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 of 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.
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 the 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
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 excitement; 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 I 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
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. 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 South 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 I 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. Away 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 on 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.