It is New Year’s Day and with it comes a third new beginning for Ipswich Town’s 2018/19 season. After two new managers and the hope they brought of something better, we now have the somewhat superstitious belief that merely changing the number of the year will have a miraculous effect, although it does also bring with it the opening of the transfer window and the possibility of obtaining some better players, which is really our only hope.
It is still with hope therefore that I travel to Ipswich today, and to help my mood the sun is shining and the train is on time. As I stand and wait on the platform two railway workers bemoan their Christmas working and the fact that despite the service being a reduced one, it seems just as busy. “I had three Shenfields and two Ipswiches, and a Clacton in there too, at the end” says one railwayman “What with just forty minute breaks?” says the other who wears an earring and has a sort of strangled falsetto voice. The train arrives and I board; it does seem busy like the railwayman said, although most of the bench seats are occupied by just one person. A good number of football supporters board in both Colchester and Manningtree, many sporting suspiciously new looking blue and white knitwear. As the train approaches the Suffolk border the sky clouds over. Proceeding into Ipswich past the old John Player sports ground a London accent behind me says “There’s football pitches there, ain’t there?” sounding slightly surprised. A similar sounding accent agrees; it would be outrageously argumentative not to. Passing the school pitches of the primary school on Maidenhall Approach the Londoner remarks that “Them goals are small ain’t they?”. His friend inevitably concurs.
At Ipswich station, what looks like a paramilitary ticket collector stands by the Christmas tree in the booking hall; outside stand police and there are ‘heavies’ on the door of the Station Hotel. It’s all proof that today Town are playing Millwall. Although I can’t see many Millwall fans about this is no doubt because they do not wish their club colours to diminish their fashionable look; last season they looked like an army of extras from Mary Poppins, this season there doesn’t seem to be a discernible ‘look’ . My grandmother was born in London and used to sometimes claim that Millwall were ‘her team’, but then she also said the same of West Ham, and that was long before dementia led her to use ten pounds notes as toilet paper. I don’t think she really understood football.
Portman Road is unusually busy for the time of day, mostly with people either waiting to buy tickets, or for the turnstiles to open whilst others stuff burgers into their faces. St Jude’s Tavern is reasonably busy too when I get there and I take a pint of the Match Day Special (Calvor’s Smooth Hoperator (£2.50)) to a vacant stool at a table surrounded by retired gentlemen, at least one of whom now knows my name and says hello. I join in with the conversation which is mostly football based and nostalgic; for aging and indeed for all Ipswich Town fans the past is a wonderfully comforting place. My own reminiscences are oiled with a second pint; this time Nethergate’s Suffolk County (£3.20) and surprisingly Colchester United and Harwich & Parkeston are looked back on fondly too.
Stuck in the past we may be, but time itself can’t help moving forward, leaving us even further behind, but at about twenty-five to three we manage to stir ourselves and head down to Portman Road. It’s now brighter than it was and the pale blue sky is just slightly grubby with clouds. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile three and cheerily greet the operator; I look upon turnstile operators as the football fan’s friend, the gatekeepers of a magical world of football fun, which begins today with a visit to the gents.
Relieved, I smile to the lady steward at the top of the stairs then wander down to sit next to Elwood who is sat next to ever-present Phil who never misses a game, who is sat in front of Pat from Clacton. Phil offers me a mince pie, which is very kind and generous of him and I greedily accept. As the teams enter the field I cannot clap or cheer because I am shovelling sugary shortcrust pastry and mincemeat into my mouth.
The match begins; Ipswich as ever in blue and white decorated with an invitation to gamble, and hopefully mostly running in the direction of me, Elwood Phil and Pat whilst Millwall are in a sunny all orange kit advertising drainage and aiming loosely in the direction of the former Anglesea Road hospital and it’s classical columns. The Millwall fans are quickly into taunting mode with a rendition of “I can’t read and I can’t write, but I can drive a tractor” a song not heard much at Portman Road since the 1970’s. The Town fans are no match for such untamed metropolitan wit but Jack Lankester, Town’s trusty number thirty-six is, and within three minutes he collects a wide pass, cuts inside a defender and curls Town into an unfamiliar early lead. Our joy is not bridled. Phil and I leap off our seats happily waving our arms about like men drowning in a wave of euphoria. Pat from Clacton is so impressed she gets us to pose afterwards for a photo- facsimile of the moment, we are happy to oblige and I scare myself with my own clenched fist and a sort of growl of encouragement. With play resumed strains of the theme from The Great Escape rise up from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand.
This first half is a good one as evidenced by the lack of any noise from the Millwall fans in the corner of the Cobbold Stand. Town win a corner, “Come On You Blues” I chant, largely on my own and to no real effect. Ten minutes later Teddy Bishop tumbles over in the penalty area and around me people bay for a penalty. They would have wasted their breath less if they had sung “Come On You Blues” with me.
Entirely predictably referee Mr Stephen Martin, who presumably doesn’t call himself Steve Martin in order to avoid people thinking he is the American comedian, does not oblige. This Steve Martin is clearly more of “The Jerk” rather than ”The man with two brains”.
The Sir Bobby Robson Stand sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” and some other hard to fathom words and my nostrils are assaulted by the drifting aroma of hot fat; I deduce that the hospitality package today could involve chips.
It’s about half past three and Jack Lankester falls to the ground as Millwall becoming increasingly physical. “That was a bloody foul, he must be ruddy blind” moans the old boy behind me , a hint of frustration in his voice. It’s now gone half-past three and the Millwall corner summon up what I imagine they think is defiance with a chorus of a song your mum would like, Rod Stewart’s Sailing. “We are Millwall, Super Millwall, No one likes us, We don’t care” they sing. Of all football supporters’ songs this is the one that comes closest to heart-rending. It’s a moving story, but I’m sure their ‘muvvers’ love ‘em.
Half time arrives and Town should have scored more goals, with Freddie Sears missing the best opportunity as he chooses to pirouette and fall over rather than hit the ball into the back of an almost open goal. But he’s still Elwood’s favourite player and deservedly so. The break in play affords me the opportunity to syphon off some more spent beer , enjoy a Panda brand liquorice bar and talk to Ray who wishes me a happy new year and I reciprocate; our conversation is only cut short by Ray’s need to visit the gents too. Ray is teetotal, and it’s good to know that the half-time rush to the khasi does not consist only of inveterate beer drinkers.
It’s three minutes past four and the second half begins; the light is fading fast, in fact it’s pretty much faded and then the same happens to Town. A bit before twenty past four Town captain Luke Chambers stretches for the ball as Millwall’s Tom Elliott inelegantly charges after it and from where I am sat it looks like the two collide. The Jerk considers that it is a penalty however, and Millwall equalise amidst some wailing and gnashing of teeth with Dean Gerken appearing to simply walk off to his right, as the ball goes to his left. Eight minutes later and Town’s Jordan Spence seems not to notice that the ball has bounced off Matthew Pennington’s head and allows it to roll out for a needless corner. But Spence isn’t entirely to blame and two or three Town defenders pay an equal lack of attention or allow themselves to be muscled out of the way and Millwall’s centre-half Jake Cooper scores a brutish centre-half’s goal, the sort Chambers and Tommy Smith would score back when Mick McCarthy managed Town. “Who the fuck, Who the fuck, Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” sing the Millwall fans adding a depth of feeling and a coarseness to the Welsh hymn tune Cwm Rhondda that I’m sure its composer John Hughes never envisaged. This is what I had expected of Millwall; rich, spontaneous swearing to both celebrate themselves and abuse the opposition at the same time. What poetry.
The Jerk has made himself particularly unpopular and just keeps on giving by awarding free-kicks to muscular Millwall who are dominating the game in a way Mick McCarthy would have approved of. It’s a good job Mr Martin is here or else Town fans would have precious little to get excited about. He caps his display by booking manager Paul Lambert, possibly for refusing to wear a coat even now the sun has gone down and it’s really feeling a bit nippy. There is an atmosphere in the ground this afternoon, which on the one hand is good, but on the other it’s not because it is mostly the result of animosity towards Mr Martin who by now must be getting the message that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But he’s not the only one as Matthew Pennington under hits a back pass to Dean Gerken, who goes shin to shin with one of Millwall’s Satsumas; as Gerken lies curled up grimacing and clutching his leg, the ball spins out to Elliott who shoots past Luke Chambers from close range. It’s a terrible mess of a goal, the sort I wouldn’t really enjoy very much if Town scored it unless it was against Norwich.
The Millwall fans can hardly believe their luck. Re-purposing Sloop John B they sing “ How shit must you be, we’re winning away” and then to no particular tune they launch into their repetitive piece de resistance “ You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit”. Their joy at scoring is only matched by their joy at being able to tell the opposition how ‘shit’ they are, possibly revealing deep-rooted issues about their own lack of self-esteem; a right laugh though innit.
What started as a promising afternoon, as a promising new year, has turned into a slightly worse version of everything that has gone before. Our descent is seemingly gathering pace and a penchant for slapstick comedy. Kayden Jackson briefly entertains with a beautiful flick of the ball and then a spectacular shot that does what the best goals do and pings off the inside of one post and behind the ‘keeper to the other side of the net, but it feels like a waste of a marvellous goal, the best goal of the game.
With the final whistle it is at least pleasing that I don’t hear any boos. There are some sighs, but people seem to realise that there’s no point in castigating this team; they do seem to be doing their best, but many of them are still young and as a team they’re just not very good. But if we keep supporting them, they might improve. For now I am of course disappointed, but later on tonight, or may be tomorrow I will reflect that disappointment is a part of life, a part of that rich tapestry that means when the next win does arrive it will feel absolutely wonderful. There is something to look forward to and anticipation is everything.