Today could be an auspicious occasion; today could be the day that Ipswich Town confirms its transition from the second division to the third division of English football. Towen ‘did their bit’ on Wednesday evening by losing at Brentford, but other clubs let them down by failing to win and make themselves un-catchable. Today however, anything but a win will mean Towen will play next season in the third tier and pretty much no one who isn’t at least seventy years old can remember that happening before. It’s nice that such a landmark can be achieved at Portman Road, in front of our own fans, and not on some ‘foreign field’ where mis-guided fools would only gloat.
I set off for the match in positive mood therefore, still believing in a miracle but also resigned to a fate that has been writ large on most walls since late October of 2018. It’s been a morning of sunshine and showers and cotton wool clouds are now heaped up in a pale blue sky, a corny metaphor for the darkness and light of life and football. The characteristic smell of settled dust on a damp pavement rises up with the warmth of the April sun. The railway station platform is busy with all types of people, Ipswich Town supporters, women in their early forties on a ‘girls’ outing, an unhappy looking hippy, teenagers taking selfies and a family of Birmingham City supporters. The train is on time. A poster catches my eye, “Delay, Repay, With Less Delay” it says, carefully avoiding to mention anything about ‘fewer delays’; it will prove prescient.
Arriving at Colchester, the train stops and the doors open. “What? Sorry, it’s cancelled?” shouts a guard down the platform giving unintended forewarning of what has happened. It transpires that a freight train has broken down further up the track; the train I arrived on disgorges its passengers and departs empty. Twenty minutes later the next train arrives and the same chain of events unfolds, although the guard doesn’t shout down the platform this time. If there’s a good thing about train delays it’s that people talk to one another, if only to share their annoyance and anxiety. People in club colours glance at other people in club colours. With both Ipswich and today’s opponents both wearing blue and white those glances are asking “Is he one of us?” A middle aged man with a monotone voice asks me how long it takes to drive to Ipswich. I guess he’s thinking of getting a taxi, or stealing a car. He’s a Birmingham fan who has travelled up from Torquay; he doesn’t go to home games, only away ones and it seems that he’s just as keen on visiting all ninety-two league grounds as following ‘The Blues’. I would speak to him more, but he’s a bit boring.
When the 13:48 to Ipswich arrives on platform two; it’s not cancelled and it departs twenty minutes later with the track ahead now clear. The voice of the lady train driver apologises for the delay and warns that a few more minutes are as yet likely to be added to the journey. “But we will arrive in Ipswich eventually, hopefully” she adds, with a final note of caution. Arriving in Ipswich at about twenty-five to three it is too late to go to St Jude’s Tavern and I have already texted Mick to cancel our planned triste; as he says in his reply “ …it would not be a social interlude, just necking a pint…”
Ipswich is busy, but weirdly the Station Hotel, which is reserved for away supporters, is empty. Outside a couple of bouncers relax and have a ciggy and talk to two of the unusually large number of police who are out on the streets today. I join the herd crossing the bridge opposite the station and heading for Portman Road. On a banner attached to a lamp post a blue cartoon Octopus called Digby urges everyone to love their streets and not drop litter; so I don’t. Birmingham accents assault my ears. “Excuse may” I hear one say politely as a prelude to asking where the away supporters end is. There’s nothing for me here so I move towards turnstile five where there is no queue. The glasses-wearing turnstile operator doesn’t look up as I hand him my season ticket card, he scans its bar code and hands it back to me. “Thank you” I say enthusiastically and with genuine gratitude, like I imagine Watch With Mother’s Mr Benn would, if he ever went to football match.
I speak with Dave the steward with whom I used to work and then make for my seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game, his young son Elwood and Pat from Clacton. Today Phil is featured in the programme because it is 25 years since he last missed a Town game. Greetings, handshakes and presentations over, the game begins in brilliant sunshine beneath azure skies with Ipswich in their blue and white shirts besmirched by the naff logo of an on-line gambling organisation, kicking the ball in my direction. Birmingham City are sporting a kit of bright yellow shirts and socks with blue shorts, they could be confused with Sweden, Newmarket Town or may be Sochaux-Montbéliard from French Ligue 2. I am reminded of the first time I ever saw Ipswich play away (2nd April, 1977 at Maine Road Manchester), we wore yellow and blue; all away kits seemed to be yellow and something in the 70’s, except the ones that weren’t.
The visiting Brummies in the Cobbold Stand are first to burst into song with a rendition of the maudlin Harry Lauder number ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’. “That used to be our song, here at Ipswich” Pat tells me sounding a bit miffed and implying that Birmingham had pinched it. According to the Birmingham City club website, it has been their anthem since 1956. As if taking offence at Pat’s accusation, the Birmingham fans’ tone changes and they start to sing ‘You’re going down, you’re going down, you’re going down’, which is at once both a little uncharitable and a case of ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’. There is no mention that Birmingham City have cheated their way to staying up by spending more money than league rules allow; Birmingham have been deducted nine points although even if they were re-allocated to Town it probably wouldn’t save us.
On the pitch Birmingham are already looking better than Ipswich and just to make the point, with little more than five minutes played Birmingham’s Lukas Jutkiewicz scores from very close range as if Ipswich were playing without any defenders at all, something they have practised all season. I leap from my seat cheering, I’m not sure why, I think it was the excitement of the start of the game spilling over and perhaps a sense that I’m fed up with waiting to be in the third division. Ever-present Phil and Elwood look at me disappointedly.
A goal down, Ipswich don’t improve and Birmingham look quicker, stronger and more skilful. The old boy and girl behind me moan about Collin Quaner when he loses the ball and his boot “He int kicked anything yet, how the hell’s his shoe come off” says one of them nastily. Myles Kenlock shoots not far over the Birmingham cross bar but it’s a rare foray forward for Town. I pass the time wondering if Birmingham’s full-back Colin who crossed the ball for the goal is Brazilian like Fred, Oscar and Cris; in fact he’s French, his first name is Maxime and it turns out he was born in Ipswich’s twin town of Arras; he’s ‘one of our own’, sort of. Despite early enthusiasm, the atmosphere amongst Town fans has cooled and the sunshine has been lost to cloud and rain showers. “Is this a library?” sing the Brummies enjoying some Italian opera before showing their less artistically appreciative side and singing “You’re support is fucking shit”. Eventually Town win a corner, Myles Kenlock again, and then another but we don’t do enough to puncture the Brummie fans’ sense of superiority as they chant in praise of Mick McCarthy and then claim they are relegating us. Birmingham City fans indeed know all about relegation their team having achieved it eight times since 1979, double the number of Town’s seasons of utter and abject failure in the same period.
It’s been a poor half from Town with four of our players also being shown a yellow card by the referee, Mr Jeremy Simpson, whose skin is sadly not also yellow like that of his cartoon namesakes. Half-time arrives as a bit of a relief and Ray stops to chat on his way to use the facilities. He tells me that he will be seeing Rod Stewart here in the summer and hopes it’s more entertaining. It’s Ray’s wife Roz who is the Rod Stewart fan, not Ray, he is more ‘into’ Jethro Tull and Yes. I ask him if will be seeing Hawkwind at the Corn Exchange in November; probably not. With no pre-match beer to drain off I remain in the stands and eat a Panda brand liquorice bar whilst enjoying the ornamental fountain-like display from the pitch sprinklers. I flick through the programme and seek amusement in the names of the Birmingham City players. Che Adams is a good name I decide and speculate that Mr and Mrs Adams are Communist Party members and have another son called Vladimir Ilich. The game resumes at six minutes past four.
Almost immediately Ipswich score, Gwion Edwards volleying in a cross from Kayden Jackson who has replaced the ineffective ‘boy’ Dozzell. Birmingham have defended like Ipswich, it’s almost like the two teams have come out for the second half wearing each other’s kits and so it continues with Ipswich now the better team and looking more likely to score again, although of course they don’t. The Ipswich supporters re-discover their voice and sing “Allez-Allez-Allez” or “Ole, Ole, Ole” I’m not sure which; personally I prefer the Allez, Allez, Allez version. The sunshine returns illuminating the verdant pitch, billowing white clouds are heaped up in the bright blue sky above the stands creating a scene worthy of an Art Deco poster. This is probably the most beautiful afternoon of the season so far, even if it is cold. “One Bobby Robson, here’s only one Bobby Robson” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand slightly confusingly given that he’s been dead almost ten years. There’s something almost Neolithic about this reverence for ancestors. There’s no mention of Sir Alf Ramsey, but then he’s been dead nearly twenty years.
Next to me Pat is pleading for Town to score, to win, in between trying to persuade me to travel to games on the Clacton supporters’ bus. Today’s crowd of 17,248 with 1, 582 from Birmingham and Torquay is announced and Pat checks who’s won the sweepstake on the bus; then she checks again, paranoid about getting it wrong. Mr Simpson books Toto N’Siala who has replaced James Collins and for Birmingham City Jacques Maghoma replaces Kerim Mrabti meaning that probably for the first time ever there are two Congolese players on the Portman Road pitch. With time running out Myles Kenlock and Gwion Edwards both have shots blocked and little Alan Judge has one saved. Town ought to score, but it’s as if fate won’t allow it and finally Ipswich’s least favourite Simpson’s character calls time on the game and Town’s residency in Division Two.
There are emotional scenes before everyone goes home, with the players being applauded from the field after a few have sat down on the pitch in the traditional unhappy looking pose associated with defeat in defining games. Relegation has been certain for months now, but the final confirmation is so final that my heart and the back of my throat still ache a little. Ho-hum. I never liked the Championship anyway, with all its wannabe Premier League teams. I’m happy to return to our roots.