The infection rate for Covid-19 is on the rise again and I am staying home, even though it’s Saturday and the prospect of either AFC Sudbury v Coggeshall Town in the Isthmian League or Ipswich Wanderers v Brantham Athletic in the qualifying round of the FA Vase is deeply enticing. But my wife Paulene is in the extremely vulnerable category due to chronic asthma and given many people’s apparent inability to comprehend social distancing or the wearing of a mask I’m not taking any chances.
After six months I have got used to this and my reality now is that football is a game witnessed on the television or followed on the radio, which sadly means non-league games are just results and all the footballers I get to watch are overpaid professionals. But I can still follow the mighty Ipswich Town home and away, and because I would resent being charged ten quid for watching an hour and a half’s telly, I shall be listening to today’s match on the wireless, as I like to call it.
Today, the ritual of the pre-match pint is partly a reward for a morning of productive pottering in the garden, although it’s actually a pre-match 440 millilitres in the form of a can of Adnams Ghostship (four for £5.25 from Waitrose). It’s such a beautiful afternoon that I decide to take advantage of the weather and listen to the game outside whilst bathed in soft September sunlight. Tuning into Radio Suffolk doesn’t prove as easy as I had expected and by the time I have made fine adjustments to the dial and the physical position of the radio itself in order to shut out brash, ill-mannered Radio Essex and its impending commentary on Colchester United v Bolton Wanderers, the game is about to begin. I feel like I am twelve years old again, trying to find Radio Caroline and Radio North Sea International on my tiny Vesta V70 transistor radio (about £2 from Woolworth’s) in the early 1970’s.
As ever, Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley is the man (it’s never been a woman) to relay his commentary to an eager county of football fans. But by way of a change Brenner is assisted today, not by the regular, dependable, steady Mick Mills, but by one of Town’s few 21st century heroes, Marcus Stewart, a man almost as famous for his goals as his gloves, a replica pair of which I am proud to still own, despite their being pretty much unwearable. I first take notice of the commentary as an early Gwion Edwards header is easily saved by Bristol Rovers’ Finnish ‘keeper Anssi Jaakola. “What about that chance Marcus?” asks Brenner; he receives no response, it’s as if Marcus just isn’t listening or has drifted off into a world of his own; perhaps he’s bored already. “He should have done better shouldn’t he, Marcus?” adds Brenner sounding a tiny bit anxious. Fortunately for Brenner, Marcus returns from wherever he’s been and gives some answer or other; I have drifted off a bit myself now and am listening to the chimes of a passing ice cream van, “Boys and girls come out to play” is the jangly, distorted tune that the loudspeakers are blaring out. I love ice cream van chimes, they make me think of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something wicked this way comes”.
In the absence of any decent football to commentate on, Brenner tells us that the Town have had to change for the match today in the supporters’ club bar, which is something that would have been far too risky to have allowed back in the seventies or eighties if the reputations of some former players are to be believed. Brenner continues by commenting on Paul Lambert having adopted what he calls a “Tony Pulis look”, by which he means his blue baseball cap, not a sour facial expression, although he can do that as well.
Some football happens and Brenner describes the player with the ball as “running into traffic”, which sounds a little bizarre and suggests Bristol Rovers need a new stadium more than most. It’s now just after half past three and there is a drinks break which sounds as exciting as the game. With everyone refreshed nothing seems to improve however, but Marcus raises his game making reference to “big Devon White”, the towering centre forward who scored twice for Bristol Rovers in a 3-3 draw with Town back in August 1991. On his debut, Marcus scored the other goal for Rovers in that match, but seems reassuringly modest about his career, allowing the modern players credit and telling us how difficult many skills are to perfect, and it sounds like the two teams are demonstrating the proof of that today.
Half-time looms and Marcus tells us that “Both teams are not fluid”. “They’re not, are they” says Brenner as if he really means “No, they’re crap aren’t they”.
I use the half-time break to talk to my wife Paulene who is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen, it beats flitting down the steps to the gents underneath the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and staring up at the half-time scores on the screens in the under croft of the stand. The respite from the game is all too brief and I’m soon sat at the garden table once again and Brenner reveals that Thomas Holy is “off to our right”. In the first half I had drawn a little sketch plan of the pitch which I tried to use to keep track of where the ball was, but my plan was scuppered because I realised I didn’t know towards which end Town were kicking. Interestingly, (perhaps) the very first BBC radio commentary for a match (Arsenal v Sheffield United in Division One on 22nd January 1927) used a system whereby the pitch was divided up into eight squares and the commentator Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam described the game whilst a co-commentator said which square the ball was in; a diagram showing the football pitch divided up into squares was printed in that week’s Radio Times. I think Mick Mills has the perfect delivery for telling us what square the ball is in.
It’s five minutes past four and Brenner carefully describes the two teams’ kits as the second half gets underway; it’s a job well done and all Ipswich Town nerds will quickly realise that the red and blue ‘third kit’ has now been used three seasons running. Nine minutes later and Brenner is perhaps more excited than he should be as he reveals that Norwood should have scored, although it would have been disallowed. Marcus by contrast remains calm, I can only think he spotted the offside flag before Brenner.
Town seem to be on top now and at four- twenty two Brenner’s voice suddenly becomes louder and his words get closer together. “Edwards with a great chance!” he says, followed by silence. I guess that he didn’t score. Freddie Sears is replaced by Jack Lankester and a procession of Town players’ names follows over the airwaves as they take it in turns to get caught offside.
Time has moved on to half-past four and Brenner’s voice rises again in pitch and in volume. Nolan has a shot we are told and for a moment I think it’s a goal, it sounded like it must be, but no, it’s a corner. A minute later and “Edwards goes round the goalkeeper!”, again I think we’ve scored, but no, it’s blocked on the line and Paulene sits down next to me to eat some crisps and Parma ham because she hasn’t eaten any lunch.
Time is moving on apace; this is a good half for Town and Brenner’s voice is up and down in tempo and volume as he tries to convey what would be the waves of excitement if there was a crowd watching this game. It’s nearly twenty to five and Gwion Edwards shoots for goal again and then a minute later there’s a cross from Jack Lankester; a moment’s doubt from Brenner “It might be an own goal?” and indeed it transpires that Rovers’ German centre-half Max Ehmer has scored in his own team’s net, which is nice. Marcus Stewart immediately starts a philosophical argument in my mind as he relates that the goal had been coming for the past twenty minutes. I muse that had he been watching the game or listening on the wireless like me, the sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin might well have argued that it had been coming since the dawn of time, with all our fates being pre-ordained by God. It’s not something Marcus picks up on and Brenner merely adds that after some earlier ‘last ditch defending’ from Bristol Rovers, this time it’s a goal.
There’s an interlude of sorts as Marcus Stewart expounds a theory that Jack Lankester should be awarded the goal if his cross was heading into the goal before Ehmer headed it; it’s not a wholly unreasonable proposition except that no one suggested Lankester’s cross was going towards the goal and the whole incident implies that once again Marcus may not have been paying full attention. It’s a quarter to five and thirty years ago the game would have been over by now, but today there’s still time for the boy Dozzell to elicit the words “Lovely ball” from the mouth of Brenner, and for Town substitute Ollie Hawkins to miss the goal, before quite suddenly I hear “ Here come Town; Nolan, shoots, and finds the corner of the net”. It sounds like it’s 2-0 to Town. Brenner sounds less excited than he did when all those shots went wide earlier in the game, but eventually confirms that Town have “…strung together back to back victories”.
The referee Mr Hicks who thankfully has barely featured in Brenner and Marcus’s commentary calls time and the game is over. I quickly turn off the radio to avoid being subjected to the stupidity of the post-match phone-in. I have enjoyed my afternoon in my back garden in the sunshine and feel a curious ‘simpatico’ with my dead father, who would listen to cricket test matches on the radio on similar sunny afternoons. Thinking back over the past hour and fifty minutes or so of radio commentary I have been consumed by the thoughts and descriptions from Brenner Woolley and Marcus Stewart, my one reservation being the illogical and groundless worry that every time Brenner Woolley said the name Marcus he was addressing Marcus Evans.