Ipswich Town 2 AFC Wimbledon 2

Back in 2004 as Ipswich Town were yet again failing to win yet another play-off tie (we have won just two out of nine ties), AFC Wimbledon were winning the Combined Counties Premier Division title.  Since then, Wimbledon have continued to collect promotions and Ipswich Town haven’t, and so today we find ourselves playing the 2004 Combined Counties Premier Division Champions for a third consecutive season.  Town and the original Wimbledon, the one that famously beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, had of course met in both the Premier League and the Championship and my wife Paulene is the proud owner of a cuddly Womble in Wimbledon kit that dated from when the original club was being eaten alive; apparently when she bought it, it was the last one in the shop.

Shamefully, playing fast and loose with the future of our planet, I have again driven to the match today, still fearful of using public transport as Covid cases spiral upwards in number and the government gambles the lives of the clinically vulnerable so that money can change hands, as it does most of the time to be fair, but usually more obliquely. Parking my trusty Citroen C3 up on Chantry I stroll down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a sky of picturesquely heaped up clouds, the afternoon is warm but dull, as English summers often are.

Rocking up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk) at about twenty past two, I join a short queue for the Fanzone just as the steward checking tickets and Covid credential announces that the bar in the Fanzone is now closed.  Brimming with disappointment and thwarted thirst I leave the queue and hang about aimlessly for a few minutes watching the crowds and counting the number of people wearing face masks, I see four.  It really is as if most people are convinced the pandemic is over.  Quickly bored with my own company I trudge off between the supporters’ coaches artfully arranged outside the old Corporation tram depot and head for the Constantine Road gate to the ground, where I join a very short queue to show off my Covid credentials.  “Thank you Martin” says the female steward as I flash my NHS vaccination card; it seems a bit familiar of her and I wonder if we know each other; she’s one of the few people wearing a mask so I can’t properly see her face. 

On the walk from the gate to the turnstile I purchase a programme (£3.50) and join a queue for turnstile fifty-nine because of the four turnstiles on this corner of the ground (numbers 59 to 62) it’s the only one that’s open. My favourite turnstile is number 62 because when using it I feel I am paying homage to Town’s Football League winning team of 1962.  Behind me in the queue a bunch of blokes chatter like excited youths, making weak jokes and commenting on there being only one turnstile open. “Cutting costs” suggests one.  “A bit naughty if it’s nearly kick-off” says another, weirdly imagining a scenario in which he hasn’t arrived twenty minutes before the game is due to start.  Another reads out loud the sign explaining what items are prohibited from the ground. “No tools” he chuckles, prompting his accomplices to each name a tool they would have liked to bring with them starting with a blow torch.

In the stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with his son Elwood, but Pat from Clacton is on holiday in Ireland and Fiona, Ray and his son and his grandson Harrison are yet to arrive.  I speak with Phil who, in the course of our conversation explains that the bar in the Fanzone closes early because people hadn’t been drinking up in time to comply with the licence.  It starts to rain.

It’s still raining when the teams come on to the pitch and after a very brief ‘taking the knee’ which is so brief it looks a bit like a curtsy, the game begins beneath a battleship grey sky. Wimbledon get first go with the ball, lumping it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  For the third consecutive home league match Town’s opponents are wearing a kit of all-red; I think back to when most club’s away kit was yellow shirts and blue shorts,  except of course for Oxford United and Mansfield Town, but we never played them in the 1970’s.

Continuing the 1970’s theme the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are quickly into a rendition of Boney M’s 1978 Christmas number one ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but with lyrics altered to celebrate Ipswich singing, Norwich running away, and eternal fighting because of Boxing Day rather than the birth of the Messiah.  Just four minutes pass and Town’s Scott Fraser has the first shot on goal.  After seven minutes the weather seems to be brightening up a bit and the Wimbledon fans chant “The animals went in two by two”, which seems a bit odd given that it looks like it is about to stop raining and any plans to build an ark will have been put on hold, particularly since no one is allowed to bring tools into the ground.

With about a quarter of an hour played Wimbledon’s Alexander Woodyard is the first player to get sight of referee Mr Rock’s yellow card after he fouls Joe Piggott.  “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Wimbledon supporters somewhat coarsely and unimaginatively and then Town’s Rekeem Harper takes a shot from 18 metres or so which is easily gathered by Wimbledon goalkeeper Nik Tzanev.  The clouds are parting to reveal blue sky and as if attempting to create some sort of allegory, Town breach the Wimbledon defence and make several forays down the right flank, with Kane Vincent-Young and Wes Burns getting in a number of crosses, although none of them is met by a Town player and when one is the shot is weak.  The first half is almost half over, and Town win the game’s first corner.  “Come on you Blues” I chant, to the apparent bafflement of those around me.

Town are playing some exciting football but have little presence in the penalty area.  “Chase it, put him under pressure” shouts a voice a few rows behind me as Joe Piggott pursues a punt up field.  Another corner comes to nothing after thirty-seven minutes and the linesman with the red and yellow quartered flag minces back to the half-way line as Tzanev takes the goal kick.  As the half draws to a close a man with a loud, penetrating, and annoying voice is sharing a conversation with all those around him, although I doubt any of us want him to.  We learn that he was ‘the editor’, of what we don’t know or care, but he was “furious with himself”.  I’m not too pleased with him either, he needs to find his volume control, or just shut up.  Happily, only a minute of added time is to be played so respite soon arrives.  It’s been a pretty good half, although I can’t help feeling that although Town look good enough to be winning, somehow we haven’t really created good enough chances; perhaps it’s because we still have not ‘gelled’ yet.

Half-time involves consumption of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and then a cupcake, which is one of a whole tray-full that Ray shares with those around him to mark the occasion of his retirement, something that is also recorded on page 55 of today’s programme.   The happy events of real-life retreat again into the shadows as the second half begins at two minutes past four and like last week there is a mysterious hush around the ground in the opening minutes, almost as if people are disappointed that the players have returned.  Within seven minutes however, Wimbledon’s William Nightingale fails to live up to the high ideals of his namesake Florence and comes closer to wounding Wes Burns rather than offering succour and from the resultant penalty kick, Joe Piggott gives Town the lead, placing his penalty in the right-hand corner of the goal as Tzanev stupidly dives to the left.  The Sir Bobby Robson stand reprises “Mary’s Boy Child” in a state of heightened ecstasy whilst the Wimbledon supporters chant “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” to the tune of Guantanamera, thereby introducing a welcome Cuban folk vibe to the afternoon, something which is often conspicuously absent from Portman Road.  William Nightingale’s name is recorded in Mr Rock’s notebook to punish him further for being so unlike Florence.

With Town ahead Portman Road rocks to Boney M and thoughts of victory, and within two minutes Wes Burns doubles Town’s lead collecting a crucial pass from Kane Vincent-Young and smacking a fine shot across Tzanev into the far top left-hand corner of the goal.  Town will surely win now after four fruitless matches; on the basis of what has happened in the previous fifty-four minutes our lead is unassailable.  Four minutes later Wimbledon win a free kick, the ball skids off the top of Luke Woolfenden’s head and is set up ideally at the far post for Wimbledon’s Ben Heneghan, whose name makes me think of Feyenoord’s Wim Van Hanegem, to head down past Vaclav Hladky and make the score 2-1.  It must be Wimbledon’s first goal attempt on target.  “Bloody hell”, I think to myself.

“I don’t rate him” says a voice sitting behind me blaming Hladky for the goal “No, I don’t” says a neighbouring, voice “I don’t see how there’s any difference between him and Holy”.  It’s a point which I will hear no lesser expert than Mick Mills echo over the airwaves of Radio Suffolk as I drive home from the match in an hour’s time.  The discussion behind me continues as Hladky launches the ball up field; “He just boots the fuckin’ ball, he don’t look for no one do ‘e?

Dissatisfaction with the goalkeeper is however balanced by satisfaction with Wes Burns, “He’s superb, he is, he’s a helluva player” and it’s true, he is playing very well today and is linking up to goal scoring effect with Kane Vincent-Young down the right.   Within ten minutes Wimbledon have made their permitted three substitutions bringing on the more exotically and lengthily named Nesta Guinness-Walker and Dapo Awokoya-Mebude for plain old Luke McCormick and Aaron Pressley and swapping the fifty percent exotic Cheye Alexander for equally exotic Jack Rudoni, both of whom sound like they may possess an Equity card.

Seventy-four minutes of the game have got up and gone and Hladky has to save a shot from Ollie Palmer giving Wimbledon a corner.  Four minutes later and a hobbling Wes Burns is replaced by Janoi Donacien and less understandably Kane Vincent-Young is replaced by Sone Aluko.   The excellent Hayden Coulson also appears to be injured and is replaced by Matthew Penney.  Vaclav Hladky is booked for time-wasting, although it looked as if he merely didn’t understand Mr Rock’s wafting hand gestures about where a free kick should be taken from.  “I can’t help falling in love with you” sing the Wimbledon supporters enigmatically.  What is it with football supporters and naff “adult orientated” popular music?

“The momentum has gone” says one of the voices behind me and then repeats the phrase, perhaps for added emphasis, but possibly because it’s true.  Wimbledon now press as they have never done before in the game, it’s as if the two teams have swapped shirts.  The Wimbledon players seem to want to score a goal whilst the Ipswich players just want to get indoors and have a shower before driving home in their sickeningly ostentatious cars.  Time added on arrives and there are six minutes of it, Fiona and I roll our eyes.   Five minutes into the additional six minutes and what we have come to think of as the inevitable happens; a Wimbledon corner is headed goalwards by Ben Heneghan, Hladky saves but doesn’t catch the ball and Jack Rudoni boots the ball over the goal line, unable to miss, even if by some freakish desire to see Ipswich win, he had wanted to.

The final whistle follows soon afterwards and predictably a number of attention seekers in the crowd of 19,051 and people who were perhaps spoiled as children boo because their team hasn’t won.  Maybe someone will buy them an ice cream on the way home to appease their bawling and moaning.  I stay to applaud the Town players from the field and see them hang their heads in disappointment.  I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but football is that sort of a game and when I get home I shall flush that cuddly Womble down the toilet.

Ipswich Town 2 Visitors 2

Today is one of the lowlights of my football season; one of Ipswich Town’s two fixtures against the nation’s most odious club, the club that stole the identity of the original Wimbledon Football Club.  If the EFL had even the merest shred of decency they could still own up to their mistake in allowing the theft and expel the thieves from the Football League, but of course they won’t do that.

Boycotting today’s fixture is unlikely to provoke some sort of Damascene moment for the EFL and with my winless team in desperate need of my hope, support and will that they should win, I know that I must make the journey to Portman Road.  On the bright side, two years ago today I was undergoing open heart surgery to replace two heart valves eaten up by Endocarditis and I survived. The saintly people of Basildon hospital pulled me through and I’m here today to take my chances with the pandemic in a mostly un-masked crowd of 18,622, so I have a lot to be grateful for.

Regrettably still not confident of the safety of public transport, I drive to the match thereby hurtling us all towards climatic oblivion that little bit faster. I park my trusty Citroen C3 on Chantry estate and stroll down through Gippeswyk Park (bequeathed to the town by Felix Cobbold), as very occasional raindrops fall upon me, and on other people as well I imagine.  In Ancaster Road a man walks by on the opposite pavement eating crisps from a ‘family size’ bag. I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge, from the middle of which all views of the football ground are hidden behind the offices of Suffolk County Council.  I arrive in Constantine Road to a busy scene of coaches and buses arriving from the countryside, and queues of supporters snaking from the turnstiles across Sir Alf Ramsey Way; it might just be the humidity but there is an air of expectation and excitement which I haven’t sensed for years.  A woman in leggings and a droopy cardigan holds aloft a clutch of ‘Turnstile Blue’ fanzines. “0nly a pound” she calls, so I hand her a two-pound coin. “I’ll just get your change” she says. “I should hope so” I reply as she delves into the depths of her cardigan. Unsure of what to do next with a half an hour or more of continued breathing to waste before kick-off, I queue to get into the Fanzone. It’s warm and I fancy a drink.  Arriving at the marquee where I believe beer is being served, I am in time to be turned away with several other thirsty people willing to part with their money, by a woman in a day-glo tabard, whose defence presumably is that she is only obeying orders. Apparently, the policy is no more drinks after two-thirty, which seems rather mean-spirited and pointless.  Feeling like I’m losing one-nil already without the game having even started, I leave the Fanzone and head for turnstile number 59, having first shown my vaccination credentials and, because I have more money than I know what to do with, purchased a programme (£3.50).

Inside the Sir Alf Ramsey stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, but minus his son Elwood, and Fiona, Pat from Clacton, Ray and his son and grandson Harrison all arrive in time for kick-off too. The old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me aren’t here again, but Pat from Clacton has been in touch with her and they’re okay, although they’d been to Lowestoft and he’d had a fall; Pat tells me he’s over ninety.

The knee is taken, proudly we applaud, and the game begins. The visiting team, who sport a suitably anonymous all-red kit get first go with the ball, which they boot in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Behind me blokes with Ipswich accents discuss the team. “We int had a decent centre-half since Berra, have we” says one truthfully.  Three-minutes in and visiting number five Warren O’Hora, whose name makes me think of Star Trek and unfeasibly short skirts, is booked by referee Joshua Smith for a foul on Town’s Kyle Edwards, a player whose dribbling ability might earn him the description ‘slippery’.  Unusually, the visiting goalkeeper gets the opportunity to dribble too today, taking the ball around two Ipswich players in quick succession in his own penalty area.   A lovely smell of pervading damp rises up from the pitch into the stand.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing the visiting fans to the tune of Cwm Rhondda, and they have a point , even if poorly made; but then we are probably complacent, lacking the nervous energy borne of guilt from following a club that is ‘stolen goods’.

The visiting team are dominating possession and their number nine Scott Twine, who scored twice against us last season for Swindon Town is particularly industrious.  Fourteen minutes have passed and Macauley Bonne heads a Wes Burns cross over the bar, in a manner which he perfected in the previous game versus Newport County, although curiously this time he wins a corner.  Two minutes later Bonne atones spectacularly, driving the ball high into the goal net past Fisher from 15 metres on the half-volley, having collected a punt forward from Kane Vincent-Young. Bonne proceeds to create a template for all future goal celebrations, running behind the goal with his arm aloft blowing kisses to the crowd before being consumed by a ball of hugging team-mates in the corner of the pitch.   This is surely where the season starts and as if to mark its birth the Boney M fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand break out into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, albeit with somewhat altered lyrics. 

The goal has lifted the Town players and the crowd. When Lee Evans fails to control a carefully placed kick from goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, a collective sigh of disappointment is exhaled from the stands as if we’re watching the dissolving, falling embers of a slowly dying firework.   Watching Town being a goal ahead is a giddying experience and it feels like we’re winning by more than a goal to nil. When the visitor’s Ethan Robson strikes the cross bar with a shot the reality of our fragile lead returns, particularly given that it happens at the end of a two man move which began seconds beforehand with a corner to Town.   Over in the West Stand in the seats behind the dugouts I notice a figure in a bright red cagoule; I think of the 1973 Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now.

 It’s nearly half-time. The blokes behind me leave their seats. To my left someone rises from their seat and shuffles along towards the gangway, they will want me to stand to let them past; I want to tell them to sit back down wait for the half-time whistle, but I don’t.

Half-time arrives. It’s been a satisfactory half inasmuch as we’re winning, which is unusual, but it is doubtful that the score will remain 1-0.  I both celebrate our lead and console myself about what the second half may bring by eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, before going to speak with Ray.  We discuss full-backs and the replacement today of Matt Penney with Hayden Coulson. “The opposition don’t get much change out of Penney” says Ray.  “The same couldn’t be said of Adam Tanner” I reply.  

The second half begins very quietly indeed, with the crowd seemingly observing a hushed, embarrassed silence as if someone had said or done something during the interval that was in bad taste and everyone knows about it.  Four minutes into the half, Kane Vincent-Young is booked for a foul on Mo Eisa as he surges towards the penalty area.  The amusingly named Harry Darling sends a free header into the arms of Vaclav Hladky. I imagine a scenario in which Darling is booked. “Name?” asks the referee. “Darling” says Darling.  “You won’t get round me that way” replies the referee.  My childish reverie is broken as Wes Burns strikes a shot which hits the far post and defies physics, as for a moment the angle of incidence does not equal the angle of refraction and the ball deflects out into the penalty area instead of into the net.  It’s the sort of thing to be expected when playing the devil’s club however.

Today’s attendance is announced as 18,622 with 501 from the town whose advertising slogan suggested that it would be nice if all towns were like it, proving again that advertising is mostly about lying convincingly.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the visiting new town neurotics.  Town’s Luke Woolfenden stretches to tackle Scott Twine and Twine goes down. Woolfenden is booked. “You’re a fucking wanker” bawls a voice behind me at the referee, perhaps because he knows him and does not hold him in high esteem, but more probably because he just disagrees with his decision.  The free kick is some 25 metres from goal in a fairly central position. Twine strikes the ball over the defensive wall and whilst Vaclav Hladky gets both hands to it he fails to stop it squirming into the net; the scores are level, Woolfenden is culpable. 

Matt Penney replaces Hayden Coulson and then Wes Burns is replaced by Tommy Carroll almost fifty years to the day since Tommy Carroll last played for Town (23rd August 1971 versus West Ham United). Although Town have seized a degree of control of the game, still the visiting team dominate possession. “How are we letting them control the fuckin’ tempo” says an exasperated voice behind me, unexpectedly introducing an Italian word after a rude one. His concern is premature however, and soon afterwards Scott Fraser breaks into the penalty box down the left, crosses and Macauley Bonne sweeps the ball past Fisher at the far post.  Ecstasy ensues once again. Eighteen minutes remain and surely Town will win.

Three minutes later Lee Evans is facing his own goal some 30 metres away from it; then, in the style of someone dropping off to sleep he allows Matt O’Riley to rob him of the ball and enjoy a free run at goal, which ends with a simple equaliser as O’Riley wrong foots Vaclav Hladky and rolls the ball into the net.    “Mr Grimsdale!” shouts Evans, although he denies he was ever influenced by Norman Wisdom.

As if to make some sort of unwanted point about lovable losers, the visitors bring on a player with the unlikely name of Charlie Brown, whilst Town replace Scott Fraser with Armando Dobra.  The visitors continue to keep the ball mostly to themselves although Town threaten when they occasionally have it.  But the optimism has evaporated. “Is this a library?” chant the visiting supporters trying to convince us that they’d know what one was like and that they know Italian opera.  Five minutes of additional time are to be played, which gives a visiting player time to hit the town cross bar with a shot, but nothing more happens of note.  The final whistle blows to the sound of boos from those Ipswich “supporters” most likely to make interesting subjects for psychological case studies.  The sweary man behind me is moved to admonish those who boo, so he’s not all bad, even if his swearing is now worse than ever.

I applaud a few players for their efforts as they leave the field, but don’t hang about. It has been a very good game, and we haven’t lost against a team who, it pains me to say it are pretty good too.   I don’t feel I can ask for much more given that two years ago I was undergoing major heart surgery, I’m just glad I was here to see it.

Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

The first and second rounds of the Football League Cup are always an early season treat, a chance to play an interesting ‘lower league’ club and maybe visit a ground never visited before, in fact that was almost guaranteed back in the days of two-legged ties.  Added to that, summer isn’t over (if it has ever started) and a hot and sticky road trip precedes a balmy evening of lengthening shadows beneath a maturing, setting sun. Early season evening games are blissful, beautiful occasions and I fondly remember visits to Torquay, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Darlington, Brentford, Stockport, Bolton and Wigan.   Sadly, Ipswich Town are now one of those lower league teams, and a decade or more of abject failure has transformed cup ties from nights of wonder and joy into painful experiences to be endured like a trip to the dentist or having your car MoT’d.

Tonight, our opponents are ‘little Newport County’, a phoenix club resurrected from the one that went bust in 1988, following relegation from the fourth division.  I recall seeing the original County play out a magnificently awful goalless draw at Layer Road, Colchester in that fabulously terrible relegation season, but I also recall their glorious 2-3 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final defeat to Carl Zeiss Jena at the same time as Town were cruising past St Etienne on our way to winning the UEFA Cup.  Again, like on Saturday when Morecambe played their first ever third division game at Portman Road sixty years after Town played our first ever top division game, it is somehow fitting that Newport and Town should meet forty years after both clubs’ finest moments in European competition. I visited Newport’s old Somerton Park ground back in 1988 and could only think how their opponents from the German Democratic Republic must have been glad to get back behind the ’iron curtain’, doubtless with renewed faith that Communism was far superior to Capitalism and produced much better football stadiums, which of course it is and did, if you do it right.  Communism is a bit like sex, a great idea but best only conducted between consenting adults.

Shamefully arriving by car and not public transport because of continuing Covid induced paranoia, I park-up in West End Road car park at a little after 7 pm; the tariff is £1.00 until 8.00pm, after which it is free.  Stepping from my trusty, air-conditioned Citroen C3 the warmth of the evening air hits me unexpectedly and stirs pleasant memories of going to night matches in more exotic locations such as Beziers, Nice, Marseille and Montpellier whilst on holiday in the south of France.  Musing that the stadium catering at Portman Road probably doesn’t serve espresso coffee or cheese and ham baguettes, I stroll to the ground where there are queues at the guichets (look it up). I buy a programme (£2.50) from a booth in which the gently smiling young female programme seller seems rather heavily made-up for the occasion, but then it’s nice that she’s made the effort.  Drinking in the pre-match ambience I pass by the back of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and enter Portman Road, which is strangely quiet.  I realise later that this is because the only people occupying the Cobbold Stand tonight are the 131 from Newport, many of whom will have travelled on the six-wheeled charabanc of Watt’s Coaches, which idles by the Portman Road bus stop; I ask one of the drivers how long the journey took; “Five and a half hours” he tells me stretching out his vowel sounds with his rich, lilting and somewhat tired sounding South Walean accent, which oozes Rarebit and Eisteddfods.

Returning to Sir Alf Ramsey Way the queues for turnstiles 43 to 47 are lengthening and beginning to snake, so I head for turnstile 49 where there’s hardly anyone ahead of me at all.  Inside the ground a line of Heras fencing separates the fanzone from those of us who have passed through the turnstiles. The back of the stand is a noisy place as a disco inside a shipping container seems to be operating from a corner of the fanzone, predictably no one is dancing, and I wonder what the point of it is.   Fearing that my hearing is being damaged I head for my seat which tonight is in Block H, so lettered I will discover because at the end of the match it’s difficult to get out of, like the prisoner cell block.

As I stand and flick through my programme, kick-off comes ever closer and the PA system which successfully scrambles any spoken word delivers a medley of tunes associated with the Town.  I enjoy the anthemic Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown from the 1970’s, but cringe at the dire Singin’ the Blues of the George Burley era, which sounds as if it is performed by Vic Reeves and Suzi Quattro, and the surreal and corny Sweet Caroline.  My only pleasure is from a childish giggle provoked by the name of a Newport substitute, Evan Ovendale. 

Finally, my torture by music is ended when the teams come onto the pitch, and I’m pleased to report are warmly applauded as they ‘take the knee’.  The match kicks off; Newport pointing in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand in their traditional amber shirts and black shorts and getting first go with the ball.  Barely two minutes pass and an Armando Dobra shot strikes Newport’s right hand goal post. Within a further two minutes Newport lead.  One of Town’s many debutants, Sone Aluko needlessly concedes a free kick, from which a low cross is diverted into the net via the heel of Timmy Abraham, who rather wonderfully sounds like he should be, and indeed he is, the little brother of the Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham.

At least we probably still have 90 minutes to score a couple of goals of our own. But inevitably, given Town’s recent record in cup competitions, I have a nagging sensation that some writing is already being daubed on a wall somewhere.  Meanwhile, Armando Dobra has a shot saved and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads over the Newport cross bar.   When Newport are awarded the game’s first corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” to the taker, displaying a boastfulness of their own ignorance that is fitting in a town that voted for Brexit.

Town may be losing, but the game is nevertheless an entertaining one and despite the mostly empty stands the spectacle is enhanced by the fading daylight. With 21 minutes gone Sone Aluko claims the glory as the first player to be booked by the strangely competent referee Mr Neil Hair, or Herr Hair as he would be known if this were the Bundesliga.  Quite suddenly at about ten past eight I notice that all sunlight has gone and the ground is totally in the shade of whatever the Pioneer stand is now called.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne strikes the outside of Newport’s left-hand post with a shot and some childish banter ensues between him and the Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend, with Bonne clutching his stomach to indicate that that Townsend is not merely big-boned; you can take the boy out of Chantry High School but you can’t …etcetera.

Five minutes of the half remain, and Town produce a delightful passing move, sending the ball from Luke Woolfenden to Idris El-Mizouni (whose father incidentally drank a post-match coffee with me when AS Meudon played St Ouen L’Aumone in the Coupe de France in 2018) to Sone Aluko to Armando Dobra, whose cross is headed over by the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  There is still time for Newport’s short and dumpy, but wonderfully named and impressively numbered (he’s No 56) Aneurin Livermore to be booked, for Idris El-Mizouni to have a free kick saved, and for him to provide a deliciously whipped-in cross for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to head over the bar yet again.

Half-time brings relief from the claustrophobia of the oldest part of the stadium, as those around me leave to get refreshment; people genuinely were smaller in the 1950’s when the old West Stand was built, possibly because there was no stadium catering back then.  Tonight, I am seemingly surrounded by youths in their late teens and early twenties who are all about 2metres tall.  Two of them return with trays of chips and the game begins again.

My seat is closer to “Churchman’s” than the Bobby Robson Stand and perhaps that’s why I notice for the first time this evening that Tomas Holy is a vision in cerise, he’s quite a sight.  Five minutes pass and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a looping cross into the goal, the giants all around me stand as one, but I had already spotted the offside flag.  “You fat bastard” chant the North Standers, presumably at goalkeeper Townsend and not to the oddly named Macauley Bonne.

Tonight’s attendance of 6,154 is announced and a good proportion of that number applaud themselves like performing seals do after catching a fish thrown at them from a bucket.  Town’s Scott Fraser replaces Sone Aluko who looks like he knows he’s had a poor game.  “He’s weird in ‘e? He’s got funny little legs in ’e?” I hear a voice behind me say.  I think the voice is talking about Newport’s left-back Aaron Lewis, who indeed does have funny little legs; he also has hair like Grayson Perry; he’s not a bad footballer mind, and I like to think he might also be able to knock up some decent ceramics or tapestries.

Over an hour of the match has passed and a fine shot from Armando Dobra brings an equally fine flying save from the fat bastard in the Newport goal; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson replace Louie Barry and the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Newport mount a rare attack down the right and Town’s Corrie Ndaba, whose first name reminds me of the episode in series nine of The Simpsons in which Lisa becomes addicted to ringing the ‘Corey hotline’, spectacularly and miraculously slices the ball into the arms of Tomas Holy who is stood behind him.

With the match in the final twenty minutes Newport players twice clear the ball off their own goal line in the space of a few seconds and James Norwood heads a decent cross from Bailey Clements over the bar in a manner which I had thought was the preserve of the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Just a short while later Norwood begins to limp and then leaves the field of play to be replaced by no one at all because we’ve used all our substitutes.  The bloke next to me doesn’t notice for a further few minutes that we are down to ten men and when he does, he thinks we’ve had someone sent off; “What happened?” he asks; and I thought I was guilty of not paying attention.

Newport’s shaven headed forty-two-year-old, Kevin Ellison is substituted and hobbles off, clearly attempting to eke out the remaining time in a way which doesn’t involve football being played. “Get off you old git” I bawl at him despite being almost twenty years his senior. I’m not sure what came over me, although these West Standers seem rather dull and need livening up.  Unfortunately, Ellison and his team win the day with their time-wasting ways and despite five minutes of added on time Ipswich fail to score, and so once again leave the League Cup at the earliest opportunity, leaving Newport County and the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Barrow and Oldham Athletic to seek the sort of glory we can only dream of.

Despite the result it’s been an enjoyable match, with some fine performances from young players, particularly Bailey Clements, Idris El-Mizouni and Cameron Humphreys. As I stand helplessly waiting to get out of the slowly clearing stand, I applaud Newport and their intrepid supporters and reassure myself by believing that although the score reads as another Cup defeat I have simply witnessed the birth pangs of a Grand Projet that will one day see us reach the next round.

Ipswich Town 2 Morecambe 2

 A year ago, the 2020/21 football season began for me in my back bedroom as Town met Bristol Rovers in the League Cup via the airwaves of Radio Suffolk and the descriptive powers of Brenner Woolley and his esteemed sidekick and expert summariser Mick Mills.  But fate, as fickle as it is, has taken an apparent turn for the better and today as the 2021/22 season begins I am returning to Portman Road along with 21,000 or so other souls who have so far survived the pandemic.  With luck I shall never have to endure another ninety-minutes of radio commentary ever again.

As a naturally lazy person, going out again on a Saturday afternoon is something of an effort, but as ever I surprise myself with what I can achieve if I put my mind to it.  At two o’clock I rock up in my trustee Citroen C3 on Chantry estate where I park before taking a brisk walk through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the London  to Stowmarket main rail line, through what was once the site of Reavell’s factory and over the Sir Bobby Robson bridge to Constantine Road where I meet my friend Mick, who has made it easy for me to find him amongst the crowds by  telling me through the medium of the mobile phone that he would be standing next to a pink ice-cream van. Mick, an ethical man, is true to his word; someone less like Boris Johnson I have yet to meet. Mick and I haven’t seen each other in eighteen months but our conversation is oddly brief. Neither of us seems overly keen on entering the fanzone for a beer or to experience whatever other joys it has to offer, and what with the queues to get in we decide within ten minutes to leave further socialising for another day and go our separate ways.  I head off to purchase a programme (£3.50) from the nearest convenient kiosk before weaving my way between the buses and coaches of Beeston’s and Whincop as they disgorge rustic supporters from Hadleigh and Peasenhall.  A programme is an essential purchase today in order to have any clue  about the identity of the team.  Having safely weaved my way I join a queue to have Covid credentials checked before entering the ground in Constantine Road. In the queue behind me a “well-spoken” young man seems oblivious to the pandemic and is turned away, having no proof of vaccination or negative lateral flow test.  Did he really think he would be able to just turn up and get in? Apparently, he did.  I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 and cheerily thank the operator for letting me in.  For the gatekeepers to a world of dreams and possibilities turnstile operators are much underrated and somewhat taken for granted; their replacement with automatic scanning equipment that beeps in lieu of hoping I enjoy the match is a sad loss.

Out on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I re-acquaint myself with Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game (except when games are played behind closed doors), Phil’s son Elwood and Ray.  There is change however, and next to Pat from Clacton is sat Fiona, and the old dears who used to sit behind me but then sat in front of me are conspicuously absent; I do hope they’re okay.  It is good to be back nevertheless, even if hardly anyone except the stewards is wearing a facemask.

From the players’ tunnel a white t-shirted and trackie-bottomed Paul Cook appears to take the crowd’s applause, he’s not a sophisticated looking man sartorially, as I guess his scouse accent foretells. The teams follow soon afterwards and before the game begins a picture of the recently deceased Paul Mariner appears on the scoreboard and we are told that there will be a minute’s applause in his memory, but before the announcer can finish his sentence or the referee can blow his whistle the applause begins; it’s a case of premature appreciation.

Applause over, the Beatles’ Hey Jude strikes up like a metaphorical post-coital cigarette; no one joins in and today’s visitors Morecambe kick-off their first ever game in the third division with a hoof up-field. For those who combine a love of decimal anniversaries and symmetry it is vaguely appropriate that Morecambe are playing Town, who sixty years ago this month began their first ever season in what I believe people now call the Premier League; Town were at Bolton, they drew 0-0.  This season is also the sixtieth anniversary of Morecambe winning the Lancashire Combination league for the second time.

Not much happens to begin with. Morecambe are the first to win a corner. I enjoy the sight of a Town player with a headband, Wes Burns; historically many of the greatest footballers have had plenty of hair, Netzer, Best, Kempes, Pirlo are good examples.  Less enjoyable is Morecambe’s kit, a boring all red creation with white bits at the sides of the shirts and a diagonal white band which would have been okay if it didn’t fade out like a peculiar chalky skid mark.   My attention is also claimed by the Morecambe goalkeeper, Letheren, which is a suitably violent sounding surname for a man with the build of a night club bouncer.

Oddly, given the absence of anyone Spanish in either team or anyone even dressed as a matador, the North Stand break into a chorus of Ole, Ole, Ole.  Perhaps I’m wrong however, and they are singing Allez. Allez, Allez to Frenchman Toumani Diagouraga who played for Town under Mick McCarthy but today is appearing for Morecambe: I guess I’ll never know.  At ten past three Town are awarded a free-kick when Scott Fraser is knocked over; it’s the ninth minute of the game and some supporters attempt a half-arsed attempt at another minute’s applause for Paul Mariner, it’s an effort doomed to failure so soon after that first over eager applause. The free-kick flashes past Letheren’s right hand goal post to gasps of smothered hope from those around me.

At fourteen minutes past three Kane Vincent-Young is victim of the game’s most blatant and spectacular foul as he pushes the ball past Liam Gibson and the antediluvian looking full-back takes him down at waist height.  Referee Mr Craig Hicks, who will later go all out to set himself up as an early contender for the worst referee of the season barely speaks to him.  “It’s going to take quite a few games to gel” I hear Pat say to Fiona as the free-kick comes to nought.  The concept of ‘gelling’ is being discussed everywhere in Ipswich right now, my only hope that when it happens it does so in the ‘coming together’ sense of the word rather than any sort of unpleasant stiffening or solidifying.

Joe Piggott stoops to head a glancing header onto the roof of the net and I wonder if he is known by his team-mates as Piggy.  “Stand up if you hate the scum” chant the North Stand for no apparent reason, particularly given that they are all standing up already. Then Morecambe score through Cole Stockton but courtesy of the Ipswich defence suffering collective amnesia with regard to why they are all wearing football kit and boots.  “I’m Morecambe ‘til I die” chant the 356 Lancastrians in the corner of the Cobbold Stand perhaps putting into song what they imagine the budding comic partner of Ernie Wise , John Bartholomew said when he changed his name to Eric.

Despite being behind, I’m not worried, but I quite can’t decide if it’s because I think our new team will ultimately overcome or if I no longer care.  Toto Nsiala goes off injured to be replaced by Janoi Donacien and I’m struck by how unnaturally neat the hair of the linesman with the red and yellow flag is; and how he somehow reminds me of Neymar, as if Neymar had a really dull older cousin or uncle.  I am shaken from my reverie by a shout of “Do ‘im, ee’s shit” from somewhere behind as Kane Vincent-Young again comes faces to face with Liam Gibson.  The first half drags on past a quarter to four. “Come on Ipswich, come on Ipswich” chant what sounds like a most of the crowd, but soon both Town and Morecambe go off because it’s half time, and we still trail.

Half-time passes in a blur of conversation and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar, just like it always did. The game resumes at the ridiculously late time of nine minutes past four.  Piggy soon has a shot saved and then Morecambe’s Anthony O’Connor is the first player to be booked as he sends Chaplin’s hat and cane flying.  It starts to rain and I catch the lovely scent of damp air on a summer’s afternoon as the North Stand shout “Wanker, wanker, wanker” at the ever more inept Mr Hicks.  Town’s left back Matthew Penney is felled by an outstretched leg but no free-kick is given provoking chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”, which I decide is also probably true of whoever cut Luke Woolfenden’s hair.

An hour has passed and then we score, Scott Fraser leathering the ball past Letheren after a one-two with Chaplin.  We’ll win now won’t we?  We’ve been looking by far the better team, and Morecambe have hardly been in our half.  Parity lasts eleven minutes and then Luke Woolfenden, possibly momentarily paralysed by a flashback to a recent experience in a barber’s shop gives the ball away to Cole Stockton who merely has to run unopposed at the goal, drop a shoulder or two to fox Town’s latest east European goalkeeper, Vaclav Hladky, and roll the ball into the goal net. Bugger.

Pat from Clacton was right, it will take time to gel.  But then we don’t panic, we just carry on as we were, showing faith in ourselves and putting in plenty of effort despite the best efforts of Mr Hicks, who proceeds in the space of six minutes to book Lee Evans, Matthew Penney and then James Norwood who replaces Piggy.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne also enters the field in place of Conor “Charlie” Chaplin.  But time has drifted by and we are already into the four minutes of added-on time. I admit I have given up hope and have accepted defeat; good luck to plucky little Morecambe I’m thinking in as patronising a manner as I can muster. But then James Norwood heads the ball on, the oddly named Macauley Bonne collects its and sends a fine right-footed shot beneath the sprawling Kyle Letheren and into the goal. We are probably not going to lose after all I think, and I’m right, we don’t.

It’s been a funny afternoon but an entertaining one nevertheless, an afternoon of Lee Evans, C Chaplin, Morecambe and wise words from Pat from Clacton about taking time to gel.