Ipswich Town 4 Buxton 0

Once upon a time, five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in November in suburban England would have been the time to be thinking about sitting down to eat toasted teacakes or buttered crumpets with a pot of tea and perhaps a slice of Battenburg or Dundee cake.  In our modern times of course, anything goes, and we are free from the strictures of Sunday tea and can now watch football whenever we want, or whenever someone in China, Canada, Bolivia, Cuba, Cyprus, Guadeloupe, Israel, Latvia, Nicaragua, St Kitts and Nevis, Switzerland, Thailand, US Virgin Islands, Uruguay or Vietnam, to name just a few, wants to show it on the telly in their far-off Ipswich Town supporting country.  Today therefore, for the benefit of viewers of TV channels such as Star+, ESPN Play Caribbean, Nova Sport 1, Bilibili and Astro SuperSport, I am pleased to attend my first ever 5 o’clock kick-off football match and  forego my usual relaxing Sunday evening at home in which I try and savour the final few hours of the weekend before the drudgery of another working week. 

The TV viewers of Brunei and Ecuador etcetera are as discerning as you or I and naturally would not watch any old rubbish, which is why today’s match is special; today Ipswich Town play Buxton in the second round of the FA Cup.  Buxton F.C. are in the National League North, the sixth tier of the league pyramid, although oddly the game is not being shown in Egypt.   Sixth ‘tierness’ is a status Buxton share with the likes of Banbury United, Blyth Spartans, Bradford Park Avenue and other clubs many of which don’t begin with the letter ‘B’, like Spennymoor Town.  I recall visiting Buxton on a family holiday to the Peak District in 1976, and then again in 1986 when I was best man at a friend’s wedding there; I spent the night in a caravan that looked like it had travelled forward in time from the 1950’s; of course it had done, but just a day at a time. 

Today might be a special match day in some ways, what with the impending thrill of knock-out cup football and the kick-off time being moved for the benefit of unknown Venezuelan and Costa Rican couch potatoes, but mostly it’s not, and after parking up my trusty Citroen C3, I am soon crossing the threshold of the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) like I do before every match. Today, I purchase a pint of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog (£4.10) which makes me feel slightly traitorous, but I soon recover before joining Mick in the pub garden.  Being a damp, dreary day there is just one other drinker in the garden and he soon departs leaving us to talk about our beers, (Mick is drinking Mauldon’s Moletrap) buying an electric car, the world from a Marxist perspective, this year’s local government pay deal and the reality of cities like Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton away from the colleges and the candy floss. After a further single malt whisky for Mick and a half of Woodforde’s Hiberno (£6.80) for me, which leads to a discussion about whether Hibernia was the Roman name for Scotland or Ireland (it was Ireland), we head off into the quiet of a Sunday evening in Ipswich.  I remark how it’s so quiet that it doesn’t feel like we’re going to a football match;  more like we’re going to evensong, which leads Mick to confess to having been an altar boy at Orford church in the far off days before he hit the hippie trail to Morocco. It’s not until we get to Civic Drive that we see anyone else who is obviously heading for the match. If LS Lowry had been from Ipswich and gone out with his easel on a night like this he’d have had to have painted something else.  But behind the Sir Bobby Robson stand, a long queue snakes along the back of the stand towards the turnstiles beyond.  Mick and I are wise however to the propensity some people have for joining the first queue they see,  and we walk on further towards the corporation bus depot.  At the last turnstile (No58), we attach ourselves to a queue of about five other people and are soon stepping out across the artificial grass towards the entrance to the palatial Block Y of the Magnus west stand.

We take our seats just as the teams are walking onto the pitch past Crazee the mascot and a mysterious reindeer; we stand to applaud and stay on our feet as there is a minute’s applause for the recently deceased David Johnson, arguably Town’s third best-ever centre-forward after Paul Mariner and Ray Crawford.   We will later learn that there are fewer than 10,000 of us in Portman Road this evening, but there is nevertheless a frisson of excitement around the ground as a fine drizzle starts to fall and the game begins with Town kicking off towards what was Churchman’s when David Johnson last played here. Buxton are wearing a kit of white shirts and dark blue shorts giving them the air of a poor man’s Tottenham Hotspur, and oddly they have no players of colour.

The opening minutes are dull as Town accelerate slowly through several gears like a very large articulated lorry before finding their desired passing rhythm.  The fragile enthusiasm of the home crowd quickly dissipates and it’s open season for the Buxton fans to begin singing “We’ve got more fans than you” before gaining in confidence with a chorus of “Your support is fucking shit” and then asking the ultimate, damning question “Is this a library?”.   Naively perhaps, I didn’t expect the followers of non-league Buxton to sing the same tired, unimaginative old songs as followers of Football League teams and it sets me to wondering if the folk that occupy the end of the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand aren’t actually just the same people every fortnight but wearing different colour replica shirts. Thoughts like this can make you question the very nature of reality.

Although Buxton might be dominating the singing with their off the shelf wit, on the pitch their team are barely getting sight of the ball, let alone a touch.  Such is Town’s superiority in keeping the ball that the Buxton fans are reduced to cheering enthusiastically when they win a throw-in.  When Buxton do win the ball Ipswich invariably win it straight back.  But nevertheless, the first fifteen minutes or so are a bit dull.  Mick yawns.  The bloke behind me starts to pray audibly that something will happen. “Here we go” he says optimistically whenever a Town player takes the ball forward more than a couple of paces.   Patient passing football to draw the opposition onto you and create spaces to move into is all very well, but this is the FA Cup for which the watch words are surely “Up and at ’em”.

“Shall we sing, shall we sing , shall we sing a song for you?” ask the Buxtonians through the medium of Cwm Rhondda, which seems appropriate if this is evensong. Sufficiently goaded by the Buxtonians up in the Cobbold stand, a few of the occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand summon a limp rendition of “Come On You Blues” before a more lively burst of rhythmic clapping  emerges and even a few extroverts around me in the Magnus west stand  join in .  The first half is half over, but Town are now into their passing stride and are putting in crosses and looking likely to score.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” chants what used to be the North Stand.  “Come on ref” moans the woolly-hatted geriatric next to me for some reason I haven’t spotted. Beyond the dark sloping roof of the Magnus Stand the fine steady drizzle looks like steam.  The first Buxton player is booked and then referee Mr Ross Joyce gets into his stride too and records the name of Town’s first Welsh Scandinavian Geordie, Leif Davis in his little notebook too.   It looks like a second Buxton player has got away with a foul on Kyle Edwards but it’s as if Mr Joyce is thinking to himself, “No, I think I will book him after all” and shows a slightly belated yellow card.

The last third of the half begins and the game has blossomed into something quite enjoyable as Town dominate and create chances but still haven’t scored. But then Wes Burns speeds off down the right , crosses the ball low to Conor Chaplin who skips to one side and sends a darting angled shot into the bottom right hand corner of the Buxton goal from about 12 metres out; it’s a trademark Conor Chaplin goal. Four minutes later Kyle Edwards races into the penalty area, ball at his feet and Buxton players flailing around him before releasing a low cross, which Gassan Ahadme turns into a goal from very close range.

This is how things should be and I can only wonder why 9,000 voices aren’t singing “Wemb-er-ley, Wemb-er-ley, we’re the famous Ipswich town and we’re going to Wemb-er-ley”, but they’re not. With the half-time whistle I descend into the bowels of the stand to drain off some Woodforde’s beer whist Mick queues for a vegan pie which he is impressed to find comes with a wooden spork.

The second half is a breeze. Sam Morsy earns his customary booking to help keep the third division title race alive for Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday and a pair of young players get their opportunity to play as Leif Davis and Cameron Humphreys are substituted for Tawanda Chirewa and Albie Armin. The drizzle persists.  Buxton bring on a substitute with the memorable name of Harry Bunn and Town add two more goals, another typical, but more spectacular strike from Conor Chaplin and a less characteristic one-on-one shot into the corner from Kayden Jackson, but a fine goal nonetheless.  Four-nil is the perfect score for this match, reflecting Town’s complete domination and superiority but not causing unwarranted and undeserved humiliation for Buxton.

With the final whistle Mick and I stay briefly to applaud before making the long way down to the ground and out into the damp, drizzly night.  “Well worth a fiver wasn’t it”, I tell Mick who agrees, but feels guilty that his seat was half the price of mine.  I tell him it’s not his fault I’m so young and he asks me when I will get my pension. “Four more years” I tell him, stupidly channelling Richard Nixon. But at least Town are into the third round of the Cup and TV viewers all over the planet know it. “Wemb-er-ley! Wemb-er-ley!” they must be singing.

Ipswich Town 1 Cheltenham Town 1

In the final scenes of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If’, the central character Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and his nameless girlfriend launch a machine gun attack on the parents, teachers and governors at a school speech day.  The scene was filmed at Cheltenham College and it’s one of my favourite scenes in one of my favourite films; Wikipedia tells us that ‘If’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969 and in 1999 the British Film Institute ranked it as the 12th greatest British film of all time.  As if that association with such a great film is not enough kudos for Cheltenham, it also has a football team that has never lost to Ipswich Town. Today Ipswich Town and Cheltenham Town meet at Portman Road for only the second time in recorded history.  I don’t know it yet, but later today I’m going to feel like Mick Travis.

In north Essex it has been a stupendously dull morning, both still and depressingly grey, like November days should be. It’s only when I approach Ipswich that a diffuse yellow light begins to filter through the grimness and then bright sunshine bursts from a clear blue sky like a metaphor for the end of the working week and the arrival of Saturday, heralding a match at Portman Road.  Before the game I visit my mother and we reminisce about all manner of things from years ago and she tells me how her grandfather, Sam Scarff, an agricultural labourer from Needham Market, enrolled with a friend for evening classes, joined the police and rose to the rank of inspector in the Met’ before retiring to become a game-keeper in Shotley; his friend became a police commissioner, and I thought social mobility was a 1960’s thing.

Leaving my mother with her memories, I drive across town and park up on Chantry. The streets are busy with people in football-supporting attire. I walk across the wet grass of Gippeswyk Park and marvel at how lush and green the turf now is compared to how dried up, brown and withered it was on the first day of the football season three months ago.  In Sir Alf Ramsey way I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner, but the technology isn’t working today.  I laugh and hand over a five pound note to the somewhat miserable and overweight looking youth in the programme booth.  The Arbor House, formerly known as The Arboretum, is busy with pre-match drinkers, but I am served quite quickly and order a pint of Nethergate Complete Howler (£4.00). I head for the garden where Mick is already sat at a table with a pint of a dark beer from the Grain brewery which he’s not very keen on, I take a sip and agree that it’s not exactly moreish, but then the Grain brewery is located in Norfolk, albeit with an IP postcode.  Before long Roly joins us and proceeds to dominate the conversation, mainly because he seems to have the ability to talk without drawing breath, which means a polite person like me can’t get a word in edgeways, not that I have much to say.  We, by which I mean mostly Roly, talk of local council chief executives, Roly’s five-year-old daughter Lottie, primary schools on the Essex Suffolk border and the performances of Town player Dom Ball.  Between twenty-five and twenty to three we leave via the back gate of the beer garden and head for Portman Road.  I bid Mick and Roly farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Stand, formerly known as the West Stand.  We speak briefly of when we will next meet; it will be for the five o’clock kick off v Buxton in the FA Cup on Sunday 26th November.   I won’t be going to the mid-week game versus Portsmouth as I am boycotting the Papa John’s EFL Trophy, not because I have anything against oily, takeaway pizza, but because I think the competition has been debased by the inclusion of Evil Premier League under-21 teams.  I am particularly looking forward to not going to Wembley should Town make it to the final, when I will blow a metaphorical raspberry to all those people who believe that anyone boycotting the competition will automatically abandon their principles if Town get to the final.  Such beliefs help explain why we have a Tory government.

Most unusually, today there is a queue at the turnstiles for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand which are accessed from Constantine Road, but quite soon an extra turnstile opens up (No61) and a cheerful man presents bar codes to a screen and I pass through the portal to another world.  That pint of beer has already found its way to the exit and from the gents beneath the stand I hear stadium announcer Stephen Foster reading the team line-ups from the scoreboard in his best local radio DJ voice.  I arrive at my seat just as a minute’s silence begins for Armistice day, although that was actually yesterday.  Oddly, the Football Association have decided not to cancel the fixtures today as they did when they felt they couldn’t trust football crowds to observe a minute’s silence for the death of Queen Elizabeth back in September.  The minute’s silence is of course observed perfectly. Stephen Foster reads from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem ‘For the Fallen’ and the last post is played exquisitely, even if it does slightly spoil the solemnity and dignity of the moment to then be told by Stephen Foster that Jon Holden who played it is a member of the Co-op East of England Brass Band.  It’s probably just me, but I can’t help sniggering a little at any mention of the Co-op.

After a fly-past by a couple of Army helicopters, and a brief burst of ‘Hey Jude’, the game begins with Town getting first go with the ball and kicking towards me , Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  Town are thankfully back to wearing their blue shirts and white shorts after the all-black aberration against Derby, whilst Cheltenham Town are wearing red shirts and shorts with their ruddiness off-set by white socks and a white pin-stripe on their shirt fronts.  Quickly, Portman Road sounds in good voice as the altered version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ in which she eternally fights Norwich on Boxing Day rings around the ground.  On the touchline, Town manager Kieran McKenna is looking stylish, if a little drab in a black jacket and trousers with a plain jumper, which I at first think is beige but then think is grey; perhaps it’s taupe?

From the start Ipswich dominate and it feels as if everyone, from the supporters to the players really wants to win this match. We all remember the life-denying, spirit crushing goalless draw against Cheltenham from last season and that’s our inspiration to see Town give these upstarts, better known for their poncey Regency spa a sound thrashing.   Crosses rain into the Cheltenham penalty area and although one from Conor Chaplin goes a bit off course and strikes Wes Burns in the throat Sam Morsy soon has the first shot on goal and then from a corner Luke Woolfenden hooks the ball into the goal from close range and Town lead 1-0.  Woolfenden runs off sucking his thumb with the ball up his jumper and ever-present Phil mentions something about the birth of wolf cubs; I suggest he has simply discovered the joy of sucking his thumb. 

More corners and crosses follow and I chant “Come On You Blues” and so does Phil, but no one else does.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of you singing” announces Pat from Clacton, sort of singing herself, which is ironic.  Janoi Donacien strides forward into a rare bit of space and pulls the ball back to Marcus Harness; the Cheltenham defence is rent open like a tin of corned beef on which the key has broken half-way round and it’s been necessary to open both ends with a tin-opener to get the meat out. Harness must score, but somehow the ball strikes the under-side of the cross bar as if deflected away from the goal net by some invisible force…either that or Harness made a hash of it.

There are more corners to Ipswich, loads of them, and Phil and I keep chanting “Come On You Blues” vainly hoping someone will join in with us. We change to the simpler “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” but the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand aren’t moved.  I think to myself that I might as well be singing in French and so I do “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” I chant; Fiona says I’ve gone too far. On the pitch Janoi Donacien is hurt and is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young and the ball skims of the top of Cheltenham number six Lewis Freestone’s head as if he was a man who had applied too much brylcreem to his hair.  Another cross and Leif Davis precisely places a carefully controlled header over the Cheltenham cross bar.  Within a minute Cheltenham equalise as Ryan Broom sweeps forward and shoots at Christian Walton who somehow cannot stop the ball squirming around or under or through him onto the goal.  It might have been the brylcreem on the ball.  It will prove to be Cheltenham’s only real shot of the game and up in the Cobbold stand a knot of about twenty excited youths jump around and wave their arms about like bookies on a race course or idiots trying to fly.

Disappointing as that equaliser is, Town press on, although not quite as well as before.  When the Cheltenham goalkeeper parries a low Marcus Harness cross out to Cameron Humphreys, somehow the ball comes straight back to him.  Two minutes of added on time are announced very noisily by Stephen Foster, as if he’d turned the PA system up to eleven. “Speak Up” says Pat from Clacton.   I applaud Town off the field with the half-time whistle and go and talk with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.  I ask Harrison if he has got the new Robyn Hitchcock album ‘Shufflemania’ yet, he says he may get it for Christmas as he looks at his dad.

The match resumes at six minutes past four and a chorus of ‘Blue and White Army’ briefly rolls around the stands, not exactly like thunder. On the stroke of the 53rd minute the crowd rises for a minute’s applause in memory of Supporters’ Club Chairman Martin Swallow who died at the end of October.  A lone seagull floats above the pitch; no doubt someone would think it poignant. 

With Cheltenham confined to their half of the pitch due to constant Ipswich possession, this is the sort of game where every moment lost through a Cheltenham player sitting on the grass or receiving treatment is going to be attributed to time-wasting, and so it proves. Referee Mr Eltringham, a man with ‘ten to two’ feet, books the Cheltenham goalkeeper as a warning shot to his team-mates in this regard and in all fairness, they do not break the game up as much as they did in the goalless game last season, but it’s not enough to stop the bloke behind me from saying “He’s gotta be one of the worst fuckin’ refs we’ve ‘ad down here”.   When Cheltenham players do receive treatment their physio runs on with a huge bag and what looks like a small surf board; with a blonde wig and high cut one piece swim suit he could have doubled for Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. 

“Over and in” says Pat from Clacton in the time-honoured fashion, but it never happens. Marcus Harness heads carefully past the post in the same way Leif Davis headed over the bar in the first half, Wes Burns and Marcus Harness are replaced by Kayden Jackson and Kyle Edwards, but it makes little difference.  Chances come and inevitably go as if there is no possible way to get a ball across the line between the two goalposts.  The crowd is announced as 25,400 including 175 from Cheltenham; it’s the smallest away following at any Ipswich match this season; so more credit to those who did bother.  “Here for Cheltenham, you’re only here for the Cheltenham” they sing which I guess they are, and on the Clacton supporters coach Chris wins the prize with his guess of 25,444; Pat is disappointed that so few pet animals have been attributed guesses this week.

With time slipping away, the gloom of the late autumn evening descends along with a seasonal mist which softly shrouds the floodlights. “There’s nothing wrong with, there’s nothing wrong with you” chant the North Stand appropriating some Verdi opera as another Cheltenham player takes a breather by sitting on the turf.  The final minute arrives and Panutche Camara replaces Conor Chaplin. There will be at least seven minutes of additional time which is time enough for Camara to strike a shot against the inside of a goal post; again, the ball of course stays out of the goal rather than deflecting into it. All too soon the final whistle is blown and for a second time this year Cheltenham Town have clung on to a point at Portman Road with resolute defending and huge dollops of luck.  With defending like this and the ball having such an aversion to crossing their goal line, it seems odd that Cheltenham Town have ever lost a match.

“Frustrating” says the man from Stowmarket as he edges past me to the exit “Yes, but we’ve seen it all before, just a few weeks ago” I reply, re-living the pain of the match versus Lincoln.  But my comment hides my disappointment and beneath my reasonable exterior irrational thoughts and questions swirl in a maelstrom of post-match angst and anger; how can Ipswich Town be so much better than the opposition but still not beat them? Is Ipswich Town somehow cursed?  Where is there a high roof from which a sniper could shoot freely and indiscriminately?

Maldon & Tiptree 3 Basildon United 1

Had it still been 1964, I could have travelled today to Maldon by train, but thanks to the evil Doctor Beeching this is no longer possible, and instead I have made the near twenty-six kilometre journey from my home to that of Maldon & Tiptree Football Club in my trusty, red Citroen C3.  On the bright side however, it has saved me a two and quarter kilometre walk from what was the railway station on a grey, deeply overcast, drizzly and at times outright-wet day. Thanks ‘Beechie’, even if in the long term it is another small contribution to global warming, a rise in sea level that will see Maldon & Tiptree’s football ground consumed by the salty waters of the North Sea and our eventual doom.  Of course, had it still been 1964 I might have preferred not to walk from Maldon East Station, but instead drive my red, Tri-ang ‘Thunderbolt’ pedal car.

Despite the gloomy weather it’s a pleasant enough journey through the Essex countryside to Maldon, over the muddy River Chelmer, up steep Market Hill and along the historic High Street and down to Park Drive where Maldon & Tiptree football club is to be found.  Amusingly, to my addled mind at least, Park Drive shares its name with a now defunct brand of unfiltered and therefore super-carcinogenic cigarette, last popular in the 1950s.  I wonder if anyone who smoked them survives.  As I drive, I listen to BBC Radio Essex, and a jolly man makes football sound very important as he takes me through this afternoon’s fixtures for Essex’s top football teams.  Matt Bloomfield the Colchester United manager gives a very prickly interview and the jolly man mis-pronounces Chelmsford City as Chelmsford Shitty; there will be complaints about that, probably in the Daily Mail as it twists the knife in its campaign against an organisation free of the influence of commercial advertisers.  At about half past two I see a forest of floodlights up ahead of me and cars parked at rakish angles on grass verges and I know I have arrived.  Finding a spare bit of grass verge of my own because the car park seems full, I park up and head for the turnstiles joining a queue of mature gentlemen. 

“One adult and a programme?” enquires the friendly woman on the other side of the turnstile as I tender a ten-pound and a five-pound note, (£10 entry and £2 for the programme); she puts the emphasis on the word ‘adult’ clearly checking that I’m not really a pensioner. “You’re just too polite to ask” I tell her, and she smiles and gives an unnecessary explanation.  I must look older than I think.  Inside the ground the players are on the pitch warming up, some people have already taken up their places in the three small, seated stands.  I take a look at the clubhouse and bar, but a look is all it is as there is no real ale being served and I’m rarely in the mood for anything chilled and gassy.  Back outside I take a walk around the ground, it’s not raining but it’s still very grey and a light wind swirls cloud towards the town.  I head for the largest of the three stands, a box like structure opposite the club house; it bears the name “The Lifestyle Stand”, I wonder to myself what sort of lifestyle would you name a football stand after, perhaps by sitting in the stand I’ll find out.

“Welcome to the home of football” announces the voice from the public address system, sounding like a refugee from local radio. “Who knew?” I think to myself, and the teams emerge from the slightly grim looking mesh tunnel on the far side of the ground before lining up in the familiar way. Maldon & Tiptree are wearing blue and red striped shirts and blue shorts, whilst todays’ opponents, Basildon United inexplicably wear a change kit of green and white striped shirts with green shorts; if I was Spanish, lost and slightly confused, I might think I was watching Barcelona versus Real Betis.  Either way, the colourful kits brighten up a dull afternoon although why Basildon, known as The Bees, I guess because Basildon begins with a letter ‘B’, are not wearing their usual yellow and black kit remains a mystery, unless perhaps it’s still in the wash from last week’s game; with all this rain it must be a bugger to get dry.

“Got to worry when some of the mascots are bigger than the players” says a bloke behind me so that everyone can hear him. “Bigger, or better?” says someone else.  This is what had attracted me to this fixture, not the wit of the supporters, but the fact that Maldon & Tiptree are bottom of the Isthmian League having lost all but one of their league games this season, and that was a goalless draw against the team second from bottom in the league table, Coggeshall Town.  Although currently at the giddy heights of fifteenth in the twenty-team league, Basildon have a record that exactly matches that of Maldon & Tiptree over their last five games with one draw and four defeats.  “I am sure it will be a good game” says Maldon & Tiptree manager Adam Flint in his programme notes.

Basildon get first go with the ball and are kicking towards the end of the ground with no stand, with distant Burnham on Crouch and even more distant Southend beyond; Maldon & Tiptree meanwhile are aiming in the direction of the much more nearby Maldon itself. Within a couple of minutes Maldon & Tiptree win a free kick close to the edge of the Basildon penalty area. “Come on Harv” calls a voice from behind me, and then another.  Maldon & Tiptree’s captain, the dreadlocked Laste Dombaxe, and number eleven Harvey Sayer stand over the ball.  Dombaxe takes a run up, feigning to kick the ball but in fact looking as if he is more likely to trip over it. As a scam to occupy the opposition however, it seems to work, and Sayer simply steps up to curl the ball over the wall of green and white shirted players and into the top right hand corner of the Basildon goal. One-nil to Maldon & Tiptree and the crowd all around me sound joyful if also surprised. “Great stuff Harv;” is the shout now.

Three minutes later and Harvey Sayer wins a free-kick wide on the right after a fairly inept challenge from the Basildon left-back.  Sayer swings the ball in with his left foot, no doubt hoping that someone will get their head or a boot to the ball.  Instead, everyone misses the ball, including the Basildon goalkeeper,  who stands as if nailed to his goal line and the ball curls inside the far post and Maldon and Tiptree lead 2-0. The crowd cheer and laugh in equal measure except for the Basildon supporters who are keeping quiet.

Barely five minutes in and the game is not panning out at all as I or probably anyone else had expected and as a neutral with a penchant for the dismal I have to admit to being slightly disappointed; I was expecting a desperate struggle and instead Maldon and Tiptree have what is already probably going to be an unassailable lead given Basildon’s recent form.  Relief comes in the form of a shot into the side netting of the Basildon goal which results in the net parting company with the stanchion holding it up.  The game is stopped as a man in a day-glo tabard attempts a repair. It looks like he’s fixed it, but the referee immediately dashes our hopes as he reveals what a botched job has been made as he tugs at the net and stanchion falls down once again.  If only he’s left it alone we could probably have carried on safe in the knowledge that the ball was unlikely to bother the net for a third time this afternoon unless we’re very lucky. Eventually the Maldon number five strides over to help and this is when the problem is solved; I guess this is the advantage of semi-professional football teams, there is usually an appropriate tradesman about to fix most problems.

With the game under way again it settles down into a less a goal-laden event. Twenty minutes pass and Basildon fashion their first shot at goal; it goes out for a throw-in to Maldon & Tiptree.  “Lino, ‘elp ‘im” shouts a voice from behind as a perceived foul by a Basildon player is left un-punished.  For their part Maldon & Tiptree don’t need much help, they are dominating possession even if they don’t look too much like scoring a third goal just yet.  “Two-nil to the Maldon boys” chant a knot of seven or eight youths sat, appropriately enough, in the far from snappily named Maldon & Tiptree Youth FC Community Stand.  In the same stand sit a small group of middle-aged Basildon fans, it’s almost as if the Maldon youths are goading them into doing something like spilling their tea, or dropping a glove.

After taking his time with a free-kick Harvey Sayer is unexpectedly booked by referee Mr Hillier who evidently believes Sayer is time-wasting although the game is barely a third of the way through.  As if to prove the referee wrong, fate decrees however that from Sayer’s free kick the ball will fly about the Basildon penalty area for a second or two before being booted into the goal by Lance Akins and Maldon lead 3-0.  I reflect on how few people are called Lance and how it’s actually quite a good name, better I think than either Brad or Benny who also feature on the Maldon team sheet.

As the match meanders on towards half-time Maldon &Tiptree win a third corner of the half which is spectacularly batted away by the leaping blancmange-pink figure of the Basildon goalkeeper George Marsh. “Come on Maldon” chant a rival bunch of slightly younger and more shrill youths at the open end of the ground, and I leave my seat to make my way round to be first in the queue at the tea bar when the half-time whistle is blown. 

Having invested in a plastic cup of Brooke Bond PG Tips (£1.25), I hang about by the Yogi Bear-style picnic tables and look at my programme, which serves not only for today’s match, but also for the game on Tuesday versus Braintree Town in the Essex Senior Cup; two for the price of one, a bargain.  The winning numbers for the prize draw are read out over the PA system.  First prize is a bottle of wine, second a box of Fairfield Farms crisps and third prize a pack of Foster’s lager.  It begins to rain and then the voice of the PA system returns to tells us that no one has yet claimed the pack of Foster’s Lager.  No one seems surprised. 

I take a walk into the club house for a ‘comfort break’ and by the time I return outside the game has re-started.  I walk to the end of the ground where there is no stand and get a different perspective on the game.  The PA announcer comes to life again with news that today’s attendance is two-hundred and fifty-seven.  “Thank you of your incredible support” says the announcer.  “Thank you for your incredible announcement” says a bloke stood near me.   After Maldon & Tiptree win a couple of corners I return to the other end of the ground.   Substitutions have now been made and one of the Basildon substitutees is stood chatting to some spectators. “Your lot make this lot look good, and they’re shit” says a spectator somewhat bluntly.  The player agrees however, and doesn’t seem very impressed with some of his team-mates, which can’t do much for team spirit.

All the floodlights are on now and the pitch has that lovely emerald glow that makes standing outside on a wet, November afternoon much more than just tolerable.   Away behind the Lifestyle stand above the grassy bank it sits at the foot of, there is a silvery light amongst the cloud, probably the dull reflection of what lingering afternoon light remains off the waters of the estuary.  I make my way back to the Lifestyle stand to see out the remainder of the match.  Behind me someone is providing their own match commentary, coaching each of the players in turn. “Keep going”, “Good decision” he calls, as if he’s Zinedine Zidane slumming it for the afternoon.    Across the gangway from me a younger voice says “Haaland’s scored already” and then adds “I’m not watching the game” to confirm, as if he needed to, that he’s more interested in the latest scores from his mobile phone.

On the pitch a decent passing move from Maldon & Tiptree concludes with the ball being swept extravagantly wide of the goal by number nine, the exotically monikered Roman Campbell, whose name sounds much too much like like Roman Candle, but then it is November 5th.  “Build again boys” says Zinedine.  But it’s Basildon who build again and when a cross is launched into the penalty area all sorts of mayhem ensues and someone in a green shirt doesnt quite hurdle a scything leg and Mr Hillier awards a penalty kick.  I assume what I noticed was the offence, but any number of fouls could have been taking place.  The Maldon & Tiptree ‘keeper, Tommy Dixon-Hodge dives to his right, which is where Basildon’s Tim Monsheju has booted the ball, but with such force and accuracy that Tommy has no chance of stopping it.  “Ref, that was poor” shouts someone from behind me as the teams line up to kick off again.  Although no one explains what ‘that’ was, I guess it was the decision to award a penalty.

In the remaining six minutes of normal time Basildon substitute Shane Temple throws a tantrum and is cautioned by Mr Hillier, when it looked to me like a Maldon & Tiptree player had tapped him on the bum as he bent down to position the ball for a free-kick, but I could be wrong.  “Leeds are 3-2” says the bloke who’s not watching the match, “Brighton 3-2 up”. It’s like sitting next to Jeff Stelling.

Four minutes of additional time are to be played and I get up from my seat and begin to edge my way towards the exit.  The Maldon youth are now singing that they want their flag back, which I don’t understand and equally mysteriously an advertisement board reads “Yokogawa co-innovating tomorrow”, and I still have no answers when Mr Hillier blows his whistle for the final time. Although I’m now hastening out of the damp and dark of the evening towards my trusty Citroen, I’m not trying to escape, I just want my tea. It’s been a grand afternoon of non-league football between two well-matched, if imperfect teams and I’ve loved it; I’m also glad I dont have to drive my pedal car back to the railway station.