It has been a grey November day, but this afternoon there have been glimpses of blue sky, small windows of hope amongst the otherwise perpetual gloom, proof perhaps that life is not all bad. Further proof, if further proof is needed lies in the existence of flexi-time. It is the end of the ‘flexi-month’ and I have worked so many hours these past four weeks that if I don’t leave at four o’clock today, I shall be working for free and that would be contrary to my strictly held religious beliefs. “Thou shalt not be a mug” is my credo.
Tonight I’m a latter day Arthur Seaton and I’m out for a good time so from work I head, with my accomplice Roly, for the Briarbank Brewery. The bar above the Briarbank Brewery is by far the best decorated bar I know, the walls festooned with black and white photos of closed Ipswich pubs, the sort Arthur Seaton would have drunk in had ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ been set in Ipswich, not Nottingham. I have a pint of Samuel Harvey VC (£3.50) a beer named after one of two men from Ipswich who were awarded the Victoria Cross medal. As well as a beer, Samuel (who was born in Nottingham) has a bus in the Ipswich Buses fleet that bears his name. My conversation with Roly covers a wide range of subjects including Noel Edmonds, Ciiff Richard and Sue Barker, Shake n’Vac and Billy Joel.
From the Briarbank Brewery, Roly and I make the short walk up Fore Street to The Spread Eagle, a Grade 2 listed building that dates back to the 17th century, where I drink Grain Brewery Best Bitter (£3.50 a pint). The leather aprons of the bar staff remind me of Fred Gee, the pot-man at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, but I don’t suppose he’s still in it, particularly since Fred Feast, the actor who played him died in 1999. Roly and I continue not to talk about football, not from any previous agreement, but just because there doesn’t seem anything to say. From the Spread Eagle it is a bit more of a walk along Orwell Place and Tacket Street, up Brook Street and Buttermarket, over Giles Circus and Cornhill, along Westgate Street to St Jude’s Tavern in St Matthew’s Street. They may not all be looking at their best, but Ipswich’s medieval or even Saxon pattern of streets remains and is brim-full of fine buildings; if only the locals appreciated it.
St Jude’s Tavern is busy with Friday night drinkers and football supporters when we arrive a bit before six o’clock. After a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which tonight is St Jude’s Thaddeus (Thaddeus is another name for Jude in case you didn’t know), we have a beef and onion pie each, mine is accompanied by a pint of something the name of which I can’t recall (pie and a pint £5.00). I garnish my pie with red sauce, Roly prefers brown. After we’ve eaten, a drunk staggers into the pub and sits at a table of regulars; he tries to cadge a drink but the bar man is quickly wise to his presence and succeeds in throwing him out before apologising to his patrons; but we all re-assure him that we enjoyed the show, it beats open-mike night.
Beer glasses drained, Roly is keen to get to Portman Road because he is meeting his friend Andrew and because not satiated by a beef and onion pie, he has it in mind to eat a burger. Rolling down Portman Road the glow of the floodlights draws us like moths to a flame or in Roly’s case a glutton to a fast-food joint. The streets are unusually busy and due to the football club having made tickets being made available for the realistic price of ten pounds each a crowd of 22,995 will watch the game tonight. Roly meets Andrew, and I visit the club shop because at short notice I have been informed that ever -present Phil’s son Elwood is eight years old today! How I love the club shop and its fabulous array of blue and white toot. Today my eye is drawn to a gnome and the club’s ‘retro’ range which I imagine outsells everything else given that our best days are all in the past. Although at least we have won major trophies, something many of our rivals and other clubs from towns and cities bigger than Ipswich cannot claim with real conviction (League Cups pffft!).
It’s twenty-five past seven and a coach disgorges tardy West Bromwich supporters into Portman Road. An Ipswich fan points at a West Bromwichians yellow and green away shirt. “ You can’t wear that here mate”. The visitor looks somewhat bemused and blurts some exasperated expletives in the direction of one of his fellow supporters; his thick Midland’s accent rendering them incomprehensible and unpleasantly nasal. I pass the grinning statue of Bobby Robson; his best playing days were arguably with the ‘Baggies’ of West Bromwich, but thankfully he never picked up the accent.
At the Alf Ramsey Stand (Churchmans) all the turnstiles are open but the queues are of unequal lengths.; with a self-satisfied air of streetwise, intellectual superiority I join one of shorter ones and am inside the ground whilst others still queue. On nights like this it’s fun to laugh and sneer at those people who aren’t regular supporters and are only here because the tickets are cheap. I head for the betting shop bit beneath the stand where the handy shelf gives me somewhere to write the greeting on Elwood’s birthday card. I stop to talk to a steward I know called Dave, but at the very moment I arrive at his side so does another acquaintance of his who begins a personal monologue. I wait for the other man to pause so that I might speak to Dave, but the other man breathes through his ears and doesn’t draw breath for a second; so I screw my eyes up at Dave and nod sympathetically; I imagine my face might look a bit like the one Gary Lineker pulled in the 1990 World Cup semi-final after Paul Gascoigne was booked and became tearful. But tonight I’m not indicating that Gazza is upset, I’m signalling to Dave that I’m going to bugger off, and that’s what I do.
Up in the stand Bluey is playing the part of ‘greeter’ and gives me the thumbs up, which is nice, even though I do know he’s not a real Suffolk Punch. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game and son Elwood are already here and I settle down a couple of seats along before giving Elwood his birthday card and a few ITFC ‘goodies’. Phil tells me that earlier in the club shop Elwood had handed in an ITFC badge that he found on the floor to the staff serving behind the counter. One of the things I have given Elwood is such a badge; it seems like Elwood has been rewarded for his honesty and whilst we all know that’s not true, in an ideal world it would be.
Between each seat is a folded up piece of printed card which makes a clapping noise when hit against another surface; I saw that people were cynical about this on social media but I think it should be lauded; something needs to be done to shake Ipswich and Suffolk people out of their puritan misery and to “make some noise for the Tractor Boys”, as I believe the saying goes.
The teams appear; the match ball is plucked from its plinth and once multiple hands are shaken the game begins with Ipswich literally getting the ball rolling in the direction of me, Elwood, Phil and Pat from Clacton who has arrived a bit late due to the traffic. Town wear blue shirts and socks with white sleeves and shorts; West Bromwich cause offence to many by wearing yellow and green striped shirts with green shorts and socks. The Baggies win an early corner and Jay Rodriguez (that’s his ‘Equity’ name surely) heads the ball over the cross bar. There is noise in the ground tonight and it’s not all from the 1,000 odd West Bromwich Albion supporters cooped up in the corner of the Cobbold Stand. In the corner, in the bottom of the North Stand blue and white flags are being waved and drums drummed and voices voiced; for a little while anyway. But West Bromwich Albion are better at football than Town and as they start to dominate, some of the enthusiasm ebbs away, which is the opposite of what should happen of course because it obvious that a struggling team needs most support. But then logic is not always a strong point in ‘Leave’ voting Ipswich. The West Bromwich fans soon sense our weakness and after first chanting something stupid about being a “…shit Norwich City”, which is a bit rich from people supporting a team wearing yellow and green, they go for the jugular with the reliable old “ Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”. Cut to the quick I try some chants of my own but the cowering reticence of the Suffolk public means I’m beaten before I begin, even with my cardboard clapper, which is a little too lightweight and disintegrates as I bash it relentlessly on the back of the seat in front of me. Only ten minutes have gone and Town’s Matthew Pennington is booked by referee Mr Keith Stroud who is possibly the smallest referee I have ever seen; he doesn’t even rival Paul Hurst in stature.
On the touchline Paul Lambert prowls like a black panther in his trademark black Marks & Spencer jumper and black slacks, kicking every ball and seemingly feeling the self-same emotions as the fans in the stands, but with added Celtic menace. It’s a chilly evening and he should really get himself a coat, even if that jumper is pure new lambs’ wool. Perhaps Marcus Evans should put his hand in his pocket for a coat for our Paul.
Sadly, Town are second best to West Bromwich, who despite having been ‘a bit rubbish’ in the context of the evil Premier League last season are evidently still too good for us tonight. But we are trying and what we’re watching is recognisable as football, which wasn’t always true last season. Perhaps we can hold on and then sneak a goal I think to myself. A paper plane engineered from a re-purposed cardboard clapper lands next to the West Bromwich goal keeper Sam Johnstone. The fact that it disappoints the home crowd by not hitting Johnstone is a portent for the evening. Within minutes Town’s defence watch the ball cross from one side of the pitch to the other and back into the middle where Jay Rodriguez scores from very close to the goal. Oh well. How I was hoping that wouldn’t happen, and now it has. The West Bromwichians are happy though, their high spirits expressed by making good use of Chicory Tip’s 1972 chart topping single “Son of my father” with a chorus of “Woah wanky-wanky, wanky-wanky, wank-wanky Wanderers”, in honour of their own version of Norwich City, the neatly alliterative Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The clock moves on and behind me a man explains to his child that there are another five minutes until half-time and then another forty-five minutes after that before they can go home. A minute of the half left and Ipswich win a corner from which West Brom’ come closer to scoring than the home team as they breakaway courtesy of a failed tackle from Jordan Spence. One minute’s added time passes and then it’s half-time. I wander down to the front row of seats to have a chat with Ray and generously he offers me one of his wife Roz’s sausage rolls, I accept the offer. Behind us dancing girls with Lycra bottoms, bare mid-riffs and sparkly tops gyrate; a human manifestation of the popular retro-range.
The second Act begins amidst shouts of “Come On Ipswich”, but the man behind me feels compelled to admit that West Brom’ are stronger than us “…in every department”; I think of Debenhams and John Inman. But Town are playing better than in the first half; they have more possession of the ball and in more locations across the pitch and Matthew Pennington even has a decent looking shot on goal. But then West Brom’ also have a decent shot, which causes a sharp intake of breath as it hits a post; a lad called Harvey Barnes is the perpetrator, it’s a name that sounds like it was copied from a 1914-18 War Memorial.
Town must be doing alright though, people aren’t moaning but still most of them aren’t really supporting either, at least not vocally. The club should have said “We’ll let you in for a tenner, but you have to make a noise or we’ll chuck you out”. The ‘Blue Action’ group in the North Stand do their best, but there aren’t really enough of them, Ultra Culture hasn’t yet made its mark in Ipswich. I remain hopeful however that the Rodin exhibition in the gallery behind Christchurch Mansion, which opens this weekend, will stir people’s inner passions. Rodin is to sculpture what Arnold Muhren was to midfield artistry.
We’re only losing 1-0, a draw is still a possibility, a win even. But the seventy sixth minutes arrives and that Harvey Barnes is in the penalty area, he shuffles about a bit and shoots; he scores. The shot somehow avoids at least four legs and Bartosz Bialkowski’s left hand. It couldn’t hurt more if he’d missed and the ball had hit me in the ‘groin area’.
Substitutions ensue and the West Brom’ supporters sing “Lambert, Lambert, what’s the score?” seemingly labouring under the mis-apprehension that he is still manager of Aston Villa. They compound their mistake with a rendition of “Shit on the Villa, shit on the Villa tonight” to the tune of ‘Roll out the barrel’. Ipswich supporters may not sing much, but at least when they do the songs are relevant.
Both teams have shots on goal which are blocked as the game heads towards its finale, Ipswich are looking as likely to score as concede, which on balance with only ten minutes left is a good thing. With six minutes of normal time left to play substitute Kayden Jackson scores for Town and there is belief that may be, just may- be, Town could get a draw. Clearly West Brom’ think so too and they resort to foul or generally unsporting play with Matthew Phillips, Kieran Gibbs and Sam Johnstone all getting their own personal viewings of Mr Stroud’s yellow card. Town have no luck however and when Jack Lankester’s shot hits a post and deflects away rather than hitting a heel or a divot and deflecting in to the goal, we get confirmation that Portman Road will remain joyless for another week.
The skies today were grey and despite glimpses of blue, they remain so. But at least there have been glimpses. I retain the faith and like Arthur Seaton I won’t let the bastards grind me down.