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.