Coggeshall Town 0 Witham Town 0

It’s a Friday evening in late August and in Coggeshall history is being made as the local football club, established in October 1878, will play its first ever FA Cup tie after almost 140 years of non-involvement in what used to be, until the Premier League ruined everything, England’s most thrilling and most-loved football competition.
It’s been a blustery day, but the afternoon has been quite warm. My wife Paulene and I have had our tea early (bangers and mash) and are making the short drive to Coggeshall; a large crowd is predicted tonight for what is a local ‘derby’ against Witham Town, so we thought we would get in early, park up and have a drink before the rush. Driving along West Street towards ‘The Crops’ we follow a large Audi car with the registration M1 LTS, the personalised number plate of former Ipswich Town player Simon Milton; I wonder to myself if footballers are more likely to have personalised number plates than ‘normal’ people. I think perhaps they are. As we follow I tell Paulene about how hack sportswriter Dave Allard would nearly always refer to Simon Milton in the back pages of the Ipswich Evening Star as “… the former paint sprayer and van driver from Thetford”. Paulene thinks this was rather rude of him. The Audi brakes suddenly as it reaches the turning into the Coggeshall Town car park; “Milts” is evidently not a regular at the Crops. We turn in after him and wait whilst he backs his transport into a space close to the entrance.
There are a good number of cars here already but there is no queue at the turnstile and we soon pay our entrance money (£9 each) and buy a programme (£1.50). At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Ghostship (sadly keg and not real ale) for me and a Campari and soda for Paulene. “A what?” says the young woman behind the bar .
“Campari and soda” I reply.
“What’s that?” She asks.
“It’s Campari topped up with soda”
“What, like lime and soda?”
“Yes, but with Campari instead of the lime, but still with the soda”
“I don’t know if we’ve got that”
“Yes, you have, the Campari is on the top shelf”. The barmaid turns to look at the shelves behind the bar. “Which one is it?”
“The bottle in the middle with the word ‘Campari’ on it”. Paulene is served her Campari and soda (£7.70 with the pint of Ghostship) and explains to the woman stood next to her (who had asked) how she cannot have grain-based drinks due to a food intolerance and so has to stick to wine-based ones like Campari, Martini and Noilly Prat. The woman’s husband tells me how he has a bottle of Campari in a cupboard at home, but has never opened it. Plastic cups of drink in hand we stand outside on the deck and watch what’s occurring whilst playing “Spot the Groundhopper”. We speak with ‘Migz’ who we know from his having played at Wivenhoe Town; he has just joined Witham, his younger brother Tristan plays for Ipswich Town. It’s rather lovely sat out here, with the neat, well-tended pitch before us and the grey leaves of the riverside trees beyond the fields behind the ground blowing in the breeze. But it’s getting a bit chilly and I put my coat on. On the pitch the Coggeshall coach is interviewed in front of a video camera, apparently BT will be showing the match in a highlights programme. Good luck with finding it on BT’s poorly advertised schedules.


Drinks drunk we move to the low seated stand at the side of the pitch and pick a spot at the back, in the middle, saving a seat for Paul who normally videos the match but has given over his gantry to BT tonight.

The BT people said they will let him have a copy of their recording, which is nice of them and much better than the service you get as one of their paying subscribers. The ground is filling up; a large man in front of says to his wife “The barbecue is up and burning, do you want anyfink?” He leaves and returns with burgers and paper napkins; the burgers don’t look burnt despite what he said. The referee and his assistants warm up in front of us, the referee who has scrupulously short hair setting out a series of flattened cones to run between, although he begins by running with his chums to the goal line and back. I thought I saw one of his assistant smirk as the cones were laid out, but it might have been me. They don’t really need these flattened cone things, perhaps they were a Christmas present and he feels obliged to use them or may be just setting them all out and picking them up again is part of the warm up.


The light is fading as cloud builds and the floodlights come on before kick-off. Barbecuedsc00074_30406466408_o smoke drifts in to the air and teases our nostrils as Witham Town in yellow shirts and blue shorts have first kick at the ball playing towards the town, with its fabulous medieval tithe barn and Tudor, double jettied, Paycocke’s house. Coggeshall sport their usual black and red striped shirts with black shorts and socks.
An early free-kick to Coggeshall and their number six and captain Luke Wilson heads the ball over the goal. The game is fast and frantic. “Well in son” shouts a shiny headed man standing near to us and then “Well up son” to another player, showing a touching fatherliness towards the Coggeshall team. At the open end of the ground a lone voice bellows “You’re supposed to be at home” single-handedly trying to create the big match, local derby, cup-tie atmosphere that I hope for at every game.
After just six minutes the Coggeshall captain is substituted due to injury and then there is a flash. I thought the floodlights flickered, but the rumble of thunder that follows

confirms that it was lightning. If the crowd isn’t creating much of a ‘cup-tie’ atmosphere the weather seems to be making an effort and soon it begins to rain. Coggeshall win the first corner of the match as a swarm of raindrops swirl within the beam of the floodlights above. The referee speaks with Witham’s number eleven and two grumpy looking men in suits and ties enter the stand to shelter from the rain, they are wearing dsc00089_30406410328_ohuge black coats plastered with the logos of Mitre and Bostik, they must be League or FA officials. It’s another thing I love about non-league football; officials all dressed up and made to sit in a tin shack. Perhaps that’s why they look so grumpy, but at least they’ll get free sandwiches at half-time.
It’s not quite a quarter past eight and Witham’s number three claims the first booking of the evening for acting the playground bully as he unsubtly shoves a Coggeshall player in the back. I’d like to say that he stares wild-eyed up through the rain at the yellow card as it is illuminated by a flash of lightning, but it didn’t really happen like that. The rain gets harder and a dark bank of cloud forms the back drop to the floodlit pitch, which sparkles with rain drops. The thunder and lightning passes over, it’s nearly twenty past eight and Witham win their first corner with what could be their first attempt on goal. Coggeshall have been dominating this game but without troubling the Witham goalkeeper who has a stockade of four big blokes in front of him who block every way through to goal. Coggeshall are nimble and quick but small and Witham are big and solid. A hoofed clearance disappears above the roof line of the stand and I wait for it to fall like someone in 1944 who has just heard a doodlebug engine cut out. After a silent pause the ball noisily clatters the corrugated iron above us. There’s time for Coggeshall to win another corner, which is cleared and then it’s half time.
It’s still raining so we stay where we are, a cup of tea might be in order usually, but there are over 300 people here tonight (309 to be precise) and I don’t want to queue in the rain. I flick through the programme and Paul leaves and returns with a burger. The large man at the front of the stand goes to get a burger, but returns empty-handed, put off by the queue.
The second half brings the football back and Witham’s number ten is soon cautioned for a tackle which the shiny headed man says was two-footed. From the resultant free-kick, Coggeshall’s number ten Ross Wall (a moniker which I randomly notice combines the names of two frozen food manufacturers) sends a flying header goal-wards, but the Witham goalkeeper is equally air worthy and hurls himself to his right to push the ball onto the post and away, drawing excited but frustrated “Ooooohs” from the crowd, including me.
It’s still raining as Coggeshall’s number ten is booked, seemingly because several Witham players surrounded the referee appealing for his censure. But Coggeshall remain the better team, or at least the more attack-minded and entertaining team and soon a throw on the right reaches number seven who turns smartly to send in a rising shot, which the Witham ‘keeper again touches on to the cross bar in spectacular fashion. An hour of the game has passed and another Coggeshall player, number fourteen is booked for sliding into an opponent across the wet turf.
dsc00069_43555980904_oThe game remains physical and frantic and wet. A free-kick for Coggeshall almost sneaks under the cross bar and a corner is won after number eleven Nnamdi Nwachuk produces some nifty footwork and tries several times to tee up a shot on his right foot. Coggeshall’s number fifteen replaces number seven and Witham’s number four joins those already booked by the very neat Mr Michael Robertson – Tant the referee. It’s been a game of several free-kicks and much falling over and a special prize should go to Witham number nine, a huge man who several times falls to the ground heavily and lies perfectly still as if mortally wounded. He has clearly learned from watching the World Cup that rolling over and over and over is not convincing; he is the anti-Neymar and amusing with it.
Nnamdi Nwachuk stays down on the turf “Get up , we need you” bawls a team mate. A Witham player goes down and seeks attention “Come on ref, he’s a pansy” shouts the shiny headed man. Coggeshall win more corners, the ball is cleared, is headed over and Nwachuk’s shot is deflected away as everyone struggles to control it on the greasy, wet grass. Nwachuk cannot carry on and is replaced by number eighteen. Witham’s number four is replaced by number fourteen, a curly haired, bearded man who looks like a history teacher who taught me back in 1976. Frustration grows but the pattern of the game doesn’t , Coggeshall press and Witham hold out. The shiny headed man develops a rising, piercing falsetto voice as Witham’s nine fails to get booked “Why doesn’t he book him? He’s taking the piss. It’s ridiculous”. Moments later nine is booked for childishly withholding the ball before a Coggeshall free-kick. The shiny-headed man is apoplectic and with the game ebbing away he turns to religion. “Jesus Christ!” he spits as a searching through ball is played much too long and rolls harmlessly off the pitch. The good word spreads to the woman next to me who on being told there wouldn’t be extra-time if the game is drawn says “Thank God, I don’t think I could take it”.
Entering time added on, the Witham players have taken to complaining heavily when fouled; they earn a free kick which is cleared to the edge of the penalty area where the history teacher clubs it on the volley just past the Coggeshall ‘keeper’s right hand post. It’s the last notable action of the game. The rain has stopped and the smell of cooking meat returns as a pall of barbecue smoke hangs over the pitch. After four minutes of added time it’s all over and we emerge from our shelter into the damp night to say our goodbyes. It’s disappointing not to have seen any goals and ultimately effort and strength have beaten skill but the thunder, lightning and lashing rain beneath the floodlights have made it a memorable evening.

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IpswichTown 1 Aston Villa 1

 

It’s a sombre August afternoon beneath overcast, grey skies; I walk to the railway station.  The heat and bright sunshine that greeted the first match of the football season have gone and with three games played Ipswich have still not won.  But it’s warm.20180818_125516_44115116991_o

On the platform at the railway station a poster entreats me not to get on the train if I feel unwell, but I’m okay, it’s too early in the season to feel ill at the thought of another match.   The train arrives and is a minute later than it was a fortnight ago; the timetable seems to have changed.  On the other side of the carriage sits a young woman with a flourish of wild blond hair and dark eyebrows. She checks her make-up using her mobile phone.  I look out of the window.

In Ipswich a group of Aston Villa fans look over the bridge parapet opposite the railway station; perhaps they will jump into the river below if their team loses, or maybe it’s just their way of joining in with Maritime Ipswich. Portman Road is busy with people indulging in pre-match hanging about; two lads, one in an Ipswich shirt, one in a Villa shirt create a pleasing tableau of inter-club friendliness beneath the statue of Sir Alf Ramsey.

I buy a programme (£3.00) and  walk on to St Jude’s Tavern where Mick has arrived, seconds before; he buys me a pint of Colchester Brewery Metropolis (£3.00), which I choose because of Fritz Lang’s 1926 film of the same name. Mick has a pint of peach flavoured beer, which he discovers he doesn’t really like (£3.00).   We sit at a small table, the only one that is free; the pub is busy.  We talk of football, of what my wife and I might do on a forthcoming trip to Paris, of how we perceive our lives and the reality of them, of what Mick will do now he has split with his partner of the past fourteen years and what he really does in his shed.  I buy a second pint of beer, Colchester Brewery Sweeney Todd (£3.00), whilst Mick has a half of Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£1.50).

An hour gone and glasses drained we leave with a host of others bound for the match.  Mick and I part at the corner of Portman Road and St Matthews Street, he will be going to 20180818_153709_30246974478_oSainsbury’s.  Down in Portman Road there are queues for the turnstiles, which is surprising.  I assess which queue is shortest and join it, it is very short and I am soon inside the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I thank the turnstile operator, drain off some excess liquid and head for my seat near Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and who today has his son Elwood with him.  The teams appear to the strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, I don’t know why, but apparently people voted for it, like Brexit.

The game begins; Ipswich kicking off and playing towards me and Phil, Elwood and Pat.  20180818_161256_44065987012_oIpswich sport their new kit for this season; blue shirts with white sleeves evoking a memory of the shirts of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but with added Addidas branded stripes in red to make sure we don’t miss them.  Ipswich’s Polish goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski looks like a huge ‘Mivvi’ in all-orange.  Aston Villa wear white shirts and maroon shorts and socks. Boots come in many colours, a rainbow of feet.

Inside Portman Road it is quite noisy today, mostly thanks to the 2,027 Aston Villa supporters but the Town fans are doing their best to contribute in a week when a new group of supporters ‘Blue Action’ has launched itself on social media with its stated aim to “…ignite and unite the support”.  Its name might sound like a washing powder but the aim of the group seems laudable provided nothing gets burnt.  The Villa fans sing a song about empty seats, which is hard to decipher and then their star player Jack Grealish falls to the ground, the first of many, many times which he will do this this afternoon; for someone with such big legs, he seems incredibly frail.  “He’s dead again” says the old fella behind me “Get up you creep” – well it sounded like creep.  Town’s Trevoh Chalobah then receives treatment after he is fouled and I have time to check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there.  In the first ten minutes ten free-kicks are awarded by referee Mr Tim Robinson for fouls.  Town manager Paul Hurst watches on, arms folded across his chest.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” sing the Aston Villa fans.  It’s lovely of them to offer to do requests like that I think to myself, but then disappointingly they don’t bother; something from Bizet’s Carmen would have been nice.

It’s not 3.15 yet and Town’s Gwion Edwards hits the Aston Villa cross bar at the end of a flowing move across the pitch from one side to the other and back, which started with him dribbling the ball away from the Town penalty area.  This is the stuff.  Town fans sing and clap a bit, but not for long and within minutes Villa fans are chanting “No noise from the Tractor Boys”.  Then town have another shot, which bobbles past a post but then Aston Villa score; Ivorian Jonathon Kodjia being left to head in a cross.  The old couple behind me are amused by his surname which they pronounce ‘Codger’ as in ‘old codger’.  Very droll.

The game continues with free-kicks a-plenty as Aston Villa players seem keen to lay about on the turf whilst Mr Robinson seems keen to blame Ipswich players for this.  Town’s Tayo Edun does nothing more than collide with Villa’s Ahmed El Mohamady and is cautioned by the increasingly officious Mr Robinson.  Kodjia hits the Town cross bar with a header from the resultant free-kick.  When Gwion Edwards is then fouled and a free-kick awarded, the decision is greeted with a hail of ironic cheers from Town fans; it’s what we do best, sarcasm.   It’s about twenty five to four and a long throw falls to the feet of Trevoh Chalobah who turns and bounces a low shot just inside the goalpost and a little unexpectedly Town have equalised.

Things are looking up, but only temporarily as just two minutes later Tayo Edun is booked again by Mr Robinson for a foul and is therefore sent off.  Despite the scores being level, Aston Villa have looked the better team in the first half and with just ten players I feel that defeat for Town looks inevitable.  The Town supporters are not happy, but they seem to like it like that.  “You don’t know what you’re doing” they chant to Mr Robinson and “You’re not fit to referee”.  Kodjia goes down again under a challenge and receives treatment; “Get up ya pansy” shouts the old boy behind me, following it up with “What a bunch of pansies”.  The half ends in acrimony, which is always a good thing for the atmosphere at a football match.

Mr Robinson leaves the field guarded by stewards who happily can do nothing to protect him from the hail of vitriol and verbal abuse which is directed at him.  If he has any sort20180818_120714_42299377040_o of a heart he will hopefully sit in his little room and weep over his half-time tea whilst his two assistants ignore him and whisper between themselves.  I eat a Panda brand liquorice bar and chat to Ray who is not impressed and foresees defeat, although he considers the sending off to have been unjust.  I visit the latrines and beneath the stand people stare up at the TV screens replaying highlights of the first half.

With everyone refreshed the game begins anew.  The old girl behind me offers up her insight playing the part of the half-time TV pundit “Sometimes it’s harder to play ten men” she says sounding unconvinced by her own words. Following a pause she adds “Cos you don’t know where they’re going”.  As qualifying statements go it’s a poor one, but at least she realised one was needed.

Aston Villa begin the new half with even more resolve to fall over at every opportunity and Town’s St Lucian Janoi Donacien is soon cautioned by Mr Robinson, who shows no sign of having reflected upon his rank first half performance. Aside from ‘rank Robbo’ the villain of the piece this afternoon  is Jack Grealish who despite showing ample skill and poise on the ball mostly falls down  Bambi-like attempting to win free-kicks, which is a sad indictment of modern football and the reliance on set-pieces.  In ‘rank Robbo’ Villa have discovered a referee who loves to award free-kicks as much as they love to win them and he evidently has no understanding of the concept of players falling over on purpose to win free-kicks.

But despite the efforts of ‘rank Robbo’ and Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish the game is overall an entertaining one and Ipswich overcome the handicap of having only ten players admirably.   Sunshine is breaking through the clouds and the crowd is engrossed in the game, but not so much that they don’t every now and then cheer and clap and behave like a football crowd should.  With about fifteen minutes to play Villa’s Irish substitute Conor Hourihane falls screaming to the ground in the Ipswich penalty area as if haunted by wailing banshees and he rightly incurs the displeasure of both Luke Chambers and Jonas Knudsen; his is the afternoon’s most blatant attempt at cheating.  Aston Villa then bring on the player with the most exotic name of the day, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy whose surname conjures up images of a triste between a sophisticated looking lady in a little black dress and a jobbing builder.

Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish looks purposeful with the ball at his feet but with his slicked back hair and confident air he possibly believes he is better than he is and with time running out and Villa encamped around the Town penalty area he carefully picks out the perfect pass to the only Villa player in an offside position.   Grealish should really have worn a dark cape, black hat and grown a twirly waxed moustache for today’s game, although he might have had to fight ‘rank Robbo’ for it, which would have been an entertainment in itself.

With the final whistle a great cheer goes up, which is not really commensurate with a home draw, but today it feels like Town have won because it has been achieved in adversity against a club which is expected to be challenging for promotion and is still profiting from Premier League ‘parachute’ payments.  As befits a team managed by 5’5” Paul Hurst, today Town have played the ‘little guy’ and have come through.  I stay to applaud and although Town have now gone four games without winning, this game was well worth being at.  Perhaps our first win will be against Norwich City in a fortnight’s time.

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Woodbridge Town 2 Clapton 2

Today is the day of my favourite round of the FA Cup. Whilst supporters of professional clubs may enjoy the third round when the ‘big’ clubs deign to take part, or the first round when the not quite so big clubs join in, I love the very first day. For a start, it is still summer and the days remain long and warm, but what I love about it more is not that any particular clubs take part, or even that it is the beginning, what I like is its name, the extra-preliminary round. Before the first round there are four qualifying rounds; before the first one of those there is a preliminary round, but the FA clearly don’t think that goes far enough and rather than have six qualifying rounds, they decide to have both a preliminary round and an extra-preliminary round. This seems to me to embody the FA’s attitude to grass roots football clubs as a bit of a nuisance that must be culled before the competition can begin properly. This is the FA ‘putting it’ to these little clubs that they are nothing. It’s no wonder that only 800 odd clubs enter the FA Cup, the FA would never cope with what happens in France where over 7,000 clubs enter their equivalent competition, the Coupe de France, but then, France is a republic.
Today I am travelling to Woodbridge by train (£3.15 return from Ipswich with a Goldcard) to watch Woodbridge Town, newly promoted to the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League, play Clapton of the Essex Senior league, a club with a distinguished history and where the fabled Walter Tull began his football career. On the first part of my journey to Ipswich I sit next to two women discussing a man called Amos and what he does when he is in Uganda. When I change trains I sit at a table where a girl in red socks and white T-shirt is quick to tell me that she is innocent of having made the neat arrangement of two empty Lucozade bottles and three crisp packets that sit on the table. I tell her it’s okay, I will avert my gaze and look out of the window. British Transport police are looking for an obese person with OCD who is recovering from illness. Two West Bromwich Albion supporters on their way to Norwich sit across the gangway from me, we chat a little and I wish them luck, telling them that I am expecting at least four or five goals from their team; pleasingly they will oblige. I also recoil from the hideous sight of a tall, well-spoken young man in a Norwich City shirt; he has ‘Cooper’ ‘21’ on his shirt back; his name and IQ I surmise, or possibly the number of members of his family with whom he has had a sexual relationship.
The three carriage 13:18 to Lowestoft leaves Ipswich on time and slowly roars its way through marshalling yards and past Hadleigh Road industrial estate with its mighty disused gas holder that sits in a nest of buddleia. Beyond the River Gipping the view of Ipswich from the bridges over Bramford Lane and Norwich Road is a joy with its cluster of modernist blocks and the floodlights of Portman Road looming up beyond low streets of red roofs, which haven’t changed much in eighty years, in many cases much longer. This is a lovely train journey, albeit a noisy one thanks to the diesel engine and old-fashioned clickety-clack of the rails. The train arrives at 13:32 and Woodbridge seems busy; a group of women, all teetering heels, tanned legs, tight dresses, make-up, flowers and fascinators await a taxi; on their way to a wedding, I hope. Woodbridge station is a homely looking building, but I waste no time in setting off up the hill towards Notcutt’s Park, which is a good twenty-minute walk away.


Woodbridge is clearly a well-heeled town, there are large houses, some with naked statuary in the garden and the lamp posts are adorned with somewhat twee hanging baskets, overflowing with summer flowers. I pass by the Cherry Tree pub but do just that, pass by, it looks busy and full of Saturday lunchtime diners. Further up the hill is the local Ford motor dealership where in 1970 my father traded in his maroon 1962 Ford Cortina 1200 for an almost new (ex-demonstrator), beige Ford Cortina 1600 Super, which he always maintained was the best car he ever owned.

Further on, the path leaves the roadside, ascending an embankment and becoming a leafy bower43072886655_a4cf6c222d_o before emerging again into the full light by the Duke of York ‘country’ pub, which is really a ‘family diner’ masquerading as a pub and part of the Vintage Inns chain whose “…rustic buildings offer a country style dining experience…” .

I have been walking for almost fifteen minutes and fearful that the Woodbridge Town clubhouse might only serve insipid Greene King IPA I call in for a pint of Adnams Southwold Bitter (£3.90). At the bar a youngish man orders food. “The menu says you have those kofte things” he says. “Yes” says the bar maid. “I’ll er, have some of them, er please” says the man, showing what sophisticated diners the English have become thanks to the country style dining experience and its ilk.
Refreshed by Adnams Southwold Bitter I press on with the final short leg of my walk to the match through a modern estate of red brick houses, which all look like they are43072882865_26c0797c46_o trying to be nineteenth century Suffolk farmhouses; I imagine their occupants having Ploughman’s lunches for every meal. At the end of a winding road of executive homes is Woodbridge Town Football Club. I follow a man with a carrier bag of empty bottles which he tips into the recycling bin outside before proceeding through the turnstile.

I pay my entry fee (£6.00) receiving a yellow and white ticket in exchange and purchase a programme (£1.00), which annoyingly I will later lose in mysterious circumstances (did it fall from my pocket, or did I leave it in the bar?), it was a glossy publication which I rather liked. After a cursory look across the pitch, where players of both teams are limbering up, I enter the bar and a youth wearing a thick grey anorak as if he’s in in 1990’s indie band serves me with a pint of Adnams Ghostship (£3.50). I feel foolish for worrying about Greene King IPA now and my faith in football club bars is restored, for now. The barman doesn’t look old enough to serve alcohol, but he later takes the anorak off revealing tattoos suggesting he is indeed over eighteen. But maybe he serially lies about his age, has been driving since he was thirteen and had this been a century ago he would already have spent a couple of years in the trenches of northern France. I sink the Ghostship and wander outside into the sun where the crowd is gathering. There are just two stands at Notcutt’s Park, one a covered, shallow metal terrace and the other, which is directly next to it, a brick structure with half a dozen rows of bench seats; I pick a spot in the seated stand and read my programme, which I have not yet lost. After a short while I am surprised to look up and see the two teams and the officials all lined up on the pitch, shaking hands like Baptists on a Sunday morning.
The game begins with Clapton in all blue with yellow socks and sleeves kicking off in the direction of whatever lies northeast of Woodbridge; Ufford probably. Woodbridge Town wear black and white stripes with black shorts and socks, hence their nickname ‘The Woodpeckers’, not that woodpeckers wear football kits and of course not all woodpeckers are black and white; a fact highlighted by the most laudable poster above20180811_144447_42172634410_o the urinals in the toilet urging spectators to buy a re-usable drinks cup and become a ‘green’ woodpecker. All clubs should be doing something OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsimilar.

 

 

Woodbridge play towards the junction with the A12, Martlesham and the tower of BT’s research laboratories which is visible in the distance.

 

The first foul of the game, after just a few seconds, draws a shout from the crowd “That’s about time ref”. Woodbridge look much the better of the two teams in the opening minutes; perhaps they should with former Ipswich Town and Sunderland player Carlos Edwards in their team; they pass the ball whilst Clapton just run about after them. But Woodbridge don’t create any chances to score and when it looks like they might, a Clapton player always manages to be in the way. Woodbridge have the first proper shot of the game, which flies over the Clapton cross bar in the seventh minute. Woodbridge are playing well, but then again they’re not; and Clapton are struggling, but then in a way they’re not because their goalkeeper has not had a save to make. Some of the crowd amuse themselves with shouts and cat calls. “VAR. That was a penalty!” is heard as a Woodbridge player tumbles in the box, and then “Eh, absolute shite ref” as play is waved on. I decide to take a wander, and alone at the corner of the ground I get to play the ball back to the Clapton full-back Lanre Vigo when it goes out for a throw. There is a pause in the action as the somewhat portly referee Mr James Beal speaks to two complaining Woodbridge players. ”Get on with it Porky” is the shout from the crowd; you can’t beat humour at the expense of fat people. I get to touch the ball back to Lanre Vigo again, this time a header, no one congratulates me and although it does knock my glasses off I thought ’I done well’.
Considering that as someone who paid to get in I am getting too many touches of the ball and am therefore bound to embarrass myself (if the flying glasses haven’t already done so) I walk round to the dug outs on the opposite side of the pitch to the stands. Here the Clapton manager and his coach are providing a constant commentary of the game as they live every touch of the ball by their players. “Why do you put it there?” shouts the manager to his goalkeeper Jack Francis “I keep telling you mate, I don’t want it in the centre I want it here”. There are a number of players who receive constant encouragement and instruction, the names Jerome, Warren, Gio and Dylan feature prominently. Number five Dylan Ebongo is a ‘big lad’ who rivals and outstrips the referee for the space he takes up on the pitch, but as is so often the case with players that spectators accuse of having eaten all the pastry based foods, he can play a bit and Dylan is a rock in the Clapton defence.
It’s about twenty five past three and against the run of play Clapton have a corner; at the near post the ball is flicked on, the young Woodbridge goalkeeper Alfie Stronge flaps a bit and the ball meets the goal net in the lovely way that footballs do; it’s 1-0 to Clapton. “Who scored?” asks the happy and surprised Clapton manager of his neatly coiffured number seven Ryan Reed, but he doesn’t seem to know, or I at least I can’t work out what he says.
“Take heart from that” shouts the Clapton manager to his team as if none of them expects not to lose. Despite his constant imploring and helpful encouragement to his players the Clapton manager seems quite pessimistic in private moments when speaking to his coach or simply verbalising his thoughts, or perhaps he’s just realistic. “We’re our own worst enemy”, “We could be in trouble here”, “Now we’ve got trouble” are a few of his comments as the Woodpeckers press, along with his admirably honest assessment that his team has actually done nothing and Woodbridge have had all the play. Despite being a goal up however, ten minutes before half-time there is a falling out between the manager and his number ten Jerome Mortell. Jerome is threatened with being substituted, but his response is simply “Go on then” and within a minute he is stomping his way round to the dressing room, leaving the pitch with the words “I’ve had enough of this shit”. Clapton had only Jacod Dingli on the bench today, and now he’s on the pitch, but at least they’re still winning and very soon they are almost two-nil up as another corner against the run of play sees a header thud against the woodwork of the Woodbridge goal.

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Across the pitch a tall man, immaculately dressed in a dark suit stands out amongst the general scruffiness of the usual football crowd, I believe this is Vince McBean the current owner of Clapton FC and a controversial figure after he allegedly attempted to liquidate the charity that administers Clapton’s Old Spotted Dog ground. From where I stand he looks like an undertaker.

Half-time and I’m one of the first at the bar for another pint of Ghostship (still £3.50) which I follow up with a visit to the toilet where I admire the juxtaposition of a large print of a sunset over the Woodbridge’s tide mill with the urinals; it makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. 20180811_144443_42172634020_oBut there is little time to consider twentieth century art, the players are on the pitch and Woodbridge line-up as Clapton huddle. I return to stand between the dugouts where the entertainment is richest, although I do take a moment to enjoy the Co-op’s side by side, edge of pitch advertisements, one solemnly telling us how their funeral service is “Supporting loved ones locally when it matters” (and presumably telling non-local loved ones to clear off) and the other in a lighter frame of mind urging us to ‘Pop to the Co-op’.

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The second half begins and before not very long Ryan Reed intercepts a poor pass and breaks forward, he rides a tackle and is through on goal, he shoots, Alfie Stronge saves but the ball rebounds to Ryan who strikes it confidently and with force inside the far post from a tight angle. It’s 2-0 to Clapton.
The Clapton manager stresses the importance to his players, particularly to big Dylan at the centre of the defence, of holding onto the 2-0 lead in the next ten minutes, which he says will break Woodbridge’s hearts if they can do it. They do and the game seems to settle down with Woodbridge still dominating possession, but mostly over-hitting all their forward passes and crosses. Substitutions are made by Woodbridge and approaching the last fifteen minutes it looks like Clapton will hold on. The Woodbridge manager who incidentally is probably bigger than both the referee and Clapton’s Dylan seems calm, despite his frequent frustration at those over hit passes, is he resigned to a defeat?
Woodbridge for all their inadequacy in terms of shots, are still dominating however and the ball is spending most of its time on the Clapton half of the field. A Clapton player is nearly always the last man to touch the ball inside their own penalty area, but then just after twenty five to five the ball runs loose and Woodbridge’s number seven Callum Sinclair lashes it on the half volley in to the top corner of the Clapton goal to halve Clapton’s lead and give Woodbridge hope.
I came to this game as a neutral but the enthusiasm of the Clapton manager and coach and the fact that they turned up with just one substitute and seemingly a team that must be coached through every kick has me wanting them to hang on for the win. There is also a bit of me that wants rough, deprived, inner city Clapton to triumph over wealthy, privileged Woodbridge, although of course I know in reality that those distinctions don’t actually have any relevance in the context of these two football clubs.
Woodbridge earn a corner, it’s late in the game and goalkeeper Alfie Stronge comes up to add his presence and he heads narrowly over the Clapton cross bar. The Clapton manager berates his players for trying to pass the ball when clearly a hoof is required. That has been a recurring theme but I find it reassuring that players want to play the game ‘beautifully’, because that’s what makes it so good to watch and play whether it comes off or not. The game is into time added on and a half-hearted challenge which causes a slight stumble but no trip sees Mr Neal award a free-kick just outside the penalty area, in range for a well taken direct shot. The Clapton coach is apoplectic and winds himself up by imagining that it’s as if the referee wants Woodbridge to equalise; the manager is not happy about it but is more sanguine realising that whatever will be, will be on the way to Wemb-er-ley. Woodbridge’s number five Liam Scopes steps up to scoop a shot over the wall and into the top left hand corner of the Clapton goal. Woodbridge have tied the match and the Clapton coach is sent off by Mr Beal for simply getting carried away with himself.
There is no time for anything more to happen and I am only sorry that with the time now almost five o’clock I must leave and hot foot it back the railway station to catch the 17:18 back to Ipswich. It’s been a lovely afternoon in the August sun and a thoroughly entertaining game, which has been a credit to both clubs. I am tempted to try and make it to the replay. I’ve had a great time but in about twenty-five minutes I will realise I no longer have my programme.

Ipswich Town 2 Blackburn Rovers 2

The sun beats down upon a golden expanse of drifting barley and small fluffy clouds43126215994_375b3b9725_z populate a hazy sky. I walk to the railway station past a line of traffic queuing for the coast and struggle to stay cool in sandals, shorts, T-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat as the mercury touches 26 degrees; it can all only mean one thing, it’s the start of the football season.
I meet my friend and colleague Roly at the railway station, who is similarly attired but less colourfully so, in navy blue and black. Roly looks a little glum when I first see him, he is sans hat and wearing some sort of training 42035096670_0e0f7ea047_oshoe rather than sandals, but then, he is only forty-one. I cherish a certain self-satisfaction that I am of a generation before ‘trainers’ and feel comfortable offering glimpses of toe and heel through the open sides of my footwear. Whilst not a religious man I ask myself what would Jesus have done and the answer has to be that he would have worn sandals. The train is on time but has no air-conditioning and we gently roast and sweat in equal measure at the front of the second car. All the windows are open on the train but they don’t help to alleviate the heat, it just means we have to shout to be heard. We shout at one another about comedians, of Stewart Lee, of how we agree that Lee Mack has a chip on his shoulder and how Frank Skinner is now over 60 and seems to be adopting the persona of some sort of amiable old grandfather of English comedy.

Arriving in Ipswich the train disgorges a good number of Ipswich Town supporters and we head up Portman Road towards St Jude’s Tavern, stopping off along the way to purchase a programme (£3). It’s a ‘new era’ beginning today I am told, but things seems29973629328_bbc51b88de_o little different in Portman Road, people with no life gather and wait for the turnstiles to open, others stand before the statue of Sir Bobby Robson whilst polythene bags containing an East Anglian Daily Times a bottle of water and a bag of crisps are sold for a quid each. Today, to mark the dawn of the ‘new era’ those bags also contain a cardboard face mask of Paul Hurst the man who has replaced Mick McCarthy  as manager. The club shop, ‘Planet Blue’ is doing a good trade. But the Sporting Farmer pub (latterly known as the Drum & Monkey) is gone, demolished in the close season after a short life of just 56 years; in the end it was just too inebriated to stand up to progress and the march of the temporary car park.

St Jude’s Tavern is busy but I’m soon served and buy two points of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which today is Nethergate Priory Mild and to show there are no hard feelings I29973636458_04d87c86b3_o give one of the pints to Roly. I hear the pleasing, rich tones of East Lancashire accents at the bar and am happy to think that to these Blackburn supporters going to football and a decent pint go hand in hand; they may be northern, but they’re not so different. We’re not sat down long when Mick arrives and turning his nose up at the thought of Mild I treat him to a pint of a dark ruby beer the exact name of which I do not recall. “Why do people drink Mild?” asks Mick once he has sat down. “Because it’s cheap” I tell him. Our conversation meanders and we learn that Mick weighs 11 stone eight pounds ( 73kg), I divulge that I weigh about 12 stone 4  pounds(78kg)  before Roly announces that he is a whopping 13 stone 9 pounds (86kg) despite being the only one of us who is under six foot at 5′ 9″ and a third. Mick accuses me of glory hunting when he discovers that I had slept with a Manchester United supporter. Roly buys me a pint of Black Country BFG but leaves St Jude’s before Mick and me because he has arranged to meet his friend Andrew at the ground and he has already kept him waiting for a good twenty minutes. Mick surmises that Andrew would be pretty pissed off and is surprised that Roly could be so rude, not to mention overweight.
A little past twenty minutes to three Mick and I leave the pub, he walks with me to Portman Road because he wants to pick up a fixture card, but he is not attending the match. We diverge on our separate orbits outside ‘Planet Blue’ and I stroll to the turnstiles of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, renewing my acquaintance with the back of the Cobbold Stand with its shabby peeling paint and random collections of neatly discarded plastic bottles and drinks containers.28907362317_1869c52fe4_o43843657771_a581bbcff6_o A police car sits across Portman Road as if there has been some ‘incident’, but perhaps it’s there to stop runaway vehicles driven by embittered terrorists or Mick McCarthy (1.88m).
Inside the ground I drain off some surplus liquid and make for my seat, but not before I meet Roz (5′ 11″), wife of former colleague Ray (5′ 8″ and three quarters), she only comes to Portman Road when the weather is nice, which is as good a time as any. I have renewed my season ticket for the thirty fifth consecutive year, not that the club seems to have noticed my unswerving loyalty, although I have yet again moved seat. Having grown increasingly restless with age I am now officially settled somewhere within a seat or two of ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton, three stalwarts together, or in close proximity anyway.

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I don’t think it is just the sunshine but there is an uncharacteristically pleasant, optimistic and almost cheerful atmosphere within Portman Road today.

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The thousand or so supporters of newly promoted Blackburn Rovers are in good voice and sing about returning to the Premier League, which seems a little premature not to say foolhardy and they should be careful what they wish for.

But Ipswich’s supporters seem mostly pleased to be here and there is warm applause as our club’s new manager and figurehead, the 5ft 5in tall Paul Hurst walks from the players’ tunnel to the dugouts and waves obligingly. A large flag is passed above the heads of supporters across the lower tier of the North (Sir Bobby Robson) Stand and the adulation, belief and enthusiasm amongst the above average crowd of 18,940 is palpable, if someway short of a Nuremburg rally. I resist the temptation to sing a song I had thought up in the toilet in praise of our new manager:

“We’ve got Paul Hurst
Little Paul Hurst
We knicked him from Shrewsbu-ry
He’s not very tall
In fact he’s quite small
But he’s taller than Ji-mmy Krankie-e.” (1.3m)

The Town team includes four of Paul Hurst’s new signings, two from Third Division clubs, one from the Fourth Division and one on loan from the First Division who has brought his own hairstyle. I am reminded of the arrival of John Duncan thirty-one years ago, although I try not to recall how that ended. The game begins with Town trying to fill the goal just in front of me with well-placed footballs and if four minutes can be termed ‘straightaway’, Ipswich do this straightaway when a deep cross meets the forehead of the wonderfully Welsh Gwion Edwards (1.75m) and he guides the ball unexpectedly into the far top corner of the goal net past the inadequate dive of the Spanish Blackburn goalkeeper, who is listed on the back of the programme as “David Raya – Spain” (1.83m) The crowd erupts as well as an Ipswich crowd can. Crikey! This is the stuff of Town fans’ dreams.
Sadly the dream dissolves quite quickly into normal sleep patterns and standard ‘Championship’ fare with free-kicks and physical effort counting for more than skill and flair, which probably only exist in the World Cup anyway. In the 20th minute Blackburn equalise as a deep cross is ignored by the Ipswich defence; the ball returns across the face of the goal to be patted away ineffectually by Bartosz Bialkowski (1.94m) and Blackburn’s star-striker Danny Graham (1.83m) half volleys the ball into the goal. Blackburn deserve it inasmuch as they are no worse than Ipswich. But symptomatic of the revolution that has taken place since just before three o’clock this afternoon the North Stand break into a chant of “Come On Ipswich”, although not for very long. Nine minutes later and Blackburn score again as Ipswich right-back Jordan Spence (1.8m) offers no opposition to a run down the wing and a low cross is kicked into the Ipswich goal from close range by Bradley Duck, sorry Dack (1.75m).

The revolution is on hold and Town’s new striker Ellis Harrison (1.8m) earns the coveted first booking of the season as he tackles inexpertly enough for hairless referee Andy Davies to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAair his yellow card. Jordan Spence has looked troubled and seems to be clutching his head; he possibly has a migraine brought on by the uncharacteristic amount of crowd noise. Whatever the cause or nature of his affliction Spence is substituted and there are still a good ten minutes until half-time. Half-time comes and I seek the verdict of ever-present Phil; he remains positive, the new signing’s need time to gel. Ray on the other hand is unimpressed and thinks we look worse than last season. I eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice42035533670_893bea60af_o and then a cup cake which Ray directs me to inside a tin inside a picnic bag; it is Ray’s son’s birthday so cakes are being shared amongst the little community of fans at the back of the disabled enclosure.
The game resumes and nothing much changes. Blackburn have most possession probably but it doesn’t do them any good or Ipswich any harm. The crowd are less excited than they were. I notice that the buddleia on the roof of the stand is still flourishing and has been joined by a couple of friends, Portman Road is on its way to becoming a grand ruin of the sort painted by early nineteenth century romanticists.

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Blackburn’s Bradley Dack falls to the deck in an attempt to win a penalty. It’s an obvious and blatant dive but at the same time rather good, but again equally so bad it is amusing. “Duck!” I shout whilst thinking “What a dick”. Dack is dark and bearded and could easily grow to resemble the late Welsh international Trevor Hockey, if he let himself go a bit. I like him.
The game is in neutral with neither side looking particularly likely to score again. Elliott Bennet fouls Town’s Trevoh Chalobah (1.9m), Town’s loanee from Chelsea with two tone hair, and becomes the first Blackburn player to be rebuked by yellow card by baldy Davies. Chalobah is fouled quite a lot but shows his Premier League pedigree (not that he’s ever played a Premier League game) by OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAclutching his limbs and not just ‘getting on with it’ like a bloke might if he played Aussie Rules. Town’s second Premier League loanee, Adetayo Edun (1.7m) of Fulham replaces Flynn Downes (1.72m) and looks pretty nifty, and he only signed up for Town yesterday but football skills should be easily transferable form one club to another, shouldn’t they?. Blackburn replace Dominic Samuel (1.82m) with Kasey Palmer (1.75m) whose hair bears comparison with that of Trevoh Chalobah, they may even have the same hairdresser and I think I catch them eyeing one another with suspicion.

Time added on for injuries, sundry stoppages and drinks breaks to stave off de-hydration approaches and Town have upped their game, they’re pushing Blackburn back, but are vulnerable to breakaways. But I still feel positive and no one has dared boo yet, although I did once call upon Paul Hurst to ‘Sort it out’. Substitutes Ben Morris and Tayo Edun have had an impact and Edwards has broken down the right a couple of times too. It’s now or never as Edun puts in a low cross following a free-kick and the far post is there to sweep the ball into the net and save a point for Town. Soon afterwards Mr Davies, whose performance has won him no fans, even amongst other bald referees, thankfully blows his whistle for the final time and another round of generous applause cascades from the stands.
The dream and the revolution are still alive; it was meant to be a famous victory to sweep away the poisoned memory of Mick McCarthy and usher in the new era. But a draw in the final minute will do, a goal to save a point in the final minute will nearly always do and today it feels like a win. It hasn’t been a great match; it has been goodish at very best, but to quote Ron Atkinson, something that generally only white supremacists now do with much conviction, it is still ‘early doors’. But I enjoyed my cup-cake at half-time and the revolution may yet be televised.

(Except where dependent upon individual honesty, all personal statistics were as accurate as a quick look on the interweb would allow at the time of writing)*

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