Haverhill Rovers 4 Wroxham 2

It’s a grey December afternoon, there is a strong, gusty wind and the forecast is for rain, or for showers at least; ideal weather for a football match, particularly one at step five of the non-league game where shelter from the cold and elements will be minimal. From where I live it is only possible to use public transport in getting to Haverhill by catching a train to Ipswich and then to Cambridge and then a number 13 bus, which overall would take about 4 hours. The 42 kilometre drive by Citroen C3 will take about a minute for every kilometre, perhaps a few more depending on the traffic. I opt for the car journey; I’ll have to make up for the impact on my carbon footprint another time.

Even on a grey day it’s a pleasant enough drive through north Essex, skirting Halstead and then Castle Hedingham, with a glimpse of the Norman castle off to the right, and on through the villages of Great Yeldham, Ridgewell and finally into Suffolk and Sturmer, one of my favourite place names. Arriving on the outskirts of Haverhill the dull estates of houses contrast with what went before. This doesn’t feel like Suffolk, it looks like a ‘new town’ and in a way it is, Haverhill having been expanded in the 1960’s and 1970’s as part the Greater London Plan to re-house people from Inner London. “Overspill” was the less than flattering word often used to describe the towns, and the people.

From Chalkstone Way (a street name made up by developers if ever there was one) I turn the Citroen right into the car park of the New Croft, home of Haverhill Rovers and the Haverhill Community Sports Association. I park up a short walk from the neat metal turnstile block. It’s not half-past two yet and I’m one of the first here.

I hand over my £6 entrance money and remark to the turnstile operator, a man who is probably in his late sixties that it’s good value for money and how surprised I was to have to pay £8 at Framlingham a few weeks ago.

He explains in a London accent how the league tells the clubs that they can charge between £6 and £8, but the club wants to get as many people in as possible, so why charge more than the minimum? Children are admitted free. I buy a programme (£1) and the man tells me I can get food at the tea hut or I can go inside in the warm, in the bar. I choose the tea bar where a mother and daughter combine to serve me with a bacon roll (£2.50); daughter takes the money, mum prepares the roll. It’s a very good bacon roll with two lean rashers of bacon, although in an ideal world a small baguette would get my vote over a soft roll, I blame Brexit.

I eat the bacon roll as the two teams warm up on the pitch in front of me; then I think I might have a drink in the bar, but sadly looking along row of pumps it doesn’t look like there is a real ale and I’m nothing if not discerning. Needing something to wash down the bacon roll I return to the mother and daughter for a cup of tea (£1.20) and then, paper cup in hand, I take a look about. The New Croft is a fine facility with its sports hall, spacious looking changing room and toilet block and 3G pitches, but for a non-league football ground it lacks character. It’s too neat and tidy and there is something a bit soulless and anodyne about it, with its two off the shelf metal stands and sturdy metal rail around the pitch; Meccano meets the Football Trust. The presence of a ‘lost’ football on the roof of the changing room is a good attempt at creating a bit of interest, but it doesn’t compete with the discarded double glazing and bollards of Stowmarket Town, the scaffolding poles of Ipswich Wanderers or the car park kiosk of Long Melford.

The concourse in front of the bar is getting busier as a steady flow of mostly men in their sixties and seventies make their way through the turnstile. The two teams, the referee and his assistants then appear from the Sports Centre building; they stand and wait a while as if to create some pre-match tension before parading onto the pitch and lining up in front of the main stand to indulge in the ritual handshakes.

It is the home team that get first go with the ball, kicking in the direction of Great Wratting and wearing an all deep red kit, and very good it looks too. Wroxham sport blue and white striped shirts with blue shorts and socks; they look like Brighton & Hove Albion and are playing into a strong wind rendered more unpleasant by a fine drizzle, the sort of thing that might well come off the English channel at Brighton. Nicknamed the Yachtsmen, Wroxham should at least be able to tack into this wind in the first half.
Opening exchanges are very messy as the ball is booted up and down the far touchline in turn by both teams.

I go and sit in the main stand which is adorned with two signs proclaiming that it is the Terry McGery stand; the match programme tells us that Mr McGery is the club president. The signs feature a photo of Terry smiling benignly like a pools winner from the side of a bus; it seems somewhat self-aggrandising to me, usually people wait until they’re dead to have football stands named after them. Soon enough however, the football settles down as the rain stops and the cloud clears to reveal a pale blue sky. It all looks rather beautiful with the sun illuminating the red and blue of the teams and the green of the pitch but the few spectators on the far side of the pitch and the occupants of the dugouts have to squint.

There are a number of old boys in the stand behind me each offering his own commentary of the game. “Bet they’re all called Roy” calls one making a weak joke about the Wroxham team and a well-known store local to Wroxham. “Yes, Roy’s of Wroxham” says another slowly and softly, as if explaining the joke to himself. Wroxham play fast flowing skilful football, but Haverhill look stronger physically and have two big blokes up front in their number nine and number ten, Graeme Turner and Mark Lovell. Haverhill’s strength and directness soon pay off as the ball drops back to Marc Abbott just outside the penalty area and he half volleys it with tremendous force into the far corner of the Wroxham net, it’s a helluva goal which has those capable of standing in the ageing crowd, on their feet. A couple of old boys behind me are very excited. “ It hardly left the ground” says one and then “ He must have been fully forty yards out”. It seems not so much that his eyesight is failing him, more that he is hallucinating.
Although Haverhill lead, the old boys behind me aren’t optimistic as Wroxham launch a series of quick passing moves, their nimble wide players creating chances which are spurned. “Good football” is the considered verdict from the commentary behind. “They’re a good footballing side”, “Attractive”. It takes twenty minutes, during which time Haverhill miss a good number of chances of their own, but eventually Wroxham do equalise as Nathan Stewart breaks clear of the Haverhill defence and Sonny Carey tidies up and places the ball in the net.
The skies have clouded over again but it’s an entertaining game and whilst it looks like Wroxham are quicker and more skilful they don’t seem able to stop Haverhill making chances. A minute before half-time there’s a free-kick and a scramble and the ball is diverted into the Wroxham goal from close range. “Who scored?”
– “It was Foxey”
– “Was it?”
-“Ask him when he comes off” So someone does because it’s now half-time, and it was Foxey, aka Jemel Fox.

I watch the teams and officials leave the field, referee Mr Chambers gingerly holding the ball perhaps because its unpleasantly wet and muddy.

It’s time for another £1.20’s worth of tea so I join the short queue. As I stand and wait I admire the large menu screwed on to the wall, it’s divided into four sections under the headings Food, Snacks, Drinks and Children. “Cheap prices aren’t they?” says a man spotting my interest in the sign. I can’t disagree.

The teams return to the fray and I take a stroll around the pitch. I smile to the linesman with the orange and yellow flag and we speak briefly, agreeing that it’s a bit parky, although I suspect he knows it more than I do because linesmen don’t generally get to wear woolly hats and scarves, although his colleague does look like he’s wearing a trackie top.
The open sides of the ground are bleak and windswept and I don’t linger between the dugouts for long before returning to the comparative warmth of the more populated side of the ground. I stand amongst a line of people stood behind the rail in the half of the field which Wroxham are defending. Haverhill’s Mark Lovell falls to the ground under a challenge from Wroxham’s captain Adam Plumstead as he charges into the penalty area. “ ‘e took his feet away” bawls a voice from behind the rail. Referee Mr Wayne Chambers, who reminds me of a mid-1970’s Eric Clapton agrees and Marc Abbott scores the penalty to put Haverhill 3-1 up.

I return to the comparative comfort of the Terry McGerty stand where the supporters are now more relaxed. Haverhill’s sturdier approach to the game has seen them dominate this half and Wroxham no longer draw their admiration with their ‘attractive’ football. But just before twenty-five past four a run down the left and a low cross, which appears to squeeze between a defenders’ thighs reaches Wroxham’s Adam Plumstead who makes the score 3-2 from close range. I’m expecting Wroxham, who are third in the league and ten points ahead of Haverhill to push for an equaliser but within two minutes a Haverhill corner is played to the near post where number four Jake Noble is unchallenged as he passes the ball into the goal from six yards. The sky has turned a deep cobalt blue and a bank of cloud has built up in the south, threatening a wet journey home. An aeroplane swoops low over the town and banks sharply on its approach into Stansted airport.
The sky has turned a deep cobalt blue and a bank of cloud has built up in the south, threatening a wet journey home. An aeroplane swoops low over the town and banks sharply on its approach into Stansted airport.

The remainder of the game sees substitutions and bookings as desperation takes hold. “You two, come ‘ere” says the Eric Clapton lookalike to Haverhill’s Ryan Yallop and Wroxham’s Sonny Carey as they reach for their inner naughty school boy. Mr Chambers has impressed me all afternoon with his casual approach to the game, he never seems to find it necessary to break into a run, preferring to get to the important incidents just on time as any blues guitarist might if they were a referee. Behind me someone calls out the latest scores at West Ham and Tottenham and one of the old boys gets excited calling out “Corner! Oh, no its not”.  The game ends and Haverhill Rovers deserve their win and we’ve all had our money’s worth from a very entertaining match. It’s good to see Suffolk beat Norfolk, even if this doesn’t really feel like Suffolk, with its Cambridge postcode and London accents although old blokes watching football are pretty much the same everywhere.

Ipswich Town 2 Bristol City 3

Night matches at Portman Road have become like buses supposedly are; I’ve not seen Town play at home in a night match all season and all of sudden two fixtures arrive almost together. In truth I’ve rarely lived in the sort of places where the bus service is frequent enough for that to happen, it’s more likely the bus won’t turn up at all and nor will the next one and on recent Town form that’s likely to be a better analogy.
Unlike last week’s evening match, tonight I am not leaving off early to use up flexi-time; tonight I am staying a bit later to rack-up some hours instead. By ten-past five however, everyone else has cleared off and I can’t stand to be alone in this place any longer so I make my way out into the deepening gloom of early evening, seeking the light of St Jude’s Tavern. The streets around the ground are quiet;

their stillness frozen by the harsh white glow that spills out from the hot food stands that are already set up and feeding stewards and those mysterious supporters who arrive hours before kick-off.
In St Jude’s it’s quiet too, with just four or five other drinkers scattered about as I order a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which tonight is Mr Bee’s Best Beer. I sit and read ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ by Clive James, but with so few people in the bar it’s hard not to overhear conversations. A woman at the bar has a theory that a male friend is gay; something to do with him trying to ‘feel up’ another friend after a night out. No other evidence is put forward, and I don’t learn if the attempt to ‘feel up’ were successful or not. Relief from this gossip arrives in the shape of ever-present Phil who never misses a game; he has arrived hot-foot from Northampton. I’m soon chatting with Phil whilst eating a steak and kidney pie (my first choice, beef and onion was out of stock) and savouring a pint of Cliff Quay Brewery Tolly Roger (pie and a pint £5.00). I don’t like kidney but when I find a bit I just swallow it whole so as not to taste it. We’re not long talking before Mick arrives and he kindly buys me another pint of the Match Day Special whilst also getting one for himself. Phil leaves about ten to seven, which Mick puts down to Keenness but our conversation isn’t diminished, oiled as it is by another pint of the Match Day Special. It is twenty-five to eight by the time I leave Mick at the corner of Portman Road and I only just get to my seat in time for kick-off, therefore missing the match ball being plucked from its plinth as the teams walk out. “What time do you call this?” asks Ray. I don’t have a satisfactory answer other than to give him the correct time, which I sense wasn’t the true purpose of the question. Bristol City begin the game, un-necessarily wearing a change kit of white shirts and black shorts when their first kit is all-red; a polyester precis of what is wrong with modern football. Town are kicking towards me , Phil, Ray and Pat from Clacton, and of course wear blue and white and provide their own summary of football’s modern failings with the hideous logo of a gambling company, as ever despoiling the front of their shirts. If Town are relegated this season that logo and choice of an on-line gambling business as sponsor will be partly to blame. There are about ten thousand fewer people here than there were for the last game, but surprisingly the match atmosphere doesn’t seemed diminished by a corresponding 44%. The 13,436 of us here (that excludes the 290 Bristolians) are the hardened rump of Town’s support; we are , I like to think, the ones who care the most and so the sound of our anguish is louder and maybe we breathe more heavily.
Seemingly oblivious to the fact that their players are wearing a change kit, the Bristolians assembled in the Cobbold Stand chant “Red Army, Red Army” as their team has a couple of shots blocked and then earns a corner when Bartosz Bialkowski has to make the first save of the game. Perhaps through the eyes of a die-hard Robins fan Bristol City are always in red. But the Red Army domination is brief and Freddie Sears runs at them and has a shot blocked before then shooting wide. There’s enough here to please a home crowd whose desire to see Town win a home game almost has a physical presence. On the pitch there are fouls and free-kicks and a general lack of precision, which is what we’re used to. Jordan Roberts is the first name to be recorded by referee Mr David Webb, who like last Friday’s referee is not a tall man. “Short refs, we only get short refs” I sing, to the tune of Rodgers and Hart’s Blue Moon, but to no one’s amusement save my own.
Ipswich captain Luke Chambers makes a mistake to let in a Bristol player who shoots over the bar. “Should’ve volleyed it” says a lad behind me to his dad authoritatively. “I would have” he adds unconvincingly. He doesn’t say if he would have scored though. There is a touchline contretemps and Paul Lambert, as usual wearing his Marks & Spencer black jumper and black slacks, points and  jabs angrily. He is surrounded by coaches and trackie-bottom wearers all  trying to be as tough and angry as him, but their big, padded, shiny coats  say they never will be.

Town win their first corner and the half empty ground resounds or may be echoes to chants of “Come On You Bluuuues” But only the side netting is struck , and high hopes tumble. Paul Lambert swigs heavily from a bottle, of water, which doesn’t go un-noticed by the lad behind me. “ Lambert likes his bottles of water doesn’t he?” he says to his dad, omitting to tell him how he would have drunk it.
It’s a bit after eight o’clock when Cole Skuse passes to Freddie Sears and I get a head on view of Freddie’s gently bending shot into the back of the Bristol goal and Town are winning. There are scenes of gay-abandon and 13,000 odd people dare to wonder if Town might win. The lead remains intact and half-time is a happy event which follows rich applause. I celebrate by dispensing with some used up Match Day Special and by talking to Ray who offers me a bun made by his wife Roz, I accept the offer graciously.

Half-time flies by and the game begins again.  Ten minutes pass and Bristol City equalise. A hopefully swung boot from Bristol’s Senegalese Famara Diedhouru (who incidentally I believe I saw play for Gazelec Ajaccio in the French Ligue National in 2014) sends the ball towards Bartosz Bialkowski who is out of his goal. If Bart leaves the ball it will probably sail past the post, but he doesn’t and with a jerking, un-coordinated movement of his outstretched and be-gloved right hand he diverts it into the goal. It’s not really bad goal keeping, it just seems he can’t do right for doing wrong. He didn’t look like he wanted to do it, but he couldn’t stop himself.
From here the game becomes silly. Only three minutes later Freddie Sears scores and everybody other than the 290 temporary migrants in the Cobbold Stand is happy once again and daring to imagine Town winning. But the happiness is fleeting as a minute later the boyish sounding Jamie Paterson scores for Bristol and then an indecently brief four minutes later Famara Diedhiou makes a lonely run towards the ball as it is crossed into the box and from embarrassingly close range heads what will prove to be the winning goal.
The hope and belief of the crowd of six minutes ago is gone, it is nowhere to be heard. There is no reaction to this adversity, no will to spur their team on, to come back. Like cattle to the slaughter the home supporters accept their lot and give up. They seemingly have no conception of what to do. There are a few in the North Stand who try, but there are either too few of them or they lack decent singing voices. They need someone on a ladder with a megaphone; perhaps Marcus Evans could do it as penance. By contrast the Bristol City fans are able to indulge in the easy task of triumphalism and sing to tune of The Sparrow, recorded by the Abbey Hey Junior School choir about a “ …poor little Gashead (Bristol Rovers supporter), his shirt is all tattered and torn” and how they proceed to “hit him with a brick, and now he don’t sing any more”. Generously they avoid gloating about Town’s league position, possibly because they feel our pain from bitter experience of their own. On the pitch Town struggle on. Substitutions are made but they outnumber the decent attempts on goal. Behind me the lad says to his dad “It’s just a disappointment now isn’t it?” Although his dad doesn’t tell him he’s right, he is; there’s nothing like taking the lead twice only to lose to make you disappointed; except perhaps taking the lead three times, or four…. or five….or… may be things aren’t so bad.
With the final whistle there are some boos, I hope they are from people booing fellow spectators, for their poor support, but I doubt it. The meagre crowd disperses quickly to the exits but I stay to applaud, just a little. I’m used to this now, but I’m sure we’ll win next time.