In spite of my enigmatic mix of eternal optimism and a passion for existential misery, and never having seen Fleetwood Town before, I am not overly looking forward to tonight. It’s a bit cold and damp and there is a sad inevitability that a good number of the Portman Road crowd will be quick to moan now that Ipswich Town have embarked on a solid run of defeats made more impressive by how easily the winning goals could have been prevented. It is without any sense of excitement or anticipation therefore that I leave work and step out into the late afternoon and its quickening rain drops.
In an effort to make a clean break from the past weeks and stop myself looking like a slimmer but greying version of Brian Wilson circa 1965, I am going to get my haircut. As usual I take my custom to Francesco’s of St Matthew’s St, an establishment which was formerly by appointment to Sir Bobby Robson. The pleasant woman who cuts my hair tells me of a current Town player who always wore his Town tracksuit top when he came to get his haircut, but is seemingly no longer so keen to be recognised and now turns up in ‘mufti’, not that she uses that expression. Lighter of wallet (£15.50) and head but enlivened up by a very welcome, complimentary espresso coffee I leave Francesco’s and step into a Beatles song as I start to roam, and then I’m in town. The damp streets of down town Ipswich are largely deserted, there’s nothing doing, everything is closing, it’s like a ruin. I’m killing time until, by way of another change to the usual pre-match ritual, I will meet Mick at the Arbor House, where we will both drink a pint of Young’s London Special (£3.80), Mick will eat Chicken Risotto whilst I eat a Scotch Egg, Halloumi Chips and Sweet Potato Fries (£10), and we will conclude our meal with a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.60) for me and a half of Shipyard American Pale Ale (£2.50) for Mick.
At about 7:15 Mick and I leave the convivial surroundings of the Arbor House and head down the hill towards Portman Road, where I stop off at one of the blue booths to buy a programme (£3.50). I’m not sure if I get disorientated by the thought of paying £3.50 for a programme, or whether it’s just the dim, evening light but it takes me two goes to work out which window I need to go to, but at least it makes the programme seller laugh, and I laugh too ,just to make sure that he’s laughing with me and not at me.
Wishing the operator of turnstile number four a cheery thanks for letting me into the ground I make for the facilities with Mick before we take up our seats in the cheap seats between the goal and the players’ tunnel. In front of us a crew of sailors in their ‘number ones’ hang about waiting to form an unexpected and unexplained guard of honour as the two teams enter the field. If we were playing Portsmouth it might make some sense but Fleetwood’s seafarers are more likely to wear sou’westers, waders and thick jumpers smelling of fish than naval uniforms.
Tonight’s crowd is a bit sparse compared to recent weeks; ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, obviously, and so is Pat from Clacton, but the old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me are absent , as is the bloke with the brylcreemed hair. Ray walks past with a pie, and when I ask what sort of pie it is he points to what appears to be a letter ‘C’ written on top in pastry; my guess and Ray’s is ‘C’ for chicken or perhaps, as tonight’s game is against Fleetwood, Cod, but Pat from Clacton says she thought the ‘C’ was for something else; she doesn’t say what. Ray looks aghast and tells me he’s glad he doesn’t have to sit next to her, I know what he means.
The match begins, Ipswich in classic blue and white trying to get the ball inside the white, wooden frame just in front of us to our right. It is Fleetwood Town who get first go with the ball however, although visually they are disappointing wearing an insipid all pale yellow kit rather than their first kit which is red with white sleeves ,like Arsenal’s. Ipswich’s sartorial superiority sadly doesn’t seem to count for much however, and they struggle to do the things that usually help us to distinguish football from other sports such as Eton Fives, Discus and Dominoes. The likes of Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt, Andre Dozzell and Janoi Donacien all try to cross the ball to a centre forward who I can only guess we haven’t actually signed yet, but Fleetwood’s gigantic number six Harry Souttar simply bats everything away with his head or an extended leg; if Harry Souttar was a fish he’d be a whale shark, which in case you didn’t know is the world’s largest cartilaginous fish.
There is some excitement after a quarter of an hour when Fleetwood have to make an early substitution with Ched Evans, whose name makes me think of Shed Seven, replacing Callum Connolly. Meanwhile Mick is staring into the Cobbold stand trying to count the Fleetwood supporters, but the back of the stand is too shadowy to make it possible to tell the difference between people and seats and people who look like seats. We console ourselves with the knowledge that the attendance, including the size of the ‘Cod Army’, as Fleetwood supporters are known, will be announced later. Soon the Sir Bobby Robson stand are chanting “ Evans, Evans, you’re a cunt” but Pat from Clacton and I can’t decide if they are singing to Ched or Marcus; we eventually settle on it being a catch all for anyone called Evans, tough as this is on choirmaster Evan Evans (known as Evans the Song) in ‘Ivor The Engine’.
Twenty eight minutes pass and Fleetwood win a corner. It’s about now that I notice that the Fleetwood Town players bear the message ‘BES Utilities’ on the fronts of their shirts and I allow myself to ignore the difference in spelling and wonder if the former ‘Happy Monday’ has diversified into gas, water and sewerage. Neither team has really had a shot on goal worthy of the name and whilst Ipswich are playing pretty atrociously, Fleetwood are doing their bit too to ensure that value for money is kept to a minimum; credit where credit is due. Whereas in many football matches what is usually described as ‘the deadlock’ is ‘broken’ by a flamboyant, audacious, cheeky, or simply consummate piece of skill , Ipswich have now almost perfected the complete opposite. With forty minutes gone Ched Evans plays a one-two with someone or other not far from the half way line, which allows the spritely 31 year old to trundle past Luke Chambers, take the ball a bit too wide for a shot and then surprise us all by kicking the ball against and over the out-stretched leg of Tomas Holy and into the Ipswich goal. As Town fans shake their heads the ecstatic Cod Army joyously leap about like salmon in the Cobbold Stand. “You’re not famous anymore” they chant, as if that goal was responsible, whilst also challenging the song’s validity by the very fact that they’re singing it. All fame is everlasting – discuss.
As often happens, half time soon follows an opponent’s goal to allow us to reflect, seethe or just spend a penny depending on our individual needs. I begin my well-earned break with a look at the programme, which leads me to regret the absence from the Fleetwood team tonight of Harrison Biggins and Barry Baggley, although Billy Crellin is on the bench and though I don’t know it yet, we are destined to see him and hear his name. I also enjoy two photos of Fleetwood manager Joey Barton, one in which he looks as if he may have just lobbed a brick at someone and another in which his chin juts out menacingly from beneath a baseball cap as he gives the evil eye to a person or persons safely out of shot.
Having spoken again with Ray as we passed one another heading from and to the toilet, the digital clock display on the Sir Bobby Robson stand strikes 2049 and the second half begins. Town’s losing position gives rise to the usual unwelcome commentary and advice from assorted coaches in the stands “Look at all that fuckin’space”, “ We’ve got no one at the back”, “Second ball!”. When Janoi Donacien misses the ball a legion of half-wits jeer because I assume they all have World Cup winning medals or at least play for Brazil and are perfect in every way and always have been. Pat from Clacton is rightfully annoyed, “You shouldn’t boo your own players” she tells me and I agree and tell her that’s what the opposition are for.
Town are better this half although they still can’t get past Harry Souttar and when they do Ched Evans clears off the line or goalkeeper Alex Cairns makes a fine save; I try to think of another player whose surname is the same as the name of an Australian city, but I can’t; Derek Darwin sounds plausible but is pure fiction. The crowd is announced as 15,678 of whom 88 are from Fleetwood and many of the home crowd turn and applaud them for their effort including me, Mick looks on slightly bemused. He has a point, such applause is a bit patronising; plucky little Fleetwood etcetera, but it might just be people trying to be nice in a world tainted by Donald Trump and Priti Patel .
Nearly half an hour remains and a chorus of “Come of You Blues” rings around the ground and then dwindles away. “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Fleetwood eighty-eight and I am impressed by their volume, which I can only attribute to a diet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges for coughs and sore throats, which are manufactured by Lofthouse of Fleetwood and taste disgusting. My father was seemingly addicted to the things, although regrettably they couldn’t stop him spending the last ten years of his life mostly hitched up to an oxygen machine.
As the game descends into the final twenty minutes Pat from Clacton shows me her purse full of ‘lucky’ charms, which she has collected from around the world, but it seems none of them works anymore although apparently some of them used to. She’s particularly fond of one from Vietnam , which is in the form of a masturbating monkey. Pat seemed surprised she hadn’t shown me him before, but I tell her I think I would have remembered.
I am more or less resigned to another defeat now and Pat from Clacton is too, but unlike on a Saturday she doesn’t even have a jacket potato to look forward to when she gets home, but, she tells me, she will have a Nespresso latte. The unhappiness of sections of the crowd is growing, chants of “We want Evans Out” can be heard and this time I think it is Marcus they mean and not Ched or ‘Evans the Song’. In the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand five banners appear all bearing a word beginning with the letter U and then N. At first I wonder if Antonio Guterres is in the house but the banners read “ Unambitious”, “Underfunded”, “Underpants”, “Underachieving” and “Unacceptable” although the middle one is a bit twisted so I might have got that wrong.
Somewhat inevitably, Ipswich do not score an equaliser and the game ends amongst much rancour and general displeasure. The atmosphere will later be described rather predictably as ‘toxic’, a word which used to be reserved for clouds of gas, but is now applied almost exclusively to the air we breathe at Portman Road. Mick and I stay to applaud the teams off, because, although I can’t speak for Mick , I didn’t not enjoy the game any more than I usually do when we lose, and I also have some time to kill before the next train home.