It is Boxing Day and I would quite like to stay in and eat and drink the leftovers from the day before, may be read a book, watch a film, do some colouring-in in my book of “…tous les 20 logos des équipes de Ligue 1 pour la saison 2016-17.” The colouring book was a Christmas present.
Up until 1959 there were Football League matches played on Christmas Day; imagine that. Often, a season’s biggest attendance is drawn for a Boxing Day game and whilst this used to be due to local derbies, there is still an added attraction for games played over the Christmas holiday period, perhaps just because there’s not a lot else to do.
Mindful of the tradition of the Boxing Day football fixture today I am setting out to watch Ipswich at home to Queen’s Park Rangers, which as a London club is as close as we now get to a local derby on a public holiday. Sadly, in these cautious, pale and insipid, wimpish modern times the days of the Christmas and Easter derby games against Norwich are long gone. Incredibly, there is no public transport today; it is wrong that that a football match that will definitely draw a crowd in excess of 10,000 is allowed to go ahead at all when there are no buses and no trains. So much for trying to reduce road congestion and air pollution by discouraging the use of private cars.
Previously, I have not bothered with Boxing Day games because of the absence of public transport, but no one wanted my ticket today and rather than waste it I thought I’d help contribute to global warming instead and drive to the game. Parking up ‘over Chantry’, it’s a pleasant stroll down through sunny Gippeswyk Park beneath a pale blue winter sky towards Portman Road. From the top of the Park there is a fine view across the town centre, which takes in the Portman Road floodlights and the back drop of town centre office blocks which define down-town Ipswich from a distance. It’s a bit after two o’clock and the streets are quiet; I walk past the railway station not quite believing that it could be shut, but it definitely is.
On Princes Street, banners have been put up on the lamp standards to advertise the pantomime at the Regent theatre; aside from the railway station being shut, it’s the only sign that it might be Christmas. Across the car park from Portman Road the former Sporting Farmer public house sits shut and awaiting demolition; it’s been a part of the match day landscape of Ipswich since 1962, but there is no seasonal, pre-match boozing this year, just Heras fencing and darkened windows.
Portman Road is a little busier than usual for a quarter past two, and I snake my way through the crowds as I head for the Fanzone. Usually, I might have a couple of pre-match pints at St Jude’s Tavern, but having to drive to the match today has meant that
not only will I be helping destroy the planet, I will also be helping with the decline of the local economy. A group of three or four stewards stand at the entrance to the Fanzone, checking tickets and bags. A casual wave of my season ticket card and I’m in. I feel like I’ve been admitted to Studio 54.
In the Fanzone there is a large white marquee that looks like something from a summer wedding reception. It’s warm inside the marquee and people mill about holding plastic cups of lager and Greene King beer. At one end are three TV screens, which face three or four neat lines of chairs, it’s like a waiting room, it just needs a few magazines and an occasional table. Outside there is a children’s penalty shoot-out, which is popular, in contrast to the merchandise stall from which a lonely salesperson peers blankly.
There’s nothing for me here so I leave and make my way to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand; inside I decide to break with tradition and invest in an overpriced cup of hot chocolate. A pretty, smiling young woman serves me and asks for £2.10. I hand her a twenty-pound note and apologise, but add that the club doesn’t make her job any easier by sticking odd ten pences onto their prices. She agrees that the prices are awkward for what is supposed to be a fast service. Any way to squeeze an extra few pence out of the supporters though. Clutching my Cadbury’s branded cup of pale brown liquid I find my seat. The club mascot Bluey is prowling the aisle that leads to my seat, offering himself up for selfies and hugs. Bluey doesn’t speak and a woman tries to communicate with him through grunts and sign language; odd.
Once Bluey has gone I take the plastic lid off my hot chocolate and stir it thoroughly to ensure that all of the chocolatey gunk which contains the flavour has dissolved. I taste the pale brown liquid; it’s watery and the water has a slight tang which fights with and then beats off the chocolate flavour. Hot chocolate should be thick, this isn’t; I won’t be buying it again.
The game begins and the QPR fans are the quickest this season to ask if they are in a library, it’s almost as if they had already decided that would be their first song before they even got here. Ipswich start the game reasonably well and David McGoldrick soon has a decent shot on goal. Teddy Bishop, who I don’t feel I have ever really seen play, has made a rare start and is looking good, although QPR seem intent of kicking him into the air at every opportunity; perhaps because he has the temerity to run at defenders.
Teddy returns to the toy box before half-time due to injury and the game goes downhill from here. Callum Connolly has had a good looking shot from distance for Ipswich and Bartosz Bialkowski tips a QPR player’s header onto the cross-bar, but otherwise the game is awful. The physicality of the game leads to injuries, which are a good way of wasting time and nullifying the scant football content still further. The referee Mr Andy Davies, a couple of physios and a clutch of QPR players with bald heads create a tableau of suffering in the QPR penalty area. The only cheers from the crowd are derisive ones as a pass goes wildly astray or someone falls over, which happens quite a lot; derisive cheers are what the Portman Road crowd does best.
Half-time is a blessed relief and I descend beneath the stand to check the other half-time scores and join the spectators standing about and gawping at the tv screens which mostly advertise some mysterious place called Brocket Hall and days at the races. White lights dangle from the high roof and there is a Christmas tree at the foot of the stairs to
the Legends Bar and a string of something green winds its way around a soil pipe, but otherwise it doesn’t seem like Boxing Day, the Christmas spirit is elusive.
I decide to endure the second half with Phil the ever present fan but today he has his son Elwood with him and the seats beyond Elwood are taken up by people for whom this is presumably some sort of Christmas ‘treat’. I sit a couple of rows back next to Pat the secretary of the Clacton branch of the supporters club. Pat admits to not really liking Boxing Day fixtures either, she’d rather be at home and says she hopes every year for away fixture.
The second half witnesses the home crowd finally get festive with an albeit isolated chorus of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away, and we will fight for ever more, because of Boxing Day” . Christmas is the season of peace and goodwill to all men after all, but that may be why, regrettably, Ipswich Town have not played Norwich City on Boxing Day for over thirty years.
The match gets worse; both teams are inept, but this is largely due to their desire to simply run around as fast as they can and knock each other off the ball. A lot of modern professional football is like this in an age where the levels of fitness and strength of footballers exceed the level of their skill. Sports science is a curse. Both Ipswich and Queen’s Park Rangers are managed by pragmatists whose teams are built on their ability to ‘put in a shift’. I get tired just watching it; or is it bored?
Seven minutes from time Ipswich Town bring on arguably their most skilful player, Bersant Celina. The crowd cheer cheerily for once. Messiah-like, Bersant brings light to the game and brightens up the final minutes. He introduces some hope, some optimism, but that’s all, even when QPR’s Josh Scowen is sent off, booked by Mr Davies for a second time. Despite Scowen making the longest walk even longer there are only three minutes of added on time and they quickly ebb away as does the crowd of 18,696 when Mr Davies blows the final whistle.