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;
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.
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 looks 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 their 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.