Another Tuesday night and from Gippeswyk Park the Portman Road floodlights shine across the river and the railway tracks as I strike out for the Arboretum pub, or Arbor House as the modern incumbents call it. At the end of a brisk walk, during which I pause only to purchase a match programme (£3.50), I sink a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) in the safety of the almost deserted beer garden. In the pub toilet a fellow user of the facilities sees my scarf and says, as he looks at his watch, that I’m cutting it fine; it’s twenty-five past seven; I tell him I’ve got loads of time. I return my empty glass to the bar and head back down the hill towards the glowing lights.
Ten minutes later and Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way are still thronged with people; the traffic must have been heavy tonight as supporters’ buses are still arriving; there’s even a queue to the turnstiles at the Constantine Road end of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. A steward displaying high levels of forced jollity directs the queue through turnstiles 59 and 60 according to whether people have phone or paper tickets. Turnstile 61 opens, and I quickly make my way to it, thanking the masked operator as he scans the bar code on my season ticket card and lets me through the clanking portal into the ground.
In the stand I inadvertently walk straight past the row where my seat is because Pat from Clacton isn’t already sat on the end of it acting like my personal steward, usherette and signpost to direct me to my seat. But I quickly regain my bearings and am not surprised to see ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here. But then I am surprised to find sat just in front of me Ben, a former Wivenhoe Town centre-forward and occasional centre-back who, he tells me, is now playing for Arlesford in the Essex & Suffolk Border League. I can’t have seen Ben for about seven or eight years and now of all the seats in all the stands in all of Portman Road he gets one in front of me. It’s a small world, but with a capacity of just over 30,000 it’s not that small a football stadium.
Happily, Pat from Clacton soon arrives, along with Fiona, and with everybody present the stadium announcer asks that we stand and applaud the people of Ukraine, which everyone does before he gets to finish his announcement; this is probably because the sound from the public address system is so hard to understand, there’s no point in waiting and trying to fathom what he’s saying. As the applause subsides, I burst into a chorus of “Putin is a wanker, Putin is a wanker” but to Portman Road’s shame only one man, sat across the aisle from me seems moved enough to join in. Ever-present Phil turns to me to advise that I’ll never get the Portman Road crowd to sing political songs. It’s a fair point, and to hear most of them sing any song at all would be nice.
After some more applause for the taking of the knee, the game begins, with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and sending it mostly in the direction of the goal in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. Tonight, Town are in all blue, not blue and white, and our opponents Lincoln City are not in red and white stripes and black shorts, but in all yellow, albeit with navy blue sleeves. It’s an intentional two team kit combination to match the colours of the national flag of Ukraine in a show of solidarity with that beleaguered country. It’s a futile gesture of course, but for now it’s easier than being at war with Russia, unless you’re Ukrainian of course, because then you already are. If World War Three does happen at least none of us will have to worry about our funerals being paid for; there’ll be nothing left of us to bury or cremate.
On the pitch, things are quickly very much more cheery. Bersant Celina scooting down the flank, a ball to Sone Aluko, another to Wes Burns, onto overlapping Janoi Donacien, a cut-back from the by-line to Wes Burns who had kept on running, but his shot unfortunately goes over the cross bar. It’s a glorious way to start to the match and deserving of a barrage of sound from the stands, but by the third minute the ground has fallen silent. It’s the Lincoln fans that blink first as they can’t help but sing “We will win, We will win, We will win” to the tune of John Philip Souza’s marvellous but also gloriously corny “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. I haven’t heard a football crowd sing that in years, but there was a time when every crowd sang it. I reflect on how odd it is that Lincoln City fans should still have it in their repertoire, almost as if their team is from some rural backwater.
It’s not long before the Lincoln fans are chanting “Your support is fucking shit” and wondering where they can find the books as the home crowd sits patiently and quietly for something it feels worthy to cheer or possibly even sing about. In the bottom tier of what is now called The Magnus Group Stand, but used to be the plain old West Stand, a cry of “Handball!” goes up from the only forty people in the ground who could see the incident; the referee Mr Tom Reeves studiously ignores their appeal as you would expect.
There’s not a lot of excitement, but the passing is quick and mostly accurate, and the Town have our attention if not our vocal support; it’s almost as if Town fans are concentrating too much to urge on their team as well. It’s the twenty first minute and Kayden Jackson runs on to an astute through ball before tumbling to the turf, the result of a shove from some Lincoln defender or other. Mr Reeves does nothing and in the absence of a definitive decision the linesman, or referee’s assistant as I believe they are now called, calls offside. “Offside” I declare, “Being offside doesn’t make you fall over”.
Within a minute Kayden Jackson is wagging his finger at the linesman having provided the final pass for Wes Burns to score the opening goal after some more excellent passing football. At last the home crowd are inspired to celebrate with a song, the one about the finest football team the World has ever seen, and it feels like the old days. Almost thirty-two minutes pass and more quick passing ends with Kayden Jackson side footing the ball over the line from close range to double the score, despite looking a tad offside, which he couldn’t have been because he didn’t fall over. Kayden Jackson is re-born, never has Portman Road witnessed a player’s game improve so much with the arrival of a new manager. Relaxing I tear open a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar whilst coincidentally Pat from Clacton tells Fiona how a squirrel won the guess the crowd competition for the Cheltenham match, although it was a different squirrel to the one that steals the bird food in her garden. It feels like Town are going to go on and give Lincoln a real thrashing and Lincoln’s Regan Poole, who I hope is called Reg by his team-mates, has his name recorded in Mr Reeves’ little notebook as it all gets a bit too much for him. Reg’s name is soon followed into the book by Conor McGrandles, whose surname sounds like something found in a hardware shop, and the disappointingly mundane Chris Maguire. With the break in play, the bloke next to me and the blokes behind me announce their intention to head for the bar for some over-priced factory produced beer.
The half-time whistle draws warm applause as our heroes leave the field; it’s been a wonderfully satisfying half. Lincoln have played neat passing football, and so have Town, just much better than Lincoln have. I speak with Ray and his grandson Harrison who like me feel that Town may score several more goals whilst Lincoln may not finish the match with eleven players. We’re playing like a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters I tell them, getting a little carried away, but not much. Our conversation turns to Ukraine and our anger at the Johnson (American slang for penis incidentally) government’s callous, hateful, inglorious attitude towards Ukrainian refugees.
At six minutes to nine the second half begins and within three minutes the Lincoln fans up in the Cobbold Stand are asking about what sort of fines they might be expected to pay if they don’t bring their books back on time. In the Sir Bobby Robson Stand however, spirits seem high, and some spectators appear to be pogoing, although I think the modern youngsters just call it ‘bouncing around’. On the field I am thrilled to see Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson making surging runs forward and then hear an albeit brief chant of “Ipswich, Ipswich” seemingly echoing around the stands, as much as the same word chanted twice can echo, anyway. “Oh Sone Aluko” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand with feeling, and the attendance is announced as being 24,989 with 363 being Lincoln supporters. Many in the crowd then spontaneously applaud themselves, much as if they had just ‘given the knee’, died or been invaded by Russia.
Town continue to dominate, win corners and take shots, but their threat is diminished. Lincoln have reorganised themselves diligently and no longer look as if they will be completely dismantled by Town’s passing and late on they will even almost score a goal of their own. With an hour gone George Edmundson is injured and has to be replaced by Cameron Burgess, it should be a blow to Town, but Burgess slots in to the back three/five as if I might have an analogy to hand about a finely crafted tenon joint, I haven’t.
The game continues to hold our attention but with less excitement than before, and this is the nature of the modern penchant for possession football at levels of the game below the lofty heights of the likes of Paris St Germain, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona; in relation to much of the rest of the third division however, it feels like that’s who we are. For Town, Tommy Carroll replaces a wounded Sam Morsy, which is a worry, whilst for Lincoln the replacement of Chris Maguire with Anthony Scully provokes my favourite chant of the evening as the Lincoln fans sing, to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, “Oh, Anthony Scully”. I can’t really explain it, it could just be the slightly portentous, thumping White Stripes’ tune, but I mainly like that a man called Anthony should have his name chanted by a football crowd; I imagine football fans chanting ” Oh Anthony Gormley” and it also makes me think of BBC TV’s Royle Family and my wife’s first husband, who actually insists on being called Tony.
My final memory of tonight’s game is a languid looking but accurate shot from Tyreeq Bakinson which brings a spectacular flying save from Lincoln’s lanky goalkeeper Jordan Wright. With the final whistle I depart swiftly because nine minutes of added on time has made me feel like I’ve been kept in after school and I haven’t done anything wrong. As I stride away from the ground I can hear the cheering crowd still inside the ground and I wonder why I don’t hear that during the game.
Tonight was Town’s last match under the floodlights this season and it was a game that did the lights and their shiny glow justice. I’ll miss the glare in the night sky for the rest of this season, but am already looking forward to the first round of next season’s League Cup if we and Portman Road are all still here.