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.