where the Norwich people are accommodated and therefore if you like nothing more than spending an afternoon making masturbatory gestures, gurning and telling people they are ‘scum’ and should ‘fuck off’, it’s the only place to be. There are a few chants from Ipswich supporters but very few from the Sir Alf Ramsey stand lower tier, which is more full than usual, but seemingly no more likely to burst into song in support of the team, despite its newly acquired standing contingent.
The first half is pretty even, but whilst Norwich may keep the ball for longer, Ipswich come closest to scoring. Early on Town’s Danish defender Jonas Knudsen kicks the ball very, very hard against a post of the Norwich goal; what he lacks in craft and accuracy he sometimes makes up for by kicking the ball very hard. David McGoldrick heads the ball over the goal from a free-kick when he could and should score, but this is symptomatic of an anxiety that permeates his play all afternoon.
There’s a cold wind swirling about the stadium and I have turned up the collar of my coat. At half-time I seek shelter in the space beneath the stand where the bars are doing a good trade. A large group of young men are singing, clearly not understanding that traditionally at football the singing takes place on the ’terraces’ during play. It seems that a generation or more of Ipswichians has forgotten or may be never have learned how to support their team. I wander up and down a bit and notice the large banners projecting from pillars announcing that Greene King brewery is proud to be supporting Ipswich Town, and they are no doubt proud too to know that their bland and insipid IPA bitter is being sold for £3.90 a pint. Back up in the stand one of Town’s more senior supporters tucks into a ham sandwich that he brought to the match wrapped in tin foil.
The game returns and Norwich are better than before and by a quarter past one they take the lead through James Maddison, who sounds and looks like he could be in a boy band. Maddison parades about the pitch, his floppy hair bouncing as if he is advertising L’Oreal shampoo, because today he is worth the £3million Norwich paid Coventry for him. Little Jimmy Maddison is better than anyone Ipswich have in midfield today, but of course he’s no Arnold Muhren.
Ridiculously, given the amount of time left, the goal kills the game. Norwich are better on the ball than Ipswich, they have a plan and are versed in winning 1-0 away from home. Ipswich don’t have the guile or skill; they run about, but they hit and hope too much and it will take more than the half an hour left for the law of averages to render a goal from this random approach. Naturally, the Ipswich fans are unable to help because they don’t even try. A bloke near me becomes frustrated and begins abusing the Town players. It is disappointing, but if the supporters don’t know how to support the team why should the players know how to play. The Norwich supporters have songs they all know, they are coherent like their team, and neither the Ipswich team nor its supporters has any answers.
The final whistle provides a sort of relief and I leave the ground as quickly as possible whilst some Ipswich supporters boo their own team, which no doubts adds to the Norwich people’s joy. The police presence outside the ground and on the approach to the railway station is as great as before the game. Rank upon rank of policemen and women are strung across Princes Street, a human obstacle course to the stream of fans heading to catch their trains.
It’s been a disappointing day; everything about the day has been depressing, which I guess the law of averages says has to happen sometimes. But as Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss tells us, all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Yeah, right. Keep the faith.