It is Sunday, the day of rest when traditionally, indigenous western Europeans would go to Christian church services, but nowadays most people just generally laze about if they can and nurse their hangovers. It is wrong therefore that I have to keep looking at the clock in order to be sure I shower and breakfast before twenty to eleven when I will need to catch the train to Ipswich for the final match of the season. Curse the Football League and Sky television and their ridiculous 12:30 kick off, something that could never happen in a civilised country like France where lunch is important. Other than tired, I cannot imagine how Middlesbrough supporters must feel having to travel the best part of three hundred miles to get here from Teesside.
The 10:55 train is on time and generously peopled with Ipswich Town supporters. I sit down on the end of a row of three seats; a sinewy bald man wearing last season’s Town shirt is at the other end; he moves his rucksack off the middle seat as I sit down; he reads a Sunday supplement and then The Economist. Nerd. A gregarious elderly man from Witham gets on at Colchester and walks down the train. He sees the blue shirts and asks “Any true Blues here?” He receives a few grunted acknowledgements “Haha, well done!” he says and then sits down. Seeing a lad in a Town shirt on the next set of seats he gets up again and asks “How far have you come for the match today then?” The boy answers “Braintree.” The old man laughs. “Ha, ha Braintree!” he says “ ‘orrible sodding place isn’t it? ”
It is a glorious sunny day and in Ipswich Middlesbrough supporters are gathered in the
beer garden of the Station Hotel, a pub which will miss the football season and the regular visitations from people from other towns and cities intent on enjoying a day out. Portman Road is busy, the turnstiles are open, I buy a programme (£3) and consider that people will eat burgers at any time of day. Up on St Matthews Street St Jude’s Tavern is not very busy. I purchase a pint of the Match Day Special, which today is St.Jude’s St Clements (£2.50) a light beer with a hint of a tang of orange citrus; ideal on a hot day like today. A man speaks to me who seems to know me, I have no idea who he is, he even sits at the table where I am sat. I am soon also joined by Ollie however, a much younger man and work colleague. I have a ticket for Ollie which he has purchased from Roly for a knock down price of a tenner, because Roly has a fortieth birthday bash to attend on the Norfolk Broads. Ollie offers to buy me another drink, but I decline. Ollie has a pint of the match day special too.
At about five past twelve we head for Portman Road bidding farewell to the jolly landlord who wishes us “Bon match” except in English. I enter the stadium to the strains of “Living on a prayer” by Bon Jovi, a depressing song, both because it is awful and because it recalls 1986 the year Ipswich Town were relegated from the first division and the long decline began. My first port of call is the toilet where, with a bloke stood at either end of the urinal a third man annoys me by standing in the middle with no room either side of him.
Having recovered my composure I take to a seat a row or two in front of Pat from Clacton and next to ever-present Phil, who hasn’t missed a game in 30 years and his son Elwood. The teams aren’t out yet but a guard of honour of youngsters with flags lines the
way from the players’ tunnel. Crazee the mascot is heroically waving a much larger flag, a bit like Liberty Leading the People in Delacroix’s painting depicting the revolution of 1830, although I doubt many other people think so and Crazee hasn’t bared his breasts either. A woman at the front of the stand wearing a strapless top which looks like it has been partly torn off her could possibly fill in at any moment, if required.
Rapture and applause for the conquering heroes of Reading out of the way the game begins. Town kick off in their customary blue and white towards me and the other occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. I am pleased to see the ‘Boro not opting to wear some superfluous away kit, but instead adorned with their traditional all red kit with a white band across the chest, like back in the 1970’s. I am reminded of Jack Charlton and the Middlesbrough team that had one of the greatest collection of surnames of any team ever: Platt, Craggs, Boam, Spraggon, Foggon, Brine and Woof. Today the white band bears the name of the shirt sponsor, something called ‘Ramsden Currency’. I thought Ramsden’s was a Fish & Chips franchise but they seem to have diversified into banking, hence the expression ‘cheap as chips’ I guess. Seeing as they’re from the northeast it’s probably something to do with pay day loans.
Portman Road is unusually noisy, due in part to over 1,800 Smog Monsters, as the
inhabitants of Middlesbrough are sometimes unkindly known, although a diet of ‘Parmos’ doesn’t do them a lot of favours. But Ipswich fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand are in reasonable voice and the drum in the corner is being beaten enthusiastically. It helps that Town start the game like a team on a mission to win, which I guess they are. For the first ten minutes Ipswich dominate and then Freddie Sears scores a searing goal, winning the ball wide on the right before advancing and making the ball disappear before making it reappear as it hits the back of the net.
The goal perhaps changes matters and Middlesbrough begin to keep the ball to themselves to prevent such a thing happening again. It’s not long before the ‘Boro fans are borrowing a Pet Shop Boys tune to complain to the Ipswich fans that despite their team winning they are still not singing. It’s a fair cop. Then Town’s Cole Skuse collapses Britt Assambalonga in full flight and is booked by referee Mr Coote, who sadly has a full head of hair. There is a lot of hair on display today with the ‘Boro’s Ryan Shotton sporting tied-back tinted dreadlocks which resemble a trussed up Tarantula. Adam Clayton’s tiny top notch, a sort of My Little Ponytail looks pathetic in comparison, but clearly the barbers of Teesside are doing alright off the back or head of the football club. This is why a successful football teams is said to be so good for the local economy.
In the Sir Bobby Robson stand Town fans turn “Oh when the saints going marching in ” into a dreadful dirge as if predicting Southampton’s relegation. The song subsides and with a half an hour gone the Boro fans are asking if this is a library and where the nineteenth century American literature might be found. They go on to advise that Town fans “Only sing when you’re farming” before asking the whereabouts of our combine harvesters, immediately giving away their ignorance of the farming year and the fact that no one much has their own combine harvester anymore. It’s five past one and time for a drinks break. The old couple behind me moan and groan as if this is some terrible affront to them. It wasn’t like this in their day, dehydration was a fact of life and you had to get on with it, like you did with diphtheria and fatal industrial accidents.
Thirty nine minutes pass before the Boro fans decide they cannot take it any longer and get out their Welsh hymnals and sing that “Your support is, your support is, your support is fucking shit”. I enjoy the sense of anticipation created by the repetition of the first line. Half –time arrives and Ipswich are still winning 1-0 although defending has had to become their playing style of choice. I speak with Ray and his wife Ros who is making her annual visit or pilgrimage to Portman Road. I check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there and doing well but it’s too high up to see any butterflies. It is forty years ago today that Ipswich Town won the FA Cup and as a half-time treat five
blokes in their sixties, who it turns out are members of that winning team are paraded onto the pitch with an FA Cup (there’s more than one apparently). They remain by the dugouts and a bloke with a mike asks some dull questions, before they are lead away. It would have been better if they could have been driven around the pitch in some sort of football version of a “pope-mobile” to take the applause from each stand in turn.
The second half sees Ipswich defend more and more, and more desperately, with shot after shot being blocked. Middlesbrough are much the better team in terms of being able to pass to each other and take shots on goal. Too often Ipswich hit the ball with more hope than subtlety or careful weighting so that it finds another Ipswich player. There is a skills gap, but as time rolls on it looks like it might be Town’s lucky day; but then it turns out not to be as following a corner Stewart Downing takes a shot from the edge of the penalty area and miraculously it doesn’t hit anyone or anything between Downing’s boot and the goal net.
Seventy-five minutes have passed and it’s time for another drinks break. “Ohhhh, what the heck is goin’ on?” says an angry old voice “What a load of ….” but he trails off unable to think of a word for what it is a load of. Despite having already been introduced to the concept of the drinks break in the first half, the old folks’ understanding and acceptance has not improved. They must be quite mean spirited to want to deny a drink to people who have been running several miles on a hot sunny day. Health professionals tells us that old people do not drink enough and it would seem they don’t want other people to drink either.
Perhaps reinvigorated by the drinks break, Ipswich begin to attack again with seven minutes of the match remaining earn a penalty, which Martyn Waghorn makes into a goal and Ipswich are once again winning. There are no complaints about the lack of support now as Ipswich fans nervously urge their team to hold out against the Boro’ who set up tents around the edge of the Ipswich penalty area. The Ipswich cross bar is smote and Daniel Ayala, a former Norwich player heads the re-bounding ball into the net, but is delightfully deemed offside. Ayala does not accept the decision gracefully, which only adds to the fun.
The game enters uncharted amounts of time added on, probably because of those pesky drinks breaks, and thirteen minutes after Waghorn’s penalty a Middlesbrough corner is headed ‘home’ by Patrick Bamford, an oddly upper class looking player who could be up for the weekend from Eton or Harrow.
Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame? Yes, but the final whistle now blows and the news is that Norwich have been thrashed 5-1 by Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich have therefore finished above Norwich in the final league table and so all’s well that ends well etcetera. It has been an exciting match which Middlesbrough should have won but Ipswich could have won and that seems enough at the moment to make some Town fans optimistic, but it’s probably just the sunshine.