Ipswich Town and Preston North End are arguably two of the least interesting teams in whatever it is that Football League Division Two is now called. Preston, despite being the original ‘Invincibles’ have not played in the top flight of English football since 1960 and now, almost famously, Ipswich have been becalmed, marooned, stuck in English football’s second tier for 15 years and nobody really expects either club to do much more than finish in mid-table. Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy said as much in his pre-match press conference; he is nothing if not truthful is our Mick. These two ‘small-town’ provincial clubs have both enjoyed a level of success in the past that far exceeds what might be expected of them and for that reason they are both very special.
It is a grey, wet, blustery, thoroughly autumnal day as I set out for the train station and the bright floodlights of Ipswich. The largely infrequent, but nevertheless large plops of rain are enough to warrant the carrying of an umbrella, which the wind blows inside out. A Colchester United fan boards the train with me, blissfully unaware that his team are destined to lose at home to non-league Oxford City later this afternoon in the first round of the FA Cup. A Town fan in a wheelchair sits by the sliding doors. Leaves swirl horizontally past the train window. Pulling out of Colchester the serried ranks of suburban homes look at their best on such a drab day; the wet tarmac of the estate road shining in front of them like a snail trail under torchlight. Opposite me a mother and daughter sit, each with the same long, blond/mousey hair and Roman nose. One is doing her best to look much younger, the other trying hard to look holder. It makes me feel guilty to be a man. At Manningtree the grey clouds and subdued colours of the trees in Dedham Vale are just right to keep John Constable at his easel and away from Portman Road this afternoon, but four other blokes get on and share their mild, blokey humour with one another. I look down out of the window and see a tomato plant on the track and three plump green tomatoes that will never be fried or ripen to be eaten in a Salade Nicoise.
The train arrives on time in Ipswich and the man in the wheelchair asks me to find a guard to get him off the train; happily, the first one I meet is on her way to get him. Outside, Ipswich is beautiful in a grey, wet and shiny sort of a way. I head down Princes Street then down and up Portman Road to St Matthews Street and St Jude’ s Tavern. In Portman Road the turnstiles are already open, stewards fiddle with their metal detectors and the sniffer dog and his handler peer up the street. I think about buying a match programme as I approach the kiosk and read ‘Here to help’ on the back of the seller’s jacket. I am tempted to test the boast by asking if the programme is worth the £3 I would be expected to pay for it.
I chicken out and walk on, saving my cash to spend just two-thirds of it on a pint of Nethergate IPA at St Jude’s; it’s cheap because it is today’s Match Day Special! It is so good I have another and then, to avoid feeling like a complete skinflint I pay full price (£3.40) for a pint of Bearstown Polar Eclipse, a dark beer which is exceedingly good. At the table next to me in the pub are a group of five Preston North End fans; I tell them I have heard good things of their bus station and they smile, sort of. It transpires that none of them now lives in Preston. One of them tells me they are literally ‘exiles’; I don’t ask. I chat off and on with them and one confides that Ipswich are still the best team he has ever seen play against Preston; in an FA Cup third round match in 1979 which Town won 3-0. It is one of those “aw shucks” moments to hear my team complimented so. Another one of the group tells me how amazed they are that St Jude’s is so close Portman Road, is such a good pub and yet isn’t rammed to the gills. I confide that Ipswich fans don’t seem to ‘get’ real ale and it reminds me of how in Hunter Davies’ book ‘The Glory Game’ a Spurs skinhead says how Ipswich is his favourite place to visit, “More cunt” he says “They ain’t got no supporters. All the geezers up there don’t know what it’s for. We always stay the night there and chase their birds’. That was in 1972; that skinhead later became Defence Minister, allegedly……
I bid farewell to the good Prestonians, wishing them a happy season as they leave for the match before I visit the lavatory and then set off for Portman Road myself, remembering to return my empty glass to the bar before I leave. As I turn into Portman Road I notice the poor state of the street name plate, which looks like someone has got at it with an angle grinder. Slightly upset that anyone could do this to something that signifies an Ipswich icon, I nevertheless continue on my way. The weather has cleared up and
although the floodlights are on, the lowering sun is still to be seen over the silver roof of the north stand, or Sir Bobby Robson stand as it is now known. I pass on down Portman Road and the statue of Sir Bobby seems to point me on my way, which is unnecessarily helpful of him. I glance up at the Cobbold Stand admiring the rhythm of its concrete stanchions, although no doubt it fails to impress the Preston fans, spoiled by their fabulous Grade II listed, Brutalist, bus station. There is no queue at the turnstile and no security check to ensure I am not a suicide bomber or concealing a musical instrument about my person, which would be a serious breach of ground regulations.
Before today’s match there is a minute’s silence because this is the closest day to Armistice Day on which Town have a home match and apparently the club wants to pay its respects. It is weird, in all those years when there were most people still alive who fought in the two greatest conflicts ever, the two World Wars, a minute’s silence only took place at 11 am on the 11th of November and on Remembrance Sunday; nowadays it’s best to tread softly at this time of year when entering a football stadium in case you inadvertently interrupt one. There are eight paratroopers in the centre circle and a lone bugler who plays the last post. The bugler is miked up and relayed through the PA system, but unfortunately because the PA system is so loud there is feedback or reverb and a simultaneous ‘farted’ rendition of the last post is heard through the loudspeakers. According to Wikipaedia, Le Pétomane, Joseph Pujol the French ‘flatulist’ retired from the stage because he was so horrified by the inhumanity of the First World War.
The paratroopers march off and around the pitch as people applaud and into the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand where they break ranks and begin to fumble in their tunic pockets for their match tickets, looking a bit confused as to where they are supposed to sit. The game begins. It’s awful. Perhaps one of the worst forty five minutes of ‘football’ I have ever seen. Nothing of any genuine sporting interest happens. Preston players fall over a lot, but the Ipswich trainer is also called on to attend to the fallen and all that really happens is that added-on time is racked up. Even Crazee the Ipswich Town mascot looks to have given up all hope today as he hangs his head despairingly, standing at the top of the stairs. Mick MCarthy adopts various poses, showing himself off to good effect in his nylon tracksuit. I spend a little time looking at the Preston supporters to see if I can spot the blokes I was in the pub with; in a following of about 430 it’s not that difficult and I pick them out all sat in a row. I wonder what they are making of the game. My attention is then caught by the Preston number four Ben Pearson because his hair is longer than that of the other players; watching it flow and flop and bounce as he runs about is more entertaining than the game and I am reminded of Adrian Rabiot of Paris St Germain, as I often am by my wife who is besotted with him. But Pearson is no Rabiot and he needs more work on his hair.
As ever, the Portman Road crowd (14,390 today) is very quiet; there is a momentary rumble of drums at the start of the match and some muffled chants but they soon lose interest in getting behind the team. I chant and clap “Ipswich! Ipswich! Ipswich!” when a corner is won, but am ignored in the same way that people would put their heads down and pass quickly on past a drunken derelict shouting at passing cars. The first and only ripple of anything like enthusiasm manifests itself on 23 minutes when the crowd cheer the booking of Preston’s Jorgan Hugill; that’s what they thrive on in Ipswich, Schadenfreude. Incidentally, Hugill is a man who, with his World War One conscript style hair cut looks from a distance a bit like Terry Hall formerly of The Specials and Fun Boy Three. Preston have many injured players who cannot play today and with a weakened team it seems that they are banking on ensuring no football is played, in the belief or hope that twenty two blokes just running around and occasionally falling over will result in a goalless draw. Sadly Ipswich don’t have the wit or guile to prevent this and have a bit of a record of adopting a similar tactic in recent seasons, relying on randomly won free-kicks and corners to create goalmouth confusion and hopefully goals, albeit scrappy ones. All goes well for Preston until Ipswich’s Martyn Waghorn wins a free-kick some 25 metres from goal. It’s a chance to by-pass the awkward footballing bit of the game and just kick the ball over the assembled human wall of Preston players and straight at the goal. This is what Martyn Waghorn proceeds to do, sweeping the ball majestically over that Maginot Line and into the goal as Preston’s goalkeeper Chris Maxwell helpfully throws himself out of the way. Within five minutes added-on time there is a moment in which Preston’s dreadlocked Daniel Johnson launches the ball on to the top of the Ipswich cross-bar with a flash of inspiration, but then it’s half time. The crowd applaud as Town leave the field, forgetting the first forty-four minutes of the match and only recalling the last five in which Town took the lead. But I have mentioned it, lest we forget.
I seek out a former work colleague at half-time who I had spoken to on the phone the day before; he sits with his grandson who has cerebral palsy. I then meet another friend Phil, who is famous as a man who has seen over a thousand consecutive competitive Town
games home and away; he gets featured in articles and stuff, not just blogs that very few people read. Phil is a proper supporter, whose love for Ipswich Town is unconditional. He doesn’t whine when Town lose, or hurl abuse at Mick McCarthy, he’s too busy worrying if he might miss the next game.
Within three minutes of the resumption of play Town are 2-0 up as David McGoldrick rises at the far post to head in a right wing cross. Phil jumps up much more enthusiastically than I do, but then he is a good ten years younger than me. People around me are happier now, but even before the goal they seem generally lighter of mood in this little bit of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand than they do where I usually sit. It’s as if the first half was July 28th to December 24th 1914 and now it’s Christmas Day and a football match has spontaneously broken out.
Things get better still as a move down the right sees Ipswich’s Kosovan loanee Bursant Celina forge his way into the penalty area and surprise everyone by suddenly booting the ball into the goal past the goalkeeper, who is inevitably by now hapless. Phil and I chant “Ohhh, Bursant Celina” to the tune of Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. No one else joins in. Preston are now forced to seriously alter their game plan and Ipswich are therefore required to defend more, so we don’t see any more goals today. Ipswich fans are happy and smiling and there are even some chants at the other end of the ground. The North standers, their confidence boosted by the three goal cushion, remember that the Preston manager was previously the Norwich City manager; “Alex Neal; what a wanker” they sing.
Those seeking out the familiar territory of disappointment can do so by reflecting that Ipswich haven’t scored four or five goals today, but to be fair to the team they have achieved a very respectable victory by playing just half a game. With the final whistle I applaud the team and then file away with everyone else into Saturday evening. At the southern end of Portman Road the street nameplate which sits at first floor level on the Archant building looks pristine in contrast to that at the northern end.