Today is FA Cup final day. The reason for this is that for the past ten years or so Ipswich Town’s first FA Cup tie of the season has usually been their final FA Cup tie of the season (last year was a freakish and brief exception). In football commentator-land it’s a standard cliche to refer to the plucky non-league underdogs as having ‘their cup final’ when they get through the qualifying rounds and come up against the likes of Colchester United or Grimsby Town in the first round, but as an Ipswich supporter I now experience the thrill of such an FA Cup final every season regardless of who our opponents are. I am truly blessed.
To add to the excitement today, as if such a thing were possible, Ipswich Town are playing Portsmouth, and Portsmouth are my wife Paulene’s team. Remarkably, since Paulene and I married in 2000 Ipswich and Portsmouth have now been drawn together in the FA Cup four times, four times more than during the whole of the twentieth century. Portsmouth have won every single tie and our marriage has survived, perhaps that’s why; like she needs another stick to beat me with.
Typically for such an occasion, our sofa is bedecked with Portsmouth FC flags, I don’t have any Ipswich Town flags, only a couple of old tea towels, although I have balanced an Ipswich Town rosette and a plastic Subbuteo FA Cup on top of the telly. Today, coverage of the game is, we are told, available on the BBC iplayer. It’s almost impossible to find out how to access this though until about ten minutes before the game when it magically appears. All week I’ve been looking on the BBC website and within the iplayer bit on our smart tv for some mention of the game, but have found nothing. Still disappointed that there has been no Ipswich v Portsmouth ‘It’s a knockout’ or coverage of the teams arriving by coach at Wembley we tune in.
For an FA Cup final the coverage seems a bit muted but I try my best to compensate by attempting to lead Paulene in some community singing in the style of Ralph Reader. All I get is a look of mild contempt. Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’ blares inexplicably over the Portman Road public address system, for whose benefit I’m not sure, but it’s no substitute for a marching band and nor is a lone bugler playing the Last Post; I do understand that the bugler is an expression of football wanting to appear worthy by joining in with Remembrance Day, albeit four days early, but the Last Post is quite appropriate in other ways given Ipswich’s recent performances in the FA Cup. Despite the playing of the Last Post there is no minute’s silence in which to reflect on its meaning. Our commentator for the afternoon is someone called Martin Foster with former Town starlet Matt Holland as his side-kick.
Multiple tv cameras pan around Portman Road and linger on the cardboard cut-outs of supporters in the lower tier of the Cobbold Stand. Commentator Foster speaks of the cut-out’s smiling faces and in a slice of surreal pessimism worthy of Radio Suffolk’s own Brenner Woolley wonders if they will still be smiling at the end of the game; I expect so Martin, given that they are just photographic images printed onto pieces of laminated board.
The game begins and Foster starts badly displaying an unforgivable ignorance of Ipswich’s traditional colours by stating that Town are in “…their traditional all-blue” and describing Portsmouth, who are in white shirts and black shorts, as being in “all-white”. Matching the quality of Foster’s observation, the on-screen action stutters and dims momentarily every thirty seconds or so and necessitates a change from the supposedly smart tv to lap-top , which then gets plugged into the bigger screen. Happily the change works but I never had to do these things when the Cup final was just on ITV or BBC1.
Eleven minutes pass of Ipswich passing the ball about slowly in an apparent attempt to hypnotise the Pompey players or bore them to death, then Portsmouth score. A free-kick by Ronan Curtis, who sounds like he could be a movie star, passes through a large gap in Town’s defensive wall. To add unwanted comedic value to the event the ball hits the post and rebounds into the net off Town goal-keeper David Cornell. Paulene misses the goal because she’s looking at her mobile phone, but is made aware of it due to my shout of “Oh, bloody hell”. She gets to see the replay however and is watching the tv screen two minutes later when Portsmouth score again, with another goal that hits other objects before hitting the net after leaving the Portsmouth player’s boot; this time the out-stretched leg of Town defender Mark McGuinness, whose name I can’t hear without thinking of Sinn Fein, although I’m doubtless thinking of Martin not Mark. This time Paulene shouts “Yes” before looking towards me slightly sheepishly, as well she might. “Oh well” I think to myself “It’s to be expected”. “It’s a perfect start for Portsmouth” says Foster, helpfully stating the bleeding obvious just in case anyone watching was unsure if going 2-0 up inside fifteen minutes was desirable.
Despite trailing by two-goals, Ipswich stick to their game plan of doing nothing in particular and avoiding possession of the ball inside the Portsmouth penalty area. With twenty-five minutes gone Foster and Holland mysteriously fall silent for at least twenty seconds, possibly because there is simply nothing happening that can be put into words. On the half-hour Ipswich lose possession and Portsmouth swiftly counter attack; a handful of passes ending with a shot from which they almost score a third goal. “Bing, bang, bong” says Foster rendering every attempt at spoof sports commentary ever made completely redundant.
“What is Globex?” asks Paulene reading the advert on the lower tier of the Cobbold Stand. “It’s a company run by Hank Scorpio, who seems like a nice bloke but is actually fronting an evil organisation that wants to take over the East Coast of America”. I tell her recalling an episode entitled “You only move twice” from season eight of The Simpsons. “Cool” says Paulene, adding that she’s getting bored despite Pompey winning.
It’s the forty-third minute and the ball gets punted forward from the half way line; all of a sudden Jon Nolan and the Portsmouth defence are practising social-distancing in the Pompey penalty area. The ball falls to Nolan, he swivels, he shoots, he scores. “Yay, we’ve scored” I call out, not quite believing my own eyes. “A bit of quality from the back” says Matt Holland in a slightly gravelly voice. I hadn’t realised how much he sounds like he could be in Eastenders, he needs to stop living in Essex.
After four minutes of time added on for injuries and arguments, half time arrives. The light is fading, it’s getting cold and damp and I get the washing in off the line whilst Paulene puts a couple of potatoes in the oven to bake. I feel much happier than I did half an hour ago and a cup of tea and an orange chocolate Leibniz biscuit elevate my mood further.
The game resumes at ten past four and Foster relays that Town have won just one of their last eighteen FA Cup ties, which is simply not true. Town have won one of our last ten FA Cup ties, we might have played eighteen games but several were replays, not separate ties. I can only think that the BBC have given Foster this game to commentate on to make us all grateful for Brenner Woolley; their plan has worked. Foster continues to annoy by pronouncing the ‘c’ in Janoi Donacien’s name as a ‘z’ or ‘ts’ making it sound as if the middle two syllables of Janoi’s surname spell ‘nazi’.
Despite Foster’s continuing efforts the second half is much better than the first from a Town perspective view and Matt Holland correctly calls that Town are simply passing the ball much more quickly, and going forward towards the Portsmouth goal as a result. Sixty-six minutes pass and having come on as substitute for Oliver Hawkins, James Norwood scores the equaliser for Ipswich. I cheer; Paulene says “Oh no, we can’t have extra time, the potatoes will be dry”. She has a point. Trying to forget about spoiled potatoes I dare to dream of a second FA Cup final against another team in a few weeks time.
The game proceeds and is almost exciting. Foster and Holland label it an exciting cup tie. One of the multiple cameras pans to Paul Lambert, “He’s prowling his technical area hoping it will bring his team a goal” says Foster imagining a ridiculous scenario which lays bare his complete lack of understanding about how goals are scored. “He was almost static in the first half” adds Foster continuing to obsess about Paul Lambert’s movements in a way Brenner Woolley would never do, whilst never once mentioning what Lambert is wearing as Brenner no doubt would do.
Ipswich lose their impetus as full-time approaches and in the last ten minutes Portsmouth begin to dominate. The game is into time added on and Pompeys’ Ben Close blazes a relatively easy shot over and wide of the goal. “That will condemn us to extra-time” says Foster giving away how he really fees about the game. He’s right though for possibly the first time and extra-time ensues.
In extra time Portsmouth are even more dominant. Having ‘fought-back’ from 2-0 down it looks like Town think they’ve done enough. Paul Lambert brings on four substitutes; it’s just a shame the other players have to go off. Portsmouth’s Marcus Harness, who I like because his first and surnames rhyme, shoots on goal, “Good strike as well, straight at the goalkeeper” says Matt Holland, sounding sarcastic, but not intentionally, as far as I can make out. Matt and Foster hit upon the notion that the game has become more open and the words ‘open’ and ‘opened up’ are seemingly included in almost every sentence now before they both tell us more than once that it is Pompey who are on the ‘front foot’. A camera shows the scoreboard and that provides the cue for Foster to say “The situation at Fratton Park, if you’ve just joined us”. It’s a statement that suggests perhaps that commentators function on a small library of words and phrases associated with each club; Ipswich – Bobby Robson, two Dutchmen, UEFA Cup ; Portsmouth, – Fratton Park, HMS Victory, won the FA Cup just before World War Two. It could of course be that Foster has lost his way completely with the pressure of extra time and the possibility of penalties. It’s a theory that gains added credence because I think I hear him say “Williams inside, behind McGoldrick” when he probably means Myles Kenlock. Foster messes up yet again a short while later, attempting to pronounce Nsiala without using the letter ‘i’ and thereby inadvertently stirring sad memories of the unfortunate Emiliano Sala. It’s possible however that Foster has simply taken his glasses off and forgotten where he put them down, so he can longer read his notes.
Eventually, Ipswich concede an unnecessary free-kick from which Pompey’s unattractively named Sean Raggett scores an offside goal. It’s a fitting end to a mostly unsatisfactory performance from Town, who despite having been refused an obvious penalty when Hawkins’ shirt was pulled have been the better team for only 30 minutes out of two-hours of football and on balance do not deserve to win. So Ipswich’s FA Cup Final ends in defeat as it inevitably must and if the FA Cup gets to be completed this season the real final will no doubt be contested by two of the self-appointed “big-six” clubs who will have got there pretty much by accident, although to be truthful you do wonder if it would also be an accident if Ipswich won a cup-tie nowadays. I sometimes wonder if our club’s owner hasn’t decided that we’ve already won the FA Cup once, so we don’t need to try and do it again.
For my part I shall now be following Portsmouth in this season’s FA Cup, in accordance with the small print in my marriage vows, at least that is until they are knocked out by the Arsenal or Manchester City Under Sevens, after which I shall take no further interest in what used to be the greatest knockout cup competition in the world, until next year.