I have history with Portsmouth, family history. My father was born there and either his grandfather or great grandfather lived there. As a child, my family lived just outside the city over the other side of Portsdown Hill for two years and both sides of my wife Paulene’s family have lived in the city for generations, and she grew up there going to Fratton Park for the first time in 1966 or ’67, about the time of The Beatles best LP’s. We think her dad probably went to the 1939 FA Cup final when Pompey beat Wolverhampton 4-1, unfortunately he’s too dead to ask now. I even went to the 2010 FA Cup Final.
Ipswich versus Pompey games are therefore different to other games for me and today is no exception as I am accompanied by Paulene, who because she thought sitting with the Pompey fans would be too exciting and would antagonise her asthma, has consented to sit with me in the quieter, more contemplative surroundings of the lower tier of Sir Alf Ramsey stand, formerly known as Churchman’s.
The start of the afternoon does not bode well; an unexpectedly quick drive into Ipswich in my trusty Citroen C3 is halted by a queue up and beyond Crane Hill. Having seemingly developed a morbid fear of traffic queues in my later life I divert through Chantry only to find the car park on West End Road is already full, as is the one in Portman Road and it’s not even half past one. There is a queue for the underground car park, South Street is full and there is a queue for Crown Street which the on-street signs say is full also. I phone Mick to tell him that we might not get to see him at the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) at 13:45 as previously arranged. Mick stoically tells us that he already has a pint of beer and a packet of peanuts so he’s fine; if we get there we get there, if we don’t, we don’t. Giving up all hope, I bring the Citroen to rest in an on-street parking space on Fonnereau Road. It is two o’clock; I pay £3.40 at the parking ‘meter’ for the maximum 3 hours, which won’t quite be enough time to see me back after the game, but I decide to live dangerously, beginning the excitement before the match even starts and continuing it on beyond the final whistle.
Paulene walks slowly and dictates that we should just walk to the ground, and not via The Arbor House. I find it hard to conceive of going to the game without having a pre-match pint and we walk through the busy streets of central Ipswich in silence. I buy a programme using coins that I found this morning in the drawer of my bedside table and we enter the ‘Sir Alf’, via turnstile 60 through what seems like his ‘back entrance’ off Constantine Road. There is a half an hour to live through until kick-off and although Paulene sits in the stand I can’t abide the noise from the PA system and retreat beneath it where, despite having told Paulene the drinks are over-priced and I don’t like any of them, I queue for a plastic cup of black coffee (£2.75), partly for want of anything better to do, but I am thirsty. It’s a decision to compare with some of the worst I have ever made, the cup of Douwe Egbert ‘coffee’ is utterly foul and could not taste less like a cup of coffee if it was a scoop of earwax.
Returning to the seats, Fiona has now arrived, as has ever-present Phil who never misses a game and the man who I think is from Stowmarket, but absent today are Phil’s son Elwood and Pat from Clacton, who has contracted Covid, apparently whilst on holiday in Torquay. I talk to the man who I think is from Stowmarket, who confirms that he is indeed from Stowmarket, although he was actually born in Cambridge. On the pitch, stadium announcer and former class-mate of my friend Pete, Stephen Foster reads the teams out from the scoreboard. I notice today that he has a little Ipswich Town crest on the foamy bit at the top of his mike. In the predictable style of a man whose life has been immersed in popular music and local radio he asks the crowd to make lots of noise and to turn the volume “up to eleven”. He goes on, I think, to say something about “noise annoys” which I imagine is a slightly more obscure reference to a tune by The Buzzcocks, the ‘B’side to their fabulous 1 minute 46 second long single ‘Love You More’, which I recall buying in Parrot Records in Queen Street back in that annus mirabilis 1978.
At last, the game begins, Town having first go with the ball and mostly sending it in the direction of me Paulene, ever-present Phil, Fiona and the man who definitely does come from Stowmarket. Town are in their traditional blue and white kit, whilst Pompey wear an all-black kit with sleeves of a sort of golden colour which blends with the skin tones of their arms and makes them look like they are wearing black sleeveless vests. Undeterred, the Pompey fans up in the Cobbold Stand sing “Portsmouth City, Portsmouth City FC, the finest football team the world has ever seen” despite the fact that as far as I am aware no team called Portsmouth City FC has ever existed. Odd.
Less than two minutes have elapsed and Pompey’s number six Connor Ogilvie is writhing on the floor after some sort of tackle or collision with Leif Davis, for which he earns a free-kick. “Dirty bastards” says Paulene to me. “Time wasting already” I reply. “You’re supposed to be at home” sing the Pompey fans to which the Sir Bobby Robson Stand responds with possibly their favourite song, Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, but with amended lyrics about fighting Norwich for ever more because of Boxing Day, the relevance of which is hard to fathom.
The Pompey support wait a whole six minutes after kick off before asking “Is this a library” but there is audible noise from Sir Bobby Robson Stand, even more so when Wes Burns wins the game’s first corner and Tyreece John-Jules, who incidentally is the nephew of actor Danny John-Jules of Red Dwarf fame, wins the second as his close range shot is deflected wide. A Conor Chaplin shot is then pushed onto a post and away by Pompey’s beanpole goalkeeper Josh Griffiths. Just ten minutes played and Town are all over Pompey like a rash and Dane Scarlett even gets booked as he assaults George Edmundson. Pompey’s only other attacking effort is a massive drop kick from Griffiths which by-passes every player on the field except Christian Walton. Janoi Donacien wins a third corner at the end of a magnificent passing move down the right, George Edmundson’s header is saved and it all seems easy for Town, but then the balance alters.
Pompey win a corner as Donacien heads clear a right-wing cross and then begin to have more possession of the ball. Out on the left Owen Dale, who I like to imagine is a relative of Jim Dale performs some stepovers as Pompey grow in confidence, but then hilariously takes one step too many and collides with his marker. The poorly executed stepover routine is one of football’s funniest faux pas after the ‘Bryan Gunn’. Dale then produces another crowd pleaser as he blazes a shot hopelessly high and wide at the end of a set-piece routine, just to confirm his ‘Carry On’ heritage. The comedy continues as I notice that Pompey’s Sean Raggett is knock-kneed.
The balance of the game then swings back towards Town and a fourth corner is won, this time as a shot from the constantly overlapping Leif Davis is deflected over the cross-bar. The corner comes to nothing however. Midfield play ensues and Lee Evans concedes a free-kick, but Sam Morsy wins the ball back and finds Conor Chaplin and in a split second Chaplin produces a pass for Marcus Harness to pursue right through the middle of the Pompey defence; he has just Griffiths to beat and he does. Town lead 1-0, it’s not much past twenty five past three. “Please make some more noise for our scorer, number eleven, Marcus Harness” announces Stephen Foster as if requesting a round of applause for someone who has just won the prize for biggest marrow at a village fete. The crowd oblige. A chant of “We’ve got Marcus Harness, We’ve got Marcus Harness” is heard but quickly fades away as if a group of supporters know there is a football song about possessing a player, because they’ve heard it before, but they’re not sure of the rest of the words. Like a calming post coital-cigarette, celebration for the Sir Bobby Robson stand comes in the form of their funereally-paced version of “When the Town going marching in”.
At half past three I see Christian Walton diving at the feet of an on-rushing Pompey player and then someone behind says, “he’s given them a penalty”. Christian Walton gets to see the referee’s yellow card and then as Colby Bishop, who I like to think is grandson of Ernest and Emily in a fictional parallel universe of soap operas, kicks the ball into the middle of the goal from the penalty spot Walton dives conveniently out of the way. Town’s lead had lasted barely six minutes and it feels like this happens every week.
“It’s all gone quiet over there” sing the Pompey fans to the tune of ‘Eye, Eye, Ippy, Ippy Eye’, or may be ‘She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain’ and they have a point. For some reason Ipswich supporters never react supportively to their team conceding a goal. Pompey fans meanwhile sing something about Danny Cowley, which presumably tells us what a good bloke he is, although it would take more than a song to convince me. On the pitch however, Town are back on the attack and with two minutes of the half remaining Wes Burns is released into the penalty area by Conor Chaplin, but his shot is not directed sufficiently away from Griffiths who manages to deflect it away for another corner just by standing still and sticking his arms out. Town then win yet another corner, but nothing arising from it or the subsequent two minutes of added on time can stop the score being one-all at half-time. It’s been a very entertaining game indeed so far, and whilst Portsmouth have been very good, Ipswich have been better and there is a slight air of disappointment cut with frustration that we didn’t hold onto that lead. But then again, the equaliser was a penalty and unless for a hand ball on the goal line I view penalties as random acts of kindness by the referee towards the team that is awarded it.
Half-time is whiled away in conversation with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison, who asks me about my recent trip to Norwich to see Robyn Hitchcock play live. I tell him that I have written an account of the gig under the heading ‘Robyn Hitchcock 17 Norwich 0’. Ray and I speak of the new Prime Minister Liz Truss, who we agree is probably and incredibly even worse than the previous one. Ray says he has a joke about ‘trickle-down economics’; not many people get it.
At four minutes past four the football resumes. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the away supporters to the ‘tune’ of the Portsmouth guildhall clock. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” chant the Town fans, possibly believing themselves to be the heirs to the quick wit and ready repartee of Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain. Pompey win a free-kick as Leif Davis fouls Owen Dale and referee, the Victorian sounding Charles Breakspear paces out 10metres (or is it yards?), but amusingly Town’s defensive wall already proves to be further from the spot where the kick is to be taken; Paulene and I wonder if Mr Breakspear just has little legs, or feet. The free-kick sails over the goal like a satellite. “Is this a library?” sing the Pompey fans in case we didn’t hear the question the first time, and it brings no response again. In the Sir Bobby Robson stand one half of the lower tier have their hands over their brows to shield their eyes from the lowering sun and they possibly can’t do this and sing at the same time. Pompey win a corner, but so far the second half is less exhilarating than the first. The attendance is announced as a stonking 28, 434; our local rivals’ Carrow Road ground couldn’t accommodate that many people even if they wanted to. We are told that there are 1,941 away fans here, but Paulene and I know there are 1,942.
It’s about twenty-five past four and time for that part of the game where like ritual sacrifices, substitutions are made. Pompey are the first to wield the metaphorical dagger as Joe Morrell and Josh Koroma are slain in favour of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ronan Curtis. Pompey win a corner in the wake of their changes and the Pompey chimes ring out again from the Cobbold stand; it must be good to have a one-stop, go-to chant for any occasion. Town fans used to be happy with a burst or two of “Come On You Blues” but that doesn’t seem good enough for today’s Town fans’. Eight minutes further on and Town bring on Kyle Edwards and Freddie Ladapo for Marcus Harness and Tyreece John-Jules. Harness and John-Jules have played well, but their involvement in the game has tailed off in the second half and their replacement will hopefully bring fresh impetus. No sooner thought than done and Leif Davis pulls the ball back into the penalty area for Ladapo to strike beautifully into the top corner of the goal with his first touch of the ball, it’s a terrific goal and Town are winning again.
This time the lead lasts barely five minutes as once again play is stopped only to find that Mr Breakspear has once again awarded Pompey a penalty. I have no idea at all why this time, someone behind says something about handball but it seems that Sam Morsy or George Edmundson might have fouled someone. Once again, it could be just a random act of kindness towards Pompey from Mr Breakspear. The way players dive and feign injury nowadays who can honestly say what’s a foul and what isn’t? Ernest and Emily’s boy scores from the penalty spot again, Christian Walton contriving to dive to his right as the ball goes to his left; where’s Paul Cooper when you need him?
Fate has seemingly dealt Town an undeserved blow and as if in an almost Roman Catholic outpouring of guilt fate quickly makes amends and within a minute Kyle Edwards is heading goalwards and then towards the by-line; he crosses the ball, but it strikes a lunging defender. I think to myself that we’ve got a corner, but as the people in front of me rise from their seats a roar goes up and it seems we’ve scored. Edwards’ cross has spun up into the air over goalkeeper Griffiths and fallen perfectly for Wes Burns to nod simply over the goal line from point blank range. Town lead 3-2.
The game is into the last ten minutes of normal time and the nuanced, incisive play of Conor Chaplin is sacrificed for the solidity of Dominic Ball. “He’s one of our own” chant the Pompey fans dolefully in a touching tribute to their former player as he draws the applause of the nearly 57,000 hands. Still the Pompey fans sing “Play Up Pompey” in a demonstration of genuine, relentless support. From the Sir Bobby Robson stand a version of Boney M’s biggest Christmas hit belts out once more. Four minutes of normal time are left and Pompey’s Michael Morrison makes way for Reeco Hackett; I idly wonder to myself if Reeco (pronounced reeko by Stephen Foster) is known as ‘stinky’ to his friends. Edwards wins Town yet another corner. Pompey waste their own time by making yet another substitution with just a minute left of normal time. An improbable seven minutes of time added on is announced; the man who is from Stowmarket had predicted only five. But Town run the game out without undue concern, winning two final corners and making a final substitution whilst keeping Pompey a safe distance from the goal. More cretins than I realised came to Portman Road try to trash the good reputation of Town supporters forged over many years, by not throwing the ball back when it goes into the stand, but they are only an unfortunate footnote to an excellent afternoon of football.
With the final whistle the relief is palpable, but it’s mostly because we have at last beaten a promotion rival, not because we were desperately hanging on for the result. Portsmouth played well, but Ipswich played better. I exit the stand sharply, eager to get back to my trusty Citroen to discover if my parking gamble has paid off, I am pleased to find that it has. The drive home is a happy one but as all supporters should, I know not to gloat about today’s result. Paulene and I are going out tonight to our daughter-in-law’s 40th birthday party, by way of personal sacrifice for Towns win I shall drive.