Back in the late 1960’s when Ipswich were climbing out of the second division and I was at primary school, I would walk home for lunch most days except on a Friday when, having checked with the head cook, who conveniently was my mother’s cousin, that fish and chips was on the menu, I would stay for a ‘school dinner’. Like a lot of people of I’ve always liked fish and chips and for lunch today I had a polystyrene box of cod and chips with mushy peas at the Suffolk County Council canteen. As much as I like fish and chips however, and savour those first few delicious mouths full, by the time I get to the end the batter on the fish and the oil on the chips is beginning to get the better of me; I feel a bit bloated and in a couple of hours it’s going to repeat on me.
Tonight, in a second bout of Friday night football at Portman Road in the space of six weeks, Ipswich Town are playing Fleetwood Town, from the Lancashire fishing port probably once responsible for most of the cod dished up on Fridays in East Suffolk primary schools. The game has been moved to Friday because there is little hope that most people will be boycotting the Qatar World Cup, and had England qualified for the last sixteen by finishing second in their group, they would have been playing on Saturday afternoon. Football at three o’clock on a grey winter’s afternoon is great, but an evening match under the bright white glow of the floodlights is always a beautiful thing; it seems to heighten and enhance the usual match day sensations, a bit like listening to The Beatles’ best album Revolver whilst sucking on a sherbet fountain or having smoked something illicit. A night game also provides the opportunity to go straight from work to the pub, which is really living.
I cross the Cornhill as the town hall clock strikes six o’clock and hit “The Arb” as I have decided to call the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum), no more than ten minutes later, seconds after Mick has phoned me to tell me he is already there, and is thinking that sitting out in the beer garden on what is a cold and intermittently drizzly and blowy December evening might be an overly hardy thing to do. I point out that we are going to be sitting outside watching football for the best part of two hours anyway. Mick concedes that this is a fair point. Ultimately, fate dictates that there is nowhere left to sit inside the building and so, having ordered a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a mushroom and chestnut burger with sweet potato fries for Mick and a pint of Tindall’s Ditchingham Dam (£4.10) and a scotch egg (£4.00) for me, we step outside again into the beer garden, where we are warded off sitting at one table by an elderly man who says he has reserved it for his family. When the man’s family do arrive, they all sit at the table he’s sat at. The man then causes confusion by trying to accept an order for a full-stack burger and a half-stack burger with fries which aren’t his. He manages to eat a chip before his family arrives from the bar and points out that they have only just ordered the food so it is unlikely to be here already; the food is quickly whisked away to the rightful diners.
As usual, our conversation is diverse and as usual includes death, as we speak of the demise a day or two ago of his former partner’s 20-year-old cat Archie, and how long ago it was that I had my dog Alfie put down. Lightening up matters, I tell Mick that yesterday I had an electric charging point installed at my house and Mick tells me that his now deceased father once had an affair with the village post mistress. Time passes quickly as we eat our food and then I buy a Dalwhinnie single malt whisky for Mick and a pint of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog for me (£8.90). Unhappily the Nog is on the turn, so I swap it for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride.
By the time we come to leave, we are the only people left in the beer garden, but we carry on our conversation as we head purposefully and full of expectation to the ground. Crossing the Portman Road car park, I tell Mick of Decimus Burton the nineteenth century architect who planned the centre of Fleetwood and built the North Euston Hotel as a staging post for rail travellers on the way from London to Scotland, expecting that railway lines would not be able to cross the Lake District and that journeys would continue by steam ship.
Mick and I part in what was Portman Walk where he enters the Magnus west stand and I proceed to turnstile 61, the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the delights within. Kick-off is imminent as I take my seat in the company of ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona, and the man from Stowmarket. But Pat from Clacton is still wheezing having had covid and is staying home to watch the game on the interweb; Elwood is not here either. Stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads out the teams, introducing Fleetwood as the Cod Army and the game begins with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and unusually for the first half, they are aiming at the goal at the Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground. Town are rightly in our traditional blue and white whilst Fleetwood are impersonating Arsenal, or Stade de Reims if you are in France and Rotherham United if in South Yorkshire. Quickly Town are on the attack, win a corner, have a Conor Chaplin shot blocked, have a Freddie Ladapo shot saved and then score from very close range as Luke Woolfenden appears heroically at the far post; the game is less than two minutes old. As Fiona says, almost complaining, we haven’t really got ourselves settled in yet, and in all the unexpectedly early excitement we forget to take a photo of ever-present Phil celebrating the goal to send to Pat from Clacton.
In the row behind me someone has missed the kick-off. “Did you see the goal?” he asks. “Some of us got here on time” is the answer, “I’ve been here since the Buxton game”. For the benefit of someone who missed the goal it is described as an eighteen-yard pile-driver. A goal up, Town continue to be the better team. Fleetwood briefly break away in a moment of confusion and the ball drifts past Christian Walton’s far post before Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo hit shots straight at the Fleetwood goalkeeper whose first name is the same as Homer Simpson’s middle name, which I’d like to say is appropriate because they’re both big and yellow, but sadly it’s not true as the goalkeeper is wearing green. Drizzle sweeps across the pitch and into the front of the stand and people sat at the front are offered transparent ponchos, which could be quite alluring on the right people in the right circumstances.
Freddie Ladapo forces a fine save from the goalkeeper and Fiona says “Quick, you can get your photo taken with Bluey” as the Town mascot moves amongst his people behind us. Only 20 minutes have gone and Fleetwood substitute Penny’s brother Paddy Lane with Nora’s brother Dan Batty before referee Mr Sam Purkiss, who sounds a bit like he could be a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel, makes an appalling decision. Wes Burns and Fleetwood’s Josh Earl both slide in on the wet turf to claim a loose ball, Burns gets to it first and races away, but Earl stays down on the ground and Burns is booked. At this moment I take a strong dislike towards Purkiss and it’s not long before I’m turning to Fiona and asking if she would agree that he looks a bit like Matt Hancock MP.
The crowd had been in good voice when Town dominated and looked likely to batter the ‘Cod Army’, but they quieten down as Fleetwood have a spell of possession before the zeitgeist amongst the home crowd switches again to positivity and the occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Blue and White Amy, Blue and White Army”, at least three times. Town are worth another goal, but Fleetwood are taking an increasingly physical approach to play and the worst example is when Kyle Edwards is scythed down, but the Hancock lookalike referee doesn’t even give a foul, when a caution for the Edwards’ assailant looked the only possible outcome.
Four minutes of time added on are announced by Stephen Foster and when Conor Chaplin is given a free-kick after being fouled, the decision is met with ironic cheers from the stands. Town win a final corner of the half, but it comes to nought and at twenty-five to nine the first forty-five minutes of the game finish. “You don’t know what you’re doing” chants the young bloke in front of me at Hancock’s double as he passes by and a bloke a few rows behind rants furiously and possibly in a foreign language whilst I boo enthusiastically. I love a good boo at the referee, especially when he looks like a former member of the Cabinet, and even more when he seems bent enough to be one.
After a short pause to calm myself down after all that booing, I take a trip to the front of the stand to speak with Harrison and his dad Michael. Michael’s dad Ray is away on holiday, cruising somewhere in the Azores. Harrison tells me he has now heard Robyn Hitchcock’s new album ‘Shufflemania’ on Spotify and his review is positive; I’m not sure I could have spoken with him again if it hadn’t been. We speak of the World Cup, although I haven’t been watching it, and Michael makes the very good point that this World Cup doesn’t seem like a World Cup because it’s not summertime, and so there is still real Ipswich Town-based football to occupy our minds and to leave the house for.
At seven minutes to nine the game resumes and it’s Fleetwood who are the team who mostly have the ball at their feet, which isn’t what we’ve come to expect at all. Faintly heard chants carry on the wind from the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand where the small, loyal band of Fleetwood fans are sat, no doubt sucking on Fisherman Friends lozenges to lubricate their vocal chords. The easterly breeze that buffets the flags on the roof of the stand whispers something about a red and white army.
“Filthy fucker” bawls a bloke from somewhere behind me as Josh Earl floors Conor Chaplin at thigh height and inevitably Mr Purkiss doesn’t think the foul worthy of a booking. “Shit referee, shit referee” is the verdict of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand before they simultaneously clear their minds of such negativity and worries about cultural appropriation with a burst of “I-pswi-ch To-wn, Ipswich To-wn FC, They’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” to the tune of the Irish Rover. They must be in the mood for traditional music tonight as a short while later they’re trudging their way through the dirge version of “When the Town go marching in”, sounding like they’ve learnt it by listening to a 45 rpm record being played at 33 rpm.
Fleetwood are the better team this half without ever having a decent attempt on goal, a bit like they’re being managed by Paul Lambert. Kyle Edwards is replaced by Kayden Jackson, and Fleetwood’s Dan Batty vainly dives in the penalty area, perhaps to test out just how bad a referee Mr Purkiss is; bad, but thankfully not that bad. For his trouble Batty is serenaded with a chorus of “Who the fuck, Who the fuck, Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” by the Sir Bobby Robson stand.
Despite not playing very well at all in the second half, Ipswich nevertheless retain the ability to make one match-winning opportunity and with thirteen minutes of normal time remaining Sam Morsy moves forward and passes wide to Wes Burns who releases an overlapping Janoi Donacien and his low cross from the goal line is met by Cameron Humphreys, who bounces the ball wide of the goal. I clutch the sides of my head like the bloke in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’. John Wark would have scored, Tommy Miller would have scored, Matt Holland would have scored; but that was then and this is now, I don’t know why I mentioned it.
Smothering our regrets, Stephen Foster delivers tonight’s attendance figure which is 22,801, of whom a stonking 66 are from Fleetwood, although the bloke behind me doesn’t think there are that many and I will admit to having tried to count them and I came up with barely fifty. It seems that about sixteen ‘Codheads’, for that is what natives of Fleetwood are known as, have gone AWOL, caught in a net somewhere perhaps, or victims of diminishing fish stocks.
Ten minutes to go and Freddie Ladapo makes way for the rangy Gassan Ahadme. “This is fucking embarrassing ,I tell ya” says the bloke behind me as Mr Purkiss makes another characteristic non-decision when Conor Chaplin is pushed over from behind. But at least Fleetwood don’t look like scoring, even though they are still the ones with the ball at their feet most of the time. They can pass, but they don’t create any chances, although one goal line clearance has been needed.
Town make their final substitutions and for Fleetwood Dan Batty suffers the ignominy of being a substitute who is substituted. There will be six minutes of added on time and for five of them the same pattern continues. It’s a bit frustrating that Town don’t seem able to keep the ball themselves, when we’re usually so good at it, but it seems pretty safe letting Fleetwood have it because if they don’t shoot they wont score and if we don’t have the ball Fleetwood can’t attempt limb threatening tackles that they won’t get punished for. Then Cian Hayes seems to realise there is no time left to do anything but shoot, so he strides forward a couple of paces and does so, it’s not a great shot, it shouldn’t be a worry, but it hits someone and arcs up and over Christian Walton onto the far post, off which it deflects into the goal in exactly the way that Town shots that hit posts never seem to. Fleetwood have equalised.
It’s not much of a consolation, but as the Fleetwood players celebrate wildly there’s one who goes too far, and it happens to be Josh Earl who is sent off by the hopeless Mr Purkiss, perhaps in a mis-guided attempt to atone for his earlier leniency. Enough time remains for Purkiss to wave away appeals for what seems from the nearby Sir Alf Ramsey Stand like a clear penalty as Kayden Jackson looks to be barged over, but that’s all the time there is, and the appeals are still being heard as Purkiss blows the final whistle.
As I leave the ground I see the disappointment etched on supporters faces. What had started out like cod and chips with that delicious first mouthful of an early goal has ended like cod and chips, feeling a bit bloated and uncomfortable and knowing it’s going to repeat on me.