In 1974 the BBC broadcast one of the first ever fly-on–the-wall documentary series; a precursor of modern ‘reality television’ it was called The Family and followed the lives of the Wilkins. I remember the series had a haunting, wistful theme tune played mostly on a flute (I think) over family photos and stills of a murky urban landscape; at the end of the tune a voice seemed to sing “Ha,ha,ha” very slowly, which was quite appropriate because sat watching the programme with my own family, I found it very funny, we all did. I recall that Mrs Wilkins was quite a domineering woman, Mr Wilkins was a bus driver with brylcreemed hair, they had four children and a grandchild and all lived together in a house in Reading. I don’t recall Reading Football Club featuring in the programme.
Back in 1974 Reading FC was a top-six team in Football League Division Four and Ipswich Town qualified for the UEFA Cup. Today, forty-five years on and Ipswich Town and Reading meet in Division Two, both with the longer term aim of avoiding relegation to the third division. As I walk to the railway station I speculate on whether any descendants of the now deceased Terry and Margaret Wilkins will also be travelling to the game. I always think of The Family when Town play Reading.
It’s been a grey, dank morning; dull, leaden cloud hanging in the air sullenly. It was a perfect day for football but as I leave the railway station I am disappointed to see that it appears to be brightening up. I proceed nevertheless, past the Station Hotel with its multiple signs in the window advising that it is a pub for away supporters only. I hear strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline emanating from the bar; another set of provincial football supporters striving to be ‘interesting’. I overhear two Reading fans as I cross the bridge over the river “It was dead boring in there”, “Yeah, but they’ve started singing now”.
I walk on up Portman Road with its burgers, poor quality bread rolls and more than the usual number of people seemingly desperate to get into the stadium as early as possible. I don’t buy a programme because £3 is a lot to pay for something which will spoil the line of my overcoat and from which I will probably derive very little if any pleasure, except to deride it in all its glossy vacuity. By the time I reach St Jude’s Tavern I am feeling warm and curse my jumper and overcoat, I feel over dressed for what seems to have become a Spring day. In St Jude’s Tavern I ask the barmaid what the Match Day Special is. “Goblin’s Piss” she replies. Understanding that this is not her way of telling me I am not welcome in this hostelry but is the name of the beer I ask for a pint; after all, it only costs £2.50. I find a seat next to the usual bunch of grey-haired Town supporters who frequent this pub and Portman Road out of sheer habit. After five or ten minutes Mick arrives; I am pleased to see that he is wearing a well-insulated looking parka and so I will not sweat alone; Mick has a pint of Hoppy Jude’s (£3.20), largely I think because the name “Goblins’ Piss” does not appeal and it does smack of a brewery asking a thirteen year old boy to come up with names for its beers.
Mick and I talk of the expressiveness and eloquence of the French, of funerals and the weird names that people give their children ‘nowadays’, and the even weirder spellings. Mick tells how his daughter had wanted to call her child Maverick if it was a boy. Mick considered it was his duty to dissuade her with the argument that Maverick is a crap name; fortunately Mick now has grand-daughter. I like to think however that had the baby been a boy he would have grown up to become an accountant.
First drinks drunk, Mick buys me a pint of Hoppy Jude’s, although I had asked him to get me a pint of Nethergate Old Growler, and he has a Speyside Malt Whisky, because there was no Glenmorangie. Imperfection seems to be the theme of the day. The pub clears early, probably because a large crowd is expected and a little after twenty five to three we make our way too. Outside, the gloom of the morning has completely gone and we comment on how Spring-like it is. As we descend Portman Road a police van and car pass us with blue lights flashing; we speculate as to whether there’s “trouble”, which would be unexpected from Reading, a club like Ipswich with no reputation for it. “You might see some gore” says Mick optimistically. We catch up with the blue lights which have parked near Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue but there is nothing to see here, just one policeman talking into his radio and looking slightly puzzled.
By way of a change, today I have seats in the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand, our tickets giving entry through turnstiles 19 and 20. We join the queue for turnstile 19 because although the two queues are directly side by side, it is much the shorter of the two. I suggest this is because some people have an inherent fear of prime numbers. I like the area beneath the Cobbold Stand with its unfathomable layout of cramped passages and 1970’s painted concrete and there are even pictures on the walls, albeit ones painted by primary school children; it’s very different to the cavernous, drafty, emptiness that I am used to beneath the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand where I have my season ticket.
Today the two teams are led onto the pitch by a dog called Bowza. Every month Ipswich Town nominates a Community Champion and this month Bowza is that champion after he helped save the life of a sick woman by keeping her warm whilst she waited for medical help. There should be more dogs at football matches, but I don’t suppose they can afford the ticket prices. However, the @nonleaguedogs twitter account suggests this isn’t necessarily so outside the Football League or ‘EFL’ as it is now dubbed because TV or the interweb has made people’s attention spans too short to deal with whole words anymore.
Bowza’s appearance will prove to be a highlight of the afternoon. Ipswich kick-off playing towards Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, who I can just make out in their usual seats in the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. Town are as ever in blue and white with a nasty logo across their chests entreating on-line fools to part with their money. Reading, whose hooped blue and white home kit is likeable wear an awful all-black affair which fades to grey over their stomachs; it’s hideous and looks nothing like a football kit.
Soon, with Bowza just a fading memory Town and Reading begin to show why they are both haunted by relegation. This is not to say that I am not entertained however, although I am not a big fan of pantomime. Everyone loves to hate a pantomime villain however and in Nelson Oliviera Reading have one of the best ever seen at Portman Road. Not only is Oliviera on-loan to Reading from Norwich City but just to make it clear that he is the embodiment of evil today he is also wearing a black mask. All he is missing is a tall black hat. Oliviera quickly gets into his stride with an audacious and obvious dive in the penalty area as Bartosz Bialkowski comes to collect a typically over-hit forward pass. But referee Mr Geoff Eltringham is wise to him, it would be difficult not to be, and lets him have a personal viewing of his yellow card. “Wanker, Wanker” shout the Sir Bobby Robson Stand at Oliviera to everyone’s approval. Evil genius Oliviera ain’t.
Ipswich look particularly clueless in much of the first half of this game and this may be because they have unexpectedly switched to a complicated looking 3-5-1-1 formation which no one comprehends. With eighteen minutes having passed all three players in Ipswich’s defence run towards Reading‘s weirdly spelt Garath McCleary as he runs to the left edge of the penalty area. With no defenders in the middle of the penalty area, even a forward not good enough to play for Norwich City understands that it is a good place to be and Oliviera moves in, receives the inevitable pass from McCleary and has the time to light a cigar and feed his cat before choosing whereabouts in the goal to put the ball. He shoots, he scores and heads off on a slightly bandy legged run to taunt the Ipswich supporters in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand. Had Geoff the ref not already booked him once his offensive gloating would surely have led to a caution from a referee who will eventually show his yellow card to seven players during the course of the afternoon, some of them for some hilariously bad and extremely entertaining attempts at tackles.
The remainder of the half passes with Ipswich often looking not as good as Reading; which is a worry. Town create one very good opportunity to score with Jon Nolan appearing unmarked much as Oliviera did, but he shoots where the Reading goalkeeper Damian Martinez, who sounds as evil as Oliviera is, can save it instead of where he can’t.With the half-time whistle Mick and I descend beneath the stand to the gents and then to the crowded bar to catch up on the half-time scores. Like some sort of conceptual art installation the TV set is showing the view from the stand of the empty pitch. Mick heads back to the stairs to ask the steward if there is another TV, there isn’t but the steward says he can come and change the channel for us, “Yes please” says Mick and he does and we catch up on the half-time scores, which aren’t as interesting as we’d hoped. I don’t think we realised who was playing who and had hoped to see a score somewhere where Ipswich were winning. We return to our seats which are roughly level with the penalty area at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground. “At least we’ll get a good view of all the goals this half” I say to Mick “Yes” he replies, throwing back his head slightly as if to laugh loudly, but then not doing so.
The second half begins. The bald man in front of me smells unpleasantly ‘pine fresh’; it must be his aftershave or body spray, either that or he’s been cleaning out toilets all morning. If my wife Paulene were here she would surely have an asthma attack. Ipswich now have all three substitutes on the field, an admission perhaps that the 3-5-1-1 formation was not a success, although the injury to central defender James Collins before half-time had doubtless messed it up further. Collins is joining that long line of much vaunted crocks from Kevin Beattie, through Tony Humes to Johnny Williams and David McGoldrick who have, due to injury, seemingly missed as many games as they’ve played.
Ipswich improve, but not sufficiently; that will sadly prove beyond them. The crowd get behind the team, a bit; there is a will even if there isn’t a way. But not everyone is supportive.
“Get off Quaner” shouts a bloke behind me at the gangly German. He shouts it again, but happily Quaner can’t hear him and to voluntarily go down to ten men seems like bad advice. “He’s fucking, shit” moans the bloke behind me refusing to let up, but I’ve already decided he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and block out his whining with higher thoughts; it’s not difficult.
Disappointingly Oliviera is substituted in the second-half but not before he makes one final scene as clutching the back of his leg he then throws himself down flat on his back having undergone a miraculous transition from evil nemesis to flouncy drama queen in just under an hour. He’s been a lot of fun but if asked I would say that a post-playing career in Hollywood does not await the bandy Portuguese.
As Jon Nolan is booked for one of those hilarious attempted tackles, players of both teams square up to one another childishly and completely ignore the crumpled Reading player writhing about to show how hurt he is. Meanwhile I contemplate how Geoff the ref is the most barrel-like of all referees I have seen this season; he is so wide he appears to have a leg at each corner. I am biased but Ipswich are worth a goal and there is mounting excitement as the clock counts down towards ten to five. ‘Pine-fresh’ man in front of me keeps jumping up from his seat whenever the ball nears the Reading goal, which is rather annoying, but with full-time approaching it is all quite exciting even if the Reading goalkeeper’s best save ends up being from one of his own players; but it’s that sort of a game, no one is fully in control of their faculties. Then, with 83 minutes having passed into history Gwion Edwards scores, lashing the ball in at the far post; at first I think he must have missed, but he hasn’t. Town will surely go onto win now, although being happy with a draw is the story of the season. Instead, as injury time approaches Reading break away and although Town’s goal looks defendable with three defenders and Bartosz Bialkowski against two strikers, it doesn’t prove so and Gambian Modou Barrow rolls the ball past Bartosz to win the game for Reading. In my head I hear a plaintiff voice sing “Ha-ha-haaaaa”.