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.
I walk on past a burger van painted grey as if it might once have belonged to the RAF.
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
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.
The man in front of me literally stuffs his face with smokey bacon odour crisps, the
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.