Oxford United 2 Ipswich Town 1

Oxford United is another football club for which I might claim some affinity due to genealogy.  My father’s father was from the Oxfordshire village of Cuxham, with a family history there going back into the 1700’s, whilst my wife’s mother was from Iffley, which is now a suburb of Oxford.  Added to that, my mother had a book of poems by Pam Ayres and rather liked Sir John Betjeman (a failed Magdalen College student) and Ernie the milkman too, but I never heard my grandfather speak of Oxford United, and I think he might have had a brother who played for their local rivals Reading.  Personally, I hate the bastards.  That is an attempt at a joke of course, but from the demented outlook of a football fan I do have cause not to like Oxford United much.  Ipswich Town have never won a league game in Oxford and the old Manor Ground in Headington, the scene of much Town disappointment for Town followers in the mid to late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, was an absolute dump, guaranteed to give you pneumonia from standing in the open in the rain, or cholera if you used the toilets, even though Town did get promoted there in 1992.  Adding an extra layer of resentment is the fact that my only previous attempt to attend a match at the Kassam Stadium, when spending a weekend in Oxford back near the turn of the century, a time I no longer really remember, ended with the game being called off due to a heavy frost.

With my mind a tortured maelstrom of contradictions and stuff I set out for Oxford, not in my trusty Citroen C3 but in my new electric Citroen E-C4 as I simultaneously attempt to right the wrongs of football watching history and save the planet from carbon monoxide poisoning at the same time.  The car won’t make a round trip of 240 miles without re-charging the batteries so I have been worrying and losing sleep all week imagining that I will not be able to re-charge the car and get home.  My research into the Zap-Map App and the comments of electric car users, intended to allay my fears through comprehensive preparation have only added to my insecurity.  I needn’t have worried of course, because having made the obvious choice to make a pre-match visit to the Redbridge Park and Ride super hub thing, I now am easily restoring the magical power of electric traction to my hopefully trusty but definitely clean air promoting Citroen EC4.  I find a small community of  electric car users there  who are willing to help and discuss best electric car-practice, although I can’t say much of the clique of Tesla users who have their own bank of charging points away from the hoi-polloi as if Elon Musk, the weirdly monikered owner of Tesla is trying to create his own fan base or private army over whom he has dominion.

With enough miles in the Citroen’s battery to ensure my return home after the match, I head for the Kassam Stadium just a few kilometres along the southern ring road.  It’s been a pleasant drive to Oxford on free-flowing motorways under pale blue skies and winter sun.  That was until I crossed the border from Buckinghamshire. Descending the awesome Aston Hill chalk cutting through the Chilterns  ( aka the Stokenchurch Gap) Oxfordshire is usually spread out below, but today it has been replaced by a murky, blurry smudge as if  Mark Rothko had painted a life size landscape.  To the side of the road, twenty or more large birds circle, they might by Kites but to my worried imagination they look like vultures; I’ve entered a scene from a fantasy novel in which the hero journeys into the cold and eerie kingdom of his evil nemesis, and to save battery power I haven’t even got the car radio on to keep me company.

An hour and a half later I have rocked up at the free-parking at the Kassam Stadium, where despite the car park being full, and it’s only half-past one, the little fella on the gate let’s me in and says if I can find a space I can stay.  After another steward directs me to some disabled parking spaces and I have to explain that I’m not disabled (not in any way that counts anyway) I follow the lead of another searcher and bump up onto a verge, which is very handily placed near the entrance for a quick getaway at the end of the game.  I switch off the car and eat the lunch that I brought with me, two poached salmon and water cress sandwiches on soft malted brown bread and two handcrafted classic pork sausage rolls.  I consume a chapter of my current read, a book entitled “Raw Concrete, the beauty of Brutalism”.  Outside of my Citroen it is foggy and grey and cold, and the home end of the Kassam stadium looms out of the misty gloom.  Just before two o’clock, I venture out to explore what lies beyond the sea of parked cars all around me.  I talk briefly to a man on a motorbike, who complains that people on foot won’t get out of his way.  I tell him I didn’t hear him, and it’ll be even worse when he has an electric bike; he doesn’t believe that will ever happen.  Although an Oxford supporter, the biker seems to think Ipswich will win by a couple of goals because they have some good players.  We part agreeing that we are both out to enjoy the afternoon whatever the result.

Outside the main stand I buy a programme (£4.00) from a woman stood behind a table. I had thought she said it was only £1,  and as I tender a single small coin I tell her  “That’s cheap”.  “Oh go on with you” she says as if I’m mucking about,  and my brain quickly reconsiders what I’d heard and tells me to hand over two larger coins and take the small one back, which in fact makes the programme rather expensive.  I wander on through more parked cars, past the statue of a bull with an impressive scrotum towards the club shop which is behind a cinema.  The club shop is a wonderful experience and I particularly enjoy the mugs celebrating the fact that Oxford lost three-nil at home to Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup; also for sale is a large mounted photo of the stadium that night, as if Oxford supporters need something to put up on their walls to prove that the stadium was very nearly full once.  There are also gnomes.

It’s one of those days when it seems I can’t help but catch people’s eye, and they nod as if they know me.   A policeman did it a minute ago and now a steward does it as I step up to turnstile three of the main stand.  Approaching the turnstile, I don’t know why but I half expect it to be automatic,  and I’m slightly taken aback to see the face and hand of a woman appear at a small window from which she scans my ticket.  Inside the stand, the walls are a mellow shade of breeze block, I buy a coffee (£2.20) and the young woman who serves me hopes that I enjoy it, which is good of her considering it’s just a paper cup of Kenco instant granules and hot water.  A man is selling programmes from behind a wall, and as if by way of advertisement he is reading a copy, pausing occasionally to call out “Programmes” in the manner of someone with Tourette’s syndrome, or like an evening paper seller.  There are the names of successful Oxford teams of the past printed on boards attached to the walls.  I find myself feeling slightly jealous of the names Cyril Toulouse and Les Blizzard.

Clutching my coffee to warm my hands, I find my seat, which is in the back row of the bottom tier of the stand, seat number 78, I chose it because that was the year Town won the Cup. Behind me is a wall of beautifully smooth polished concrete on the other side of which are Oxford’s ‘executive’ boxes.  An old boy on the back row stands to attention to let me past him as I ascend the steps, but I point to the seat and tell him I’m sitting next to him today.  As I stand by my tip-up seat and survey the ground the old boy fills me on our neighbours; the seats next to him and his friend are empty today because “they’ve got a do, this evening”  , whilst the bloke who sits in seat the other side of me will turn up just before kick-off, and in front of me will be a bloke wearing a cap with horns on and annoyingly the horns will always be in my field of vision.  The other seats about us are mostly filled with old blokes in woolly hats, the sort who I’m more used to seeing at non-league games.  I feel comfortable here, probably because I’ll soon be an old bloke myself.  An impressively loud chant suddenly booms through the fog from the Town supporters who are in the stand directly opposite me. It’ll be good if they can keep that up during the game and for more than the few seconds it lasted this time.

The man with the horns duly arrives as does my other neighbour, just as the old boy predicted, although he didn’t say he’d be eating a Twix, which he is. In time the teams appear, ushered onto the pitch between lines of flag waving children. Oxford United get first go with the ball and kick towards the end of the ground where there is no stand, just a scoreboard and fence with parked cars beyond.  Reassuringly both teams are wearing their proper first choice kits, although hi-viz versions would be handy today.  “Good player , him” says the old boy about Sam Morsy.  “Good goalie, him” says the old boy about Christian Walton. 

Only five minutes have elapsed and the Town fans opposite are unimaginatively already singing “Is this a library?” Has anyone ever walked into the Bodleian and chanted “Is this a football ground?” I wonder to myself.   “You’re support is fucking shit”,   continue the Town supporters, just like every other club’s fans do at Portman Road.   The illuminated advertising boards suddenly announce “County Plumbing Supplies” and I am reminded of my wife’s niece’s husband, who is a plumber up the road from Oxford in Banbury.  “Ethically sourced coconuts” reads the electric sign less prosaically moments later.  So far, on the pitch,  the football is all pretty humdrum, and Oxford are boldly not giving Town time to pass the ball about much, which from their perspective seems like a good tactic.   “Oxford Fabrications Ltd” reads a plain old wooden advert hoarding down in front of me.

“Here we go” says the old bloke as Town move forward quickly in their first proper attack.  The bloke the other side of me finished his Twix a while ago and opens a flask of coffee.  At the end of the ground with a stand, Oxford supporters sing rounds of “We’re the left side” “We’re the right side” as Town fans used to back in the 1980’s; I had expected these Oxfordians to be more cutting edge, despite the soft lilt of their bucolic accents.   The fog is swirling in an out and around the ground, hiding and revealing the occupants of the other two stands in turn.

Town earn their first corner after just ten minutes. “Come On You Blues” chant the Town fans with quite impressive volume.  Sam Morsy commits a foul and concedes a free kick half-way into Town’s half of the pitch. “Yellows, Yellows” chant the home fans briefly. “We forgot, We forgot , We forgot  that you were here” lie the Town fans unconvincingly.  As a quarter of the game recedes into the forgettable past, the Town fans are desperate enough to sense the need for encouragement; “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant, a couple of times, to remind themselves that they are here.  A minute later Marcus Harness lashes the ball over the Oxford cross bar, it is a good chance wasted.

The fog has thickened, and the orange and black clad and totally bald referee Mr Robert Madden calls for a day-glo ball. I joke with the old boy beside me that it has a bell in it and lights up too; standard football match humour, but it made him laugh, although he must have heard it before at his age. “Football in a library,  do-do-do” chant the Town fans before asking “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?”  Nobody responds, but the bloke with the horns gets up and heads downstairs, presumably to use the facilities. Town win a second corner.  The bloke with horns returns and the bloke sat next to him leaves; Wes Burns trundles through the Oxford defence and strikes a firm shot against the Oxford cross bar. Like Harness before him he probably should have scored.   A third of the game is gone forever, unless the match is abandoned, and as a broken down  Oxford player receives AA assistance, everyone else gets a drink and remedial coaching on the touchline.  Sam Morsy even changes his boots, perhaps for comfort, perhaps for fashion reasons, we will never know.

The game restarts and Conor Chaplin is soon flashing a header from a Marcus Harness cross straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. A minute later Oxford’s Yanic Wildschut stumbles goalwards through attempted tackles from Sam Morsy and Luke Woolfenden to find himself just six or seven yards from goal with a large space to aim at to Christian Walton’s left.  It’s an opportunity he doesn’t hit over or against the cross bar preferring to roll it accurately behind the far post to give Oxford the lead.  The old boy beside me is very happy indeed, if surprised. I stand up with those all around me, just to be polite really. Goals are sponsored by Tripp Hearing the electric advert boards tell us, who will also unblock your ears, presumably for a fee.

It takes just three minutes for Ipswich to equalise as Janoi Doncian breaks forward with no one to stop him and Marcus Harness crosses the ball to the far post where the unmarked Leif Davies is free to head the ball into the goal very easily indeed. I hadn’t expected Town to score so soon but am pleased they did.  “You’re not singing any more”  chant the Town fans, but I’m not sure anyone was.

The remaining eight minutes of the half drift off forgettably, Oxford win a free-kick from which a direct shot on goal is possible. “Yellows, Yellows” implores the scoreboard and two mournful chants of the two words emanate from the end that has a stand; the shot goes over the Town cross bar and after three minutes of additional time it’s half-time.

Half-time is still cold and foggy and I take a walk to the front of the stand to help move the blood in my veins. On the pitch a small collection of former players is gathered including Ron Atkinson famous for his awkward, room-silencing racist asides; I hadn’t realised he was still allowed out in public and just hope Marcel Desailly isn’t here too.  I browse the programme, which I decide I like, despite costing four quid, because it doesn’t have many adverts and other than the cover is not printed on glossy paper.  Less attractive is another hoarding in front of me advertising Mola TV which shows Belgian football on-line in the UK, but also the podgy, grinning face of Alan Brazil who, as great a player as he was for the Town does a fair impression of a complete arse on the radio.

At six minutes past four play resumes,  with the break having typically made us all feel a little bit colder than we were when the first half ended.  Town soon win a corner and chants of “Come On You Blues” can be heard through the fog.  The bloke sat beside me with the Twix and the coffee drinks some more coffee and eats another bar of chocolate of unknown brand.  A break down the right from Marcus Harness ends with a low cross and George Hirst driving a first time shot past an Oxford goalpost, it might go down as third opportunity missed.

Two thirds of the match is gone forever and Oxford win their first corner of the match, closely followed by the second.  “ Come On You Yellows” seeps through the fog from the end with a stand.  Marcus Harness and George Hirst are replaced by Nathan Broadhead and Freddie Ladapo and Oxford swap Wildschut and Mcguane for Joseph and Taylor.  A little creepily Oxford manager Karl Robinson seems to like to cuddle and fondle his players as they enter and leave the field of play; I’ve always thought  touching in the work place was strictly out of bounds.

Less than twenty to minutes to go and Oxford win a third corner, but the north stand has melted completely into the fog.  Conor Chaplin heads past the post from a horizontal position with his feet closest to the goal.  The game now stops as Mr Madden consults both captains and the managers, presumably about the deepening gloom and whether it is wise to carry on. Cross field passes and long balls are now even more hit and hope than usual.   The old boy beside me seems sure the game is going to be abandoned; I think he’d like to get home in the warm.  Some people in front of us do get up and leave.  “Where are ya?, Where are ya?” chant the Town fans playfully. “What’s going on, what’s going on?” chants the end with the stand, sounding more anxious.  The game resumes, but on the far side of the ground my view of the match is reduced to one of shadows and fog; if this was West Ham, Jack the Ripper might come on as substitute and we wouldn’t notice.

The game is into its last ten minutes of normal time and Oxford replace the improbably spelt Tyler Goodrham with Djavan Anderson.  The ball is in the Ipswich penalty area and comes out the edge where Cameron Branagan chances a shot on the half-volley which ends up in the top corner of the Ipswich goal.  It was to an extent a hit and hope a case of fortune favouring the brave, but Town are losing and on the basis of what has happened so far this afternoon defeat looms out of the fog.  Town’s response is to quickly replace as many players as possible and all three remaining substitutions are made in a sort of hopeful ‘powerplay’ of ‘fresh legs’.  Town win their second corner of the half, and then another and the ball strikes the cross bar for a second time, on this occasion from a Harry Clarke header. The pressure on the Oxford goal recedes. “No noise from the Tractor boys” chant the occupants of the end with a stand, and the game staggers on into seven minutes of added on time.  But Town don’t look like scoring again and they don’t.

With the final whistle I exit sharply, taking care not to bowl over any of the old boys carefully descending the stairs.  I am soon back at my car where the fog is freezing to my windscreen and with no queuing whatsoever am out onto Grenoble Road and then onto the B480 towards the motorway, the high road out of the fearful darkness that is Oxfordshire. It’s a great ending to an otherwise very disappointing afternoon, if I decide to care overly about the result, but as the old boys have no doubt learnt over time “You can’t win ’em all”, even when you’re expected to.  Sometimes just being happy you can get home after a day out is enough.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 1

I have always quite liked Plymouth Argyle, perhaps because I associate Plymouth with my earliest memories of a family holiday, back in 1966.  My father was in the Royal Navy and had been drafted to HMS Tiger a 9,500 ton cruiser, and when the ship was in Devonport dockyard (Guz as the Navy call it) we stayed with the family of one of his crew mates who lived in Plymouth.  I remember it raining a lot of the time and there being lots of slugs on the street outside the house, although we did spend a sunny day on Dartmoor, travelling there in our hosts’ grey Wolseley 1500, which seemed and was very different to my father’s maroon mark one Ford Cortina. I was also taken to see The Sound of Music at a cinema in Plymouth, probably because it was another wet day and there was nothing else to do, and I recall being bought a blue Dinky Toys Vauxhall Viva in a department store in the city and being impressed by Plymouth’s modern buildings and wide streets, the result of its planned re-building by architect Patrick Abercrombie, the city having been heavily bombed during World War Two.

In keeping with those early memories of a soggy Plymouth, there is a minor monsoon occurring as I set off in my trusty Citroen C3 to witness today’s visit of Plymouth Argyle to Portman Road.  Fortunately, the rain desists as I park up and head across a muddy, slippery Gippeswyk Park  for Portman Road and ‘The Arb’ beyond.  The bridge over the river is guarded by pairs of policemen and women in day-glo tabards looking down on the Plymouth fans enjoying the delights of the beer garden to the Station Hotel.  One policeman wears an orange baseball hat and has a video camera. I like to imagine that the police have their own equivalent of the BAFTAs, or that on a quiet afternoon some time on the future they will all sit in their canteen and watch their old films and reminisce. “Do you remember when all those lads came up from Plymouth back in ’23?”. “Ooh, yes, what larks we had”.  “Look, there’s you in your day-glo tabard, happy days”.

In Portman Road I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) queuing briefly behind a couple of Plymouth supporters who pay by card.  “Are you taking cash?” I ask the young woman in the blue programme booth; in her face I see a flash of recognition that I am the idiot who guessed the price of the programme for last weeks FA Cup tie. Spotting the re-purposed ice cream tub containing pound coins and fifty pence pieces I hand over my own coins and clutching my programme turn away, trying not to get the overhanging branches of a tree, which is inconveniently close to the booth, tangled in my hair.

As I head down Little Gipping Street a man calls from the window of a parked car “What’s the score gonna be today?”.  “Three-one” I say, “To Town of course”.  I wonder to myself what this obsession about predicting football scores is all about.  Approaching ‘The Arb’ rain drops begin to fall once more and I hurry the last few metres.  ‘The Arb’ is busy, busier than usual. I buy a pint of Mauldon’s Chestnut Amber Ale (£3.80) and go out into the beer garden where all the tables in the shelter are occupied. Two blokes sit at the one table that is beneath a large canopy or umbrella, I ask if I can join them out of the rain and they consent.  “What’s the score going to be today” asks one of the blokes.  “3-1 to Town” I say.  He predicts 3-2 to Town, the other bloke is sensible enough to keep his counsel. It’s not quite twenty to two and I text Mick to tell him I’m here already, because it’s unlike me to be early, but I left home early expecting there to be lots of Devon registered vehicles clogging up the A12.   I sup my beer, which tastes very good indeed, so I sup a bit more.

Mick soon arrives, pint of Chestnut Amber Ale and a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion crisps in hand, or hands.  After talking a little about the forthcoming match, and how good it is to be part of  big crowds at Portman Road we move on to our usual obsession with death and illness. ”This is a cheery conversation”  says the bloke who didn’t predict today’s result;  the trouble is Mick and I probably think it is .  On a lighter note Mick has resolved to knock on doors for the Labour party at the next general election, feeling compelled to do something to help prevent yet another four years of government for the benefit of the already wealthy to the detriment of those who have little.  The Chestnut Ale is so good I get another one and when the bloke beside me at the bar gets his Camra membership card out as he pays for his beer, I discover that there is a 10% discount on proper beer for Camra members, so I get out my Camra card too.  At between twenty -five and twenty to three we leave ‘The Arb’ for Portman Road, the rain has stopped and there are even a few gaps in the cloud through which watery light shines.

Mick and I part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way and as a parting gesture I tell him I will get him an FA Cup ticket.  I walk between the supporters coaches driven in from the countryside and find a queue at the turnstiles off Constantine Road, but it quickly melts away as turnstile 62, my favourite turnstile because it matches the year Town were Premier League Champion, is opened.  Out in the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand everyone is here already, from ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood to Pat from Clacton, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster is in his element with the big crowd fuelling his radio-DJ style enthusiasm and bonhomie; he reads out the Town team and I shout out their surnames like a Frenchman would if this was Ligue 1 rather than League One.

The game begins beneath leaden skies and sparkling floodlights and Town get first go with the ball kicking it mostly towards me, Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood when not patiently kicking it sideways.  Town are very correctly in blue shirts and white shorts whilst Plymouth wear an away kit which is an unsuccessful arrangement of green, white and black diagonal bands across the front, and at the back is completely white; it looks like it might have been designed by the club chairman and screams ‘lower division’.

“We’re top of the league” chant the Plymouth supporters rather mournfully to the tune of “Sloop John B” and the noise and atmosphere inside Portman Road is almost thrilling, aided no doubt by the banners of Fortuna Dusseldorf fans in the corner and visiting Town supporting Vikings from Norway and Denmark, It only takes four minutes however for our Devonian guests to go all operatic on us, a la Guiseppe Verdi and enquire “Is this a library?” and I can only think the club has still not yet papered the walls of the away section of the Cobbold Stand with pictures of bookcases, as I suggested to them by e-mail several months ago.

The game is messy, played too fast for Town to mesmerise the opposition with their hypnotic, patient passing.  Eleven minutes have faded into history and as Plymouth’s Macauley Gillesphey jumps, Wes Burns challenges.  The extravagantly spelt Gillesphey looks for sympathy and referee Mr Woolmer, a small bald-headed man with obvious motive for bitterness and envy, shows his yellow card to the hirsute and 1.73m tall Wes Burns, even though 1.73 m isn’t really very tall.

The match is still a mess with possession swapping between the teams too regularly for either side to build up any sort of passing let alone attacking rhythm.  Aurally the same applies as competing songs and chants from the Cobbold Stand and the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand merge somewhere between my ears in a gruff cacophony.  From the Cobbold Stand the na-na-nas of KC and Sunshine Band’ Baby Give It Up  are followed by something indecipherable whilst in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand people are walking in a wonderland but it’s not clear what sort.

Marcus Harness goes down under a robust Plymouth challenge and no free-kick is given “Every fucking week” says the bloke behind me even more exasperated than usual.  A couple of passages of play consist entirely of opposing players leaping together from a standing start to head the ball, it’s like watching migrating salmon. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” sing the Plymouth fan, singing the tune of Cwm Rhondda.  The silence of the Town fans is its own answer and for a short while the Plymouth fans take the hint, but not for long.

It’s the twenty-first minute and Town unveil their first shot at goal, a weaker than hoped for effort from Freddie Ladapo, which rolls comfortably into the Argyle goalkeeper’s welcoming arms.   Christian Walton boots the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and into the arms of the Plymouth goal-keeper . Lee Evans volleys optimistically and  high over the Plymouth cross-bar.  Christian Walton boots the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and into the arms of the Plymouth goalkeeper. “ How many more times?” asks the bloke behind me still as exasperated as before; the answer, although we don’t know it yet is ‘several’.

Seven minutes until half-time and former Town defender and now Plymouth captain, James Wilson is booked by bald little Mr Woolmer for a foul on the industrious Conor Chaplin. James Wilson is 1.88m tall and has hair, although nowhere near as much as fellow Welshman Wes Burns.  The rain has returned and is sweeping across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand, it glistens in the beams of the floodlights. Forty minutes have gone and Town win their first corner. “Come On You Blues” I chant, along with a few others who believe in the power of passionate song. Our passion falls on stony ground.  Christian Walton boots the ball aimlessly for a third time; there will be a minute of added on time. Sam Morsy receives the ball in the middle of the Plymouth half and steps goalwards. As if in a peculiar reversal of Biblical events, the Plymouth defence seems to part like the Red Sea in front of the Egyptian as he advances. Morsy gets to the edge of the box and shoots but perhaps having a sense that the waters are closing in around him his shot is weak and not directed away from Michael Cooper the Plymouth keeper who is much too good to let it trouble him in the slightest.

Half-time arrives and I go to speak with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison who admits to feeling very nervous about todays game.  I remember feeling the same when I was eighteen like Harrison, but think the ceaseless disappointment of the last twenty years has knocked it out of me, as if by no longer daring to hope for the best,  I also no longer fear the worst and simply expect it.

At four minutes past four the match resumes. Four minutes later Marcus Harness find space and rattles the Plymouth cross bar with an angled shot.  A previously unheard knot of supporters somewhere off behind me and to my right launch into a rendition of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing the Norwich ran away” but don’t get past the first line, perhaps suddenly realising that Twelfth Night was last week.  Two minutes later and Plymouth’s Niall Ennis whose name reminds me of the brilliant and much lamented Neil Innes, and The Rutles, skips away from Cameron Burgess and into the penalty area with time to pick out Ryan Hardie in the centre of the goal and barely six yards from the target. With the goal ‘at his mercy’ Hardie shows clemency and thankfully proceeds to side foot the ball against the cross bar.  Town should be a goal down.

The rain continues to pour, and sweep across the pitch, Plymouth make their first substitution. Sixty- three minutes have passed and then, pretty much out of nothing Wes Burns lashes the ball into the Plymouth goal and Town lead with a remarkable and unexpected goal.  I dare to imagine Town might win, but as Plymouth kick off again their fans are chanting their teams name in a manner that Town fans rarely if ever do when going a goal down.

Four minutes after the goal Freddie Ladapo leaves the field to warm applause to be replaced by loanee sign George Hirst, who I like to think is the son of artist Damian but disappointingly is in fact son of former Sheffield Wednesday player David.  This afternoon’s attendance is announced by an excited Stephen Foster as a stonking 29,069 including 2,144 from Devon.  There’s no guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters bus today because everyone guessed 29,000.  But when the total is read out Pat curses her luck because she says her guesses always end with sixty-nine; I don’t dare to ask her why.  Whilst a Plymouth player receives treatment in the wake of a goalmouth scrambIe, I can see George Hirst stretching his legs by doing something akin to the silly walk performed by John Cleese in Series 2 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, perhaps he’s a fan.

It’s the seventy-first minute and for reasons unknown to me the stands are lit up with the torches from mobile phones, I don’t know whether I’m at a football match or watching Leonard Cohen at the Isle of White Festival in 1970.   The Plymouth supporters sing “Stand up if you’re…”  but I can’t work out what it is you have to be or be doing to stand up.  

It’s the seventy-ninth minute and weirdly it feels like nothing has happened since we scored. Five minutes later and Kane Vincent Young replaces Wes Burns.  Pat from Clacton asks if I feel tense. I have to admit that I don’t really; Pat says she feels a bit sick.   There will be nine minutes of additional time, mostly down to injured Plymouth players. Two minutes into additional time and Bali Mumba is left in space between Leif Davis and Cameron Burgess inside the penalty area; he has time to shoot, I can’t see that it will go into the net but the ball hits Burgess’s back and is deflected up into the top corner of the goal out of Christian Walton’s reach.  It’s almost a repeat of Fleetwood’s equaliser a little over a month ago.  It feels like all the ‘fine margins’ are against us, but at least we now have ‘fine margins’.

The remaining minutes float away into nothing as if they never happened and the final whistle arrives like the call to say the dentist will see you now.  I thought we were going to win 3-1, but we didn’t come close.  Over the course of the whole match I think Plymouth were better  than us, but at least my mistaken prediction suggests I do still have hope really, and Harrison and Pat from Clacton clearly do, and heck, I still have fond memories of Plymouth in 1966.  I wish Argyle luck for the rest of the season, just not too much of it.

Ipswich Town 4 Rotherham United 1

The year of our Lord 2023 has not started well. I have been suffering with diarrhoea all week and on Friday evening the teams I was rooting for in their respective ties in the ‘round of thirty-two’ in the Coupe de France (Montpellier HSC, Nimes Olympique, RC Strasbourg and LB de Chateauroux) all lost.  Today began as dull and grey and has progressed to become both wet and miserable, but my gloom and despondency have lifted as today is also the third round of the FA Cup and mighty Ipswich Town have a home tie against mighty Rotherham United. 

When I saw my first FA Cup third round tie back on 5th January 1974 (Town v Sheffield United) it would have been inconceivable to think of first division Town beating fourth division Rotherham as ever being a giant killing, but forty-nine years on the tables have turned a bit.  With Rotherham now in the second division and Town in the third, if Town win today I shall be claiming this as a ‘giant killing’, albeit one akin to a school child who is rather big for their age thumping one who is small for theirs but in the year above.

Ipswich is grey, Gippeswyk Park is wet underfoot and traffic is queuing to get over the bridge opposite the railway station, but Portman Road is quiet as I step up to the first booth I come to to purchase a copy of today’s programme. “Let me guess, £2.00 today” I say to the young woman in the booth.  She smiles perhaps through pity but I like to think she almost appears impressed as I hand her a single coin and tell her it wasn’t that big a deal, I’ve been to Cup matches before. 

By and by I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ and at the bar tell the barman that I ought to have something non-alcoholic; he directs me to the third shelf from the bottom of a tall fridge with a glass door which is packed with cans of ‘craft’ beer.  I pick a can of Big Drop Galactic Milk Stout and returning to the bar the I hear the voice of Mick saying “I’ll get that” which is characteristically good of him.  Mick has a glass of an anonymous amber bitter and packet of Fairfield’s Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps.  We repair to the garden where we meet Gary coming in the opposite direction who texted me early this morning, but I didn’t reply because I hadn’t noticed.  Gary is on his way to buy himself a beer and returns with a pint of unidentified lager; Gary is from Essex.

The three of us talk a little of football, the tv series ‘detectorists’, but also of death, as ever.  Mick’s daughter’s neighbour died this week from cardiac arrest and Gary tells of a man whose birthday coincided with his wife being admitted to hospital and her father dying. Aside from the big things like wars, famine and climate change life can be pretty miserable on a micro-level, which puts football into perfect perspective, so we really should try and enjoy it whatever the result.

Not much after twenty-five to three we head for Portman Road, returning our glasses to the bar on the way and noting that ‘The Arb’ now has a menu for dogs; I make a silly comment about restaurants in Malaysia. Sir Alf Ramsey Way is thick with people queuing to get into Sir Alf’s eponymous stand and the Magnus west stand, but we carry on towards the Corporation bus depot and find no queue at all at the end turnstile, where for the first time in my life I gain entry by my wife having downloaded my ticket on my mobile phone and having it scanned.  Mick and I were both nervous that this would work but it did.  I find myself marvelling at the wonder of modern technology in the manner of uncle Bryn in tv’s ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

Having syphoned off some beer, Mick and I find our way to the ‘posh’ padded seats in Block Y from where will be watching this afternoon’s game.  Gary only bought his ticket last night and so is away in the humbler surroundings of F Block.  Courtesy of his season ticket, Gary normally sits in J Block which Mick tells me is also the name of an Ipswich drugs gang from the mean streets between Bramford Road and London Road.  In the oppressive dim light of the upper tier of the Magnus west stand, we edge ourselves past an unsmiling man and his unsmiling wife, although she could be his floozie, and we find our seats.  A little weirdly to my cold, unfeeling mind, today’s game is, according to page 23 of the programme, the Club’s annual Memorial Matchday in which members of the Blue Army who died in 2022, or ‘passed away’ as the programme calls it, can be remembered.   Before the game can begin the names of the deceased appear on the scoreboard and they receive a minute’s applause. “There are an awful lot of names” says Mick, who for a moment thinks these are all former players.  I’m not sentimental and find this Memorial Match idea a bit odd, but I am reminded nevertheless of former manager John Duncan and the excellent, original David Johnson,  John Jackson and, although I saw none of his thirty-four games for Town, Aled Owen. I recall seeing Jackson’s only game for Town, a 2-1 win over Manchester United and that Aled Owen played a single league game in the Championship winning season of 1961/62.  I think of fellow fan Andi Button with whom I saw many an away game in the 1980’s and 1990’s and even travelled with him by car to see Doncaster Rovers v Colchester United for what was the last game at Belle Vue before Doncaster were relegated from the Football League in 1998.

With applauses clapped and knees taken the game begins, Rotherham having first go with the ball, hoping to kick mostly towards the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and looking like Derby County or Germany in white shirts with black shorts, despite their proper kit of red shirts with white sleeves and white shorts not clashing at all with Town’s blue and white ensemble.  Perhaps the absence of the red kit is a sign that Rotherham haven’t turned up as themselves today and aren’t much interested in the Cup, but in fact their team shows just one change from that which lost in the league at Millwall last weekend.

The crowd is loud with a good noise from the Sir Bobby Robson stand where the most vocal support, Blue Action, has re-located itself from stuck up the corner to the central section. Despite the impressive support, the game starts slowly, very slowly, with Richard Keogh and George Edmundson frequently standing still with the ball at their feet before merely passing the ball between one another. As I remark to Mick, it’s not exactly a ‘blood and thunder’ cup tie. I spend my time getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings of Block Y with its tight legroom and padded seats and the man behind me with a loud voice who likes to explain things to his children, although to be fair they are asking questions, as children do.  Slowly, Town venture forward and a couple of forays on the flanks nearly produce moves worth applauding and some people do. Both Conor Chaplin and Kayden Jackson have shots on goal, but both are poor efforts.  Then twice the ball is given away cheaply in the Town half and luckily Rotherham fail to take full advantage, Jamie Lindsay trying and failing to pass when he should have shot and then most luckily of all the ball is sent from close range into the Town net only for the ‘scorer’ to be flagged offside.  The home crowd is in good voice with the lower tiers of both the Sir Alf and Sir Bobby stands looking full.

Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball. “Way offside” calls a bloke behind me in a tone of voice that implies that Ladapo being offside is a given.  “Way offside” he says again scornfully and then once more for luck when the assistant referee finally raises his flag.  This bloke behind me would seem to have turned up simply to let the world, or at least an unfortunate part of Block Y know that he doesn’t rate Freddie Ladapo.  The larger part of the first half is marred by such carping “Here we go, what are you gonna do with it? Do something with it” says another know-it-all as the opportunity for a match winning pass once again fails to materialise.   Much more enjoyably, when Kayden Jackson is fouled but gets no free-kick, a high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice from behind calls “Get your bloody glasses out”.

A half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich have dominated, they have not been incisive, and shooting has been snatched at and inaccurate.  The children behind are eating savoury snacks that smell like a dog has farted.  In the corner between the Cobbold Stand and the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I can see a patch of blue sky above what must be Holywells Park.  A fine rain has started to fall and it’s nearly half-time. Kayden Jackson breaks down the right wing, as the Rotherham defence back pedal, Jackson sends a low cross towards the back of the penalty area, Conor Chaplin can’t reach it, but Cameron Humphreys is running in and strikes the ball smoothly inside the left hand post beyond the diving Viktor Johansson, and Town lead 1-0, it’s a fine, fine  goal.

Half-time follows on quickly and the crowd seems happy, a goal always works wonders. Mick had departed early to siphon more used beer and I meet him in the bar where we watch the half-time results on the tv and play spot the ‘giant-killing’ which leads to a discussion about which league clubs are in and how it was easier when it was divisions one to four. I admit to Mick that I still refer to divisions one to four bloody-mindedly to show my dislike of ‘modern ways’ in the same way that I call the internet the interweb.  Mick says he does the same when he still calls Ipswich’s ‘waterfront’ the docks.

The game resumes at five past four and it’s still raining, just a bit harder.  We’ve barely got comfortable again before Keogh and Leif Davis get in a muddle and allow Conor Washington to slip between them and get beyond Keogh who stretches out a leg or two giving Washington the opportunity to fall over him and win a penalty, which being unfamiliar with the Corinthian Spirit he naturally takes. Washington recovers sufficiently from his ordeal to score the penalty and the hard work of the first half is laid to waste.  Keogh hasn’t had a great match today, he could be the new Luke Chambers although happily he’s no Mark Fish or Ivar Ingimarsson.

The match resumes again and despite no doubt the worst fears of the crowd, Town continue to be the better team and Rotherham don’t look like scoring again.  The rain continues, swirling and drifting through the beams of the floodlights as natural daylight fades from the streets around the ground. Over an hour has passed and Marcus Harness replaces Sone Aluko, Rotherham bring on the only player from their last league match who didn’t begin the game today, Dan Barlaser, who sounds like a character from a sci-fi novel.

Town play a patient game, which is just as well because there are twenty-six minutes to wait until Freddie Ladapo, with his back to goal is wrestled to the ground by Rotherham’s Wes Harding.  Conor Chaplin scores the resulting penalty and the Sir Bobby Robson stand channel the spirit of Doris Day with an essential but tentative chorus of “Que Sera, Que Sera”.  “It wasn’t even a great penalty” says the know-it-all behind me.  Four minutes later Town make mass substitutions, which as often seems to happen bring quick relief to our pain and Freddie Ladapo gets a free run at goal; he rounds the goalkeeper and shoots low and hard to put Town 3-1 up, much to the chagrin no doubt of the know-it-all.

Today’s attendance is announced by the dangerously up-beat Stephen Foster as being 15,728 with 215 of that number being Rotherhamites. It has to be the biggest crowd for an FA Cup match at Portman Road in at least ten years, probably more.  Rotherham continue to flounder.  “Ha-ha” says the child behind me sounding like Nelson Munce from the Simpsons as a rare Rotherham foray forward squirms away over the line for a goal-kick.  All around, except up in the Cobbold stand there is a sense of joy.  Cup fever has broken out at Portman Road and is spreading fast through a crowd previously thought to have been vaccinated against it. The until now totally reserved man beside me begins to mutter “Ole, Ole, Ole” to himself following the lead of the Sir Bobby Robson stand, only they’re not muttering.

Eight minutes of normal time remain and a Kyle Edwards shot hits a post. Gassan Yahyi replaces Freddie Ladapo and then Kane Vincent-Young takes advantage of a shove by Hakeem Odoffin and Wes Burns adds a fourth goal from the penalty spot as a result.  “Championship you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers safe in the knowledge that we can’t possibly lose now, and after three minutes of added on time Town’s ball books its place in the velvet bag for the fourth-round draw.

As we descend the stairs and head out into the drizzly darkness Mick and I reflect on our afternoon of FA Cup giant-killing .  I venture that it was pretty good. “After a very slow start” says Mick, tempering my enthusiasm, but I’m sure he’s only trying to keep my feet on the ground.   Wemberlee!