It’s still January. Yesterday was grey and damp. The day before yesterday was grey and damp. Today is only grey and the pavements are drying in the gentle breeze that ruffles my hair as I walk to the railway station. Ipswich Town are playing at home again and all is well with the world.
I buy a return ticket to Ipswich (£12) and I wait for Roly on the station platform; he will arrive on a connecting service and alight from a smart, new, streamlined train that seemingly wouldn’t look out of place on the line between Tokyo and Hokkaido, but this being England it’s probably only designed to travel at 30mph. Roly was so excited by the sight of this train when he got on it that he texted me a photo accompanied by a message that read “On flashy new train”.
Roly’s flashy new train arrives late, but the connection to Ipswich, a conventional metal box on metal wheels, waits politely. The train is busy with Saturday travellers and a good loading of football supporters, none of whom would stand out in a crowd.
We arrive at Ipswich as expected and before heading out into the mean streets I take a detour to the railway ticket office to ask about carnets; the woman behind the counter looks at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language, which I suppose I am. She tells me that it’s probably something only available on-line;
I thank her, and Roly and I make our way up Princes Street, Portman Road and into St Matthew’s Street to St Jude’s Tavern. On our way we talk of burger sellers and the pros and cons of buying a programme now or when we come back to Portman Road after our visit to St Jude’s. Not buying a programme at all will eventually win out although I had intended to buy one because as Roly says “It’s not every day we play Lincoln City”, before somewhat unnecessarily going on to say what a boring season it would be if it was.
In St Jude’s Tavern, after Roly buys us each a pint of St Jude’s 20/20 (£2.20 each), we discover that we have a choice of tables and we sit at one before moving to another where there the seats have cushions to pamper our buttocks. Roly’s thoughts soon turn to food and after resisting the temptation of a sausage roll (£1.50) he opts for a pie and a pint (£5); I wouldn’t want him to dine alone and step to the bar to order two pies (steak & kidney) and two pints (St Jude’s Stuffed Canary). Before very long Mick arrives, he offers to buy us each a drink, but gesturing towards the array of full and part full pint glasses before us and the plates of pies in various states of demolition I tell him we’re actually “all set-up”. Mick can do little but agree and just gets himself a pint of St Jude’s 20/20, which Roly and I recommend, even though it doesn’t have much of a head on it. Mick returns pint in hand and our conversation rambles around, moving from whether David Lowe would make it onto a list of Ipswich Town’s all-time top ten strikers to the revelation (to me anyway) that Hughie Green was Paula Yates’ father; we somehow all knew however that Peaches Geldoff died of a heroin overdose. Roly helpfully produces proof of both from the pages of Wikipedia. In due course Mick buys another pint of 20/20 for me, a whisky for himself and, because in about three and a half hours-time Roly has to drive home from the station in his second-hand Vauxhall Astra, a half a pint of lemonade for the boy.
In time, with bladders drained we stroll down Portman Road. I stop to buy a copy of Turnstile Blue (£1), which with its colour photos and artsy broad page margins punctuated with abstract streaks of blue ink no longer seems like the ‘fanzine’ it purports to be; it’s more of a bijou, special interest sports publication. But then, I am getting older and have reached the age where I mourn the loss of outside toilets, buses with open platforms at the back and road atlases. Mick asks about Turnstile Blue and on my recommendation purchases a copy himself, amidst the excitement I forget to buy a programme.
There is a queue at turnstile eight, probably because turnstiles seven and nine are closed, but quick to spot an opportunity and not one to follow the herd, I enter the ground by turnstile two where there is no queue at all; I make a point of greeting and thanking the turnstile operator because people need to be nice to each other. Roly’s and Mick’s seats are in the upper tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand unlike mine amongst the groundlings, so I bid them farewell; their seats are freebies courtesy of Mick having a youthful relative in the club’s academy. A last pre-match comfort visit follows and as I step up from the concourse into the stand I meet Pat from Clacton; she seems pleased to see me as I am her, it’s been a while; we hug and I realise she’s quite a bit shorter than I thought she was. We make our way to our seats; Pat begins to tell me about the cruise she’s been on but gives up in the face of the deafening aural onslaught from the PA system; we agree there is bound to be a dull bit during the game when we can talk more easily.
With the teams running out on to the pitch I say hello to Ray and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and then join in with the na-na-na-nas of Hey Jude. The match begins with Town in their familiar blue and white having first kick of the ball in the direction of me, Phil, Pat and Ray. Today’s opponents Lincoln City, known as ‘The Imps’, wear red socks with black shorts, and shirts that take on a different character depending on which way they are facing. In the first half, with their backs mostly towards me Lincoln have plain, bright red shirts, but in the second half when they are running mostly towards me they are in red and white stripes; I prefer their second half kit but worry about their split personality or that of their shirt manufacturer and wonder what happened to shirts that were stripy on both the front and the back; it might have made the shirt numbers difficult to read unless they were stitched onto a big square of cloth, but no one seemed to mind too much. I decide to blame TV.
From the start Ipswich are on the attack although without having any shots on goal, but it takes only a couple of minutes to win their first corner. Town dominate possession and even if they’re not scoring or shooting it feels much more comfortable than watching the opposition play lots of football whilst we run around after them like playful puppies. The game is therefore good to watch although in truth it’s not long before Pat from Clacton can tell me all about her cruise from Jamaica to Santo Domingo, Cuba, Costa Rica and Panama; she thinks she even got on the local news in Port Royal, Jamaica.
By 3:15 Town have won their third corner and the referee, the balding, and slightly bandy legged Mr Lee Swabey (pronounced swah-bay I hope, and not sway-bee which would be boring) is getting plenty of use from his can of fine white spray paint or shaving foam as Town win free-kicks at the sides of the Lincoln City penalty area. Everyone seems to be enjoying the spectacle with some of the North Stand chanting, “Ole, Ole, Ole” or “Allez, Allez, Allez” depending on their choice of modern European language, whilst the 749 who have journeyed from Lincoln repeat “Red Army” until they get bored, which is may be why they only chant it three times.
Lincoln win a first corner of their own at a little after twenty past three and then at half past three Town’s king of the scrunchie (or whatever it is he ties his hair back with) Will Keane reminds us that although the game is enjoyable there is something missing and he has the first shot on goal, a snappily taken effort which quickly leaves the outside of his right boot and skids past the far post of the Lincoln goal. As if that was a reminder of what the purpose of the game is, Lincoln then almost immediately have their own first shot, which is acrobatically tipped over the cross bar by Town’s other Will, Will Norris. Lincoln make spurious claims for a penalty due to an imagined handball and then suddenly I can’t quite believe that the letters on the front of the Lincoln shirts read ‘STD’; they don’t, they read SrP but it’s not very clear when glimpsed as a player turns running at speed.
We are fast approaching half-time and it sounds as if Ipswich supporters are singing “Can you here the Ipswich sing? No-o, No-o”, but the Lincoln fans clearly believe the chant was directed at them and respond with something about making a noise wherever they go, which I wouldn’t think is always an appropriate thing to do; but hey, times change. I begin to detect the unmistakeable and rather lovely smell of cold, damp turf as the natural daylight starts to fade and the afternoon becomes yet cooler. I am shaken from my smelly reverie by Mr Swabey who brandishes his first yellow card of the afternoon in the direction of Lincoln’s Morrell, whose first name is the seeming phonetically spelt Joseff, although it might just be because he is Welsh. Luke Woolfenden’s name soon unjustly follows Morrell’s after a “fifty-fifty” tackle on former Town loanee Tayo Edun. ‘Woolfy’ makes amends however with only a minute and a bit left of the half as he heads a free-kick from Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt onto the far goalpost; the goalpost then deflects the ball onto the back of Lincoln goalkeeper Josh Vickers’ back and his back redirects the ball into the goal to give Town a deserved lead. Luke Woolfenden is deemed responsible for the goal and ever-present Phil leaps from his seat in celebration, his blue hoody lending him the appearance of a large and very happy gnome.
Half-time soon arrives after an unwanted two minutes of time added on for entropy and I guard Pat from Clacton’s handbag while she pops to the loo. I eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice whilst I wait for Pat and when she returns make my own visit to the latrines before speaking with Ray, his son whose name escapes me, and his grandson Harrison about favourite LP’s, Steve Hackett, concerts by living members of Pink Floyd, concerts by Brian Wilson (the Beach Boy not the former Bristol City and Colchester United defender) and the cost of concert tickets.
At 16:04 the game begins again and whilst Ipswich remain dominant and the passing is accurate and Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt sends a shot whooshing past the far post, the play is steady rather than super exciting. Behind me I catch a snippet of conversation; “You say that, but have you got any empirical evidence?” says a disembodied voice and I marvel at how serious and po-faced supporters’ discussions have become; it’s not all ‘bantz’ is it?
This afternoon’s attendance is announced as 18,795 and I help Pat from Clacton identify the winner of the Clacton Supporters’ bus guess the crowd competition. The closest guess is 18,764 by Woody the dog, who I am pleased to learn is an actual dog and not a person with an unfortunate nickname. It’s Woody’s owner who is on the bus today, Woody generally stays at home but likes to guess the crowd nonetheless. Lacking the excitement engendered by knowledge of Woody the dog’s peerless guesswork the North Stand instead express their support for the team, but I detect it’s tinged with anxiety as they chant “ Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich, Come On Ipswich”
It’s gone twenty past four and Lincoln, which incidentally is the birthplace of former Town full-back Jamie Clapham, make their first substitution as the exotically monikered Tyreece John-Jules is swapped for Hopper; Tom not Edward sadly. “Blue Army, Blue Army “ rings out from the Sir Bobby Robson stand and is countered with the unlikely “We Are Imps, We Are Imps, We Are Imps” from the corner of the Cobbold Stand before Lincoln’s 1.93m tall Irish defender Cian Bolger becomes the third player to be booked by referee Mr Swabey after he not very slyly trips Kayden Jackson. Emyr Huws’ name soon evens the score in Mr Swabey’s notebook after Luke Chambers’s under hit pass to Emyr is all too easily intercepted by Jorge Grant and Emyr sacrifices fair play to hide Chambers’s mistake.
There’s a quarter of an hour to go and the game has run out of momentum; this is the dullest part of the afternoon but Pat from Clacton comes to the rescue with the offer of a boiled sweet; I choose a humbug and a while later one of those pale green ones which taste a bit sour, I thinks it’s someting to do with sherbert. It’s about now that I also glean pleasure from the name of Lincoln’s number twenty-four, who I am pleased to announce is called Max Melbourne, a name worthy of a minor Hollywood star of the 1930’s. Perhaps as a result of the dip in excitment or because it’s what he usually does at this time, manager Paul Lambert replaces little Alan Judge with Teddy ‘The Bish’ Bishop. Nothing changes but James Wilson makes an excellent tackle to prevent a clear shot on goal for Lincoln after an unexpected through ball. Happily that’s the last significant action of the game and despite the obvious desire for more Ipswich goals, lots of them, the one that has been scored suffices and in theory 18,046 people (that’s 18,795 – 749) go home happy, as indeed do I despite believing for some time that I might have lost a glove during the afternoon; I later find it in the lining of my coat; I like a happy ending.