It’s a grey, blustery Saturday in late September and despite the miserable nature of the weather there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. Obviously, the normal, “traditional” Saturday of dossing about a bit, catching the train, sinking a couple of pints of fine ale and strolling on down to Portman Road is not going to happen today because of the continuing pandemic, but a fresh, new reality has taken root and after a morning of tidying my garage, involving putting up hooks and brackets on which to hang my garden furniture and my bicycle, there is now the prospect of logging onto the ifollow to watch the mighty Ipswich Town. Today there is added excitement too as today is the first ever appearance at Portman Road of one of the Football League’s most resilient, remarkable and in most people’s eyes unsuccessful clubs, Rochdale AFC. Rochdale’s survival as a professional football club for almost a century is simultaneously a great achievement and a story of fantastic under-achievement. No other club can boast thirty-six consecutive seasons in the fourth division or a home crowd for a league game of just 450. That Rochdale have spent eight of the past ten seasons in the third division nevertheless makes them one of Britain’s most successful clubs, relatively speaking. As if that is not enough, Rochdale has a marvellous Victorian town hall, something it has in common with Ipswich, but it was also the birthplace of the Co-op, and Gracie Fields.
After a somewhat peculiar ‘lunch’ consisting of the remains of a bag of Gujerati Mix and leftover home-made chips that my wife Paulene didn’t want, I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually 500 millilitres) of Adnams Ease-Up IPA (two for £3 from Waitrose) whilst logging-on to the i-follow. Amazingly, I find the ifollow very easy to set up, connecting my laptop to the television with what I can only describe as aplomb. The only thing I have difficulty with is getting the picture to fill the whole screen because the ‘expand’ icon is hidden beneath an icon that asks me if I want to chat about the EFL; I can think of few things I would want to do less. I eventually discover that by scrolling down the page the ‘expand’ icon can be uncovered. Ready for the match I take up residence in an Ikea Poang chair, with my beer carefully positioned on an occasional table next to me, just an arm’s length away.
As an experiment, today I am not wearing the blue, Ipswich Town branded ‘button neck t-shirt’ that I wore when listening to last week’s win at Bristol Rovers, when watching the game versus Wigan Athletic the week before and when listening to the game versus Bristol Rovers in the League Cup the week before that. Today I am wearing a grey Euro 2016 t-shirt that I bought at a Carrefour hypermarket in Tinqueux just outside Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’). I need to know if Town can win on their own, or whether my ‘button neck t-shirt’ has special powers.
The game has not yet started and I and my fellow viewers of the ifollow are treated to a Radio Suffolk preview of Needham Market’s match versus Stratford, the reporter Nick Garnham delivers his report in the style of a 10 year old who has been asked to read out loud in class; he’s very good. The radio broadcast returns to Portman Road and resident Radio Suffolk commentator Brenner Woolley provides a precis of Town’s season so far before his side-kick and appointed expert Mick Mills magnanimously announces that “Most of what you’ve said I totally agree with”. Undeterred, Brenner goes on to describe the two teams’ kits; I agree totally with most of what he says but disagree with his description of Rochdale’s shirts as ‘bottle green’, they’re a shade too light for that. The Dulux colour chart has a shade called ‘Seaweed’ which is a much better match.
On the ifollow a caption appears that shows today’s teams and I am impressed with the use of the correct diacritical marks above the a, s and y of Tomas Holy’s name, something that our own match programme doesn’t even bother to do, and nor do I because I can’t find them on my keyboard. Returning from the caption to the pictures of Portman Road I feel a bit seasick due to some wobbly camera work but I am soon settled by the calming voice of Mick Mills, although he does then proceed to conjure some disturbing images when, talking about the advantages of a settled team, he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson would only ever “…mess about with three or four players”. It’s not an accusation I’d heard levelled at Sir Alex before.
The match begins with the shrill whistle of today’s referee Mr John Busby and Rochdale kick off towards the North Stand in their seaweed green shirts with black stripes, black shorts and socks. I am peering at my tv screen looking for a fat bloke with a Teddy Boy haircut after Brenner tells us that Paul McShane is playing at the back for Rochdale, but I then remember Rochdale’s penchant for players with famous names; well, Paul Weller played five games for them back in 2004 anyway.
Town are very quickly looking good and only Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan deny them an early lead as they contrive to balls-up a two versus two breakaway in the seventh minute. Mick Mills is almost as quick to tell us how Town are much the better team and are dominating, before Rochdale naturally enough then begin to pass the ball around with nonchalance and Chambers and Nsiala create a complete mess at the back just two minutes later. It’s Rochdale’s Aaron Morley who then has the first shot on goal, if it can be described as such.
Brenner tells us more than once than the rain is hammering down at Portman Road but we don’t need him to tell us that actually this isn’t a bad match at all. Oliver Hawkins has a header saved, hits a post with a shot on the turn and then has another header cleared off the goal line. Brenner tells us again that the rain is hammering on the roof of the stand and this time I’m glad he does because it sounds like applause, as well it might. Brenner and Mick are almost purring over some the play but at the same time talking pretty sensibly in plain English. “Dozzell, using his quick feet there” says Brenner raising the question in my mind at least of whether a player’s feet can be quicker than his legs, and how, if they could, this would genuinely bamboozle the opposition. “They’re decent; decent footballers, Rochdale” says Mick with a third of the match gone and sounding rather surprised.
The match continues to be worth the entrance money, if not a tenner to watch it on the ifollow, and Brenner’s detailed radio commentary is adding to my enjoyment , especially when he introduces the use of compass-points into his description pinpointing possession in one instance to “…just North of the centre circle”. I can only think the lashing of rain and wind has stirred up some memory of the shipping forecast in his BBC radio presenter consciousness. Speaking of the wind and rain I’m quite pleased to see that my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is being kept dry by having a George Cross endorsed with the name of someone called Aaron draped over it. It leads me to muse on whether I’d be so happy to have my seat sub-let to a cardboard cut-out of a complete stranger, I’m not sure I would.
Half-time is approaching and still the game flows like proper football should; and even though a number of simple looking passes are going astray the emphasis is on attacking football. “We had bodies in the box, we had Luke Chambers in there” explains Mick, as if to say “even Luke Chambers”. The Rochdale goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a 20 yard shot from Jon Nolan, Luke Chambers “…lumps the ball into touch” and a Freddie Sears cross is cleared off the goal line before notice of a minute of added on time is given and then half-time arrives.
With peripheral vision I glimpse an endorsement of the EFL by Screwfix as I leave the room and head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and seek out a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and endeavour to create an authentic half-time experience in my own home. I return in time to see the match stats paraded before me on the screen at least three times along with a request to report the fact to the email@example.com e-mail address if I am watching this in “commercial premises”. I wait for another caption inviting me to report the charging of a tenner to watch EFL football on the telly to the firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address; oddly it doesn’t appear.
Fifteen minutes pass in the blink of an eye and the football returns, but not before I enjoy the avant garde views of wanderings of the camera man and lingering shots of Paul Lambert returning to the dugout in his large, rather shapeless, black Adidas coat, yet another addition to his burgeoning match day wardrobe since last season. I can only think that in PL’s five year contract wily Marcus Evans included an ‘all you can wear from Planet Blue’ clause in lieu of hard cash.
Addressing the important issues of the day Brenner pumps Mick for his views on football without crowds and Mick is forthright, telling us in no uncertain terms that “This is not a proper game of football”; I can’t disagree, as much as I try to pretend that it is by creating my own ‘going to the match’ fantasy world by buying a programme on-line, drinking a pre-match beer and a half-time cuppa and singing to my wife that she’s a “dirty northern bastard” (she’s actually from Portsmouth).
Mick continues in honest vein suggesting that “Freddie might be losing his job soon” as another of Freddie’s free-kicks fails to make the opposition goalkeeper do anything more than raise his eyebrows. Freddie’s free-kick shortcomings are soon forgotten however as just a few minutes later a good passing move down the left hand side of the pitch ends with Teddy Bishop scoring at the far post. “Yay” I shout, not standing up and sending my Poang chair skittering backwards on the tiled floor as I look for someone northern looking to make obscene hand gestures towards. “One-nil to the Tractor Boys” I don’t sing to the tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West.’
With the game re-started after the hiatus of the goal Brenner lapses in to a momentary bout of footballese as he tells us that Gavin Bazunu “…puts his foot through the ball”, before more helpfully adding to the mental picture of the afternoon by sketching in Paul Lambert stood in his black coat with his hands in his pockets. The Town then make another decent passing move down the left hand side of the pitch and this time Gwion Edwards scores and Town lead 2-0. “We’ve got hold of the three points” says Mick, causing Town fans everywhere to gasp at his most blatant, brazen tempting of fate. Here is me thinking that a two-nil lead is the worst thing to have in football, should we go for a third goal and risk conceding or sit-back and risk conceding, letting the opposition back into the game either way. Is it such confidence that separates Mick as a former captain of Ipswich and England from us punters?
Twenty-five minutes of normal time remain and Jon Nolan is booked for a pointless trip of an opponent, but somehow Brenner hasn’t noticed it and seeing Mr Busby with his arm raised thinks it’s Hawkins who has been shown the yellow card by BT’s misspelt mascot’s namesake. What could he have been doing to have missed that I wonder, checking his compass; practising putting his foot through a ball?
The remaining minutes are illuminated by a wonderful pirouette with the ball at his feet by Gwion Edwards (it can only be a matter of time before someone says he’s a Welsh wizard), a full card of substitutions and more rain “hammering” on the roof. Substitute Flynn Downes seems to want to pick a fight with Rochdale’s Matty Lund just seconds after entering the field of play and Mick is quick to call him out. Downes is showing himself to be the idiot that we saw before when he was sent off in a pre-season friendly at Cambridge. Fifteen minutes now remain and Brenner tells us that it is “…good Jack Lankester is involved again, and playing football”. It would have been a tragedy if he’d returned from injury only to play water polo. With his predilection for short vowels Brenner can’t help not mispronouncing Lankester as Lancaster; I shall be writing to the radio equivalent of Points of View. Bloody northerners.
As full-time approaches Town become more and more sluggish and sit back, it’s not something I enjoy watching. As if echoing the drop in performance on the pitch, the sound quality of the broadcast suddenly drops too, with Brenner occasionally taking on the accent of a Dalek, as happened towards the end of the Wigan Athletic game. My mood is lightened however when in the 90th minute Rochdale’s Rathbone (sadly Oliver not Basil), volleys a shot against one of his own players; you can’t beat a bit of slapstick.
A good 2-0 win is imminent and taking Mick’s counsel I am not worrying that the last flickering embers of the game see Town continuing to do the bare minimum. But Brenner has to try and make the commentary interesting, although whilst trying to suggest the prospect of a Rochdale consolation, he shows that he’s mentally in the car on the way home too as he says “A little bit sloppy from Ipswich, what can Rotherham do?” A little bit sloppy indeed Brenner.
With five minutes of added-on time played the games ends and I reflect upon an afternoon in which I have learned that Ipswich can win without the help of my blue, button-neck ITFC branded t-shirt, although it doesn’t prove that the t-shirt doesn’t have special powers and could mean that my Euro 2016 t-shirt might also be capable of influencing results. Oh ‘eck, as Gracie Fields might have said.