I first travelled away to see Wigan Athletic on 22nd September 1992. The match was the first leg of a League Cup tie and Ipswich Town were newly promoted to what had suddenly become the Premier League, whilst Wigan were in Division Three where they are once again. I think I travelled by car with a handful of fellow supporters and after a pre-match drink in a pub which I remember for its faux beams and cheap beer I joined 2,683 others to witness Gavin Johnson and an own goal prevent defeat on the night and set up a 6-2 aggregate victory a fortnight later. That game was at Springfield Park, a fabulous old ground that had a curved grass bank behind one goal. It was a wet evening so we paid extra to sit in the dry of the main stand. Wigan Athletic wore the name of tinned-food purveyors, Heinz on their shirts.
Today there is no thrill of discovering an away ground for the first time, there isn’t even the thrill of a four or five hour journey along the congested motorways of England cooped up with three or four other blokes in a modestly priced, family-sized saloon car. Today, I shall once again have to follow the game on the wireless courtesy of BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley and his current away-day sidekick, former FA Youth Cup winner Stuart Ainsley. Football always dominates Saturdays even if it’s just a matter of listening to it on the radio, but in a vain effort to get more from life I have spent the morning tidying my garden alongside my wife Paulene. We are serenaded by the croaking of frogs enjoying a writhing orgy of mating in the garden pond. I tried to give them all names, I got as far as Andre and Teddy, but there were too many of them and I couldn’t always be sure which ones were the girls and which ones were the boys. After a couple of hours of weeding and digging my reward is a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for a case of eight direct from the brewer) whilst Paulene drinks gin and soda water. We sit at a metal garden table trying to spot patches of clear blue sky amongst the mass and swirl of the dull, grey cloud above; it reminds me of watching Ipswich Town. We soon feel cold and finish our drinks indoors.
Three o’clock arrives earlier than I had anticipated and I miss kick-off as I fiddle with the dial on my retro—style Bush radio, fine tuning it to ensure optimum enjoyment of BBC Radio Suffolk. Missing the kick-off is perhaps also a symptom of a creeping malaise that advances at the same pace as Town’s promotion hopes recede. Ten minutes of the match have passed. “Not a lot of quality at the moment, on the pitch” says Stuart suggesting perhaps that there may be quality elsewhere; if only we knew where. “Eleven on the clock and still waiting for the first goal of the afternoon” adds Brenner glumly, although along the A14 and up the A1 Peterborough are already two goals up against Accrington.
“Wigan trying to play football from deep”, ………ball along the deck…….. not seeing a lot of quality are we? ” says Brenner lifting words from virtually every other commentary he’s done this season. The fourteenth minute and there is some interest, “I think the referee is potentially going to dish out a card” says Brenner a little breathlessly. “ A right booking in my opinion” says Stuart struggling to find the correct words to express what he means. The name of Wigan’s Thelo Aasgard is written down in referee James Bell’s notebook and the yellow card is probably not so much “dished out” as just held aloft by the referee. Aasgard becomes a favourite of Brenner as the game proceeds and he will later refer to him as “the 19 year-old Norwegian”; “…looks like a player who could hurt Ipswich Town” continues Brenner, although this isn’t necessarily a guarantee of future footballing greatness.
“If you’re joining us this afternoon after nineteen minutes, you ain’t missed a great deal” says Brenner sounding all chummy and clearly anticipating that malaise I mentioned earlier that makes supporters miss the start of games through sheer disinterest. Brenner continues describing a passage of play but mysteriously adding the word “goalless” mid-sentence. It’s as if the absence of goals is playing on his mind, they’re what he lives for, goals are the oxygen of his commentary. Diverting his attention away from goals Brenner perhaps indulges in a little word play, “Tilt on the stretch” he says as the Wigan defender whose surname is a verb stretches for the ball. I look forward to hearing “Tilt on the turn”, “Tilt at full tilt” and “Tilt leaning in” but they never come and I can’t help feeling Brenner has missed an open goal.
Brenner and Stuart generously begin to look for excuses for the terrible game they are watching. “The pitch looks like it might have a bobble in it” says Stuart; pity it wasn’t a crevasse or open cast mine I think to myself. “Not quite been at the races” says Stuart of the poorly performing Gwion Edwards, practicing his football-speak. Will Keane almost scores for Wigan. “Fantastic defending, Toto Nsiala has kept the score at nil-nil” says Brenner, trying to get as excited about a goal not being scored as he would about one being scored.
Town win a corner; little Alan Judge takes it; Brenner refers to him as “The Irishman”, making him sound like a character in a spy novel. A third of the game has been played and Town win another corner; “Dozzell just pulls his shorts down slightly as he takes this one” says Brenner unintentionally explaining perhaps why the ball fails to beat the first defender. Another passage of play ensues with Brenner naming each recipient of the ball in turn but then inserting “nil-nil” mid-sentence. Town win a free-kick wide on the left. “Let’s get it in an area where the big boys at the back can attack it” says Stuart making the game sound like a playground free for all. Stuart praises Andre Dozzell for winning the free-kick; “He done well” says Stuart, drawing attention to both the growing culture of inclusivity that now prevails at the BBC and the death of received English.
“Stretching to clear is Tilt” says Brenner smiling audibly. “Still not a great deal to report” he continues. “There’s not a plan” adds Stuart. “As the sun comes out in Greater Manchester” says Brenner in the absence of anything more interesting happening; “Ball along the floor” he continues, innovatively not using the word ‘deck’, when he actually means ‘ground’. “One minute of added time” continues Brenner; “I’m fairly happy about that” he adds laughing with Stuart; not it seems because he’s busting to go to the toilet, but rather because the match has been so dire. I like the idea however that he is desperate for a wee having had the proverbial pre-match skin-full; he might enjoy the match more if he had.
I catch part of Stuart’s half-time summing up before I head to the kitchen to put the kettle on. “Really tough to watch” is Stuart’s synopsis. “I hope Paul Cook hasn’t sent them out to play like that” he muses. Stuart goes on to tell us how he feels sorry for Freddie Sears who is being made to play out of position. At times like this it seems that all football managers are idiots who don’t know what they are doing. The broadcast returns to Graham in the studio, “Phew….that was hard going” says the anchorman. I take solace in a cup of green tea and two ginger Christmas Tree biscuits from a job lot acquired at a knock down price because its nearly Easter.
The second half begins and Brenner tells us that Town are playing from right to left in their “burgundy and petrol blue kit”, it’s a beautiful way to describe dark red and dark blue, worthy of the Dulux colour chart and conjuring images of limpid, full-bodied wines and Molotov cocktails. Luke Woolfenden we learn, has replaced Kane Vincent-Young for whom this was only his second match back in the team after a long absence due to injury. “May be they’re just being cautious; let’s be positive” says Stuart fearing the worst. It will later transpire that Kane now has a hamstring injury.
“Good pressure this from Wigan, early doors in the second half” says Brenner airing his favourite football-speak phrase in all the world. It becomes apparent that Wigan have improved with their half-time tea but Ipswich haven’t. “It’s just the basics of football Ipswich are struggling with at the moment” says Stuart describing how straight from kick-off Town aimlessly lumped the ball forward. It’s an illuminating comment from Stuart, but I would quibble with his reducing the importance of the basics by describing them as “ just the basics”.
The commentary and thereby the game, trundles along. “Dozzell along the floor” says Brenner telling us what we knew, that Andre Dozzell doesn’t have wings, before going onto to trot out some more old favourites. “Paul Cook, gloves and beanie hat on, just down below us”. “Always going to be an easy one for the big Czech to catch”. “Edwards wafts his right leg at the ball”. “So, so disappointing from Ipswich Town”. Stuart meanwhile is strongly advocating that Town should be “ getting a foot on the ball”, from which I think he means we should simply be passing it to one another, not standing about like the Suffolk Punch on the club badge.
“ Big chance missed by Wigan” says Brenner as Funso Ojo skips past Luke Chambers but fails to get the ball past the combined efforts of Toto Nsiala and Tomas Holy. I notice from the commentary that Wigan have a player called Lee Evans and I ponder how good it would be to have an Eric Morecambe at left-back or Stan Laurel up front. I emerge from my reverie to hear Brenner say “Flat, disappointing” he is no doubt describing Town’s performance again, but I surmise that if disgraced former sky TV presenter Richard Keys or Canal Plus hack Pierre Menes had said those words they would probably be referring to a female footballer’s chest.
“Here come Wigan on the prowl” says Brenner, making them sound like a team of perverts; “The burgundy shirts streaming back”. Kayden Jackson and Josh Harrop replace Freddie Sears and little Alan Judge. “A nice easy catch for Jones the goalkeeper” says Brenner, making me think of Ivor the Engine and Jones the steam. Wigan threaten to break away but Luke Woolfenden trips Thelo Aasgaard and is booked. “It’s a good foul from Woolfenden” says Stuart revealing a weak grasp of morality which he had until now kept well hidden. “Not really a game that deserves a goal” adds Brenner a short while later, making his own contribution to the philosophical theme that is developing.
Armando Dobra replaces Gwion Edwards. “Can he be the creative spark that turns one point into three?” asks Brenner providing his own creative spark to the commentary and inspiring thoughts of alchemy, magic and the occult, with me if no one else. “He’s small, he’s diminutive. He’s got good little feet” adds Stuart, introducing tautology and podiatry into the already heady mix. “It feels like a defeat watching this” says Brenner, bursting the balloon of hope and banishing the dream in a puff of smoke.
The game enters the final four minutes of normal time. Luke Chambers is booked by Mr Bell for a petulant foul. “Frustration” opines Brenner. “He’s had 86 minutes to show his frustration in other ways” responds Stuart poignantly; it’s a retort that’s almost worthy of applause; “Pretty good” I say to myself in the style of Larry David in ‘Curb your enthusiasm’.
“Are you finding it hard to stay awake Stuart?” asks Brenner injecting an element of levity into proceedings. Suddenly however, Brenner’s voice takes on a sense of urgency and excitement “Norwood heads the ball into the box…”, but that’s as exciting as it gets. “Been a while since Town scored a late decisive goal” says Brenner with a hint of resignation. “A boring afternoon it has to be said” and Brenner says it, because he has to.
Perhaps feeling insulted by the poor spectacle that the two teams have produced, the fourth official declares that there will be six minutes of added on time; I feel like I’ve been transported through time and back to school where I have been put in detention. Nothing of any note happens in the additional six minutes of time added on for inept play and the final whistle brings nothing but relief. “No plan, really difficult to watch” is all of Stuart’s summary that I need to hear. I switch off the Bush radio and cast all thoughts of Ipswich Town from my mind, although tomorrow I shall wear my T-shirt which bears the words “FC IT…where’s the pub?” To add insult to injury the pubs are of course all shut.