During the night I kept waking up in the middle of strange dreams, dreams of a spiritual, religious nature. In one I seemed to be a captive of some religious sect and a younger man who was with me wrote something on a piece of paper and hid it inside what looked like a part of a curtain rail. At that moment another man, who looked as if he might be a priest walked in, took the curtain rail and looked at the message etched inside, which consisted of the numbers 6 and 10. The ‘priest’ smiled and I seemed to know what he was going to say, but was a bit surprised when he said ‘Love thy Club’. That’s a bit naff, I thought. Either my descent into madness is further advanced than I realised or a large brandy before going to bed is not advisable.
Today is grey and cold and as I walk to catch the train to Ipswich, there is the occasional spot of rain in the air carried on a swirling breeze. I walk past a dead bird that lies in the road, its feathers are ruffled by the wind. Only three people wait for the train with me, a man and two women, one of whom wears a white coat. I enjoy a poster urging me to keep what would be an imaginary child strapped in. The train arrives, I board and as I walk through the carriage a man in his sixties eyes me and my blue and white scarf
suspiciously, as though he may be a Daily Mail reader. I sit in a seat that I must give up if an elderly or disabled person needs it; I’m not a betting man but I’ll take my chances, it’ll add some excitement to the journey. On the opposite side of the carriage to me are a couple who wear grey, comfortable clothing which blends in with the upholstery. Three people get into the carriage at Manningtree, one is wearing a very large, hooded, Ipswich Town ‘sports coat’; the cream and red stripe on the arms dates it to the mid 1990’s; he looks like a huge gnome.
Arriving in Ipswich it is raining and the plaza in front of the station shines with the wet
sending reflections of lamp posts deep into the ground, a seagull perches on the ridge of a slate roof. There is no one much about and little sign that a football match will soon take place. In Portman Road stewards huddle out of the rain in a doorway and a car park attendant shelters beneath an umbrella.
The only crowd is one of twenty or so Burton Albion supporters waiting to buy tickets.
Rain drops run down the faces of the statues of Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey and look like tears, droplets form at the ends of their noses. Sir Bobby’s fist looks like he’s angrily squeezing a wet sponge. I buy a programme (£3) from a girl in a box with a window, “Enjoy the match” she says.
St Jude’s Tavern welcomes me in from the rain and the gloom with the warm sound of retired men’s conversation. I buy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) and standing at the bar a man with a straggly beard tells me a ‘joke’ about the definition of the word ‘pansexual’, the punchline is something to do with kitchen utensils, which is a bit obvious, but he seems very amused. I take a seat and my friend Mick arrives; he has a pint of the Match Day Special too and asks if non-meat pies are on the menu; they’re not, so he buys a packet of Guinness flavoured crisps. We talk and our conversation covers walnut cake, organised crime, Mick McCarthy, Gilou Escoffier, the attractions of Lille, Charles de Gaulle and his ‘blown-up’ Citroen DS. Mick is considering buying a season ticket next year. We both drink a further pint of the Match Day Special as other drinkers drift away towards Portman Road. Eventually, It is time to leave too, we say goodbye; I depart for the match and Mick for the toilet. Outside, a foreign man waiting at a bus stop steps aside to let me pass, he smiles and says something I don’t understand and I ask him where he’s from. “Turkish” he says and then “Istanbul”. He shakes my hand and I say “Welcome to England”.
There are very few people heading down Portman Road and I half worry that my watch is slow and it’s later than I think, but it’s not, it’s just that the Ipswich public would seem not to be enthused by the prospect of today’s fixture against Burton Albion, the team 24th in the league table, who have lost their last five matches. I don’t understand why, surely it’s a good opportunity to see Town win, and isn’t that the point? Personally, I enjoy games against ‘small’ clubs like Burton Albion, which people who favour analogies drawn from other sports describe as ‘punching above their weight’. I sometimes consider that I am a person more suited to watching lower division football, but I am ‘punching above my weight’ in supporting a team in the Second Division, and I don’t even like boxing.
Portman Road is so quiet as I head for the turnstiles that I feel a bit like Charlton Heston in the Omega Man. I waste no time queueing today, only in deciding which queue-free turnstile to go through; too much choice. Once inside I head straight for ever-present Phil, eschewing my allocated seat in favour of human contact. Today Phil has his young son Elwood with him. The teams are already on the pitch, Burton wearing all yellow, weirdly with black shoulders; they are kicking towards the North Stand.
Ipswich of course wear blue shirts and white shorts with what once were called blue stockings, before socks entered common parlance. The game starts slowly and Ipswich even slower, allowing Burton Albion, nickname ‘the Brewers’ to keep the ball much of the time. Burton’s club badge is a stylised B and an A set within the outline of a man with a beer belly kicking a ball; it’s not about bravado and ‘sporting excellence’ and I like it all the more for that.
An elderly sounding couple with distinct Suffolk accents sit behind me. “There isn’t many here today; twelve thousand?” he says. “They’ll say fifteen, but there in’t ” she says dismissively and almost angrily. A lot of Ipswich supporters seem convinced that the club overstates its attendance figures, it’s a mystery why, particularly given that Marcus Evans the club owner is probably the sort of bloke who is constantly running scared of the Inland Revenue. That’s Ipswich people for you, a suspicious lot.
The football takes on the character of the afternoon, drizzly and soggy. Burton Albion are playing better than Ipswich, but nevertheless there seems little likelihood of them scoring a goal despite the presence in their team of former Ipswich prodigy Darren Bent, but he’s now aged thirty-three and his best years are a fading memory. Behind me, talk turns to how players ‘nowadays’ stay on the ground for ages when they get a knock and thump the turf with their fists; why do they do that other than for reasons of pure affectation? “They’ve got tha wages, why not take ‘em orf” is the frustrated question behind as a Burton player receives treatment. “They could use that cart their got”.
The absence of match atmosphere is palpable. Nevertheless, despite the paucity of the crowd I sense a mild collective will to win as if the real miseries are not here today and those left are as optimistic as Ipswich people get. They sit in near silence in terms of vocal support, but there is a background hum of hope and expectation, although it could just be the rain on the roof. The half ends with Ipswich winning a corner, which there isn’t time to take. There is some booing as the teams leave the field, but I applaud enthusiastically, partly by way of hopeful encouragement and partly because what I have just seen was so poor that I am a little in awe.
At half-time I go down onto the concourse to drain off some of the Match Day Special and then stare with the others at one of the TV screens. The statistics show that Burton Albion had four shots on goal but none was on target; Ipswich did not have a single shot on goal. That of course does not tell the whole story, because the team were terrible in many other ways as well. I turn to leave and see two children looking disbelievingly at the price list of drinks and snacks from the refreshment counter.
I look at the programme which is as dull as the game, but for a piece on Town’s 6-1 victory at Millwall in the sixth round of the FA Cup back in 1978. It was a game that was memorable as a great win, but also for the violent behaviour of some Millwall fans, and Bobby Robson was quoted by Jimmy Hill on Match of the Day as having said that “they should turn the flamethrowers on them”. The piece reports that Bobby Robson later explained that what he had said after the match was said in private and was not for public consumption. The piece then adds rather startlingly that Bobby said it was apparent from letters he had received that what he had said actually summed up the feelings of “all genuine football lovers”. Those were the days.
I return to my seat in time for the re-start of the game, which shows a very slight improvement on the first half as Ipswich finally manage a shot at, but not on goal, which is greeted with ironic and sarcastic cheers and extended applause by the witty home crowd. With an hour gone Ipswich make a double substitution and Mustapha Carayol makes his debut for the team; he is Town’s first ever Ghanaian player, which is nice. Carayol looks keen and wins a free-kick with his first touch; a little later he runs past two Burtonians with ease, but sends in a weak cross, which is effortlessly cleared as he quickly assimilates into the team. Passes go astray and the ball is booted aimlessly up field and the woman behind me is baffled by how inept these highly paid footballers can be. “That’s all they gotta do all day long, practice”. She pauses for a moment’s thought then adds “Until lunchtime; when they go to the bookies”.
On the Burton Albion bench manager Nigel Clough is well wrapped-up against the cold up with a scarf across his face like some hybrid manager-cum-ultra. There is genuine, warm applause from the Ipswich crowd as Darren Bent is substituted in the 71st minute, but then the north stand decide that enough is enough and they remind Mick McCarthy through the medium of Sloop John ‘B’ that his football is faecal. But the singing is not delivered with gusto and soon fades away, perhaps because there aren’t enough of them here to really do the song justice. The afternoon’s attendance is announced as 13,815, the lowest figure for a league game at Portman Road since the late 1990’s apparently. There are 169 supporters from Burton and they become the first away fans this season not to have employed opera or any other means to tell the home crowd that their support smells much the same as Mick McCarthy’s football. Given however, that they have travelled from Staffordshire on a cold, wet, February afternoon to watch a miserable game of football, they would have had every right to do so.
Burton finish the game on the attack and goalkeeper Bart Bialkowski literally single-handedly saves Ipswich from defeat with a spectacular one-handed save, before referee Mr David Webb breathily spins the pea in his whistle for the final time and releases us from his thrall. It has been a terrible afternoon of football and utterly life affirming. If it wasn’t for misery there would be no great art. Football like life is wonderful and simultaneously bloody awful too.
Phil, Elwood and I walk away from the towering lights and stands of Portman Road and we are all the stronger for our experience this afternoon. I have invited Phil and Elwood back for dinner and we’re having sausage and mash with carrots because that’s what Elwood likes.