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.

Witham Town

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.
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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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