Ipswich Town 3 Oxford United 0

‘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!

Ipswich Town 2 Peterborough United 1

Henry VIII’s original ex, Catherine of Aragon died on the 7th January 1536 in Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire and was then buried in Peterborough cathedral, and indeed what is left of her still is.   This burial is perhaps the city of Peterborough’s main claim to fame, and I must admit to being quite impressed, although given that after Henry split up with her in 1533 Catherine lived in Hatfield, Enfield , Ampthill and a couple of other places too before rocking up in Kimbolton it seems like just a bit of luck for Peterborough that she finally conked out in the PE postcode area.  Peterborough’s other claim to fame is its football club’s impressive record in competitive fixtures against the mighty Ipswich Town.  In sixteen games since November 1955 Peterborough have won nine, drawn four and lost only three fixtures.  Amongst those victories for Peterborough were two FA Cup ‘giant killings’ as a non-league club in the 1950’s and then this century a stonking 7-1 thrashing live on TV, although this can excused by the fact that Town were at the time managed by Roy Keane, who if not insane is at the very least a bit odd and after ‘Hurst the Worst’ was easily Town’s most terrible ever manager.

Today sees the seventeenth competitive meeting between Ipswich Town and Peterborough United and just to make it memorable it’s kicking off at 12:30pm, presumably to ensure anyone travelling from beyond the Ipswich area can get home in time to watch England lose to France on the telly in the World Cup quarter finals.  For even more added interest, it’s a particularly cold day with a thick frost clinging to the windows of my trusty Citroen C3 and many other surfaces as I prepare to set off for what I now call ‘The Arb’ for my usual pre-match drink with friend Mick.  Having parked up the Citroen, the walk to Portman Road through Gippeswyk Park is glorious beneath a clear, pale blue sky across earth as hard as iron and frosted, quietly crunchy grass. The icy air feels clean and fresh as I breathe it in.  On Ranelagh Road I follow a man for whom the peculiarly low crotch on his trousers makes him look like he has very short legs and a long body, but then again perhaps he has. Constantine Road is quiet and what used to be Portman Walk is too. As usual I pause to buy a programme (£3.50) from the kiosk on the corner of Alderman Road.  The kiosk window is steamed up due to the cold and I can only see the middle third of the programme seller, who remains legless and headless.  To add to my retail experience, I go to pay by card, but the touch screen thing doesn’t work and I have to insert my card into the plastic contraption and tap in my PIN number.  “I hope I’m not charged twice” I tell the midriff, and a disembodied voice tells me to take it up in the shop if I am.

I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ at 11:15 and buy a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.95) which I take into the garden where I text Mick to tell him “Je suis dans le jardin”.  Mick soon arrives, pint of Suffolk Pride in hand, and asks if my sitting in the garden is still a reaction to Covid.  I tell him it is, but it also saves me having to take my coat off.  Our conversation as ever is about sex and death.  We finish our drinks by noon but hang on another ten minutes because we don’t want to arrive too early.

We join the match-bound crowd as we and it cross Civic Drive.  What used to be Portman Walk is full of people crossing paths and making beelines for their chosen turnstiles. The low chatter of the crowd, the purposeful walking and checking of tickets, the approaching kick-off, it’s all part of the mounting excitement.  There is a queue at turnstiles 59 and 60 to the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and I find myself behind a man called Kevin. I compliment him on the 1970’s vibe of his cap, donkey jacket, Doc Marten’s and turned up jeans, he says he’s come as a Council dustman.

I step onto the former terrace of Churchman’s as the teams form parallel crocodiles onto the pitch and the crowd rises to applaud, it feels like quite an entrance.  I edge past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to sit next but one to the man from Stowmarket. Two rows in front of me ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, but his son Elwood is not.  Phil and Fiona hand me Christmas cards and Stephen Foster the stadium announcer reads out the teams and then the match begins, with Peterborough getting first go with the ball. Town are rightfully in blue and white whilst Peterborough are sadly in black as if perhaps still mourning Catherine of Aragon, although apparently Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn both wore yellow to mourn her.  The Aragonese flag is of yellow and red stripes which would make a cracking away kit.  From up in the Cobbold stand comes the unlikely chant of “Peterborough, Peterborough FC, The finest football team the world has ever seen” to the tune of the Irish Rover.  As if in response the Sir Bobby Robson stand sing something a bit tuneless, which nevertheless ends with a joyful “Wo-oh-oh-oh-oh, Wo-oh-oh-ohh” and the melting frost that had been clinging to the roof of the stand drops in large, loud splashes on my SuperDry coat, which seems ironic. 

The first ten or fifteen minutes of the game are a bit frantic and formless. With half the pitch in deep shade the sombrely dressed Peterborough players appear as dark silhouettes in the gloom, a bit like the people in an architect’s conceptual drawing.  “Football in a library, de-de-de” chant the Peterborough fans tunelessly before going for the jugular with the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda, to which they apply the words “Your support is fucking shit”, just like everyone from every other club always does,  

Peterborough’s hefty looking, almost chubby, and extensively surnamed Jonson Clarke-Harris goes down in a very large heap. “Get Up!” bawls someone behind me not unreasonably, and with no one showing him much sympathy he does.   Peterborough get the ball to the by-line. “Come on Boro’, Come On Boro’ ” chant the away tribe supportively. “Addy, addy, addy-O” chant the home fans happily.  The flags on the Cobbold stand hang limply in the cold, still air.

It’s the thirteenth minute and it’s unlucky for Janoi Donacien who is laid low by a mystery injury, perhaps due to the extreme cold, and he is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young.  The first shot on goal arrives in the twentieth minute as Sone Aluko bounces a hooked attempt into the ground and past a post at the end of a move down the Ipswich right. Two minutes later and another move on the right ends with the ball played back and then crossed by Sam Morsy.  Running towards the ball Conor Chaplain leaps and twists his neck to glance the ball into the far corner of the goal and give Town the lead. It’s a beautiful goal, but one that unearths that tired cliché about the shortest player on the pitch scoring from a header, as if to say players under 1.8m in height aren’t allowed to jump.

I start to dream of another three points banked and more importantly a long-awaited victory over these upstarts with their medieval cathedral and royal tomb.  A third of the match has now gone to join the reformation and Catherine of Aragon in the past and a woman arrives in the gangway next to Pat from Clacton, who appears to be lost. It seems she went to the loo and hasn’t been able to find her way back to her seat. Helpfully, ever-present Phil, who has the ‘knowledge’ to be a Sir Alf Ramsey stand taxi driver, if such a thing were possible, gives her directions ‘home’.  Distracted by this incident perhaps, we have allowed Peterborough to win their first corner of the game and as a subsequent angled cross by Kwame Poku arcs towards the far post I spot Peterborough’s Frankie Kent lingering on his own and realise he is likely to score, and he does.  It’s almost exactly like one of the goals Town conceded against Barnsley; it doesn’t help that Frankie Kent sounds like he could have been an associate of the Kray twins if given the pre-fix ‘mad’.

The goal provokes chants of “E-I, E-I, E-I, O, Up the football league we go” from Peterborough which seems optimistic on the strength of one equalising goal, but you have to get your pleasures where you can.  “We should be shuttin’ ‘em down a lot quicker that what we are doin” says the bloke behind me by way of explanation for our disappointment.   “Fuck off you cunt” shouts a less philosophical character from further behind me as the Peterborough goalkeeper Lucas Bergstrom then takes his time over a goal kick after Sam Morsy has sent a pretty solid looking shot narrowly  wide of the goal.

Not unexpectedly the Peterborough fans now alter their words for Cwm Rhondda from ”Your support is fucking shit” to “You’re not singing anymore”, failing to spot the inconsistency in their song-based argument.

Seven minutes until half time and Sone Aluko produces a piece of skill worthy of the  great Clive Woods as he dribbles mazily to the by-line before pulling the ball back, only for Bergstrom to somehow get lucky and grab the ball as it is sent goalward by Wes Burns.  Bergstrom stays down on the turf to eke out some more time and I decide that with his short, lank hair and lanky stature,  from behind Bergstrom looks a bit like Gareth in ‘The Office’.   Sam Morsy has two more shots on goal, one at Bergstrom and one over the cross-bar before Stephen Foster announces that there will be 3 minutes of added on time.  A bit like the match versus Fleetwood, the game started quite well but has descended into uncertainty, but I take solace by chatting to Ray although his son Michael and grandson Harrison are absent today, having made one of their overly frequent visits to CenterParcs for rest and recuperation.  Ray tells me about his cruise to Madeira and Cape Verde and how he vomited in the Bay of Biscay.

The match resumes at 13:36 and Cameron Burgess lumps the ball up field.  Shadow now enshrouds most of the stadium and weirdly I have the sensation that I feel warmer when the ball is in one of the shrinking sunlit parts of the pitch.  “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” chants the crowd at the north end of the ground as if having resolved over a collective half-time cup of hot-chocolate to help the team to win today.  It seems to work as the ball now stays mostly in the Peterborough half.  Ten minutes into the second half and Town win their first corner courtesy of a nippy and busy Kayden Jackson. “Come On You Blues” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand just like in the old days, and a few of us join in around the ground. Down the right-hand side Wes Burns skips past one player and the crowd roars, he goes past another, and the roar is louder still producing a sound only ever heard when a wide player goes past a defender, and I’m reminded again of Clive Woods, Mick Lambert, Kevin O’Callaghan and Bobby Petta.  There is momentum building and Town win a second corner. The ball is crossed from the left, a Peterborough head glances it away but only to Conor Chaplin who instantly controls it and slams it high into the roof of the goal net to give Town back the lead. It’s another perfect goal from Chaplin and it’s the Town fans’ turn to sing “E-I, E-I, E-I -O, Up the Football League go”, and with some justification as the goal takes Town back to the top of the third division.

The pressure on Peterborough continues for a while and Sam Morsy gets his customary booking, unusually for supposed diving, which draws chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” directed not at Morsy but at referee Ollie Yates; sadly and perhaps surprisingly neither assistant referee is called Stan, but strangely one of them does look a bit like Lionel Messi.  Peterborough make multiple substitutions including bringing on a bloke called Jeandro Fuchs, a case of Fuchs on rather than Fuchs off.  Mr Yates then achieves the ironic cheer from the crowd as he finally gives Town a free-kick.  Behind me, the bloke who was displeased by Bergstrom in the first half has spotted what a big fellow Clarke Harris is. “Looks like he could be a scrum half, that cunt” he says, using his descriptive powers to the full.

Town make substitutions, bringing applause for departing Kayden Jackson and Sone Aluko, and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 24,849 with 1,230 of those being from Peterborough. “Your support, Your support, Your support is roughly 5% of ours (numerically speaking)” chant the Magnus west stand, whilst the Sir Bobby Robson Stand quickly chant “Here for the Ipswich, You’re only here for the Ipswich” before the away fans get the chance to claim that anyone has only turned up exclusively to see the Boro’.  Incidentally, Catherine of Aragon came to Ipswich at some point between 1517 and 1522 to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Ipswich which was somewhere near where Lady Lane is now, so just a couple of goal kicks away.  On the Clacton supporters bus Kieron is today’s winner of the guess the crowd competition with an estimate of twenty-five thousand seven hundred and something. 

After the excitement of the Town goal and the pressure that led to it, the game has settled down and Peterborough, despite being behind, are slow to get forward as they pass the ball about amongst themselves.  “Let ‘em fuck around with it” calls the bloke behind me in a “see if I care” tone of voice.  Soon however, both teams are succeeding in frustrating their own supporters as Peterborough continue to “fuck around with it” whilst Ipswich fans are expecting their team to get the ball and go and score a third goal as insurance against the late disappointment witnessed at Charlton and versus Fleetwood.

Peterborough make a fourth substitution bringing on a bloke called Kell Watts, reminding me of the Australian TV series Kath & Kim in which Kim’s mother Kath has a metrosexual boyfriend called Kel who proudly owns a ‘man bag’.  Town ‘score’ with two minutes of normal time left, but I’d spotted the offside flag so remain seated as all around me people rise and cheer.  Pat from Clacton admits to feeling nervous. There will be five minutes of additional time Stephen Foster tells us, and Peterborough chuck in a couple of awkward looking crosses preferring to rely on barging and jumping more than incisive passing football to carve open the Town defence.  “Smash ‘im, smash ‘im” bawls the bloke behind me every time a Peterborough player has possession.  Town attempt to waste time making two final nihilistic substitutions and the game wanders off into a seventh minute of additional time, but then all of a sudden, it’s over, and Town have won.

Beating Peterborough feels like a much bigger thing than it probably should, but that’s no doubt because Town haven’t beaten them in more than a decade, not that we have met very often, and Town have also lost the last two games to Peterborough at Portman Road.  Elated, our little group wish each other a happy Christmas and head off into the cold mid-afternoon with a farewell that says “See you Boxing Day”.  As for Catherine of Aragon, well at least she was still breathing when she visited Ipswich.

Ipswich Town 1 Fleetwood Town 1

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.

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?