This morning I awoke in Belgium. A couple of days on the windy West Flanders coast have passed in a flurry of sightseeing interspersed with seafood and glasses of excellent Orval, Chimay brun, Westmalle dubbel and advocaat plus rides on the brilliant Kusttram, the world’s longest tramline (68 kilometres). Tonight KV Oostende have a home game with Sint-Tuiden, which they will win one-nil, and the Albertparkstadion or Versluys Arena as the sponsors would have it known is but a handy dozen stops away on the tram from where I have been staying, but I am loyal to Ipswich Town and courtesy of the E40, A16, le shuttle, M20, M25 and A12 and my trusty Citroën C3 I return home arriving shortly after 11am in plenty of time to catch the train to Ipswich. I hope I don’t regret all this travelling and effort.
It’s a breezy, almost Spring-like day and some of the hedgerows have been fooled into blooming; yellow gorse almost glows on the bank behind the station platform. I wait behind four millennials with scrubby, wispy attempts at beards who are struggling to buy tickets from the automatic ticket machine; I thought these ‘youngsters’ knew all about this technology. The wait seemed longer than it was and the train is not due for another five minutes or it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t thirteen minutes late. I separate myself from the dozen or so people waiting for the train by the metal footbridge and sit further up the platform where a large, lumbering man swigs from a can of Abbott Ale; he looks like Jonathan Meades if Jonathan Meades wore a tracky top and woolly hat and swigged Abbot Ale from a can. The man leaps into action with a film camera as an inter-city train thunders through the station; he’s a boozy, Jonathan Meades-look-a-like train spotter. The whispering station announcements are carried away on the wind but heck, the train will either turn up or it won’t. It does.
Ipswich is busy with police, mostly stood in pairs, a policeman and a policewoman, like coppers on dates. The Station Hotel is enjoying the custom of Peterborough United supporters. I proceed in a north westerly direction on my way to St Jude’s Tavern. In Portman Road a man who may have learning difficulties stands awkwardly as he stuffs his wallet and programme in his coat pockets; unwisely I make eye contact. “What do you think the score will be today then?” he says as if he’s known me all his life and asks me this every week. “I’ve absolutely no idea whatsoever” I reply as I walk on.
At St Jude’s I buy a pie (steak & kidney) and a pint (Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde Mild) for a fiver and sit at a table with one of the small group of old gits who are in here every match day. Two more old gits arrive and then a third. “If you’re not careful he’ll tell you about his scarf” says one of them about another who is wearing a football scarf. Unfortunately he does tell me about his scarf, which features the names and badges of both Ipswich Town and Fortuna Dusseldorf. The same man later relates how he lost his rucksack in Brussels and got on the wrong train, going to Antwerp instead of Bruges. My eyes glaze over and the other old gits start to laugh; my honest face reveals the boredom we all share.
After another pint of Oscar Wilde Mild (£3.20) and more conversation, some of it about a big woman called Diane, who they know and I don’t, I make for Portman Road and the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I don’t really know why but I buy a programme (£3.50), perhaps because it’s not every week we play Peterborough United. I sit down as the teams appear from the hole in the corner of the stadium. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, predictably, and today he is accompanied by young Elwood his heir. Pat from Clacton is here too and she knew I’d be here, even though I’ve been in Belgium. The game begins with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and kicking it mostly towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood when not going sideways and backwards. The referee, Mr Andy Woolmer possesses the appearance of a vertically challenged skinhead, but in common with his two assistants he wears a salmon pink shirt T-shirt affair rather than a Ben Sherman. The salmon pink shirts are possibly the result of Peterborough United’s decision to don a largely black kit, although with burgundy-coloured raglan sleeves and candy pink socks; for a football kit I find it overly camp.
The game begins in a swirl of passing and running about and these opening minutes are entertaining with the promise of a good match. Peterborough, with their raglan sleeves hugging their muscular shoulders win the game’s first corner and the first shot ensues, a volley from Mark Beevers which Town goalkeeper Will Norris saves. A tall man with quite long hair arrives late and shuffles along in front of Pat from Clacton and me; he sits next to me and places a large rucksack beneath his seat. The noise in the ground is what you might expect from a football match although the Sir Bobby Robson stand supporters succeed in bringing the atmosphere down a notch with a typical rendition of the half speed, dirge version of “When the Town go marching in”; it’s as if they are toy bunnies whose Duracell batteries have all run down at once.
Back on the pitch and Town’s Luke Woolfenden appears to have recently visited a barbershop, or bought a little hat; fellow Blue James Wilson wears a matching design. Behind me two blokes with local accents talk roughly and indistinctly as if they have mouths full of bees and every now and then I get a hint of body spray or eau de cologne, which smells faintly either of herbs or perhaps toilet duck. Pat from Clacton decides to see if the popular crooner Ed Sheeran is here today and trains her telephoto lens on the executive boxes in whatever the West Stand is called nowadays. I am impressed and a little worried that Pat knows where to point her camera to find the ginger multi-millionaire. A man sat in front of Pat and me who has heavily brylcreemed hair suggests that Ed only comes to Cup matches, I make the point that he wouldn’t see many games in that case. Pat soon shows me a grainy snap which confirms that Ed is ‘in the building’, although apparently he likes to leave early to beat the rush. We coin the term ‘Patarazzi’ before Kayden Jackson wins a first corner for Town and some of the 1,908 Peterborough supporters in the Cobbold stand begin chanting “Who the fucking hell are you?” and then answer their own enquiry, albeit incorrectly, with “Shit Norwich City, you’re just a shit Norwich City”. It’s not for nothing that the innate wit and ready repartee of people from Peterborough has never been mentioned before. Displaying a misplaced and overblown faith in their own sense of superiority and importance which helps to explain the Brexit vote, the Sir Bobby Robson standers respond to the Peterborough-ites with chants of “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich”.
Fifteen minutes pass and wing back on-loan Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt has to be replaced by jazz trumpeter Myles Kenlock. Luke leaves the arena gingerly drawing the top of the right leg of his shorts up to reveal an expanse of what we must guess is injured thigh. A group of seagulls hover overhead, floating on the wind and getting a free view of the game. Five minutes later and there is a rainbow above the corner of the Cobbold and Sir Bobby Robson stands, but it’s just reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets and has no bearing on the game although it’s not long before James Wilson fouls Peterborough’s Siriki Dembele in the penalty area and the linesman tells Mr Woolmer that he should award a penalty to the away team; Ivan Toney scores as he sees Luke Norris feint to his right giving him the opportunity to coolly roll the ball to the goalkeeper’s left before Norris can react and follow the direction of the actual ball.
“It’s no Super Bowl” says one of the blokes behind me oddly, but in a rare moment of intelligibility. After 33 minutes the match is possibly even less like the Super Bowl, whatever that means, as Town goalkeeper Luke Norris attempts to dribble the ball around Peterborough’s Sammie Smozdics, but fails in his attempt thus allowing Sammie to score one of the easiest goals it is possible to score. Is this the same Norris that used to be in Coronation Street I wonder to myself. Pat and I are disappointed but remain optimistic of a comeback. “If we can just get a quick goal” says Pat and I add fuel to optimism’s flames by expressing my sudden belief that being two goals behind isn’t really that different to being just one down, in fact it’s the same thing. Pat look⁹⁸s at me a little weirdly. The blokes behind me leave their seats and don’t return before half time. Four minutes of added time fail to deliver the quick goal that Pat from Clacton had been hoping for.
The toilet, the half-time scores and a koetjes reep (Flemish or Dutch for chocolate bar) await me. It’s a particularly fine chocolate bar for which some of the proceeds go to fund Mercy Ships a charity which provides free surgery in sub-Saharan Africa for people in need and helps fight poverty and disease. I flick through the over-priced and overly thick match programme, the front cover of which make me think it’s Christmas still; I think it’s the red lettering with dark background and the little white spots which look like snowflakes or fairy dust. The featured player today in the programme is Gwion Edwards and for my amusement I read the largely boring, clichéd piece to myself in the voice of uncle Bryn from Gavin and Stacey. There is still time to have a quick chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison before at six minutes past four the second half begins.
The blokes behind me have returned and unless they are simply calling out random small groups of numbers between two and six are deep in discussion about the formations of the teams. I’m bored already and Pat from Clacton tells me how she’s having a baked potato for her tea, she always has baked potato for Saturday tea and always starts thinking about her tea when the football gets a bit too much to bear. It’s not just a baked potato of course, there’s crab sticks too and other stuff I can’t remember; it’s a small feast with a baked potato as the centre piece. I tell her I will be having sausage and mash, and it’s true, I will.
It’s only ten past four and the diminutive Siriki Dembele scores a third goal for Peterborough, perhaps whilst Ipswich’s defenders are wondering what they’ve got for tea. From the Cobbold stand it sounds as if the Peterborough supporters are singing “Ernie, Ernie, gives us a wave” and the huge white cross girder between the floodlights on the Sir Bobby Robson stand takes on a faint orange glow as it reflects the rays of the slowly sinking sun. The Peterborough fans are now in cruise control and break into that old favourite “Is this a library”, possibly because they have genuinely never been in a library and are curious.
Ipswich have been playing alright in that they have played attractively enough, but without really looking like they will score a goal. It’s twenty-five to five now and Sammie Smozdics scores again for Peterborough as Ipswich’s defenders prove sluggish returning from an impromptu drinks break by the dugouts; getting the opposition out of position with a pitch-side drinks party seems like a useful tactic. This fourth goal leads to a mass evacuation of the ground and I wonder how I missed hearing the unpleasant “Woo-oo, Woo-oo, Woo-oo” sound that the woman with the strange Irish accent always tells me about every time I visit a Portman Road toilet. The old dear and old boy who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me get up to go. “We can see you sneaking out” says Pat from Clacton. “I’m not sneaking, I’m proud to be going” says the old dear twisting logic to try and make a virtue of her despicable fickleness.
With hopes of anything other than misery and defeat receding faster than former Town centre forward Steve Parkin’s hair, Pat from Clacton tells me about a TV programme she will be watching tonight in which celebrities dress up as animals and sing whilst other celebrities have to guess who the disguised celebrities are. I had thought Belgium was an odd country.
There is time for James Norwood to raise Town supporters’ spirits by a tiny amount by scoring a penalty after being hacked down by the lanky Mark Beevers, but nothing else occurs to ease the pain. Ten minutes plus five minutes of added on time elapse and all that happens of note is that a shot from Peterborough’s Jack Taylor heads over the cross bar towards me and Pat from Clacton; the ball smacks the seats in front of us and unbeknown to us at the time also hits young Elwood on the back of the head. Ever-present Phil comforts the lad and a paramedic gives him an ice pack to hold over the bump that he says has formed; it’s sad end to a depressing afternoon, but at least Pat from Clacton’s got a baked potato to look forward to, and I’ve got sausage and mash.