Stowmarket Town 5 Long Melford 1

The end of the football season is nigh and where promotion and relegation has not already been decided, hope and anxiety masquerade as excitement. When “mathematically” a team can still be promoted it really means they have as much chance as winning a lottery jackpot, realistically none. Attracted by this sense of hopeless futility I am heading to Stowmarket who must win their last four matches, hope Felixstowe lose their final three and at the same time overhaul a superior goal difference.
It’s a grey, wet, day in late April in which the showers for which the month is famed have seemingly joined together in an unwanted show of soggy solidarity. My train is hurtling towards Ipswich through a blur of swishing greenery; rain drops speckle and streak the windows and opposite me sits a slight teenage girl; her head consumed by a set of massive earphones; only that little head and her dangling legs are visible behind a bulging rucksack twice the size of her torso. Arriving at Ipswich I have to buy a ticket for the second part of my journey; walking into the booking hall four clerks sit in a row as if awaiting a sudden rush for tickets, only one of them acknowledges my presence and therefore, although he is at the far end of the row I buy my ticket from him. There is a twenty minute wait for my connecting train and so I sink into the soft two-seater sofa in the waiting room between platforms three and four. I gaze up through the long, gracefully shaped window of the small room at the wooden fretwork valance of the platform canopy and beyond through the steady drizzle at the reflection of a brick chimney on the shiny slate roof of the main station building. The train is late but beauty abounds.
From Ipswich it’s just an eleven minute train journey to Stowmarket (£3.65 return with a Gold Card), out past marshalling yards and Morrison’s, past the scrapyards of Claydon and along the valley of the River Gipping through Needham Market; arrival at Stowmarket is announced by Munton’s (Passionate about Malt) and the multi-coloured storage tanks of the ICI paint factory.

Leaving the red-brick station with its glorious Jacobean style gable, I walk only a few paces before entering the Kings Arms public house to enjoy a pint of Woodforde’s Wherry (£3.30). It’s another attractive little building, although plain, but its appearance is spoiled by the unsympathetic UPVC windows. In the lounge I sink again into a two-seater sofa almost identical to the one in the waiting room at Ipswich station.

There is snooker on the television and a man and woman sit on another sofa drinking tea and reading the papers. “Miserable out there, isn’t it” says the man. I resist the temptation to contradict him and say that I think it rather beautiful, if wet, so I tow the party line and say something fatuous about wondering when it will clear up.
It’s twenty past two and my mobile phone tells me it’s a fifteen minute walk to Green’s Meadow, the home of Stowmarket Town. The rain has ceased and I set off, crossing the River Gipping, admiring the Grade 1 Listed church of St Peter and St Mary and the Grade41059492994_bca1edfba5_o II* listed, but seemingly derelict eighteenth century Lynton House in front of it. The route to Green’s Meadow is along Gipping Way, past the badly spelt Bodywize Gym, Lidl and the predictable queues of shoppers at its checkout tills, who stare out through the plate glass to assuage their boredom; perhaps I should wave.39969490770_e013c32e92_o
Stowmarket Town is a part of Stowmarket Community Sports and Social Club whose premises, a low, single-storey prefabricated building, reminiscent of the temporary classrooms of my childhood primary school, sits behind a large surface car park by a roundabout. It’s not 41735827652_308b47713e_oimpressive looking, but the yellow and black signage gives it a certain unity and smartness. Entry to the Greens Meadow ‘stadium’ (£6) on match days is through the ‘turnstiles’ which are close to the half way line. There is no queue and as I walk in the referees and some players are warming up on the pitch, which on such a grey day appears almost luminous, its grass, lush, damp and very green.

 

A few people have already taken up their positions in the corrugated iron clad stand to the left where strangely a white UPVC door is propped on its side; a portal to a horizontal universe. I cross through the metal cage that is the players’ tunnel; glancing towards the changing rooms I see more UPVC windows leaning against a fence. I take a wander round the ground, a man stands on a chair to fix one of the goal nets, there is a lot of signage about toilets. I head towards the bar, which is doing a good trade as people stay

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out of the cold and damp. I buy a plastic pint ‘glass’ of Greene King IPA (£3) and find a table where I sit and look through the programme (£1). The IPA has its familiar taste, something reminiscent of the smell of plasticine. The programme contains a lot of adverts and it’s good to see local butchers, chip shops, metal merchants, plumbers, carpet fitters and purveyors of aggregates supporting the club. I particularly like the full page advert for Emmitt Plant with its colourful pictures of diggers and dumper trucks. A bald man called Russell Hall, who wears a black shirt covered in yellow smiley faces is available for ‘adult comedy nights’, after dinner speaking and ladies/gents nights; I shudder a little and turn the page. Apart from a bored eight or nine year old, the only females I can see here are serving behind the bar.
I leave the bar and head outside via the toilet; there is a slight smell of damp in the corridor. Back outside, the teams appear from the metal cage and run through the pre-match handshake routine. Stowmarket wear their customary yellow and black striped27908577378_1bc30b2e09_o shirts with black shorts and socks, whilst Long Melford wear an Anderlecht or perhaps Fiorentina or Toulouse inspired change kit of all purple or violet, but with black and white hooped socks, as if they forgot to buy the whole ensemble. Melford kick off the match with their backs to the town, playing towards the A14 and the looming concrete bridge which crosses the adjacent railway track and River Gipping.
The men who were in the bar drinking are now stood in the corner of the ground27908515908_dc57ee32d9_o drinking. A few wear flat caps, some fashionably, some less so. “Blimey, it’s like an audition for Peaky Blinders round here” says one bloke; it’s a comment that makes me smile more than anything I anticipate Russell Hall might say. I wander round to behind the dugouts. Stowmarket win a corner and their number five heads the ball directly into the arms of the Melford goalkeeper. One of the Stowmarket coaches clutches his head in anguish as if imitating Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, or having a seizure. The Melford right-back then rather uncharitably passes to the Melford number eleven, simultaneously calling “man-on”. It’s akin to throwing him something boiling hot and yet also very fragile. He might have done better to pass to someone else.
Stowmarket are the more adept team but they’re struggling to make chances and Melford are competing equally well. A man with a rucksack on his back opens a Tupperware box and bites into a soft roll. It is about twenty-five past three and the ball hits the net in the back of the Long Melford goal, off the head of Stowmarket’s top-scorer Josh Mayhew. The public address announcer hasn’t been paying attention, the goal did arrive a little out of the blue and his announcement is a bit late. One spectator tells him the score is still nil-nil whilst another says “No, that goal was in the first half”. The excitement is too much for me and unusually I feel hungry, I stroll to the tea bar and order a bacon roll (£2.50); the bacon is quite tasty if not as crispy as it could be.
On the pitch Melford’s number seven Jose Zarzoso-Hernandez is keeping the Stowmarket right-back occupied. It’s about twenty to four now and suddenly Stowmarket are two-nil up as Remi Garrett scores from close range and a slight deflection. The announcer is fully awake now and has James Brown with him, who feels good even if he does end his celebration a little abruptly and mid-note. Melford break away but prevaricate and fail to score and a minute before half time, James Brown literally picks up where he left off, feeling good again as Luke Read scores a third Stowmarket goal, again from close range. James Brown finishes before just a hint, but no more of Tom Hark leaks out of the PA.
Referee Mr Thomas Hancock soon whistles to end the half and I get a pounds-worth of tea to wash away the remnants of my bacon roll; bits of the bread are stuck in thick pasty lumps between my gums and cheeks. Carrying my tea I step back inside the club house to catch the half-time scores (Ipswich at Reading is goalless). One end of the room is screened off and a printed notice announces that it is the Sponsors’ Area; blokes in smart casual dress are gathered around a buffet with paper napkins and paper plates. I glance out of the window and see players returning for the second half, so I join them, in a manner of speaking.
The man who earlier ate a soft roll from a Tupperware box remarks to his friend as he looks across the pitch from outside the club house, “You can see the slope from here”. “Oooh, yes” says his friend. Tupperware man then eats a chocolate coated biscuit, possibly a Nestle’s Breakaway or supermarket own brand equivalent. I walk away to stand level with the edge of the penalty area looking across towards the sweeping concrete flyover that is the A14. The view reminds me of the cover of the booklet inside39969482350_80eee01721_o the 30th anniversary edition of George Harrison’s defining triple album “All Things Must Pass”. The concrete bridge is a wonderful backdrop to the corner of the football ground, running as it does above the height of the trees, which surround the ground on two sides. The roar from the traffic is constant and I wonder how polluting it must be down here at pitch level. Do asthmatic players struggle more at Stowmarket?
It’s now four minutes past four and a long throw from Melford’s David Lopez is headed on before Will Wingfield forces it over the goal line from close range to make the score 3-1. “That was some throw” remarks the old boy stood next to me, a comment that I belatedly realise was made to me. What can I do but agree? It certainly was. Another old boy joins the first “How are ya?” he says. “Arroight” Is the reply.
-“You?”
– “Yeah, foine” says the first, with an air almost of disappointment.
At just gone ten past four Stowmarket’s Josh Mayhew scores his second goal, reacting in a split second to hit the ball hard and high into the Melford net from more than 20 metres out. Now Tom Hark is heard over the PA and the announcer calls out Mayhew’s name in the exaggerated drawn out manner of a boxing match compere. The majority Stowmarket contingent in the crowd of 179 cheered a little and applauded when the goal went in, but they don’t seem overly thrilled and don’t react to the amplified call to celebration. There are no Ultras here, but then, it is Suffolk. If the people aren’t taciturn, they’re not saying what they are.
I continue to enjoy the match and the spectacle of Greens Meadow, the green of the pitch and trees all around, the amber, black and purple of the team kits and the concrete, corrugated iron and yellow painted steel and the knot of drinkers by the clubhouse. Stowmarket make three substitutions all in one go and then at about twenty five to five Josh Mayhew completes his hat-trick and the PA gets positively frenzied as it launches Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” at us and Grunge meets the flat cap, as Stowmarket meets Seattle.
No further goals are scored, but the afternoon has grown increasingly cold as a creeping, penetrating chill seeps from the damp ground. Thanks to Suffolk stoicism or quiet inebriation there are no complaints,  but disappointingly with the final whistle the vast majority of spectators either just leave or head back inside the clubhouse without offering up the applause both teams deserve.   As the players stand in ragged circles to receive their post match de-briefs from their respective coaches, I too turn and leave, and walk the wet streets back to the railway station, and as I do so I reflect upon the joy of a damp afternoon in Stowmarket.

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Coggeshall Town 4 Haverhill Borough 0

 

It’s a breezy, cool, late April evening with a threat of rain in the air; setting off along the A120 I set my car windscreen wipers to intermittent.  But it’s still light and there’s no need for headlights.  I might have travelled by bus (Service 70 from Colchester to Chelmsford via Braintree), except that I wouldn’t have been able to get home because the last bus in my direction from Coggeshall leaves before half past seven.  An overnight stay in Coggeshall would have been extravagant.

My Citroen C3 bounces over the rutted car park of Coggeshall Town car park and we come to rest facing the pitch.  The car park is not yet full, but there are a good few A Ford transit provides Haverhill Borough with a busvehicles here, including the white Ford Transit that is the Haverhill Borough team bus,  which is encouraging.  I nod and smile to the man who has parked next to me; I am impressed that the gaffer tape securing his Ford Mondeo’s rear bumper matches its silver paintwork. “Alright mate?” he says.  I follow him and his wife through the turnstile and wait whilst they nominate their player of the season; they’re regulars.  In time I pass through the turnstile myself, entry is £6 and I buy a programme too (£1.50).  I walk along the concrete path behind and above the main stand towards the club house.  The Haverhill Borough team are warming up on the main pitch whilst the Coggeshall players have a kick-about on the practice pitch.

In the clubhouse I speak to Paul who runs the club twitter account and films the games.  We talk about  marriage and being happy, but agree we’re here for the football.  Paul goes to set up his camera and I head to the bar to buy a pint of Caledonian Brewery Coast to Coast (£3.90) which turns out to be very cold and very fizzy.  I feel like I might explode as I struggle uncomfortably to suppress a series of frosty burps. I may not buy this beer again; I may not have to with its hoppy flavours repeatedly bubbling up from below.   I speak with Jim who is usually with Keith, but not tonight because Keith was double-booked.  Jim asks if will be writing about tonight.  “I expect so” I say. “You can tell you’re an Ipswich fan” says Jim mysteriously. I step outside.

Kick-off is approaching and I rest my beer on the roof of the stand and look at the programme.  Men huddle around the team sheet displayed on the outside wall of theCoggeshal Town Fc v Haverhill Borough team sheet changing rooms.  I move down into the stand behind the goal before the two teams line up side by side behind the referee on the steps leading down from the changing rooms to the pitch.  A Haverhill supporter lazily and thoughtlessly leaves open the gate from the steps into the stand, so I public spiritedly close it, joking to the referee that we don’t want any players taking a wrong turn into the stand.  He makes reference to my beer implying that it might result in such an occurrence.   I avoid burping in his general direction.  With the players safely on the pitch I wander round to the main stand.  “It’s a bit wet innit? The grass” says a man to his partner.

Haverhill kick off in the direction of the town wearing a somewhat dull all blue kit, whilst Coggeshall stand out under the lights in their handsome red and black stripes with black shorts.  Coggeshall soon gain possession and on that basis proceed to do most of the attacking. They have the first shot.  “Come on ref, keep an eye on the game” says a man angrily as Coggeshall’s number 7 is fouled.

The match is a bit scrappy, full of hoofs and meaty headers.  Coggeshall’s play is disjointed as they try too hastily to get the ball forward; if they win tonight they will be promoted to the Bostik League Division 1 North.  But it’s a fine night at West Street with a distinctive atmosphere emanating from the swears and shouts and the rattle and clatter of studs on the hard pitch, even though the grass is a bit wet, as the man said.  On the far side of the pitch the Coggeshall bench is packed with players and coaches.  But the Haverhill bench is home to just three, who look like they’re waiting for a bus; they’ve got a long wait; it’s a good job they’ve got their own in the car park.  Beyond the far side of the ground the valley leads down to the River Blackwater, lined with spindly trees leaning in the breeze beneath a mass of travelling clouds; if the pitch had been covered in poppies Claude Monet might have painted it.

“Get it tight”. “Good boy”. It’s a minute to eight and Coggeshall’s number eight places a firm shot towards a point just behind the inside of the goal post, but the young Haverhill goalkeeper makes a fine save, diving to his right.   There is banter in the stands amongst of old boys in their late sixties or seventies.  A much younger woman in the front row turns round in appreciation. In conversation a Haverhill fan relays that their goalkeeper is just seventeen years-old.  Sensing some sort of boastfulness a Coggeshall fan counters that their full-backs have mental ages of three and four.

It’s nearly ten past eight and Coggeshall’s star man, number nine Nnamdi Nwachuku shoots spectacularly over the angle of the goalpost and crossbar. There’s a corner to Coggeshall. “Who’s got the big man coming in?” shouts a concerned voice from within the stand.  Haverhill’s number eight is booked by referee Mr Gerry Heron for a foul on Coggeshall’s number seven.  Another corner to Coggeshall and an urgent voice from on the pitch asks “Who the fuckin’ ‘’ell’s got the free?”   Good question; the ’free’ shoots, but misses.

Only ten minutes to half-time and there’s a free-kick to Coggeshall. The kick is taken, a hand goes up and Gerry Heron awards a penalty to Coggeshall.  Haverhill’s number 4, a very chunky,  quite skilful but gobby midfield player is not happy; had he been incandescent with rage he might have spontaneously combusted and burned very brightly.  Fortunately he doesn’t and Gerry Heron cautions him amidst much animated waving of arms from the portly playmaker.  Back to the penalty spot. Nwachuku scores. “ Cool as you like” says a man nearby.

Coggeshall want more goals and number seven makes a run down the right in front of the stand. “Do ‘im son, do ‘im, all day long” calls a voice with rising excitement before releasing a mournful groan as seven’s cross rises almost vertically from his ankle and over the stand.  But it’s half time now and I invest in a pound’s worth of tea with a dash of Danish owned Cravendale brand milk, in the hope that it might quell the beery repetition I am still suffering and warm my chilled intestines.  I stand about and like Edward Hopper enjoy the light spilling out through the window from the club house bar and onto the deck.  It’s getting dark and the cloudy sky has turned cobalt blue.

For the second half I stand in the corner  near the goal that Coggeshall are attacking, but it’s a bit breezy and I move ‘indoors’ into the seats of the main stand, close to the old boys whose banter had amused in the first half .  It’s like sitting in front of Statler and Waldorf in the Muppet Show, but there’s five of them.

It’s now five past nine and rain is being carried on the wind into the front row of the stand, making a row of lads laugh as they get wet. “Is it raining?” asks a woman behind me somewhere. “I didn’t know it was raining” she adds unnecessarily.  Seven minutes later Coggeshall number three Curtiss Haynes-Brown advances down the left, then a bit more.  “Go on! Hit One!”  Someone shouts, so he does and he scores and it’s 2-0 to Coggeshall.

Haverhill are still resisting as best they can and there is a brief contretemps between Nwachuku and the chunky number four.  Gerry Heron intervenes but takes no specific action despite advice from the stand that “It’s that fat fucker, number four, ref!”  Haverhill take heart and with about fifteen minutes to go their number ten forces the Coggeshall goalkeeper into making his first real save of the night.  But Nwachuku soon scores another goal after making a dashing run towards goal and a bit later skips through the Haverhill defence once again to complete his hat-trick for the evening and increase Coggeshall’s goal difference to +117 for the season.

That’s promotion secured and the old fellas behind seem keen to leave a bit early, but fear that Coggeshall might score again and they’ll miss it.  One of them says that they didn’t really leave early on Saturday but the team played on without them. Someone complains that it seems a very long half,  but then perhaps sensing that people have seen enough Gerry Heron whistles for the last time; it’s not quite twenty five to ten. I’ll be home in five minutes.

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Ipswich Town 0 Aston Villa 4

It is April 21st but today it feels like summer. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless blue sky and it’s warm as I catch the train to a Saturday match in Ipswich for the last time this season. The platform is busy with people of various ages and shapes. Young men show off their legs and women their bra straps. A grey-haired man with a crooked mouth wears polyester trousers and carries a rucksack. The train is on time. On the train a bare-legged man drinks Smirnoff vodka with tonic from a can and looks at his mobile phone. A smooth-faced, bald headed man wearing two hearing aids looks at his mobile phone and talks hoarsely to his grey-haired wife. At Manningtree five ‘lads’ board and share out a pack of Budweiser beers. They all wear knee length shorts with turn-ups. One wears a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and Ray-Bans, he picks his nose.
At Ipswich there are policemen in what looks like spongeable ‘battledress’ on the

platform and outside on the forecourt and on the bridge over the river and in Portman Road; the implication is that large numbers of people from the West Midlands cannot be trusted to behave nicely. In Portman Road huddles of stewards in hi-vis await the arrival of the Aston Villa team bus. Soft rolls and burgers get folded into mouths of will-be spectators and everyone is standing and waiting. I carry on and orbiting the club shop, Planet Blue, buy a programme (£3.00). Up Portman Road and round to the right St Jude’s Tavern is busy, I head for the bar, nodding hellos to the regular patrons. The Match Day Special today is Springhead Left Lion and I order a pint (£2.50). I take a seat next to the regulars, glance through the programme and talk a little with them; the regular next to me can recall Town being promoted from Division Three South in 1957, no one else here can. In a while I am joined by Mick, who treats me to another pint of the Match Day Special and I give him his birthday present, which I have wrapped in a page from an old road atlas of France, handy if he needs to travel from Chalons-sur-Saone to Dijon. It was Mick’s birthday three weeks ago, so I’m a bit late. After yet another pint of Match Day Special, which is now Wigan Junction (same price as before) it’s time to set off for the main event, the match which Mick will be listening to on the radio; he has said he is considering getting a season ticket for next season, but seems unsure. I can’t say I blame him.
Back in Portman Road people are scurrying to the turnstiles, kick-off is fast approaching. Aston Villa have a large following at the game today as their team chases promotion;

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there are several supporters’ coaches parked up behind Sir Bobby Robson’s statue, which looks as if he’s helpfully pointing the way from the coach park to the away fans enclosure. Entry through the turnstile to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand is swift, but as I leave the gents under the stand the strains of ‘My Way’ are receding and the game is set to begin.

Portman Road stadium

The stadium is looking good today, two-thirds full under a summer sky. Town kick off towards me in their customary blue shirts and white shorts, but Aston Villa disappointingly sport a dull and anonymous all-black kit that says the club has no imagination; such a pity when their first choice colours are tasteful claret and pale blue.
For one of the few occasions this season the home crowd are in good voice, but somewhat weirdly they sing “Hark now hear, The Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away…” The song trails off before the end as ‘the choir’ seemingly becomes aware that the words go on to mention Boxing Day, which is somewhat unseasonal on a day like today; but they probably never got to sing it in December, numbed as they were by the dire goalless draw with QPR. Picking up perhaps on the Town fans’ choice of a Christmas carol the Villa fans then proceed to sing an equally unseasonal ditty, “Walking along, Singing a song, Walking in a Villa wonderland”. It’s all a little odd and smacks of football supporters no longer fluent in supporting their team through the medium of song.
On the pitch, Ipswich start quite well with an early corner and with Grant Ward and Jordan Spence progressing down the right to send in crosses to the big man up front that only they can see. Town’s Luke Hyam commits the first foul and Miles Kenlock has the first shot. Perhaps this inspires over confidence in the home supporters in the North Stand or perhaps they are just being ironic, but they sing to the Villa fans “You’re support is fucking shit”. Alternatively they could just be the type of people for whom something is always “fucking shit” as they so eloquently describe it, and with the loss of Mick McCarthy’s football they had to find something else to bemoan. Off their faces on their miraculous new found optimism, Town supporters applaud an offside. But Aston Villa look like they have a plan and they also have some very sharp haircuts and luxuriant facial hair, particularly number 15 Mile Jedinak whose enormous beard makes him looksMile Jedinak like an Imam. Villa’s number 19 Jack Grealish has calves the size of other men’s thighs and by twenty past three Villa are somewhat greedily beginning to keep the ball pretty much to themselves. They win some corners and then at about twenty five past three rudely score a goal as Conor Hourihane shoots when unsportingly close to the goal.
Unusually, the goal provokes a positive response from some Town supporters who chant “Blue Army”, although sadly these chants don’t build into a crescendo of noise that pushes Town onto quickly equalise and then take the lead with a display of scintillating short passes and powerful running. The singing soon dies away and normality returns as the Villa fans employ Guiseppe Verdi in the time honoured way to ask “Is this a library?”, although understandably it’s taken them a while to realise today. Buoyed by the discovery of their own razor sharp wit they eschew any reference to opera with their subsequent chant of “You’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”. What is it with football supporters and “fucking shit”?

Three minutes before half time Grant Ward is sent off by the shiny cue ball-headed referee Mr Simon Hooper for a poorly executed attempt at a tackle. Ward’s victim Neil Taylor recovers and is consequently booed thereafter for his trouble. It’s why we love the game. Ward receives generous applause from the Town fans as he walks to the dressing room.
Half-time brings some relief as the players hide in the dressing room for ten minutes or so and I talk to Ray who is nearby with his grandson Harrison who has cerebral palsy. Ray is of the opinion that Bersant Celina is not doing much, I agree and add the simple truth that overall Town’s players are not as good as Aston Villa’s. I re-visit the gents, eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice and look at the programme which contains a marvellous picture of the late Colin Harper in which he sports extensive sideburns and a moustache as if he was a member of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; it was a great look, in 1967. I recall attending Harper’s testimonial versus a Don Revie XI, I think the final score was something like 6-5, which is what the final score should be in all benefit matches. Also in the programme is a piece by a fellow supporter I know called Steve Cook in which he talks about his late mother’s dementia; I find it quite touching. Cookie is a lovely bloke.
The footballers return before I do and I miss the first minute of play but it doesn’t matter. A bit before a quarter past four Aston Villa score a second goal through Lewis Grabban, a former Norwich City player. As he runs behind the goal to celebrate in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Grabban cups his hand to his ear, but quickly desists as if realising that he is in Ipswich so there wasn’t much noise even before he scored. Today’s attendance is announced as 20,034 and as if to torment Town fans further by reminding us of the year when Villa pipped us to the League Title, the number of visiting Aston Villa supporters is recorded as 1981.
Aston Villa are comfortably in control of this match and from the touchline theirSteve Bruce corpulent manager Steve Bruce looks on over his expanded waist, possibly affording time to imagine the enormous meal that he will perhaps later eat to celebrate the victory. I hope he has regular cardiovascular checks. Around him Villa’s coaching staff look like UPS delivery drivers in their dull uniforms. I admire the angles of the roofs of the stands at the other end of the ground.
With thirty minutes left to play, Martyn Waghorn has a shot for Ipswich and the Ipswich fans applaud, but honestly, not sarcastically as they had been doing a few weeks ago. In the 78th minute American, Cameron Carter-Vickers, one of Town’s inevitable cohort of loanees passes the ball rather carelessly to Villa’s Josh Onomah who quickly passes to Grabban, who scores for a second time.
The Villa fans, now feeling secure enough to gloat, once again ask if this is a library, but then something almost miraculous happens as a chorus of “I’m Ipswich ‘til I die” drifts up from behind the North Stand goal; it doesn’t last long, the team doesn’t respond and in the 82nd minute another former Norwich player (albeit a loanee), Henri Lansbury scores a fourth goal for Villa. I think of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Murder, She Wrote. Ipswich are well and truly beaten, soundly thrashed even and the dream that many people perhaps harboured that with Mick McCarthy gone the team would straightaway blossom into a creative, attacking force and would never look back is dashed. Nevertheless, Town fans rally and there is clapping and singing the like of which has not been heard almost since the days of terracing, or at least since 2001. It’s a bit late in the game, but the Town fans are giving vocal encouragement to a struggling team. Town are 4-0 down at home to a club managed by an ex-Canary and three of the goals have been scored by ex-Canaries, but it’s the happiest some supporters have been all season.
But I wonder if they are really supporting the team, or are they just covering their embarrassment that the football is actually no better despite Mick McCarthy’s departure? Sensibly it’s probably too soon to say, but we shall see if the same sort of support continues.
Summer is not here yet, even though the sun is shining.

Bluey at Portman Road

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has Witham Railway Station

 

 

 

 

 

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

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I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

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railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

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As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

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On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

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I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

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arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

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by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

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With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve,  past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

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Ipswich Town 1 Barnsley 0

April is well under way and the relief brought by the end of the football season is in sight. Ipswich Town and Barnsley both have just five matches left to play and tonight is the last evening match of the season, the last opportunity for a while to enjoy the thrill and spectacle of a game beneath electric illumination, to see the turf glow green in the drenching beam of the floodlights. Barnsley are struggling to stay in the light away from the gloomy pit that is relegation. Ipswich stand in the blinding, harsh, desert light of mid-table, of nothingness and futility, which is rather how I like it.
It’s been a grey, misty day; the sort to evoke memories of November, of autumn when Town were seventh in the league table just four points off the play-offs and anything seemed possible. But now it’s nearly five o’clock and anticipating the joy of kick-off the sun is out, Spring is back and I leave work in the manner of Fred Flintstone leaping from my desk to slide down the back of an imaginary brontosaurus whilst shouting “Yabba Dabba Doos, Come On You Blues!”. My excitement and anticipation of another Big Match is not reflected however in the scene I find as I pass along Constantine Road; there is no one much about, all is calm. Threatening notices about Ipswich Town’s use of CCTV in this area glare down at me amidst a host of signs about collecting tickets, for scouts and

the suspension of parking. One of those naughty Millwall fans has placed a sticker on the borough crest of the Portman Road street name plate, in the manner that a ‘masseur’ might advertise in a phone box. From the ‘corporation’ bus garage opposite the ground the open top double decker looks out forlornly, wondering if the football club will ever require its services again.

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Behind the North Stand the 1978 FA Cup Winners ‘mosaic’ looks like someone’s nicked a couple of tiles for their kitchen or bathroom. Some stewards eat chips around a table. I buy a programme (£3.00) in the club shop.

In St Jude’s Tavern my accomplice for the next half an hour or so, Roly, leans back in a tilting chair in the corner of the room behind a pint of unidentified copper coloured beer. Meanly, he doesn’t offer to buy his friend a drink and I reciprocate, but buy a pint of St Jude’s Woody Brew (£3.40) for myself. We talk of football, of football managers and promoting ‘from within the boot room’. We decide Portman Road has a small boot room in which there was only room for Bobby Ferguson and there’s probably nothing in there now except boots and Bobby’s old tracksuit top, memorably and unfortunately adorned with the letters BF. The discussion wanders on until Roly leaves me to ‘dine’ with the father of the mother of his daughter at Sainsbury’s. But Roly doesn’t dine, he scoffs.
I change seats and buy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50)’Edge American Pale’. I talk more football to some of the men in their sixties who are here before every game and I buy a pint of Milestone Crusader (£3.40). The clock on the wall chimes, it’s twelve minutes slow. As one, the patrons of the pub rise and depart for Portman Road, after a visit to the ‘facilities’. The ‘crowd’ outside the stadium is sparse, only slightly more so than the one within it (13, 271). The strains of Clo-Clo’s ‘My Way’ drift off into the floodlit air as I speak with Dave the steward in the undercroft of the Alf Ramsey Stand and I miss the kick-off.
Eventually settling down on a seat a few along from ever-present Phil who never misses a game, my enjoyment of the match begins. Barnsley, whose colours are red and white OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

kick-off wearing a needlessly changed kit of white shirts with green sleeves and shorts; Ipswich as ever are in blue and white. “This is the last evening one” I hear the old boy behind me say to is wife or mistress or sister as he reflects nostalgically, as I had done on the last game under floodlights this season. An offside flag is raised “He put that flag up late – I don’t know why they can’t do it beforehand” she says, unknowingly making me imagine the introduction of clairvoyant linesmen. The football is quite poor. Ipswich have two wingers on the pitch but seem incapable of getting the ball to them, preferring to play inaccurate balls ‘over the top’ to no one in particular. In midfield for Town a young player is making his debut; his name is Barry Cotter, which makes me think of the surviving Bee Gee and Rab C Nesbitt. I live in a world of little more than word association sometimes.
The conversation behind me turns to Mick McCarthy and season ticket renewal. “I want to know who the new manager is before I get my ticket, they might bring McCarthy back” she says. I think how I’d like to see a beaky nosed man with obviously dyed, jet black and receding hair introduced to the press by Ian Milne as Town’s new manager Michalis McCatharios, who has been prised away from under the noses of Greek Superleague clubs.
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buddleia on the roof of the stand still looks down on us as it did on Easter Monday and the Barnsley fans sing “Come On You Reds!”. Town are making the occasional fitful attack, which breaks down meekly, but my veins are coursing with passion and the feeling of belonging and I embark on some rousing choruses of “Lo-lo, Lo-lo-lo, Lo-lo, Allez les bleus” in the style of a French Ultra. Phil joins in and so do a couple of the joyful young lads in the disabled enclosure in front of me. I get carried away. I stand up, I turn to the crowd behind me and wave my arms about to articulate my song like a manic, Gallic, Ralph Reader. Nothing. I carry on for a bit, but fearing that I could be ejected or sectioned for being too noisy I sit down and sulk instead.
On the pitch I like to think Ipswich respond by almost assembling a passing move resembling flowing football. The crowd murmurs. “Stop it” I shout to the team “You’ll get them excited”.
Half-time and the Barnsley supporters (276 of them) join the esteemed ranks of the few visitors to Portman Road who have not sung anything about libraries or our support being “fucking shit”. I could probably take credit for that, but will instead praise the good folk of Barnsley for being a decent bunch of people more interested in supporting their team than in castigating anyone else for their apparent or perceived shortcomings. I release some more of what I imbibed at St Jude’s Tavern and chat with ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton. Phil says it’s the thirtieth anniversary of his having not missed a match, but also recommends I sing “Come On You Blues” instead of “Allez Les Bleus” because people don’t know what I’m saying. I am disappointed, not in Phil, but that what he says is no doubt true; he should know, he’s a teacher and so is partly responsible for the nation’s general ignorance I contemplate asking a steward if they could run and get me a step ladder and a megaphone.
The second half is better than the first for us Ipswich supporters as Town begin to play less disjointedly. Egged on by my new found acolytes I chant a bit more and mid-song, at about ten past nine Town’s on-loan Gambian, Mustapha Carayol crosses the ball and Danish Jonas Knudsen sends a stylish glancing header over his right shoulder and past Barnsley’s Welsh guardian Adam Davies and into the goal net. Hurrah! How we cheer. I love a glancing header, it’s a prince among headers; that subtle twist of the neck, that obtuse angle, that flashing beauty.
The rest of the game fails to live up to that brief moment of joy, but it’s not so bad. Town do okay and Barnsley don’t really look as if they can equalise, despite fielding the 6’ 5” Kieffer Moore who, whilst he looks like he might have previously played for Sydney Swans in fact joined Barnsley from Town in January. On tonight’s showing however, it was not a mistake to sell him and he should never have left the AFL. The home crowd allow themselves some enjoyment and from my seat in Churchman’s I can’t hear any of the pointless vitriol that has marred recent matches. It’s not a popular thing to say and I am as irreligious as the next man, but there are a good number of people who would seriously benefit from being introduced to some of the salient points of the Gospels.
Happily the game is not extended unduly and it’s possibly a little before 9:35 when referee Mr James Linington stuffs his little whistle in his mouth and blows for the final time this evening. There are smiley, happy people in Portman Road once again and Phil suggests a chant of “You’re football’s alright, You’re football’s okay, Mick McCarthy, You’re footballs okay”. I catch the early train home with ease.
It is not until I arrive home that I learn that Mick McCarthy has left the club; I’m glad he won his last game for us, for him. I liked his press conferences even if his football very often wasn’t very good, but then a lot of Championship football isn’t very good and he did a decent job for much of what was for a football manager a very long time. Also, he’s just a man.

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Brentford 1 Ipswich Town 0

My train is seven minutes late, which means that changing at Stratford to catch the 12:12 Jubilee Line service to Waterloo will require speed and alacrity. This is a shame and adds to my existing disappointment from when I bought my train ticket and the cheerless young woman at the station first tried to charge me a couple of quid more than the price I’d been quoted on the National Rail website. It turns out that there are two fares for the same journey, but apparently I didn’t want a ‘day return’ (£23.50) I wanted a ‘day travelcard’(£20.65 with a Goldcard). In reality I just wanted to go to Brentford and back as cheaply as possible, not caring what the ticket is called. Two companies, two prices it seems. The joyless woman’s excuse for not quoting me the lower price is that she doesn’t know where Brentford is. What idiot decided it was a good idea to split up a national rail network into separate private companies anyway?
When the train arrives it is busy and one of the few vacant seats is next to a grandmother, her daughter and two young grandchildren, not a choice of seat I would usually make. One of the children announces the names of all the stations, the other is fractious and often close to tears. The adults make more noise than she does however as they shush her and try to divert her attention from whatever upsets her. More passengers get on at Chelmsford, I feel the warm breath of a woolly looking dog on my hand as it is led down the aisle, my look of surprise makes the woman opposite me laugh. Another woman provides interest with her golden finger and toe nails, they’re a work of art worthy of Gustav Klimt.
The journey is tortuous; making the connection at Stratford I have to wait half an hour OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor the next connection from Waterloo. But Waterloo Station provides entertainment, I stand beneath its famous clock and a dishevelled, smelly man who holds a red lead at the end of which is a small, contented looking black cat, talks, but no one listens. From Waterloo to Brentford takes another half an hour, but provides glimpses of the gothic Palace of Westminster, the neo-classical Tate Gallery and Art Deco Battersea power station; later the train crosses the River Thames at Barnes Bridge, so it’s a lot of sight-seeing fun. Brentford station is dull, like the weather, but just outside a way finder sign announcesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ‘New map coming soon’ as if it’s been decided to replace the old map of Brentford with one of somewhere more exotic like Montmartre. The buses in this part of London are run by RATP, the company that runs Paris metro; another two-fingers to bloody Brexit.
Griffin Park is a proper football ground, surrounded by neat streets of terraced houses, like the one in which Mr Benn of Watch with Mother fame lived; I half expect to see him emerge from one, waving stiffly and sporting a red and white striped scarf and disproportionately large rosette. Walking down Clifden Road from the station all four metal floodlight pylons hove into view; it’s a sight to gladden the heart of any football supporter. I buy a programme (£3.50) and jokingly complain to the seller about extortionate metropolitan OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAprices. Someone sells Chilli Con Carne from beneath a gazebo in their front garden. The Griffin pub is on a corner near the away supporters’ entrance and it and the terrace of bay-windowed houses opposite are built of the warm, yellow stock brick that defines so much of London. Football supporters spill out from the pub and into the streets which crawl with fans of both clubs. There is a good feel about this place. Despite its Twickenham postcode, nominally Brentford is a London club, but its supporters don’t have the obnoxious conceit of most London fans. I stroll up Braemar Road past the main entrance to the ground, beyond which is the club shop; it looks like a 1920’s suburbanOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA bungalow with its red and white painted gable. Naturally I take a look inside; if Chelsea has a ‘megastore’, this is more of a corner shop.
At the end of Braemar Road chalkboards on the wall of the Princess Royal pub welcome fans of both clubs before and after the game. Walking past the New Inn on the next corner of the ground I am welcomed and ushered in, but perhaps rudely I don’t stay because the beer is Greene King. I carry on down New Road and pass the Royal Oak pub and can still see the Griffin Park floodlights above the roof top along with a passing jet airliner, one of the hundreds that roar over about every two minutes during the day as they leave or arrive at Heathrow.
I return to The Griffin because it serves the local Fullers beers and despite the heaving throng at the bar I get served quite quickly with a 500 ml plastic cup of Fuller’s London Pride (£4.10); the name of the beer and its presentation sadly don’t really match up, but it says a lot about modern Britain. I go outside and lean on someone’s front wall to watch the pre-match activity unfold before me as I consume my beer. Before heading into the stadium I use the toilet inside the pub. There is an orderly and good-spirited queue at the three urinals. Somebody jokes as he pees that this will probably be the highlight of his afternoon, whilst someone else queues with a pint of lager in hand, as if he might just tip it straight into the urinal and cut out the middle man.
Today I am meeting Tim who I have known since 1965 and who is travelling up from Weymouth with a friend of his. The news is that due to engineering works Tim has had to travel via Westbury (Wiltshire) and due to an incident on a level crossing in Cornwall his train is delayed. He will arrive at Paddington not much before 3 o’clock and will have to get a taxi from there, missing the kick-off. I have his ticket. It’s a bit of a pickle, but I am hoping that I can leave the tickets for collection so that I don’t have to hang around outside and miss anything of the match myself. I speak with the steward at the away supporters entrance who is stood by a red flag which announces “Here to help”. Assuming it’s not the flag that’s the helpful one I ask the steward nearby if it would be possible to leave the tickets for collection; he refers me to the Stand Manager, a lady just a few metres away, who is extremely helpful and immediately says it will be no problem at all and I should leave the tickets with the steward who I just spoke to and let Tim know his ID number, number 277. I am deeply thankful and impressed by their straightforward efficiency; seems like it’s 1-0 to Brentford already.
In the small Brook Road stand, known by home fans as the ‘Wendy House’, most IpswichOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA supporters are gathered in the centre of the terrace directly behind the goal, I find a mostly pleasant, uncrowded spot towards the New Road stand. The only drawback is a youth stood staring at the Brentford fans making a masturbatory gesture; if only he knew how silly he looks. The roof is low, which gives the small terrace a good atmosphere and there is some singing from the Ipswich supporters as the teams appear amidst a posse of photographers and assorted hangers-on including the club mascots. Brentford, known as the Bees, have two mascots named Buzzbee and Buzzette, not surprisingly both are bees, but Buzzette looks worryingly like a Golliwog.
After a minute’s applause for former England international Ray Wilkins who died this week, Ipswich kick off the game wearing all blue although their usual white shorts would not have clashed with Brentford’s red and white striped shirts and black shorts. It’s a colourful scene against the back drop of the plain stands and lush green turf. Brentford are kicking towards the Brook Road stand. Town defend the Ealig Road end with its impressive backdrop of grey Brutalist tower blocks off in the distance. The early exchanges are symptomatic of the usual rubbish served up in what is nowadays known as The Championship, as players whose levels of fitness and strength far exceed their levels of skill cancel each other out and the ball flies between them like a pin ball. Ipswich’s Jordan Spence is the first player to be booked by referee Mr Robert Jones and it is only a quarter past three.
Tim and his friend arrive about five minutes later, but the game doesn’t improve; why should it? Two blokes beside me seem to be discussing whether someone’s hair is permed or not. An Airbus 380 flies over. There is little vocal support for the team from the Ipswich fans but plenty of singing of “Mick McCarthy, Get out of our club” to the usual tune of Sloop John B. Haven’t they heard? He’s going at the end of the season. It doesn’t seem likely that he will suddenly bugger off in the first half of a match, does it? These people need to get over this and just get behind the team. But many Ipswich fans love to accentuate the negative.
As a Brentford ball beyond the Ipswich defence reaches the penalty area Town ‘keeper Bartosz Bialkowski and Town captain Luke Chambers collide and it looks like Chambers has ’done his shoulder’ as a result. Chambers is replaced by substitute Myles Kenlock; in terms of spectacle the collision is the highlight of the first half although it inevitably prolongs proceedings. It’s been an even first half with both teams as bad as one another, so it seems that it’s not only Mick McCarthy’s football that is, in the words of the song, ‘shit’.
The second half is much the same as the first, although Brentford improve and are having much more of the ball with Ipswich rarely venturing towards their own fans; but who can blame them. The negativity in the Brook Road stand turns up a notch with a new song. At first I think they’re singing “We’re the arseholes, we’re the arseholes, we’re the arseholes over here” but then it becomes clear that the words is numbskulls, not arseholes, a reference to Mick McCarthy labelling some supporters numbskulls in a recent interview. Numbskulls is a word that seems to resonate with these supporters for some reason, as if they have found their true identity and along with chants of “We hate Mick McCarthy” they sing “Mick McCarthy’s blue and white numbskulls”. But their negativity isn’t confined to Mick McCarthy as they also very unjustly dust off Sloop John B once again to sing “I wanna go home, I wanna go home, Brentford’s a shithole, I wanna go home” . Only a numbskull could label a football ground with a pub on each corner a “shithole”.
A bald-headed bloke stood next to me, who has been joining in with the numbskull chants remarks that it looks like being a goalless draw “Yeah, if we’re lucky” I reply, tuning in to the pervading negativity. We’re not lucky. To our left in the New Road stand, a simple pitched roof structure with a line of thirteen bright red metal stanchions that line the pitchside, there are about twenty middle aged blokes all in identical grey flatOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA caps, all sat together in a couple of rows. At about twenty to five most of them get up and file out through the back of the stand. Shortly afterwards Town’s Jonas Knudsen naively bumps Brentford’s Sergi Canos who falls to the ground. Referee Roberts who seconds earlier ignored a similar incident in which Town’s Luke Hyam appeared to be pushed over, awards Brentford a penalty. As a huge Ginsters pasty rolls into view on the pitchside electronic advertisement hoardings, Brentford’s French former St Etienne forward Neal Maupay steps up to score, sending the ball gently into the right hand side of the goal as Bartosz Bialakowski dives obligingly to the left.
With Ipswich losing, the Town ‘supporters’ that bother to sing now give free reign to their unpleasant feelings and unleash Sloop John B yet again to proffer the standard complaint that Mick McCarthy’s football belongs in the toilet. No criticism of Knudsen is made, obviously Mick coaches him to give away penalties when he can. As the game rattles along towards its conclusion Ipswich finally get forward a little more and muscular Martyn Waghorn gets through a couple of times. Kenlock the substitute is in turn substituted as the need for more effective attacking players builds, and Town play with two wingers. The sun is now shining and on the bench, well off it really, because he always stands up, Mick has taken off his coat as if to confirm that he’s not going anywhere soon and to stick it to the numbskulls.
A final flurry from Town isn’t enough and despite four minutes of added on time the game is lost. We make a swift exit to the railway station. It hasn’t been a good game, the result doesn’t help and the Ipswich supporters and their obsession with moaning at Mick McCarthy has made it worse. But Brentford has been grand, it’s a lovely ground to visit, so I don’t begrudge them the win even though the penalty that secured it owed more to the referee than any foul. I shall keep my programme and match ticket to help me remember Griffin Park, just like Mr Benn would have.

 

 

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Ipswich Town 2 Millwall 2

It is Easter, a time for miracles, but on this bank holiday Monday it feels like it will be a miracle if there is any sunshine. Biblical stories have somehow collided this weekend and Noah and his Ark and possibly St Swithin have muscled in on the crucifixion with a deluge of rain. Perhaps however, it will result in a bumper bank holiday crowd at Portman Road as famished fans of local non-league football splurge the money saved on half a dozen recent postponements on one game of league football.
Nevertheless, it’s dry and almost warm today as I walk past queuing cars to the railway station; the road side ditches are full of water and the floating detritus ofOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA modern living, presumably flung from the windows of passing traffic. At the railway station the hedgerows are in bloom, suggesting that Spring is here in spite of the grey sky. Signs of re-birth abound, but outside the station a dead rook is propped against the fence as if it had suicidally nose-dived into the pavement.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The train is on time and I sit on the opposite side of the carriage to a man and a woman in their thirties, she appears to be staring into her handbag, but I discern she has a kindle inside it, whilst he peers relentlessly at his phone. They don’t speak. As arrival at Colchester is announced she looks up somewhat scarily at her partner, lifting her eyebrows high above her staring eyes and grinning, showing off her uneven teeth. They collect their belongings and alight. Behind me I hear munching and the brittle rustle of a crisp bag as a balding man in an Ipswich Town shirt devours a packet of crisps.
At Ipswich there is a heavier than usual police presence, with police vans lined up on theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA station forecourt and police in baseball hats stood about in pairs. Town are playing Millwall. Outside the Station Hotel, which is reserved for away supporters, there are blokes in dark flat caps and black jackets and dark blue jeans; this must be “the look” for your fashionable dockland geezer this year. They somehow make me think of Dick Van Dyke and his band of cheery chimney sweeps in Disney’s Mary Poppins. No one wears club colours. The

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Station Hotel is making the most of its boozy south London visitors and has provided a gazebo in the pub car park, possibly just to stop them from coming indoors. Across the bridge and over the river the car park behind the old maltings appears to have been taken over by ‘travellers’. I do not know if this is related to the arrival of Millwall supporters or is just another Bank Holiday tradition; I just hope they’ve paid and displayed.
As I turn the corner into Portman Road the Millwall team bus arrives, to no particular OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAexcitement; unlike with other clubs, no fawning supporters gather at the gates to welcome their heroes, I am guessing they have sussed that they won’t get even a glimpse of them, the blacked out windows of the bus making it more like an out-sized black maria. I walk on to St Jude’s Tavern, collecting a programme (£3) on the way; the vendor entreats me to enjoy the match; which is nice, and admirably optimistic.
At St Jude’s the regular pre-match drinkers are present; I get a pint of a dark ale, which IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA don’t remember the name of (£3.40) and take a seat at a table next to a group of blokes in their sixties. Talk is almost exclusively of football, Mick McCarthy’s departure, who might replace him and the ten percent cut in season ticket prices. One of the sextagenarians admits to me that he only bothers to come because of his discounted ticket and the promise of a pre-match beer. As a second pint I have the Match Day Special (£2.50) and then as a Bank Holiday treat a half of the Stour Strong Ale (£1.90). An hour passes quickly

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and it’s time to roll down Portman Road. The floodlights are on and seem to shine more brightly than the pale sun which struggles to make its presence felt through the grey cloud. Portman Road itself is busy with people in hi-vis coats, Zero the sniffer dog and fanzine sellers; I see three within a distance of about 15 metres all selling Turnstile Blue issue 17; I buy a copy (£1). A youth lolls against Sir Bobby’s plinth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There is a queue at the turnstiles into the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, but that’s because not all the turnstiles are open and the ticket of the person in front of me won’t scan correctly in the bar code reader.

 

Inside the enclosure of the ground there appears to be a sale in the

stall selling Matchday Essentials. I meet Dave the steward with whom I used to work at Royal Mail; he left Royal Mail last year and now has a nice little admin job calculating pay rises for NHS staff. The undercroft of the stand is clearing rapidly as strains of ‘My Way’ drift beneath the seating, a song made more poignant by Mick McCarthy’s confirmed forthcoming departure. I need a wee.
Relieved, I take a seat in the same row as Phil the ever-present supporter who never misses a game and the teams break free from their enforced hand-shaking to skip about and then form separate ‘group’ huddles; football managers don’t talk about the team any more they talk about ‘the group’. I wish one week someone would join the wrong huddle. Sadly, although they seem to like ‘banter’ I don’t think any footballers are that subversive.
Before the match begins there is a minute’s applause for former Town manager Bobby Ferguson and former player Colin Harper. I always felt sorry for Ferguson being the manager to follow Bobby Robson and having to preside over the break- up of the team as it was sold off to pay for the Pioneer Stand. As if that was not enough it was the grim early 1980’s, a time of Reaganomics, Thatcherism, Monetarism , general neo-liberal nastiness, big hair and shoulder-pads.
There are plenty of Millwall supporters here today and they are in predictably good voice. Their team has won something like seven consecutive away games and are after a record eighth, whilst Ipswich have not scored at home for five games and have scored just one goal at home all year. I can’t recall going to a game where the odds are so heavily stacked in Ipswich’s favour. The Millwall fans sing about somewhere, possibly OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASouth London, being wonderful on account of it being full of “tits, fanny and Millwall”, which is an interesting combination and not the sort of thing you’re likely to find mentioned on TripAdvisor when you’re looking for an Indian takeaway in Deptford.
The game begins with Ipswich kicking towards me, Phil and the other occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. Millwall are in a change kit of all black with gold trim, a colour scheme which probably matches their bathrooms. Ipswich start well and get in some crosses from the right, but there is no one to direct them at the goal because Town sportingly play without a centre forward. Muscular Martyn Waghorn (Waggy) wears the number nine shirt for Town but he’s not really a centre forward like Rod Belfitt or Paul Mariner or even Mich D’Avray used to be. He plays in a deeper role but succeeds in winning free-kicks and annoying the opposition however, and within a few minutes the satisfyingly foul-mouthed Millwall fans have tunefully announced that “Waghorn is a wanker”. Having sung of lady parts and masturbation their thoughts inevitably turn anal and they become some of the quickest supporters this season to dust off their Welsh hymn books as they notice that “Your support is fucking shit”. The paucity of the Ipswich vocal support is indeed the ‘bread of heaven’ to most away fans. It took them less than seven minutes to notice and I worry that they will use up their canon of abusive songs before half-time.
There is now rain in the air and a few spits find their way beneath the high roof, which IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA am pleased to see still sports a fine growth of buddleia. The smell of the damp turf rises up with a chill and behind me Crazee the mascot bangs his drum, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully trying to inspire some support for the team. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAway in the corner of the North Stand also a drum is briefly drummed and a muffled chant or two is heard; Ipswich win a couple of corners, but the early rush of enthusiasm from Town has abated. Nevertheless, Millwall’s run of seven consecutive away wins is beginning to look like a fluke and then a cross from the left is headed in by someone in a number 35 shirt called Jake Cooper and Millwall are winning, and it’s not half-past three yet. I respond with a few choruses of “Allez les bleus” but only Phil joins in and then it’s half-time and the toilet beckons as I reap the consequences of an hour in St Jude’s Tavern imbibing fine ales.
Under the stand I stare at people staring at the TV screens bringing them the half-time

scores; I eat a stick of Panda liquorice hoping to tap into the curative and mystical powers alluded to on the Panda website. I look at the prices of snacks and beverages and at my match day programme. The cover of the programme sports a picture of Town number 25, Stephen Gleeson, a sullen, unhappy- looking man with scruffy, greasy hair and a patchy attempt at a beard and moustache. The words next to his head reveal that he has a debt to Mick McCarthy and that he nearly quit the English game. I hope he feels better now, because he’s played quite well so far today.
Back in the stand I say hello to Ray, who is here with his son and grandson and tells me to carry-on with the singing, even though nobody understands it. The teams re-emerge onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA to the pitch to be applauded by Crazee the mascot; Ipswich have made a change, with number 34 Ben Folami, who isn’t even listed on the programme, replacing Myles Kenlock. Folami sports a tuft of bleached hair which makes him instantly recognisable from afar, which is what is needed on a grey afternoon like this. He has only ever played once before for the Town, in one of those Cup games, which we like to lose in order to concentrate on the league.
Folami looks keen and runs with the ball in the direction of the Millwall goal. This is a good thing and it’s not even a quarter past four before Folami, or possibly Waggy scores a scrappy equalising goal and then Waggy takes advantage of a generous back pass to give Town the lead. The Sir Bobby Robson (North) Stand find a voice and the Millwall supporters reveal through their own song that “we forgot you were here”; what cards! The Portman Road crowd hasn’t seen anything like this in years, well, certainly not in 2018 and only an innate fear of being accused of sarcasm stops many from bursting spontaneously into a warm chorus of “Mick McCarthy’s blue and white army”. Talk now is of how many we will score. Certified dead on Easter Saturday afternoon, having lost 1-0 at Birmingham and put in a tomb by Michael Joseph of Arimethea McCarthy, Town have miraculously been resurrected on Easter Monday.
No matter that just six minutes later a bloke called George Saville, an anachronistic sort of a name which sounds to me like he could have been a great train robber, equalises for Millwall and then he and his team mates miss a procession of chances to win the match. Town’s Cole Skuse is injured and emerges from a clutch of concerned players with his head bandaged to add some further drama before being substituted, and four Town players are cautioned by referee Steve Martin, who is definitely not ‘The man with two brains’. But it is an exciting afternoon of football at Portman Road and lately that has been a rare thing, even if the excitement by the end is mostly fuelled by Schadenfreude and willing Ipswich to just hold on to deny Millwall that record away win.
Such is the relief when ‘The Jerk’ blows the final whistle that I stay on to applaud the players from the field and perhaps say a final farewell to Mick McCarthy. Whatever people say about Mick, he was definitely better than Roy Keane and Town supporters will miss him because he was their excuse not to sing and shout in support of their team like proper football supporters do.