The sun beats down upon a golden expanse of drifting barley and small fluffy clouds 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 shoe 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 seems 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 I 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. 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.
I don’t think it is just the sunshine but there is an uncharacteristically pleasant, optimistic and almost cheerful atmosphere within Portman Road today.
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 air 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 liquorice 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.
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 clutching 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)*