‘Boxing Day’, the first track on the second side of Elvis Costello’s 1984 album “Goodbye Cruel World”, albeit in brackets and with the letters TKO in front of it, but also the day after Christmas Day when it seems as if nearly everyone goes to football. As I’ve got older, I’ve enjoyed Boxing Day football less and less. There was a time when it would have been the opportunity to give a first airing to a new ITFC branded woolly hat or pair of gloves received as a gift the day before, but those days are gone and now I’d often rather sit at home and carry on revelling in my own Christmas crapulence. It feels too much like hard work to brave an outside world devoid of public transport but clogged with Sunday drivers out visiting aunties and uncles or indulging in mass consumerism at the Boxing Day sales.
This year however, I don’t feel quite so miserable and lazy or drunk, perhaps because the football at Portman Road is likely to be more joyful, perhaps because today the sky is clear and blue. It is with a spring in my step therefore that I leave my house, fire up the trusty Citroen C3 and head blithely into the two, or three-mile long tail-back on the A12. Happily, the traffic does move, but only very slowly and not quickly enough for me to get to The Arbor House (aka The Arb’) to meet Mick at a quarter to two. “Such is life” I think to myself, which is pretty much what Mick says in reply to my text to give the bad news that I won’t make it for our Boxing Day pre-match pint, although his actual words are “…it goes like that sometimes”. Mick is nothing if not philosophical, which I suspect is why we get on. Having parked up the trusty Citroen, it’s a pleasant walk through Gippeswyk Park, beneath Ancaster Road bridge, along Ranelagh Road and over the Sir Bobby Robson bridge to the ground. Although I don’t have time to get to the Arb, enjoy a leisurely drink with Mick, and walk back to Portman Road, I have nevertheless arrived long enough before kick-off to have time to kill, so I mooch about a bit taking in the big-match atmosphere of the Boxing Day game, watching people wearing novelty Christmas hats queue for burgers and then eat them perched on car park railings. I buy a programme (£3.50) using coins of the realm.
Exhausted by my social anthropological research I head back into Constantine Road and turnstile 60, the portal to a world of football-based fun. I thank the grimly smiling turnstile operator and head for the toilet, I might not have had that pre-match pint, but it’s a cold day. Relieved, and with clean but still slightly wet hands because life is too short to wait for hand dryers to work fully, I hang about in the concourse beneath the stand. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game finds me leant against a concrete stanchion, he says hello and asks if the pub wasn’t open. I repeat some of the story in the above paragraphs, leaving out the bit about Elvis Costello. Eventually, pining for sunlight I take the steps up onto the lower tier of the stand where to my displeasure I find I have arrived before Pat from Clacton, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket. This arriving in the ground more than ten minutes before kick-off is very disconcerting and ever-present Phil detects as much in my uneasy demeanour.
The good thing about time however, is that it moves on and it’s not long before the familiar faces are here and stadium announcer Stephen Foster is reading out the names of the two teams. I shout out the Town players’ surnames in the style of a French football crowd as Stephen announces them, and I hope my odd behaviour catches on; it makes a couple of people smile, possibly with embarrassment. The ‘improved’ PA system then goes into overdrive with some very loud ‘music’ which I imagine is intended to whisk the crowd up into some sort of anticipatory frenzy but Pat and I just grimace and cover our ears, I think we’re too old for frenzy. “Why can’t we have some nice football music?” shouts Pat when the noise abates a little. When Stephen Foster returns he tells us that we have again packed out Portman Road and, sounding a bit like Alan Partridge, that Boxing Day “… is always a special day in the football calendar”.
It’s been a long, beer-free wait, but finally the teams appear, and Town kick off in their correct kit of blue shirts and white shorts towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, whilst visiting Oxford United wear all white, perhaps in the hope that we’ll think they are Real Madrid rather than Newmarket Town who they might look like if they had worn their ‘proper’ kit of yellow shirts and blue shorts. The pitch is completely in shadow now, but pale winter sunlight shines as if through a letterbox onto parts of the Cobbold Stand and casts a pinkie-whiteness on the girder over the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand.
As the match begins, the crowd is in good voice, so much so that at first I can’t hear if the away fans are singing too. The opening exchanges are indeed exchanges as possession swaps about. “All the way, all the way” advises a voice from behind as Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball. “Yellows, Yellows” chant the Newmarket Town supporters up in the Cobbold stand as the Oxford players demonstrate that for the time being at least they are the sharper team, and they even have a shot that misses the goal by not very much. “All the way, All the way, Well done” I hear again from behind, where it seems that some bloke who can’t help but vocalise his internal dialogue is sitting.
It’s the ninth minute and after the good start from the Town supporters the Oxford fans at last have the opportunity to sing “No noise from the Tractor Boys”. Five minutes later and they are in their element singing “Football in a library, dur-dur-dur” which is precisely what you would expect from a team from the world’s foremost university city. Ipswich win a corner as Oxford’s number five mis-directs a header intended for his goalkeeper and then proceeds to swing his arm and possibly klick his finger and thumb in the manner of a man saying “darn it”. In the outfall from the corner kick an Oxford player stays down on the ground and the North Stand chant “Boring, Boring, Oxford” having clearly not forgotten the goalless draw that Oxford successfully played for at Portman Road last season.
Twenty minutes go by and then Oxford have the audacity to almost score again as a shot rattles the net from the outside, but making the Oxford supporters think their team has scored. The usual jeering ensues prompting the Oxford fans to chant “We forgot that you were here”, although the evidence suggests they should be chanting “We forgot what a goal looks like”. Either way, in the spirit of Christmas TV and Wallace and Gromit, which is appropriate for Boxing Day, it was a close shave. The warning shot inspires a chant of “Blue and White Army” from the North Stand, but more annoyingly the bloke behind me with the vocalised internal dialogue starts giving tactical advice; “Switch it” he calls loud enough for only me to hear and not the players, and then “Get it down the channels”. He is getting on my nerves and I wonder if he’s trying to convince everyone around him that he is an out of work football coach, or is he just out to impress his son? I hope for the kid’s sake he is adopted and so hasn’t inherited the ‘berk’ gene.
A third of the game is nearly gone and Town have picked up and are dominating possession and winning corners. “Come On You Blues” I chant and ever-present Phil joins in, so does the bloke in front who I think is called Kevin, and so does the out of work football coach who’s just trying to impress his son. The stirring effect of our massed choir doesn’t work instantly, but Town soon win another corner and Freddie Ladapo and Leif Davis have headers saved, and Luke Woolfenden has a shot blocked. Town have momentum now and Conor Chaplin has a shot which the very solid and agricultural looking Oxford goalkeeper Ed McGinty cannot hold on to , the ball runs away from him and Freddie Ladapo boots it into the goal from close range. Town lead.
Hopefully, it will be one of those goals scored just before half time that sports commentators tell us are so important. Perhaps feeling vindicated by the goal the bloke behind me gives up on tactical advice and switches to matey encouragement, “Come on chaps” he says and “On yer bike, On yer bike , Orrrrr”. It works, successive corners follow and from the third, Wes Burns appears magically at the corner of the six-yard box and lashes the ball into the Oxford goal from an oblique angle. Town lead 2-0 and after five minutes of added on time that’s the half-time score. The players leave the field to applause and referee Mr Finnie strides off, flanked by his assistants with the ball tucked neatly under his arm and looking a little bit camp.
I speak with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison. Somewhat mysteriously Ray tells me he once went out with a girl who was probably in the same class at school as my sister, this would have been in in the early 1970’s and I can only think that Ray is planning a 50th anniversary celebration. At eight minutes past four the game resumes.
The berk behind me is back to coaching, “Channels, channels” he calls and Town win a couple of quick corners. Oxford’s James Henry fouls Leif Davis and is booked by Mr Finnie who admirably stands still and beckons Henry towards him from perhaps ten metres away before brandishing his yellow card. Town are on top again and looking to add to their 2-0 lead, and the upbeat ambiance leads the berk behind me to add attempted humour to his arsenal. “Would you like ice cream with that scoop?” calls the berk as McGinty lifts a clearance up and into the stand. I roll my eyes and slap my forehead and hope that this is just this blokes one match of the season; his ticket a present perhaps from a long-suffering partner who is now luxuriating in his being out of the house for a couple of hours.
An hour has passed and Oxford indulge in a double substitution which includes replacement of the prosaically named Matt Taylor with the more exotically monikered Gatlin O’Donkur, if indeed that is his real name. The crowd has become very quiet, all I can hear are conversations about people’s jobs, their families and what they did on Christmas day. A song emerges from the silence at the North Stand end of the ground but then trails away as if the lyrics are half-forgotten. “Second ball!” shouts the berk behind me. Town are looking comfortable and clearly don’t need our support today, just a bit of coaching, so we just sit and watch and quietly appreciate. The crowd is announced as 28,072 with 550 being Oxford supporters, but there is no ‘guess the crowd’ competition on the Clacton supporters bus today, because no bus ran and Pat came by car.
Time passes quickly. Marcus Harness is replaced to much applause by the tricky Sone Aluko who will go on to perform a number of delightful tricks and flicks and turns perfectly gauged for a Boxing Day audience which craves TV Christmas Special-style entertainment. Fittingly, with about ten minutes of normal time remaining Aluko supplies the pass for a third goal, the one that transforms the result from a win into a modest thrashing. The goal is a typical Conor Chaplin piece, one touch and then fired into the net. Today’s scoreline is now the same as that at my first ever Boxing Day fixture in 1972 when Town modestly thrashed Chelsea courtesy of Kevin Beattie and Trevor Whymark in the first half and a last minute John Hollins own goal. “I don’t think we can lose now” says an ever-nervous Pat from Clacton, and I agree, although we both remember losing at Oxford in 1986 when 3-0 up and Fiona chips in with our coming back from 3-0 down at Barnsley in 1996 with just five minutes to go. Seems Christmas is a time for reminiscing. But today Town are just too good for Oxford.
With five minutes of time added on played, when the final whistle goes it is almost five o’clock. I would stay to applaud the players from the field, but the PA system suddenly fills the cold evening air with the sound of Status Quo “Rocking All Over the World”. I might be wrong, but I imagine Stephen Foster is to blame. A man has got to draw the line somewhere and as far as Status Quo are concerned I drew it around Boxing Day 1972, a short while after the release of their album Piledriver, I therefore hurry back to my trusty Citroen leaving my team to enjoy the applause of others.
Despite its problems, brought on by traffic delays and a lack of time spent in the pub, today has worked out just fine in the end and I am sure that come May we shall be saying the very same thing with regard to Town’s season. Up The Town!