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.