It’s Saturday again. It’s football again. The week has been worthwhile after all. Today sees a return to Portman Road for Ipswich Town, after a very successful excursion to Blackpool, and a return to the ifollow for me after the football of imagination through the commentary of Radio Suffolk. Today has been a good day already, the postwoman having delivered a brown cardboard sleeve containing a pristine copy of ‘Snapshot’ – Scenes and stories from the heartlands of Scottish football. I’m hi on the stink of glossy ink after burying my head in this wonderful book intermittently throughout the morning. I’ve only ever been to one football match in Scotland (Hibernian v Raith Rovers, a one-all draw in January 2015), but leaving aside the boring duopoly of Celtic and Rangers I perceive the same humanity and lack of pretence in Scottish football that pervades much of English non-league football, with an added bleakness courtesy of its latitude. The reverent prose of Daniel Gray and photographs of Alan McCredie bring it to life and are an absolute joy; recommended (£12.99 from Blackwell’s with free postage).
Clearing my head with a walk over the fields near my house I return for a lunch of last night’s leftover home-made curry and a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Dark Star Revelation (£1.50 a bottle from Waitrose). Agreeing to let my wife Paulene enjoy the comfort and warmth of the living room to watch the Giro d’Italia cycle race on the telly, I consign myself to the kitchen where I log on to my lap-top and connect it to the kitchen telly in time to catch the announcement of the names of today’s virtual mascots; kids lucky enough to have parents with 25 quid to ‘spaff’ on a video message and signed letter from a favourite player, a choice of drawstring bag, gym bag, pencil case or beanie hat all costing a tenner in Planet Blue, a programme with their name in, a certificate and that ‘shout out’ on the Radio Suffolk ifollow commentary. The fact that I am firmly into the second half of my lifespan is brought home to me as I smile at what I perceive to be the weird first names of today’s under tens; they sound to me like place names, surnames, occupations and the names of random objects not the names of people, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills snap me from my ageist reverie as Brenner asks Mick to provide some sort of summary of the state of the team, which he does, but stutteringly at first as he punctuates his monologue with frequent ‘you knows’ until he gets into his stride, when he begins to talk quite normally. It’s as if Brenner had asked him when he wasn’t quite ready. In the background the teams appear and the Portman Road tannoy is blaring out the recently deceased Eddie Van Halen’s “Jump”, a tune I had hoped, vainly it turns out, would die with the sixty-five year old Dutch born rocker. Brenner comments on how the Accrington manager John Colman and Town’s Toto Nsiala embrace, describing them as the “two Merseysiders”, which I like to think was the working title for the 1970’s BBC tv situation comedy the Liver Birds. Clearly Brenner has still not caught up with the fact that Toto was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The game begins. “A throw in for Accrington inside 90 seconds” says Brenner as if that is significant and thereby suggesting that he is perhaps commentating for the benefit of some sort of spread betting syndicate. Meanwhile on screen, views of the interior of the stand roof and empty seats suggest that Luis Bunuel, Yoko Ono and Marcel Duchamp are taking it in turns to direct the camera. Town are looking timid and Accrington have the ascendency. “Trying to play football, Accrington Stanley” says Brenner trying to construct a sentence in the right order whilst simultaneously being patronising and stating the obvious.
“Accrington goalkeeper, young goalkeeper, very alert” says Brenner still struggling with his sentences and possibly implying that he would expect a young goalkeeper to be a bit sleepy. Out on the left Miles Kenlock and Andre Dozzell pass the ball between each other four or five times without moving as if saying to each other “No, you have it, I don’t want it”. It’s a cameo from the two Town starlets that sums up the team’s apparent absence of a plan. “Sears scythed down by Sykes” says Brenner offering some satisfying alliteration in the absence of exciting action. But then out of very little Freddie Sears is as good as through on goal, only for the Accrington ‘keeper, Toby Savin, who is sporting a shirt and shorts ensemble the same colours as the Ipswich Buses livery, to make a good save. Quickly Toto Nsiala is making a weak, headed back pass and Stanley’s Matt Butcher, appropriately wearing the number six shirt, has his shot saved by Tomas Holy. The goalkeepers are the best players on the field and Brenner tells us that we “…don’t see many 20 year old goalkeepers at this level” implying that Savin is very young but clearly forgetting that Town’s last opponents at Portman Road, Rochdale, had a ‘keeper who is just 18 years old.
The camera work is moving from avant garde to a hint of inebriation in the cameraman and I wonder if James Norwood has arrived by taxi to join Luis, Yoko and Marcel up on the gantry. Hopefully the ineptness is not a symptom of Covid-19, but it seems to have become contagious as a goal kick from Savin carries all the way through to Tomas Holy who boots it straight at Andre Dozzell; the ball falls to Stanley’s Colby Bishop who instinctively shoots wide of the open goal. In midfield, Gwion Edwards keeps pushing the ball past opponents and forgetting to run after it, whilst the camera work evolves further to a state where it seems to be predicting where the ball is going to go, thereby showing an empty patch of grass whilst unseen Savin takes a goal kick.
Mick Mills’ first meaningful contribution to the afternoon is to remark that Stanley’s Ross Sykes, who incidentally is a towering 1.96m tall, reminds him of Allan Hunter or Jack Charlton, players who had retired almost 20 years before Sykes was born. Brenner suggests that Sykes would be flattered, but I think Mick was merely implying that Sykes main ability is to kick people up in the air. Accrington are looking more likely to score than Town and Tomas Holy saves a free-kick with a smart dive to his right .“ Well done by the Czech” says Brenner reducing our goalkeeper to a mere nationality.
Town win a corner and the camera zooms in on the corner flag before travelling up into the Cobbold stand for a close up of the rows of blue seats. I expect Brenner and Mick to quote lines from a poem by Andre Breton. The corner comes to nothing and my frustration grows. I am happy to get to half time with the score still goalless.
I enjoy my fifteen minute respite from the combined hopelessness of Town’s performance and that of the ifollow cameraman through the medium of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar. Adverts for products and services I do not fully understand are interspersed with the half-time scores from League One and match statistics, which reveal Ipswich have had three shots on goal to Accrington’s ten. Ipswich however have had about 10% more possession and a slightly better passing accuracy; a paltry 73% for Town against a miserable 69% for Accrington. But it is generally easier to pass the ball accurately if you don’t pass it forwards.
The games resumes and Brenner enlightens his radio listeners that it is blues versus reds with Town kicking off from right to left. I of course already know this thanks to my possession of a colour television and having witnessed the previous 45 minutes. Mick soon adds to the new found clarity advising that Sears and Edwards are now playing in their preferred positions (the middle and the left respectively). Accrington however have the first half-chance of the half as a through ball outpaces their number eight Jonathan Russell, who Mick tells us “…didn’t look like he could get away from the defenders” with something Mick calls “ a turn of foot”; I’m not surprised.
Fifty-two minutes have passed and Teddy Bishop shoots past the post, “Better from Ipswich Town, a lot perkier” says Brenner. Two minutes later and Town lead after Gwion Edwards finishes a fine passing move. “Really incisive football from Ipswich Town” is Brenner’s wholly accurate assessment. I cheer loudly out of sheer relief. The lifting of spirits caused by the goal is palpable and Mick introduces some jocularity into his co-commentary as he refers to the former Allan Hunter and Jack Charlton imitator Ross Sykes as “Big Sykesie”, an epithet Brenner considers “Brilliant” for its “familiarity”, something which is in itself brilliant.
The goal has worked wonders and Mick is now clearly smitten with Ross Sykes. Gwion Edwards runs in to the penalty area again. “Edwards absolutely ghosted past Big Syksie” says Mick now unable to stop saying “Big Syksie”. This is the ingredient Mick’s co-commentary has been missing all season, a catch phrase character to liven it up like a few well-placed jokes in a best man’s speech. I’m feeling a lot happier now and am still confident when Tomas Holy is forced into making another low diving save with about twenty-five minutes still to go. My confidence is well placed and four minutes later a poor pass out of the Accrington defence is seized upon by Town and Freddie Sears is released in to the penalty area to ‘dink’ the ball over Sivon and make the score two-nil. I cheer loudly because I think Freddie deserves it.
Nolan replaces Huws. Town play the ball around at the back like they’re in Ligue 1 not League One. Accrington’s Cameron Burgess becomes the first and only player to be booked as he fouls Luke Chambers. The oddly named Keanen Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge. Bennett has a shot on goal but “ It’s a trundle straight at Savin” says Brenner, unintentionally reminding me of Lee Trundle, the former Neath, Haverfordwest County, Llanelli Town, Rhyl, Swansea City and Wrexham striker.
An Accrington corner is cleared and an Accrington player is left in a heap on the ground. The game carries on but is eventually stopped by referee Mr Lewis. “He let play go on too early, he should’ve stopped it” says Mick confusingly, seemingly muddling up not stopping play soon enough with the abstract and illogical concept of letting it carry on too soon. The game enters time added on, “Long kick from Holy and Sears is on his bike” says Brenner, attempting not to be outdone by Mick’s efforts to rival the weirdness of the earlier camera work. Sears and his bike are quickly substituted before the referee notices, with Tyreece Simpson coming on in their stead.
Ninety four minutes have passed and a bit more and Mr Lewis the referee confirms Town’s third consecutive two-nil home win. Despite entreaties from Brenner during the game to phone 0800 212121 after the game to speak to Mick or to comment by text I decide that like all the people who will phone and text I have nothing worth saying and nothing to say that anyone should want to hear. Anyway, I’d rather return to the heady smell of the pages of Snapshot – Scenes and stories from the heartland of Scottish football.