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, 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
turnstiles 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 where
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;
it’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
it 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, so
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.