Despite being fortunate enough to grow up and go to school in Suffolk, I was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I lived until I was a few months old and my parents moved to my mother’s home village of Shotley and took me and my sister with them, like the good parents that they were. The nearest Football League club to Haverfordwest is Swansea City, (still Swansea Town when I was born) and there is an argument that says I might follow their fortunes, but I don’t. The dual nationality comes in handy when Wales do well in the rugby and I like leeks, cheese on toast, Ivor the Engine, Sgorio and daffodils; but that’s as Welsh as I am see. I wouldn’t normally mention it but today Town play Swansea City, and I’ve written this first paragraph in a Welsh accent.
At the railway station it’s another gloriously warm, cloudless day and sunlight glints off the tracks. The only travellers are all bound for Ipswich and the match; the train is on time. The carriage is sparsely populated and I share it with a hard looking woman and two young children, a girl and a boy. As the train arrives into Colchester she scolds them in a harsh voice that sounds like a man’s. “Drake, McKenna get away from the door”. I can’t help but derive amusement from the names of children nowadays, it’s my age. The children seem almost to roll their eyes as she speaks. Pleasingly they leave the train at Colchester and twenty five minutes later I arrive peacefully in Ipswich.
Ipswich is best under a blue sky and everything is beautiful as I walk up Princes Street and past the peeling paint of Portman Road with its ragged club flag to St Jude’s Tavern, which is dingy and the customers are reassuringly as old and ugly as ever. I order a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) Nethergate Venture. At the bar I meet Kev’ who I know from my days with Wivenhoe Town. Kev’ is wearing a dark flat cap which in the gloom of St Jude’s looks like a beret. I am wearing my “Allez les bleus” T-shirt today and tell him I thought the French had come to take me “home” to where I imagine I belong – that’s France, not Wales. I sit with the regular old gits who assemble here on match days. I talk to one of them (Phil) about statues of footballers and tell him that even Carlisle United has one, although I can’t remember who it is a statue of. Phil suggests it’s not a footballer but one of the Hairy Bikers because he knows one of them is from Cumbria. I tell him the Hairy Biker he’s thinking of is from Barrow In Furness, where the nuclear submarines come from. I drain my glass and fetch a pint of Butcomb Gold (£3.60), which seems livelier than the Venture even though I can’t help thinking Butcomb might be a West Country word for anus.
With the big hand heading up the clock face towards the figure eight, the pub empties and carried on a gentle human tide I soon find myself back in Portman Road. A selection of people are hawking copies of the Turnstile Blue fanzine where Portman Road meets Sir Alf Ramsey Way and I buy one (£1); it’s issue 20 and it’s much like the previous nineteen in its tone, but it’s nice when things are familiar. Unusually there are queues to get into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand; not because of weight of numbers but because not all the turnstiles are open. Nevertheless, despite my desire to be French I like a good queue to get in the ground; it carries a faint hint of the ‘big match’ atmosphere, which is the best 17,247 people can really hope for in a 30,000 seat stadium. I enter turnstile number seven and wish the bespectacled female operator a happy Easter as she returns my freshly scanned season ticket card to me. She looks up, surprised as if she’d forgotten about the resurrection.
Bladder drained, I occupy a seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just along from Pat from Clacton. Pat is fed up because a large man in a red hat is sat directly in front of her today and she’s only short; whichever way she looks a big red head is in her field of vision. We sit and wait for the teams to appear from the tunnel.
Town have been officially relegated for over a week now and today’s match is amongst the most pointless they have ever played, childishly I live in the hope that they will therefore treat it as a bit of fun, a bit like testimonial games are supposed to be. Would anyone be bothered if the two teams each agreed to play a 2-3-5 formation? I am not optimistic for this however as professional football tends to take itself much too seriously, like many of the fans, as the drivel that appears on social media testifies. The teams are announced and my hopes of football for fun are dashed.
The flags of tiny mascots and larger furry mascots sway to an amplified soundtrack of swirling music giving an undeserved aura of grandeur to the two teams as they walk out for this meaningless encounter, but I stand and applaud nevertheless, swept up with the lie that this match is bigger than really it is. As the game begins the noise level simmers down and a degree of reality returns. Town are hopefully aiming at the goal just to the left of me, ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton; they inevitably wear blue and white shirts adorned with the unwelcome red adidas stripes and that nasty sponsors’ logo. In crisp white shorts and black shorts Swansea look like Germany, they are the Teutonic Taffies.
“One Dylan Thomas, There’s only one Dylan Thomas” sing the male voice choir from Swansea from the top corner of the Cobbold Stand, or perhaps they don’t. A serious looking steward collects blue and white balloons that have drifted from the stand, thereby suppressing someone’s expression of joy; no doubt the balloons had strayed dangerously close to the pitch. I like to think that as part of the club’s Community programme the balloons will later be released at the birthday parties of deprived children. Next to me Pat from Clacton continues to glower at the big red hat on the big head of the big man sitting in front of her. On the touchline Paul Lambert is celebrating Easter with a new jumper, a grey one, an infinite number of shades lighter than his usual black one, and people still accuse Scots of being dour.
On the pitch referee Mr Darren England, which seems a good name for a football referee, makes himself unpopular with the home support by seemingly giving fouls against Ipswich players and not Swansea ones. “You’re not fit to referee Subbuteo, you tiny little bugger” bawls an incensed voice from somewhere behind me, failing to notice that being tiny is actually one of the main requirements of being a Subbuteo referee along with being made from brittle plastic and glued into a circular base. The game is rather boring and Swansea are hogging the ball; like every other club that has been to Portman Road this season, they have the better players, the better team. Forty minutes pass and Town’s Flynn Downes gets into the Swansea penalty area and wins a corner. Will Keane misses a header and scuffs the ball against a post, the ball bounces about like it’s made of rubber bands before Trevoh Chalobah sends it flying past the other post into the stand. Sixty seconds later, give or take, another corner is won and Toto N’siala heads Alan Judge’s kick solidly over the cross bar. The supporters behind the goal are getting almost as much possession of the ball as Andre Dozzell. Pat and I are breathless at the sudden burst of attacking football from Town and are glad for the rest that half-time soon brings.
I use the facilities beneath the stand, eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and catch up on the half-time scores. A young man in a shirt and tie and smart trousers compliments me on my ‘Allez les Bleus’ T-shirt, “Cool T-shirt” he says brightly. He’s not wrong. The match stats on the TV screen above the concourse are blatantly wrong however, claiming Ipswich have had eight shots to Swansea’s six; it’s as if the stats are being reported by Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign. I return to the stand to talk to Ray who confesses to being underwhelmed by the first half.
At six minutes past four the game resumes. I laugh when Gwion Edwards stretches to head the ball by the touchline then tumbles out of sight over the perimeter wall; “well for me” to quote Mick Channon, it’s the best move of the match so far. Happily, Gwion quickly bounces back up and plays on, but that’s the sort of entertainment end of season games need. Minutes later Dean Gerken makes a quite spectacular low, diving, ‘finger-tip save’ from a Daniel James shot before the very tiny, thirty-four year old Wayne Routledge, whose shorts almost reach his calves, runs the ball over the goal line and is met with jeers and guffaws from the appreciative crowd in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. But Wayne has a friend in fate today and within a few minutes a shot rebounds off Town’s right hand post and straight onto the turf in front of Wayne who is quick enough not to miss an open goal and Swansea are winning.
The attendance is announced as 17,247 with 557 of those being from Swansea; Collin Quaner and Kayden Jackson replace Andre Dozzell and Will Keane. Wayne Routledge is replaced by Nathan Dyer. “I can’t believe we’re losing again” says Pat from Clacton. I make a sympathetic humming noise in reply, I couldn’t think of any proper words to say. Behind Pat sit two large middle aged women. “We don’t really get the sun here, do we” says one obviously engrossed in the game, before adding “Coronation Street’s on tonight”.
Town struggle to equalise and Pat and I are a little despondent, “I don’t really enjoy coming here anymore” she says “It’s not like it used to be”. We are Ipswich’s spoilt generation who remember the 1970’s and early 1980’s. But Pat is already planning to renew her season ticket and might get one for her young niece too. Of course I am going to renew mine as well as will ever-present Phi who never misses game; I’m looking forward to the big discount when the other 13, 996 sign up. Pat takes a photograph using the 20x zoom lens on her compact Sony camera and picks out her brother stood in the North Stand, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen all afternoon.
Time drifts by under a hazy blue sky and at last the stadium clock turns nine minutes to five. It’s been a disappointing hour and a half of football and to add insult to injury we are forced to sit through six minutes of time added on; as if relegation wasn’t bad enough we are now all in detention. Hopes are raised with a last minute corner and Dean Gerken leaves his goal to join in the penalty area melee at the far end; I stand up and lurch forward as if to join him too, but realise just in time that that sort of commitment is generally frowned upon nowadays. Little Alan Judge’s corner kick is poorly judged and sails away over everyone’s heads anyway. Finally Mr Darren England makes a belated and vain bid for popularity by blowing the final whistle.
Normally the team does a lap of honour or appreciation around the pitch after the last game of the season, but because the last game of this season will be against Leeds United that lap is occurring today. Having been relegated the Town players don’t want thousands of oafish Yorkshireman flicking v’s at the them and screaming at them from the Cobbold Stand to “Fuck Off” as they wander round clutching assorted babies and toddlers and waving nicely. The players re-emerge from the tunnel without delay and I slavishly applaud as they drift by beyond a wall of stewards; within a couple of minutes I go home for my tea.