Once upon a time Kirkley and Pakefield were Suffolk villages, but they are now suburbs of Lowestoft on the south side of Lake Lothing. Up until 1931 Lowestoft Corporation ran trams down to Pakefield terminating at the appropriately named Tramway Hotel; it’s a pity they don’t still run today and if only Lowestoft was in Belgium or France or Germany they probably would. That aside, it’s a lovely rural train ride from Ipswich to Lowestoft and then a walk of over 3 kilometres or a ten minute trip on the X2 bus and then another five minute walk to get to Walmer Road, home of Kirkley and Pakefield Football Club. But that all takes the best part of two hours and today I’m in a hurry to get home afterwards so I am making the 60 kilometre journey up the A12 by car. Despite the small pleasure of opening up the throttle on my trusty Citroen C3 along the dual carriageway past Wickham Market, driving is nowhere near as much fun as sitting on the train, for a start everyone else on the road either drives too fast or too slow. Also, unless I opt to eschew normal road safety and not look where I am going there’s much less to see from a car on the A12 too, perhaps with the exception of a brief vista of beautiful Blythburgh church across the marshes.
A quick glimpse of Woodbridge Town’s floodlights and road signs pointing the way to Framlingham and Leiston are tantalising reminders of senior football in east Suffolk as I plough on up towards Lowestoft listening to BBC Radio Suffolk’s ‘Life’s a Pitch’ on the Citroen’s radio. With its mix of decades old pop music and football talk with Terry Butcher and an otherwise anonymous pre-pubescent youth known only as ‘Tractor Boy’, whose presence is never really explained, ‘Life’s a Pitch’ is a gently weird preamble for an afternoon of football. Speaking directly from West Bromwich where Ipswich play today, former fanzine editor Phil Hamm mixes his metaphors delightfully as he speculates on whether Ipswich’s cruel defeat to Reading last week will have “knocked the stuffing out of their sails”.
It’s a very windy early Spring day and a heavy but short shower of rain sweeps across the road as I head out of Wrentham resulting in my arrival on the edge of Lowestoft being announced with a rainbow. Passing Pontin’s Pakefield holiday camp I leave the modern A12 at the Pakefield roundabout and head down the old one, past the splendid Tramway Hotel and then take a left turn into Walmer Road and suburbia before making a final left turn towards the Recreation Ground.
It’s about twenty past two and the main car park is full so I splash my way into the pitted, puddled field that is the overflow car park at the north end of the ground and reverse up against the hedge in a spot where I won’t risk drowning as I step out of the car.
There’s no queue to get in the ground and at the blue kiosk that looks like it might once have served a municipal car park in the days before ‘pay and display’, I say to the grey-haired man inside “One please, and do you do a programme?” . Apparently the programmes are in the clubhouse. I hand over a ten pound note; entry is £6 for adults and £4 for concessions. I take my change unthinkingly and I now realise that the man on the gate must have thought I looked like a pensioner; my Ipswich Town season ticket is taking its toll.
I head for the clubhouse, with its deep, green felt roof topped off by a cupola it resembles a village cricket pavilion; it’s probably the most characterful club house in the Eastern Counties League.
The inside bears little relation to the outside however and the ‘Armultra Lounge’ is decked out in a trendy grey colour scheme with matching leather sofas and oak-look laminate flooring. I see a club official with some programmes and ask him if I can buy one (£1), he begins to direct me to someone else but then very kindly just says “Here, you can have this one on me”; what a lovely bloke. Touched with the knowledge that people being kind and generous to other people is what life’s all about I celebrate with a bacon roll (£2.30) from the food hatch in the corner of the room. It’s a very good bacon roll too; at first I am fooled by the roll having been toasted, into thinking it’s the bacon that is crispy, but actually it is anyway. I sit at a glass table on what looks like a tractor seat on a stick and eat the bacon roll and read the programme; I resist having a beer however because sadly the hand pumps on the bar are naked and the afternoon is windy enough without the terrible burps that a chilled glass of Greene King’s East Coast IPA nitrokeg would induce. The programme tells me that Wroxham’s Sonny Cary is a “…gifted young football”. I search for other amusing mis-prints but can’t find any.
As 3pm approaches I venture outside but not before pausing by the door where a man is donning his coat, scarf and hat; he tells me that the main stand on the other side of the ground is the best place to watch from, because it’s out of the wind. I thank him for this insight and tell him I suspect that is where I will end up then. Outside, a man well into his sixties is sat on a bench with a microphone in hand announcing the teams; in the strong, gusty wind he struggles to hold onto the sheet of paper from which he is reading and the rattle of the paper in the wind competes with his voice over the PA system.
I am already on the far side of the ground as the teams come on to the pitch behind the referee Mr Luigi Lungarella who has an impressive shock of swept back dark hair. Handshakes follow before the Kirkley & Pakefield huddle in a moment of team togetherness and the Wroxham players stand waiting as if to say “ Oh come on. Can’t we get on with this”. Huddling over, Wroxham, known as the Yachtsmen, get first go with the ball kicking it in the direction of Lowestoft town centre and the fish dock; they wear a dull change kit of white shirts with bluey-grey shorts and socks. Kirkley and Pakefield, known for some reason as The Royals, play towards Pontin’s and far off Southwold and wear the same kit as Brantham Athletic; all blue with two diagonal white stripes across their stomachs, as if the shirts had been left lying on the pitch when it was marked out.
Wroxham settle quickly and pin The Royals back in their half, their “gifted young football”, the red-headed and slightly spindly number ten Sonny Carey has their first shot on goal, but it’s comfortably wide. Despite most of the game taking place in the Kirkley & Pakefield half Wroxham don’t come close to scoring and in a somewhat solid way the teams are evenly matched, which is to be expected as they are fifth and sixth in the Eastern Counties Premier League table, both with forty-nine points but with Wroxham having a better goal difference. The game is characterised by effort, but more so by lots of shouting; it reminds me of a windy day in a school playground. “Squeeze, squeeze” shouts the Wroxham ‘keeper George MacRae, perhaps feeling a little left out. “Higher, higher. Switch” he adds, trying to get involved. Wroxham appear to have won the first corner, only to be denied by a raised flag denoting offside. “ We in’t had a shot on gool yit” says an old boy, one of a half a dozen stood against the rail along from the stand. He asks the time, it’s about twenty past three. Attention seems to wandering. “I see Bodyshop is closing” says someone else, although it probably won’t affect his shopping habits too much. “There’s not a lot happening here” says the old boy “Though there’s a lot of ‘em in that fuckin’ dugout”.
At last Wroxham win a corner, but they take it short and I feel a bit let down. All that waiting for a corner and then it might as well have been a throw-in. Everyone hates short corners, don’t they? Kirkley & Pakefield’s number five Jack Herbert is spoken to by Mr Lungarella and Wroxham keep pressing. “He in’t got a left foot” someone says of Wroxham’s Cruise Nyadzayo as he keeps trying to cut inside on the left wing. A few minutes later Nyadzayo switches to the right. As Wroxham threaten the penalty area the ball is booted clear; “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring” calls a voice from the stand. “What’s your name, Pike?” says another, hopelessly and irrelevantly misquoting the famous lines completely out of all context. People laugh nevertheless.
As the game edges closer towards half-time, Kirkley and Pakefield begin to frequent the Wroxham end of the pitch a bit more. “We got a corner, bloody hellfire, but it took us half an hour to get et” is the assessment of one local. But all of a sudden real excitement breaks out as a header is cleared off the Wroxham goal line and then a shot from Jordan Haverson is kept out of the goal with a spectacular flying save from George MacRae, before play quickly moves to the other end and Cruise Nyadzayo dribbles through before having his shot saved at close range by Adam Rix, Kirkley & Pakefield pony-tailed goalkeeper
I move along the rail and stand near a couple of Wroxham supporters “ I think it could take me a couple of years to get the kitchen sorted” says the younger of the two as Kirkley & Pakefield prepare to take a free-kick in a dangerous looking position, before winning a second corner. It’s the final notable action and comment of the half and I return to the club house for a pounds’ worth of tea and to catch up on the half-time scores. Ipswich are losing but the tea’s just fine.
At two minutes past four Mr Lungarella blows his whistle for the start of the second half and Wroxham’s George MaCrae shouts “Squeeze” before the last note from the referee’s whistle is scattered by the wind. Grey clouds are heaped up behind the main stand hiding a pale, milky sun. Rooks are nesting high in the trees beyond the club house and a golden Labrador puppy is showing a keen interest in the game as he stands on his hind legs to watch over the rail. I think to myself what a fine back drop to the game the water tower at the southern end of the ground makes.
The second half is played out more evenly across both halves of the pitch rather than predominantly in one half but neither goalkeeper has to stretch himself too much with virtually every shot being blocked or speeding past the far post, as several low crosses do also. The ‘star’ of the second half however is the referee Mr Lungarella who succeeds in making himself equally disliked by both teams with a catalogue of unpopular decisions and a handful of bookings for Kirkley & Pakefield players. “It was a corner ref. Ref! Ref! That was a corner” shouts one man from within the Russell Brown Community Stand behind the goal at the Lowestoft end of the ground after a goal kick is awarded. It’s almost as if he expects the referee to say “Oh, was it? Sorry. Okay then”. It was a corner. At the other end of the ground a Wroxham supporter is just as perplexed. “Fuckin’ guesswork” he says of Mr Lungarella’s decisions, before asking the linesman “Have a word with him will ya?” The linesman replies, asking if he’d like him to speak about anything in particular.
– “About the rule book”
-“Well there isn’t one is there?” says the linesman mysteriously.
Mr Lungarella saves the best until last and his piece de resistance comes with only a few minutes remaining. As Kirkley & Pakefield’s Miguel Lopez stoops to head the ball, Wroxham’s Harley Black attempts to kick it with the inevitable and unfortunate consequences. As the Kirkley & Pakefield ‘keeper discusses with a Wroxham fan behind the goal it was not intentional or malicious, just an accident. But not for the first time this afternoon Mr Lungarella’s interpretation of events differs to that of most people watching and Harley Black is sent off. Happily Miguel Lopez is not hurt and after a bit of TLC from the physio he carries on to see-out the end of the game, which soon arrives.
Despite some doubts surrounding some of the referee’s decisions the game ends amicably and Mr Lungarella leaves the field unmolested with his two assistants. Equally, despite there having been no goals, it has been a very entertaining match. Kirkley & Pakefield Football Club exists in the shadow of Lowestoft Town, perhaps more so than Ipswich Wanderers and Whitton United exist in the shadow of Ipswich Town, because both Lowestoft clubs are non-league, but it’s a fine, friendly little club nonetheless. I have had a grand afternoon out at Britain’s second most easterly senior football club and one day, when I am in less of a hurry, I will use the train and the bus to get here; whilst also hoping they bring back the tram.