It took me several days to get around to buying a ticket for this season’s annual August Tuesday evening embarrassment, otherwise known as the League Cup first round, but when I finished work on Monday afternoon I logged onto the ITFC website and characteristically, due to the difficulties I have with technology, printed myself off four tickets, fortunately all for the same seat. Fifteen quid is a lot to watch Col U, especially when twelve months ago it only cost a tenner to see the 1981 European Cup Winners Cup quarter-finalists Newport County, but sixty quid would have been beyond the pale, whatever that means.
I recall being quite excited at the prospect of Newport last year, but despite it being a much more local derby than our recognised derby versus Norfolk’s finest, this game tonight is not doing a lot for me. My enthusiasm had been further sapped during the afternoon by being serenaded as I sat in my office by the raucous and vacuous chants of Colchester United supporters. If my productivity took a tumble this afternoon, I’m not surprised. “How do you think, we’ll do tonight” says the bloke in the club shop as I buy my programme (£2.00). “I have no idea” I tell him honestly, “We don’t seem to do very well in the cups”. Well call me Nostradamus; or on a Friday night Cassandra.
Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm and optimism I am compelled to follow the usual pre-match ritual at what was once known as the Arboretum. Parking up my trusty Citroen C3 just around the corner, because it’s gone 6pm, I step in off the dusty street to order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90). Tonight, with time to kill and the need for sustenance I also have a Scotch Egg (£4.50) and a portion of hand-cut chips (£4.00), and after a respectable interval, a pint of the appropriately named Lacon’s Encore (£3.80). An hour later, stuffed and bloated I head for Portman Road.
It’s a beautiful warm evening and my senses are treated amongst other delights to dappled sunlight dancing through the trees in Great Gipping Street, screeching seagulls, the smell of frying onions and the warm glow of the brickwork at the back of the Magnus Group stand. I’m almost glad I made the effort to get a ticket after all. My seat tonight is up high in the shady interior of block N but on arrival I find somebody already sat there, I have to explain to him that his seat is actually in Block Y, a few seats away to our left; with his three chums he shifts along. I tell them I’ve done them a good deed because Block Y are the better seats. I hope in vain that the seats next to me will now remain empty, but it’s not long before another three blokes, all nursing meat pies and plastic cutlery arrive. “Excuse me” says the youngest brushing past. I should have blocked his way and asked for the password – “Please”.
In the blink of an eye, or perhaps a little longer, the teams are on the pitch, knees are taken and applauded and Col. U, in rather boring red shirts and black shorts have kicked off defending the goal in front of what was Churchman’s cigarette factory the last time Col U won at Portman Road, which was on 13th October 1951; although in truth they have rarely had the opportunity since then. The noise inside the stadium is possibly the most I think I have ever heard made by 11,654 people at Portman Road. The Col U fans are giving it their all and the Town fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand (lower tier) are answering back. For now at least, I am at last glad I printed that ticket, albeit four times.
On the pitch, the Town are soon on the attack and the blokes beside me, who are possibly from the ‘professional classes’ are concentrating deeply. Behind me a couple of young women seem less enraptured and are having a bit of a ‘catch-up’, although of course women are known for their ability to multi-task. Seven minutes pass and Col U’s magnificently monikered number 17, Ossama Ashley dives spectacularly to head a cross away for Town’s first corner. A minute later and Town’s Greg Leigh runs on to a fine Luke Woolfenden pass and shoots across goal, but his shot is saved. Up in the Cobbold stand the Col U fans are reduced to cheering when they get a goal-kick or throw, before coming over all sullen and spiteful by chanting “Your support is fucking shit” in the time-honoured manner of visiting away fans. Ten minutes have passed. Fifteen minutes have now passed and the Col U fans are still singing the same Welsh hymn, pronouncing “fuckin’” with a passion and feeling that only an Essex accent can produce.
Eighteen minutes have passed, Town are dominating but getting nowhere much and I’m ashamed to say I am getting a little bored. I notice the bright new concrete between the Cobbold and Sir Alf Ramsey stands beneath the new scoreboard; I notice Kieron McKenna’s bright white jacket, which looks like it might be made of Nylon; I notice the fat bloke in front of me whose shoulders are moulding themselves around my knees and I notice a faint fusty smell and can’t decide if it’s the middle-aged woman sat next to me or the fat bloke.
The twentieth minute shakes me from my reverie as a fine move down the right tees up Cameron Humphreys with time and space for a shot on goal from 12 metres or so; he must score. Humphreys blazes the ball so high and wide of the goal I find it hard not to jeer along with the Col U fans. “Bloody Hell” I say to myself as those around me groan despairingly. Five minutes later and Humphreys does the same thing again. Soon Col U’s Frank Nouble (pronounced Noublay as in Michael Buble) conveniently stays down after a challenge so everyone can have a drinks break.
In a rare foray into the Town half by Col U, Town fans mystifyingly chant “Who are ya?” at some Col U player or other; I can’t work out why they would be interested unless he has never previously played for Ipswich. The ball stays down the Ipswich end for a short while and it looks just a matter of time before Ipswich are on the attack again. But Rakeem Harper decides to pass the ball onto the penalty area to Col U’s Luke Hannant who is simply unable to miss the enormous target he has been given, and Col U lead 1-0. There have been some terrible goals given away by Town players in recent seasons and this is up there with the very worst. I don’t want to cry, so I laugh a stifled, sad laugh, a sort of “Ha!”
In the last third of the half Col U win a corner and then Town do. The bloke beside me says in exasperated tones “We could, should be three-nil up by now”. Kane Vincent-Young heads over the Col U cross-bar and Humphreys completes his hat-trick. “His confidence is just going to go” says the bloke beside me worriedly. On the opposite side of the ground the Col U fans have at last got round to asking “ Is this a library?” I can only think they had been wracking their brains trying to remember the tune, most of them presumably not being ‘into’ Italian opera.
Half-time brings the reward of a somewhat soft Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and little else; even Norwich are winning at half-time. The one enjoyable thing is the glowing reflection of the setting sun on the strip glazing of St Clare House and the AXA building; twentieth century office buildings rule.
At nine minutes to nine play resumes and having remembered La donna e mobile the Col U fans just can’t get it out of their heads. The match resumes the pattern of the first half, although Town never again produce the sort of chances that Cameron Humphreys so capably fluffed in the first half. Tyreece John-Jules launches a shot into a low orbit and falls over quite a bit. Around me, increasingly frustrated Town supporters try to encourage their team with some clapping that gently peters out, but they can never quite summon the courage to shout and holler, chant or sing.
Fifty-six minutes have gone never to return and Col U replace the player with the most controversial first name, Ossama Ashley, with the player who has what I adjudge to be tonight’s best surname, Ryan Clampin. In a magnificent display of time wasting Ossama is booked as he dawdles from the pitch pausing first to turn and applaud the away supporters, and then to remove his shin-pads. If some of the people around me in the stand had guns and stealth helicopters, Ossama would have suffered the same alleged fate as his near namesake. One of the blokes behind me is so apoplectic with rage he can no longer form sentences that do not have the word ‘fucking’ in them.
The excitement subsides as Town revert to their relentless, patient, unrewarding pressure. Former Town hero Cole Skuse is substituted by Col U to general applause from Town fans, although he looks a little confused by it, which perhaps as a member of one of Town’s most derided teams is understandable. With twenty minutes left, Town substitute a third of the team with Harness, Chaplin, Burns and Evans replacing Vincent-Young, Jackson, Aluko and Harper. The game does not change, Town are no more incisive, although Conor Chaplin does produce a spectacular overhead kick which goes wide of the goal. Idris El-Mizouni usurps Cameron Humphreys with five minutes to go until the calling of five minutes of time added on. In that time added on Lee Evans unleashes a powerful drive, but straight at the Col U goalkeeper and Luke Woolfenden is booked for fractiousness.
When full-time is called, the inevitable boos resound through the stand but if people aren’t used to Town being beaten by lower league opposition in cup competitions by now they never will be. I now believe it is simply our fate to provide early season joy for the ‘little teams’, in the same way that people donate tins of beans for the needy at harvest festival; and then in November or December we hand out early Christmas presents. No doubt somewhere it is being said, given our 78% possession and our tally of shots on goal that ‘on another day we would have won’. Sadly, at the moment it feels like that day will either be a cold day in hell or 30th February. Good luck in the next round Col U.