I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I have only ever been to Home Park, the sensibly named home of Plymouth Argyle, twice. The first occasion was in August 1987 for an evening fixture, when after a seemingly interminable coach journey from Portman Road I witnessed a goalless draw. Then, at the start of 2005 I returned, this time by car, to enjoy a 2-1 victory courtesy of Darren Currie as Town went top of the league but, as ever, ultimately failed to achieve promotion. My memories of Plymouth therefore are on the whole not disagreeable, although if the city has memories of me they might not all be as positive. My very first visit to the city of Plymouth was in the summer of 1966 when on a family holiday. My father was in the Royal Navy and serving on HMS Tiger at the time and the ship happened to be in Plymouth dockyard; he took us aboard and I vomited on the wardroom carpet. Given that the eleven thousand ton cruiser was in harbour I can’t blame sea sickness, it was more a surfeit of free peanuts from what I remember.
Today, I have not eaten any peanuts but for a pre-match snack enjoy a handful of Nairn’s ‘naturally nutritious’ rough oatcakes with some Cheddar and Port Salut cheese. My pre-match ‘pint’ is a 440 ml can of Brewdog Double Punk, today’s offering from my beer advent calendar; a different beer every day until Christmas. Feeling sociable, perhaps because the beer has alcohol by volume of 8.2%, and having half an eye on Troyes v Paris FC in French Ligue 2, which my wife Paulene is watching on tv using an Amazon Firestick, I settle down on the two-seater blue leather sofa in the living room. With a plastic earpiece in place I tune into Radio Suffolk on my Sony 310 transistor radio in time to hear the tail end of a pre-match summary of this afternoon’s encounter between Stowmarket Town and Eynesbury in the FA Vase. My attention is grabbed by the fact that former Ipswich Town starlet and Bermudan international Reggie Lambe is appearing for Stowmarket. Reggie Lambe has always retained a high profile in my football memory, possibly not because of his on-field exploits so much as the fact that he sounds like he could also be a cuddly character from an undiscovered episode of Watch with Mother.
The reportage from Home Park begins with a replay of commentary from 2008 in which commentator Brenner Woolley became very excited about two goals from Owen Garvan and one from Kevin Lisbie; as well he might. After reference to the 976 kilometre round trip from Ipswich, although Brenner archaically quotes the distance in miles, we are introduced to the glorious West Country burr of this afternoon’s co-commentator Marcus Stewart; in the week that David Prowse died it seems a fitting tribute. Brenner sarcastically speaks of the receding sound of the ‘loudest PA system in the country’ as Town’s goalkeeper, who he refers to as “Dai” Cornell, leads the Town team on to the pitch. Marcus Stewart meanwhile says that it is time for everyone to “get onside and support the club and get behind the club”. I will admit that I did not know that as well as being closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent, it is also possible to be offside by not being behind the club.
Very quickly Marcus tells us that he is going to put his “head on the block” as he predicts that there will be goals in this game. I can’t help feeling that he is sounding hopeful when he suggests that if he is wrong it might be the last time he is asked to ‘appear’ on Radio Suffolk. The opening minutes of the game sound entertaining as Brenner relays to us that there is “Good play from Town”, that Home Park is “sunny but blowy” and that “Woolfenden seems to have had a haircut”. “Wrong decision” says Marcus in the assertive style of tv’s Kirtan Mucklowe as an Argyle player picks the wrong pass. The commentary briefly takes the form of a conversation “Very open, Marcus” says Brenner. “End to end” replies Marcus, who a short while later provides some interesting tactical analysis about full-backs having more time on the ball when playing against a 4-3-3 formation, and being able to push forward. Brenner meanwhile talks up the promise of goals for Town against Plymouth. “Only Swindon and Burton have conceded more goals” he says. It’s a fact that shows Brenner has been assiduous in his research again, but personally I just love to hear the names of un-related English provincial towns in the same sentence; it makes me think of railway lines and town halls, local papers and building societies.
The thirteenth minute passes and seemingly out of not very much Plymouth score through Luke Jephcott. “Good finish in terms of build-up play” says Marcus a little confusingly “ Plymouth again pinging the ball around” he adds. Disappointed that what had sounded like a reasonable start to the game has taken the familiar wrong turn I take a mouthful of my beer, which because of its alcoholic strength has lived beyond it’s original ‘pre-match pint’ billing. “Mmmm” I say to Paulene “This is a very fruity beer”. What sort of fruit?” she asks. Caught off guard by this question I make up something “Oh, just a generic sort of fruit” I say, but she demands more detail. “Pineapple, banana?” She asks. “Yes” I reply “and apple, pear, mango, raspberry, kiwi fruit, lychee”. “What about grapes, cherries and star fruit?” asks Paulene. “Yes”, I say “and strawberry, tomato, orange”. “Melon, plum, papaya?” asks Paulene, “Yeah, and cranberry, blackberry, damson, even a hint of brazil nut.”
Our listing of the world’s fruits is interrupted as I hear Brenner say “any fixture at the moment seems to be tricky for Ipswich” before mentioning “mitigating factors”. Then all of a sudden Kayden Jackson is through on goal. “No excuses, should be 1-1” says Brenner as Kayden is tackled “We’ll be looking back on that through very painful eyes” continues Brenner, all too easily imagining the scenario in which Town fail to score and adding un-diagnosed medical problems to the mix for good measure. “Just as he cocked his leg to take the shot – good defending” adds Marcus trying to describe what happened, but making Jackson sound a bit like a dog beneath a lamp post.
Despite the current score line I remain optimistic. “Ward invited to come forward” says Brenner of Town’s left-back , creating an image in my head of Plymouth players ushering Ward along or handing him little cards with RSVP on the bottom. Brenner soon engages Marcus in conversation again, “Jephcott’s a strong boy isn’t he Marcus?” “Like a little bulldog” replies Marcus clearly still trying to develop his canine analogies. Despite a lull in play around half past three which forces Brenner into telling us that there is very little happening, the consensus between the two commentators seems to be that it’s an entertaining game. “ Town don’t look like a team short on confidence” says Brenner before unleashing a combination of stats upon the listeners about how many wins Town have had in the past five games (one) and how many points they’ve taken from the past ten games (nine). The criticism remains implied, but Brenner is careful to explain that this is a “…very young Ipswich Town side” and “needs must at the moment”.
Half-time arrives at fourteen minutes to four and Marcus repeats that “There is goals in this game” which he has found “thoroughly entertaining”. It’s left to Brenner to encourage me to return for the second half, “This game could be anything. There could be a comeback for Ipswich Town, or it could be 3-0 to Plymouth”. As insightful summaries go it fits well into either of the “Hedging one’s bets” or the “Why the hell are you asking me?” categories.
I enjoy a half-time of putting the kettle on, shutting and locking the garage door, drawing the blinds and closing the curtains. Troyes have beaten Paris FC 2-1 with Paris having a spectacular volleyed ‘goal’ in the seventh minute of time added-on disallowed for dangerous play (jeu dangereux). Troyes replace Paris FC at the top of Ligue 2 on goal difference and Paulene re-tunes the Amazon Firestick for the Ligue 1 game at Parc Roazhon between Stade Rennais and Racing Club de Lens. I reflect that Home Park is only 402 kilometres from Rennes by sea and road, which is almost 90 kilometres closer than it is to Portman Road.
Carelessly, I miss the re-start at Home Park and re-join the game just as little Alan Judge makes a “suicidal pass”, which almost gives Luke Jephcott a second goal. Brenner moves on to speak of Newport County, Cheltenham Town and Exeter City all doing well in the fourth division this season and the prospect of further trips west next season, clearly suggesting he has already given up on hopes of Town being promoted. “Cambridge would be a nice short trip” he adds, adopting the outlook of the Radio Suffolk accountant.
It doesn’t sound like Town are having many shots on goal ,but the game remains open and Brenner is moved to tell us that “ There is still no way of knowing what the full-time score will be”, which is frankly somewhat obvious unless he has access to some sort of Old Mother Woolley figure who has a crystal ball. “Strong young lads” says Brenner of Jephcott and McGuinness, introducing an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism as the game enters its final 25 minutes. Jack Lankester and Brett McGavin are replaced by the weirdly named Keanan Bennetts, and Oliver Hawkins.
It’s the seventieth minute and I am told that Plymouth’s Danny Mayor has “kicked the feet away” from Town’s Armando Dobra, a player who is Albanian and whose name incidentally rhymes with Enver Hoxha the former Communist leader of Albania. Mayor is booked for a second time in the match and is therefore sent off. Quickly following on, former Town player Frank Nouble is booked also, but only for the first time; “Getting a yellow card for verbals” says Brenner , incorrectly using the word ‘verbals’, which actually refers to different forms of verbs rather than bad language; we should expect the BBC’s broadcasters to know this sort of thing. Marcus or Brenner, I’m not sure which, now tells us that against ten men we are going to have a lot of the ball, we just have to do something with it. Seconds later, Paulene cheers as over in France Lens take the lead through eighteen year old Arnaud Kalimuendo Muinga and then in what is turning out to be a very busy three minutes Town take those words about doing something with the ball to heart and equalise. “Nolan shoots, he scores says Brenner succinctly. “A great volley” confirms Marcus. Within a minute I am hearing Brenner say “Hawkins chests it down and Jackson scores” and Town lead 2-1. “Yay” I shout from my reclining position on the blue leather sofa. This is the most fun I’ve had since last February.
To add to my enjoyment Brenner tells me that the 1800 Plymouth fans who have been allowed into the ground are “really aggravated” and in the background I hear them bawling and moaning in a real life version of people in supporters groups on the interweb. The final fifteen minutes and injury time pass in a parade of observations from Brenner and Marcus. “ … keep playing forward like they ‘ave been doing” is Marcus’s recipe for success as he turns up his West Countryness a notch . “ Ill-discipline from Watts” says Brenner revelling in another booking for a Plymouth player. “Fans getting disgruntled” adds Marcus picking up Brenner’s theme before sounding a note of caution with “Dangerous times now”. Marcus’s voice is becoming increasingly gravelly, as if he’s been chain smoking Woodbines and slugging whisky all afternoon; he sounds like a Somerset Jimmy Durante.
It is evident that Plymouth are succeeding in getting back into the game. “Decent effort on goal from Hardy” says Brenner before ramping up the tension and pessimism with “This‘ll be a massive disappointment if Town draw this one”. He carries on in similar vein by validating those listeners surprised that Town aren’t losing with “Town ahead; if you lost faith earlier in the game and thought here we go again”. It doesn’t get any better; “Plymouth close – over the bar” and “Not pleasant viewing at the moment” before Brenner perhaps tries to lighten the mood with “Two players with similar pinkie-orange footwear on the far side” as full-time approaches. The pretty-much statutory four minutes of additional time will be added. The four minutes pass and Town win.
I am elated. After foolishly depressing myself by reading the ‘opinions’ of people on social media in the wake of two recent defeats and a draw, I am now ecstatic that Town have won and this afternoon I feel like I have travelled to Plymouth and back, played the match and wilfully thrown up on the wardroom carpet of every warship in Plymouth harbour.
Perhaps Town will lose again next Saturday, perhaps they won’t, but that’s what football teams do, they win, they lose and they draw and the margins between those three outcomes are small. This season Ipswich Town have won more than we have lost, today we won, life is sweet.