Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.


In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAany one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.
Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in dueOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.
Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.
The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.
Early on Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.
Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead Fire United fail however, to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requiresOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.
I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.


From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.
It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnited still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.
I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.
It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.

 

Harwich & Parkeston 2 Benfleet 1

My mother was born and grew up in Shotley at the mouth of the River Stour. As a child she hardly ever went to Ipswich, and Saturday afternoon shopping would mean a boat trip with her mum across the estuary to Harwich and to Dovercourt. Her father was a mild-mannered man, but if someone did manage to annoy him he would not tell them to “Go to hell” but instead to “Go to Harwich”, by which I think he meant to go and jump in the river rather than any slur on the gateway to the Continent. My childhood memories from thirty odd years later were of going to Harwich by car, an ice cream cornet outside the town hall, Dovercourt Woolworth’s and having shrimps for tea.
With these fond family memories in mind I guide my Citroen C3 along the winding, undulating B1352 from Manningtree to Harwich, through Mistley, Bradfield, Wrabness and Ramsey. My wife Paulene and I have been to Ipswich to visit some of the historic buildings open to the public for the Heritage Open Days, but were a bit miffed to find two of the three buildings we wanted to view, which were advertised as open in the leaflet, were shut and only open next weekend. But arriving in Harwich our fortunes have improved, it is warm and it’s not raining, even if it is a bit cloudy and the Royal Oak

ground is open for this afternoon’s fixture in the tortuously titled Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties First Division South. We park up in the car park at the side of the stadium and cross the lane to the turnstile by the main stand. Entry costs £4 each and the-grey haired man operating the turnstile helpfully verbalises the mental arithmetic of £4 plus £430684736148_a5cac6de7b_o making a total of £8 and the addition of the glossy and groovily typefaced, 16 page programme “Black and White” (£1) making a total of £9. A few steps inside the ground an old boy in a flat cap relieves me of the final tenth of the ten pound note I proffered at the turnstile, in exchange for a strip of draw tickets (Nos 61 to 65).
The Royal Oak Ground , where Harwich & Parkeston have played since 1898 stretches out before us , a green panorama, the broad pitch sloping away across its width, down towards Harwich town itself. Beyond the far side of the pitch a terrace of 1950’s houses, one with a hideous loft extension overlook the pitch. To the left behind one goal a steep but shallow concrete stand with a rusting tin roof and faded red steel stanchions, a sort of truncated barn backing on to Main Road, where the Royal Oak pub stands, and which leads into Dovercourt High Street; to the right and set back some way beyond the other goal, the changing rooms in a building with gabled dormer windows and a small clock on the roof, like a 1980’s pastiche of a village cricket pavilion. Behind us the main stand is short in length but disproportionately tall with a steep, corrugated, pitched roof; a typical football stand from the 1950’s, sadly its top half is now closed off.

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It’s about twenty past two and the Harwich team are appearing from the changing rooms to warm up; we walk to that end of the ground to perhaps catch a word with their coach Michael, who we know from our previous mutual involvement at Wivenhoe Town.

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Appropriately, page five of the programme has a small feature on Michael, from which we learn amongst other things that he drives a Citroen C4, his favourite food is curry and his favourite holiday resort is Acapulco. There is a photo of Michael stood with arms folded and looking quite butch, if a little overweight. After the game Michael will tell me that he likes to read this Blog whilst sat on the toilet.
“Well he should have some fresh milk, I put some in there on Tuesday, er no Thursday” we hear a man in a white shirt and black and white striped tie say to another man. At the corner of the ground a man with a Scottish accent asks us if we are from Benfleet, because, he explains, he didn’t recognise us. We tell him we are not but, are partly here to see Michael the coach, but also to just enjoy a Saturday afternoon at ‘the football’. Whilst Paulene watches the warm up, the Scottish man tells me how the club owns the ground and is debt-free. Harwich & Parkeston are playing at a lower level than they once did, but I am told that the club trustees saw that the need to simply keep the club alive was more important than trying to compete unsustainably in a higher league. The Scottish man bemoans the rise of ‘village teams’ into the semi-professional ranks, which he feels has fragmented local football and he’d like to see a league of clubs just from the main East Anglian towns. It’s a somewhat Stalinist approach, but I can see the attraction. The population of Harwich is about 18,000.
Kick-off is approaching and I buy two teas (£1 each) from the tea hut, a neat brick30685788148_87460e7c1e_o building probably dating from the 1950’s or 1960’s, which wouldn’t look out of place on a seafront esplanade. In the tea hut a woman is incredulous that an official has come from Norwich to referee a match in Harwich, she thought the point of the league re-structure was to cut travelling costs. “You can bet your arse that in Yarmouth they’ve got a referee from London” she says, and she’s probably right, although I’m not sure Ladbrokes would be interested in her or anyone else’s bottom as a wager. “There’s not many here today” she adds.
42747605380_9cc3b7bca7_oAs the game begins we take up a spot at a Yogi Bear–style picnic table in the corner of the ground by the bar and backing onto Main Road. Harwich kick off towards us, the River Stour and Shotley beyond. Harwich are wearing black and white striped shirts with black shorts and socks, completing a hat-trick of clubs along with Newcastle United and Grimsby Town that span the length of the east coast and wear black and white stripes. Benfleet are in a rather boring all red kit, although their home kit is a much more interesting light blue shirt with dark blue shorts.
From kick-off the ball is almost instantly hoofed into touch and early action sees the Benfleet number five take out both the Harwich number nine and one of his own team mates with a lunging tackle. The free-kick produces nothing of note but at least the tackle made me laugh. The football is scrappy but the passes that do get strung together are mostly strung together by Harwich or ‘The Shrimpers’ as they are known, a nickname which no doubt has to do with what I had for tea as a child. The neighbouring picnic tables are occupied too and on one of them some young women, possibly ‘wags’, talk about an away game they went to recently. “There was no bar” one of them says “Just a bottle of Blossom Hill in the fridge”. At another table a middle aged woman calls out “Come on ‘arridge”.
Despite Harwich’s dominance, at about twenty past three they almost fall behind as the centre-half misses the ball and Benfleet’s number nine Ben Foord is gifted a clear run at goal; he runs, looks up and shoots, but the Harwich ‘keeper Sam Felgate makes a fine diving save to his left. Stung by that near miss Harwich soon produce the best move of the match so far as number three Jake Kioussis overlaps into the penalty area, but loses his composure and blazes the ball high over the goal and onto the vegetation covered bank in the corner of the ground. Distraught at his failure to do better, Jake appears to try and garrotte himself in the netting behind the goal. Michael the Harwich coach leaves his post in front of the dug-outs to fetch the ball. The entertainment is improving and Benfleet win a corner but hit the ball straight to an unopposed Sam Felgate.
Just before half past three The Shrimpers take the lead as Sean Gunn dinks the ball into the net from close range as three Benfleet defenders look on admiringly; it’s what Harwich deserve in what has so far been quite a one-sided game. Paulene and I decide to get a different perspective on the match and wander further round behind the goal

enjoying the cascade of greenery in the corner of the stand and an abandoned roller. Non-league football just wouldn’t be the same without the atmosphere of decay and the implied memories of better days long ago; the Royal Oak has that beautiful faded glory in spades.
All of sudden a bit of ill-temper erupts on the pitch and the Benfleet number four squares up to the Harwich number two and shoves him backwards, not just once but three times. A melee ensues and Michael is on the pitch to help break it up. The referee Mr Harvey looks uncertain about what has happened and he consults his version of the VAR, the linesman Mr Arnot. 30686126038_1dc5f53e29_oUnusually both linesman are called Arnot, although if they are related the relationship looks like grandfather and grandson, with one being stocky and totally bald and the other lanky and very youthful. The referee consults Mr Arnot senior, who talks to Mr Harvey with his hand over his mouth, like players do on the telly. I’m not certain why he does this; even if Mr Arnot has a strange paranoia about lip-readers what can he possibly be saying that is such a big secret? The result is a free-kick to Benfleet and bookings for both players, although I’ve seen players sent off for shoving before. A short while later the match breaks down again into confrontation as Benfleet’s number five tackles horizontally at knee height and a Shrimper hits the turf clutching a leg. This time Mr Harvey sorts it out on his own, but again appears lenient as he doesn’t even show a yellow card. Happily, half-time soon arrives and everyone can go for a lie down.
Paulene and I continue our wander around the ground and I picture how the bank42747580570_69889cf102_o behind the dug- outs was perhaps once a grassy ‘terrace’. Beneath the vegetation a path can be discerned which runs up to a large pair of metal gates onto Main Road, I feel like some sort of football archaeologist, and as I look across at the terrace of 1950’s houses that overlook the ground I am struck with a sense of deja-vous. The layout of the Royal Oak with the houses on one side, the rickety main stand opposite and the club house up the corner is a lot like that of the Stade Municipal in Balaruc-les -Bains in southern France, where Paulene and I watched a Coupe de France (French FA Cup) game last September (see the archive section of this blog for an account of our visit and the match) . I buy two more teas (£2) and am served at the tea hut by the Scottish man who is helping out with the half-time rush. Paulene and I take a look in the club house where a display on the wall recalls Harwich & Parkeston’s appearance in the 1953 FA Amateur Cup final before a crowd of 100,000; The Shrimpers lost 6-0 to Pegasus (a combined Oxford & Cambridge University team) and it was probably Pegasus that drew the crowd rather than The Shrimpers, but it’s still an impressive piece of history nonetheless.
The game begins again and Benfleet are playing a bit better, although Harwich still get opportunities to score again. But at just gone twenty past four the Harwich defence recreates the error they made an hour ago. Harwich’s number five mis-reads the flight of the ball and fails to play it back to the goalkeeper who is a long way off his goal line; they are both left helpless as Benfleet’s number ten Rob Lacey nips in to lob the ball over Sam Felgate and into the goal to equalise. Quickly some of the Harwich players turn on one another to apportion blame. One of them stands with arms outstretched and says “If are going to make mistakes…” but sadly I don’t catch the end of the sentence. For a little while Benfleet are the better team and they seem to have broken up the link between the Harwich midfield and forwards. Benfleet’s blond-haired number six Martin Lacey has moved to left back and snuffed out the Harwich attacks down this flank; added to which his haircut has a hint of the 1960’s Mod about it.
Benfleet now look the more likely team to score again and we walk round behind the goal that they are attacking. We arrive in time to see the game again erupt into an unseemly mess as a Harwich player scrambles about on the ground and then a scrum of pushing and shoving and angry faces develops from seemingly nothing. Michael again appears to break things up. I don’t have a clue what happened or who was involved and sadly it seems neither does referee Mr Harvey who once again consults the human VAR Mr Arnot senior. The decision from Mr Harvey is to send off Harwich’s number five Ben Hammond and Benfleet’s number two Lewis Hunt and to book Harwich’s number four Shaun Kioussis and Benfleet substitute, number twenty Stephan Adeyemi , who hasn’t even come on to the pitch yet. Lewis Hunt and his team mates, manager and coaches protest his innocence and he certainly didn’t appear to be involved in the ruckus. Lewis heads for the dressing room and walks past us, I ask him what happened. He didn’t know but said he didn’t do anything, he tried to separate people and got hit in the mouth and then stepped away. He seems like a really nice bloke, which is what the Benfleet team were telling Mr Harvey. During the mayhem the Harwich ‘keeper takes to time to relax and have a lie down, adopting the pose of a gentleman-player in one of those photographs of a Victorian football team.
The break in play seems to have affected Benfleet more than Harwich, possibly because of the sense of injustice that Lewis Hunt has been wrongly sent off; perhaps whoever was guilty, and someone was, should have owned up and said “Send me off Ref, Lewis is innocent”. Never before has my wearing of my Albert Camus philosophy football T-shirt been so poignant, with its slogan “All that I know most surely know about morality and obligations I owe to football”. Benfleet have lost concentration and at a bit past four thirty The Shrimpers number eleven Sean Gunn breaks through the middle and places a low shot wide of Florent Gislette in the Benfleet goal. Understandably after all that has happened the Harwich team celebrate somewhat.
The final fifteen minutes play out without too much sense that there will be any more goals, although Shrimpers substitute Nicky Palmer sends a shot out towards the North Sea when nicely set up by number ten Michael Hammond, who had passed up on a chance to have a shot of his own. Hammond also becomes the eighth player to be booked before Mr Harvey eventually closes proceedings and the crowd of 160 give appreciative applause for what has been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon of football and brawling, but mostly football.
Paulene and I retire to the bar for a pint of Greene King Abbot Ale (easily Greene King’s best beer) and a Bacardi with Soda (£5.25) and a chance to reflect on a very enjoyable (and cheap) afternoon. We might have been disappointed not to sample the Heritage of Ipswich earlier today, but the sporting heritage of Harwich and Parkestone’s Royal Oak ground has more than made up for it. We’ll be back.

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Ipswich Town 1 Norwich City 1

I received a text at a quarter past six this morning from my friend Mick who was at work but, in what was presumably an idle moment, had decided to let me know that he was watching assorted vehicles setting off from Suffolk Police headquarters heading, he assumed, for the match at Portman Road today. He asked me to give Town a shout on his behalf and predicted a draw. I tried to sleep on for another hour or so after reading the text but with only partial success. Thanks Mick.
Today should be one of the highlights of the football season, one of the most exciting games, the game with the biggest crowd and the best atmosphere; the one most like a professional football match should be. But the portents are not good; there are no trains from Colchester direction, only replacement buses. Far worse than that it’s Sunday and kick-off is at twelve o’clock, noon. The relevant authorities and ‘stakeholders’ have made a ‘risk assessment’ and decreed that there is a risk of football supporters enjoying the event too much if it takes place on a Saturday afternoon at 3 pm when football matches should be played and so Sunday lunchtime has been chosen as the time when the game should take place. That last time Ipswich played Norwich on a Saturday afternoon was probably in the last century; I tried to look it up on the interweb, but gave up and may be the records have been deleted to deter dissenters and give the impression things have always been like this; but I remember the 1970’s so they won’t silence me!
Moving on, I drive to Ipswich because life is too short to consider rail replacement bus services an option and I park up on Chantry, that spaciously laid out estate of public housing from the time when it wasn’t seditious to place need above profit. It’s a pleasant walk down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a blue sky as I strive to find pleasure in otherwise desperate circumstances. In Ranelagh Road I pass two drunken Norwich City supporters.


I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge for which the planners of Ipswich Borough Council must be congratulated, for it was they who got it built by the developers of the old Reavell’s factory site, which incidentally provided some of the locations for the 1960 film the Angry Silence starring Richard Attenborough. From the bridge I can see four cormorants which are basking on the concrete weir. I imagine them as the lucky four cormorants of Ipswich, harbingers of doom to those from north of the River Waveney. In Constantine Road I find evidence of horses having littered the road and wonder why dog owners have to clear up their animal’s excrement but horse owners don’t. I have never seen a police dog defecate in the street but wonder if their handlers nevertheless carry little plastic bags, just in case.


Perturbed I turn into the Fanzone just for something to fill the time until it is time for the game to begin. There is a band playing out of the side of a shipping container in the Fanzone, they are playing some decent tunes including an ITFC version of the Ramones’ Blitzkreig Bop. People may be listening but they are not moving to the music, which is a shame. I feel an urge to show them what to do, but heck I’m fifty-eight and wouldn’t want to listen to the game on the radio in the back of an ambulance.

In the Fanzone I meet ‘Mac’ a woman who will not thank me for saying she is really called Maxine. She played for Ipswich Town Women’s Football Club back in the 1990’s, in the days before Ipswich Town took much of an interest in women’s football. Mac, who incidentally is a triplet, lives in Needham Market; she loves football and Ipswich Town, she is a lifelong fan and she tells me how the club told her she had to give a week’s notice if she wanted to watch the team train and then when she wrote and asked they said no. I often don’t like Ipswich Town Football Club much.
It’s beautifully warm, even hot lounging on the plastic turf of the Fanzone, but I resist any temptation to buy a drink because all that is on offer is Greene King East Coast IPA, which whilst fashionably hoppy will be fizzy, chilled and will make me belch like a dyspeptic Sperm whale. At length I leave the Fanzone thinking “Hey ho, let’s go” to myself and so that I can avoid seeing any more Norwich supporters until inside the stadium I head for the turnstiles at the west end of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, where appropriately I find OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAturnstiles 59 and 60 as well as turnstiles 61 and 62, recalling the seasons in which Sir Alf managed Town to consecutive Division Two and League Championship titles. I enter through turnstile 62. By the Constantine Road gates I meet Ray and his wife Ros who are waiting for their son and grandson, who are held up in traffic.
Inside, the ground looks close to full with the only vacant seats largely being to the back of the stands, mostly those from which the view is partly obscured by steel stanchions. As usual, this ‘derby’ match is not a sell-out; I expect all those Ipswich puritans have had to go to church. It is nevertheless strange to find the seats all around mine to be occupied and I wonder what these people usually do on Saturdays when Town are at home; I’m sure they’re not all watching local non-league games; perhaps they are Jewish.
At last the teams trail on to the pitch to much rousing applause, cheering and infantile posturing and I once again realise why I simultaneously love and loathe this fixture. Town kick off towards me, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Pat from Clacton and the many unfamiliar faces all around us. Norwich City, the Canaries are wearing their usual unsightly yellow shirts and green shorts, but this season their shoulders are flecked with what from a distance looks, most appropriately like guano. Very quickly Town win a free-kick just outside the Norwich penalty area; it’s an opportunity for a direct shot at goal if anyone has the requisite skills; they don’t and new loan signing Jordan Graham, whose name makes me think of breakfast cereal (Jordan’s Country Crisp and Nestlés Golden Grahams) blazes the ball high over the Norwich cross-bar, dashing the hopes of 20,000 Town fans in a split second. “Oh Christ” says the old boy next to me with sad resignation.
Five minutes pass and the away fans break into a chorus of “On The Ball City”, the sort of archaic football song that could only survive in a remote corner of the country whereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA incest is rife. On the touchline, young, “hungry” Ipswich manager Paul Hurst looks the part in his small size tracksuit. Beyond ‘Hursty’, Norwich manager Daniel Farke looks like a groundhopper, dressed as he is in a sort of grey anorak. It may be a heresy to say so, but I can’t help liking Daniel Farke, I think it’s because he’s German, but I’d also like to know where he bought that anorak.
On the pitch Town’s early effort on goal is a fading memory as Norwich start to look the stronger team, both physically and in terms of skill. It’s a bit before twelve-thirty and Town captain Luke Chambers is booked by referee Robert Jones. With three debutants in the side, Town at times look as if they don’t know whether they’re at a football match or a coming-out ball. Norwich hit a post with a shot and Ipswich do the same, but better. Town’s Jordan Graham is booked for cheating by falling over in the penalty area unassisted, although I like to think a small part of the booking was also for his hopeless free-kick at the start of the match. It’s a scrappy and overly physical match punctuated by several injuries to players of both teams and six minutes of injury time are to be added at the end of the half,

or they will be once Town’s Cole Skuse is scraped off the pitch and loaded onto the electric truck and carted away. As ever-present Phil points out, it’s not often the first half hasn’t ended by the time the second half is due to start. Today’s attendance is announced as 25,690 and the Norwich congregation, appropriately on a Sunday spontaneously break into a rendition of the hymn Cwm Rhondda, but cast doubt on their faith by singing “You’re support is fucking shit” rather than the more traditional “Be though still my strength and shield”, but each to his own.
Half-time arrives eventually at close on one o’clock and it’s time for lunch. Only a few hours ago I ate a vast breakfast of bacon, toast, tomatoes, poached eggs and croissants with honey to stave off hunger, but all around me tin foil and Tupperware are opened up to reveal all manner of packed meals; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s like the teddy bear’s picnic, but without the teddy bears. Ros has cooked sausage rolls, and kind and generous man that he is Ray delivers one to me on his way to the toilet. People are lovely, I don’t deserve this, but I eat OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit all the same. I had been looking forward to a Pawelek Advocaat and fondant ‘filled’ plain chocolate bar (reduced to 30p in the Sainsbury’s World Foods aisle) as a half-time treat, but it has melted somewhat in my pocket, soOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA disappointed I leave it unwrapped and uneaten. To raise my spirits I look at the match programme (£3) and seek amusement in the names of the Norwich City squad; at number four they have Mr Godfrey (“Do you think I may be excused?”) and number six Zimmerman reminds me that the Clapton FC have a player called Dylan, but I wouldn’t say it made me laugh.
Fortunately, the footballers return, although Daniel Farke’s anorak doesn’t, and play resumes but not before the old dear next but one from me says to the old boy next to me “Mmmm, smell the grass”. She is so right, you sometimes just have to simply smell the grass. Returning from my moment of quiet contemplation it’s evident Trevoh Chalobah has replaced Cole Skuse and he soon smacks a half volley over the Norwich cross bar as Ipswich start to dominate in a frantic fifteen minute spell of excitement and increasing volume of support from the Town fans. Nine minutes into the half and Kayden Jackson has what I reckon is Town’s first goal attempt on target as he accurately re-directs a Jon Walters’ cross. Three minutes later Jon Walters heads back to Gwion Edwards and his shot deflects off a guano-dappled shirt and into the far corner of the Norwich goal and a roar erupts from the Portman Road crowd the like of which I have not heard in a very long time. Apparently it is the first occasion on which Town have opened the scoring in a match versus Norwich at Portman Road since 1998, when incidentally, Town won by five, yes five goals to nil, which again incidentally Town also did in 1977 and also in 1946.
I begin to dare to believe Ipswich might win this game, but our dominance doesn’t last and Norwich grow stronger again as Town are unable to maintain the righteous onslaught. Norwich have a spell of pressure similar to the one Ipswich had and a nasty habit of letting the ball run to Norwich players at the edge of the penalty area culminates in Moritz Leitner striking a firm low shot just inside Dean Gerken’s left hand post; it is a shot I have a disturbingly perfect in-line view of, all the way from the German’s boot to the net. Bugger.
The Town support falls silent having previously made the sort of noise normally only heard in places like Portsmouth or Marseille. The Norwich support are right to ask if this is a library. The belief in a win has evaporated in a flash. When Jordan Graham is substituted the old boy next to me asks “Who’s coming on?” When he‘s told it’s Grant Ward he glumly remarks “Well, he’s not bad” as if to leave unspoken the fact that he’s not going to win the game though. The last minutes are eked out, Norwich come close, Gerken makes a couple of good saves, Town break up field and a corner and free-kick raise hopes and voices, but all too briefly before Mr Roberts calls time.
It’s not been much of a game really, but it has been bloody exciting nonetheless. If the crowd is passionate enough, even relatively poor quality football matches can be enjoyable, because as we were told by Mary Poppins “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”; although it was the 1960’s when she sang that and some sugar was known to be laced with LSD and some with the polio vaccine.

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