If I had known on the third of April this year, as I made my way home from seeing Town lose 1-0 to Cambridge United, that tonight Town would again be playing Cambridge United, I would have been looking forward to it, even then. I had been looking forward to that game back in April because I wanted revenge for a 2-1 home defeat to Cambridge over thirty years before in the season that Town last won the second division championship. Back in 1991, entertaining, skilful, sexy Ipswich were beaten by a horrible Cambridge team managed by John Beck who had reduced the beautiful game to something like a cross between rugby league, cage fighting and carpet bombing. I’m a mild-mannered fellow, I don’t think I’m one to bear a grudge, but in this case, I seem to have made an exception; I hated that bloody Cambridge team and want revenge.
After over eight hours of my one day a week in the office, I decide that I have been here long enough and break free of the shackles of my desk, tablet and screen; I start to roam, then I’m in town; it’s a sadly depressing place at this time of day, everything is closed, it’s like a ruin. After I’ve browsed the books in Waterstones and bought my mother a bottle of Croft original sherry (£12.50) for her birthday from Sainsbury’s, where the very old man at the checkout struggles amusingly to remove the magnetic security tag, there’s nothing to do. I take the sherry back to my car and head for the Arbor House, formerly known as the Arboretum. I walk past the Axa Insurance building (formerly Guardian Royal Exchange) and through the window I see one those supposedly inspiring quotes printed on a wall. “Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered” it says. “Sod that”, I think.
At the top of High Street, what was once the Arboretum shines out like a beacon in the fading evening light, as pubs do. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) and a portion of ‘Very French French Fries’ (£7.00) which consists of thick cut chips intermingled with bits of bacon and brie. Out in the beer garden I sit and wait for Mick and cannot avoid hearing the conversation of three lads sat a few tables away. They are talking football, it’s a boring conversation. My Very French French Fries arrive before Mick does, but he’s not far behind and he orders some chips covered with stuff too; we talk of my recent holiday in France and the six football matches I went to, of the French resistance and German U-boat docks, of Rennes, Nantes and the long deceased (1514) Duchess Anne of Brittany and driving in French cities.
With beers drunk and chips eaten, we depart for Portman Road, a bit earlier than usual but it’s dark now and the lure of football under floodlights is drawing us in like moths to a flame, or even a floodlight. Leaving Mick at the turnstiles to the Magnus Group Stand (formerly the plain old West Stand) in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk), I wish him ‘Bon match’ and strike out for turnstile 60 at the back of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand (formerly Churchman’s). The cheery young turnstile operator bids me hello, cheerily, and I thank her for doing whatever it is she does to let me into the temple of Sir Alf.
In the lower tier of the stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here, but Fiona isn’t and Pat from Clacton still has Covid, and for the first time ever I have arrived before the man who is definitely from Stowmarket. As I reach my seat stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us that kick-off will be delayed by 15 minutes because of an earlier incident on the Orwell Bridge, which has apparently caused traffic congestion in the town. I am left to stand alone and watch the pitch being heavily watered and the stands fill up inexorably, which of course they do and before I know it the teams are striding onto the pitch and Fiona and the man from Stowmarket are sat beside me. Before kick-off we observe a minute’s silence as mark of respect for the 174 football supporters killed in a stampede or crush at a match in Indonesia between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya. But for the roaring drone of a jet aeroplane above and a few coughs the silence is perfect and still.
When kick-off comes it is Town who get first go with the ball and are quickly into their swift passing game, producing slick interchanges of the ball down the right and crosses into the Cambridge penalty area. Up in the Cobbold stand close to 2,000 Cantabrigians are gathered and many ramble through some unintelligible, tuneless mantra as the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand launch into their signature version of Boney M’s million-selling Christmas number one from 1978, although credit must also go to Harry Belafonte who first recorded it in 1956. “Who the fuck? Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” continue the Cambridge boys rather mysteriously, as if they’d forgotten where they’d come to in the course of an 85 kilometre one hour journey.
After the initial burst of noise from the excitement of kick-off, the stands fall quiet for a while, then Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball to raucous encouragement before being flagged offside. Town are on top, but the ball is moving too swiftly over the wet turf and through balls and forward passes are eluding the likes of Wes Burns and Freddie Ladapo. When Cambridge get the ball they try to break quickly too, causing ripples of concern amongst the home crowd. In fact, it is Cambridge who have the first shot that isn’t blocked, although the player responsible might have wished it had been as Jubril Okedina’s effort poses more threat to the people sat behind the goal than it does to Christian Walton’s clean sheet.
The man from Stowmarket and I are swopping comments about the wet pitch; he says he is expecting to see a submarine surface any minute. As long as the torpedoes are ours I tell him, and it’s not a Russian submarine, he adds. Nearly twenty minutes have been lost to history and talk of underwater craft; Conor Chaplin wins a free-kick on the edge of the Cambridge penalty area as he appears to be lifted off the ground by a challenge. Chaplin gets back on his feet to lift the ball over the defensive wall nicely enough, but it’s an easy catch the Cambridge ‘keeper Dimitar Mitov. “De, de-de-de, de- fuckin’ useless” chant the Cambridge boys to the tune of Pigbags’ ‘Papa’s got a brand new pigbag’, which they obviously know reached number three in the UK singles chart in 1982. The Town fans retaliate with the same chant just a few minutes later as full-back George Williams wellies the ball hopelessly into touch with all the finesse and control of Boris Johnson’s hair stylist.
In a break from tradition tonight at Portman Road, it is the away supporters who are telling the referee that he doesn’t know what he is doing as he resists the temptation to award free-kicks whenever a Cambridge player comes in contact with the wet grass. Some habits die harder however, and the Cambridge fans are still the ones to ask “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” and as per usual no one takes them up on their kind offer.
Nearly half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich are dominating, their frequent crosses and forays down the flanks aren’t producing many shots that Mitov is having to save. Again, Cambridge spurn a rare chance when Sam Smith shoots both high and wide after a free-kick and low cross. Cambridge are frustrating Town with their dense defending and as usual the Town supporters clam up when their team aren’t winning. “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Cambridge fans, quickly following it up with “You’re supposed to be at home”, and I imagine a youth up in the Cobbold stand sat thinking “which chant criticising their support shall we sing next?” and someone else is saying “Oooh yeah, that’s a good one, let’s do that”.
Wes Burns can’t keep the ball in play from another forward pass and Pigbag’s only hit is heard for a third time; it’s getting boring now. But then Wes has more luck and Janoi Donacien heads one of his crosses narrowly wide before another cross sets up Leif Davis for a header which is blocked to give Town a corner. Both teams then win aimless corners and Town produce one of the finest moves of the half as Marcus Harness threads through a through ball for Wes Burns who then crosses to the far post for Leif Davis to strike the ball into the side netting. Another corner follows and a minute of time is added on, but the score remains disappointingly blank which means that Cambridge are effectively winning. The players leave the field to the opening bars of Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, another song from that wonderful year 1978.
With the half-time break I leave my seat to go and speak with Harrison and his dad; Ray isn’t here tonight because he is at the Ipswich Regent watching Steve Hackett, another of the community of literally immortal prog rockers from the 1970’s who just can’t stop playing.
The football resumes at seven minutes past nine and for the opening minutes the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier have renewed voice. “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant. “Fuck off Ipswich, Fuck Off Ipswich” respond the lads from the Cambridge Footlights Review satirically, before quickly remembering that they were meant to be criticising us for our poor support and switching to “We forgot that you were here”. We are no match for the untamed wit.
The second half is a repeat of the first, but with more square passes from Ipswich and fewer successful through passes and crosses, but equally Cambridge hardly get forward at all. Something better change I think and with sixty-six minutes of the game gone forever Kyle Edwards replaces Wes Burns, Lee Evans usurps Dominic Ball and Tyreece John-Jules is the new Conor Chaplin. Tonight’s attendance is announced as 26,414 with 1,745 being Cambridge fans and they sing “Football in a library, de-de-dur” as they continue to riff on the familiar theme for just a short while longer and sing another song in which at least half of the ‘words’ are really just noises made with their front teeth.
Everything is in place for the seventy-second minute, which arrives on time and sees Lee Evans play the ball out to Marcus Harness whose low cross is brilliantly but inadvertently flicked up in the air by a Cambridge defender. From where I’m sat it looks like the ball spins up and drops down under the cross bar, but in fact Tyreece John-Jules is the man to apply the coup de grace and Town lead 1-0. What a relief, and once again the substitutions have worked almost instantly, as if some sort of magic wand has been waved. Tonight, there is no fear that the magic will be undone with a sudden unwarranted equaliser and the reason for this is that within two minutes Town score again, this time Kyle Edwards possibly shaping up to cross the ball, but instead launching it into the far top corner from an improbable distance and bearing. It’s not luck, it’s the law of averages; if you cross the ball enough sooner or later a defender will deflect it favourably for you or a cross will go straight into the goal.
With fifteen minutes of normal time remaining Portman Road is filled with the noise of the home supporters emitting “lo-lo-los” and “Ei-Ei-Os” for all their worth. The transformation from the relative quiet of five minutes before is astonishing and the Cambridge chants of “Sing when you’re winning” don’t really begin to describe how fickle we are in our support for our team.
Kayden Jackson replaces Freddie Ladapo and Cambridge makes substitutions too, one of whom is former Town starlet Jack Lankester; the other is Fejiri Okenabirhie whose name is pronounced by PA man Stephen Foster with the verbal dexterity one would expect of a former BBC presenter, even if he was on Radio Suffolk. The goals haven’t changed the game tonight, Town continue to plug away and Cambridge can only defend. Sam Morsy hits a post with a shot which looked to be about to hit the net, and then with four minutes remaining of normal time a Tyreece John-Jules shot is blocked and spins across the penalty area, Kyle Edwards reacts with an alacrity that makes the Cambridge players around him look like they’ve been rolling joints for the past hour and steers the ball into the Cambridge goal with the outside of an outstretched foot.
The ensuing joyful songs and chants are too much for the Cantabrigians, many of whom begin to head back to the sanctuary of the A14. Four minutes of added on time are played and then it’s history, Ipswich Town have beaten Cambridge United 3-0, it’s the sound thrashing that we’ve been waiting to give them for thirty years. It’s just as well revenge is a dish best served cold.