Ipswich Town 1 Birmingham City 1


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.

Ipswich Town 0 Hull City 2


As I prepare to leave my house and head for Portman Road my wife Paulene is watching Aussie Rules footie on her lap-top, Geelong Cats are playing The Demons and whilst we don’t know it yet, the Cats will win by a massive eighty point margin.  “Oh, are you going already” she says and I kiss her goodbye.  Spring is here.  It is the last weekend in March and as walk to the railway station the sky is a clear blue, it is sunny and verging on warm.  A black cat looks down at me from a tree; I guess that it has climbed up there to avoid running across my path and bringing me good luck.   Spicy smells waft from the local Indian restaurant; a man on the station platform is wearing sunglasses and shorts, which seems optimistic or foolish, perhaps both.  The train is on time and busy with passengers, heads bowed in the thrall of their mobile phones.  At Colchester a man in a Chelsea beanie hat picks his nose enthusiastically, gouging away at his left nostril with his index finger.  A young woman opposite me wears leopard print sneakers.  “Hold on Scarlett” says a big-chested woman to her young daughter as they pick their way between the seats and the train pulls away; she staggers a little and almost topples over “Whoops”.  Sheep graze on the meadows near Manningtree and a haze hangs over the river, blotting out all sight of Felixstowe.

I’m first off the train at Ipswich and away over the bridge and up Princes Street.  I look over the bridge parapet and in the beer garden of the Station Hotel a group of Hull City supporters all clad in black look like Goths, I photograph them and they wave; I wave back.  In Portman Road I waste three pounds on a match day programme because somehow it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.  I later regret my decision but am no doubt destined to repeat the mistake.  There is a sense of sluggish anticipation outside the stadium as people wait for the turnstiles to open; some queue to collect tickets, others stand and munch on fatty fast food lunches.  At St Jude’s Tavern the usual blokes in their sixties and seventies are drinking the usual beer. The Match Day Special is once again St Jude’s Goblin’s Piss (£2.50).  I provoke a certain amount of jealousy because my pint has a head on it whilst everyone else’s looks flat. In truth the beer is cloudy and yellow and I now realise how it got its name. What it has to do with Goblins I don’t know, but I guess they couldn’t just call it Piss, although oddly I did once hear the lead singer of Brighton’s finest  late 1970’s pub band The Piranhas (Boring Bob Grover)  ask for a ‘pint of piss’ at a Student’s Union bar. The conversation is of French cricket teams, what a strange and wonderful country Belgium is, Belgian beer and football.  I have a second pint of the Match Day Special and at about twenty to three depart for Portman Road.

The sun is still shining and walking down the hill towards the ground the huge, beaming face of Bobby Robson above the club shop seems to be peaking around the corner, as if he’s trying not to be seen.  I pick my way through the crowds past queues into the increasingly shabby looking Cobbold Stand with its peeling blue paint.

I enter the ground through turnstile number seven where there is no queue, smiling broadly as I cheerily thank its moustachioed operator. After a visit to the gents I take up my usual place near Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  Pat tells me about how she spent the week before last at the Burlington Palm Hotel in Great Yarmouth, playing whist in the afternoons and evenings but seeing the sites, including Burgh Castle and the seals of Horsey Beach in the mornings; she tells me she enjoyed it a lot more than coming here.

The game begins with Town aiming for but not hitting the goal just to the right of me, Pat, Phil and Elwood.  Town get first go with the ball. Today’s opponents Hull City, known as the Tigers wear their traditional kit of amber and black striped shirts with black shorts and amber and black socks.  In the opening minutes Town look keen and push forward; “Paul Lambert is a Blue, He hates Norwich” sing the North Stand touchingly raiding their collective childhood memory of nursery rhyme tunes and re-purposing “London Bridge is falling down.”  It’s ‘early doors’(!) but Ipswich are on top and the North Stand are getting carried away with it all, goading the 485 visiting Hullensians with a chorus of “You’re support is fucking shit” which seems a bit rich.  It disappoints me; good humour and humility are called for when supporting a team as bad as Ipswich Town is currently.

Inevitably Hull’s revenge is swift and three minutes later the Ipswich Town defence clear off to that place that they go at least once every match, where no one can see them, but they leave the ball with  Hull City who score; a nicely placed shot by Kamil Grosicki formerly of Rennes, who like a true artist makes full use of the space offered by an open goal.  “How shit must you be, we’re winning away” is the questioning and not unreasonable retort from the Humberside 485, although in fact they have already won as many as four away games this season. But the answer to their question has to be “very”.

Four minutes later and Jon Nolan who is the subject of the “One to One” feature in the programme and has his name on the cover, retires hurt. Nolan is replaced by ‘the boy’ Dozzell.   With Hull leading, Ipswich fade a little; they still have lots of the ball but don’t do much with it that might result in  a goal. “It’s all nice knocking it about, but….” shouts an exasperated voice from the stand not needing to finish his sentence to convey what he means.  The Ipswich defence evaporates again and Hull nearly score a second goal and at half-past three  Myles Kenlock has a shot which sweeps above the cross-bar and the brief spurt of excitement inspires an unexpected burst of support “Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich!” sing what seems like several people all at once.

A large, bright, luminous presence appears to my right hand side; it is a hi-vis coat and inside is a steward who after listening to his ear piece proceeds to ask me if I am in possession of a camera.  Thinking naively that he just wants to talk about photography, I rather proudly tell him I am; well, it’s quite a good one and wasn’t that cheap.  He asks me not to take any more pictures.  I think it’s rather unfair to single me out when virtually everyone in the crowd is carrying a mobile phone and many of them are being used to take pictures and videos.  I tell the steward so and he says “Yes, it is a bit of a grey area”.  Football Association Ground regulations state that photos or videos captured on mobile phones must not be published or shown on social media sites.  Yeah, right.  It reminds me a little of the first and second rules of Fight Club.

1 Notwithstanding possession of any ticket the Club, any police officer or authorised steward may refuse entry to (or eject from) the Ground any person:

1.1 that fails (or in the Club’s reasonable opinion is likely to fail) to comply with these Ground Regulations or any reasonable instruction issued by a police officer or authorised steward; and/or

1.2 whose presence within the Ground is, or could (in the Club’s reasonable opinion), constitute a source of danger, nuisance or annoyance to any other person

16 Mobile telephones and other mobile devices are permitted within the Ground PROVIDED THAT (i) they are used for personal and private use only (which, for the avoidance of doubt and by way of example only, shall not include the capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing, or any other communicationof any Material for any commercial purposes); and (ii) no Material that is captured, logged, recorded, transmitted, played, issued, shown or otherwise communicatedby a mobile telephone or other mobiledevice may be published or otherwise made available to any third parties including, without limitation, via social networking sites.

19 Save as set out in paragraph 16 above, no person (other than a person who holds an appropriate licence) may capture, log, record, transmit, play, issue, show or otherwise communicate(by digital or other means) any Material in relation to the Match, any players or other persons present in the Ground and/or the Ground, nor may they bring into the Ground or use within the Ground (or provide to, facilitate or otherwise assist another person to use within the Ground) any equipment or technology which is capable of capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing or otherwise communicating (by digital or other means) any such Material. Copyright, database rights and any other intellectual property rights in any unauthorised recording or transmission is assigned (by way of present assignment of future rights) to the Club and the EFL. You further agree (if and whenever required to do so by the Club and/or the EFL) to promptly execute all instruments and do all things necessary to vest the right, title and interest in such rights to the Club and the EFL absolutely and with full title guarantee.

Peeved and wanting to begin a revolution I stand up, face the crowd behind me and  try and encourage everyone to get out their mobile phones and take pictures, predictably I fail, but it strikes me as funny how cow-eyed and mindless everyone looks.

Town have a couple of shots cleared off the line in the closing minutes of the half but so what. Half-time arrives and I vent some more Goblin’s Piss, look at the half-time scores and have a chat with Ray who today is here with his wife Ros as well as grandson Harrison.  This is Ros’s third game this season; she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it that much, nor am I anymore.

The second half is much like the first but probably less exciting.  Hull score almost immediately as Jarrod Bowen makes a speedy, jinking run from the middle of the Hull half, all the way down Town’s left flank and then passes to Kamil Grosnicki who hits a precise shot off the far post and into the net.  It’s a good goal but most teams would have got close enough to Bowen to knock him over before he got to the penalty area.

After that the Tigers seem largely happy to let Ipswich rain in a series of inaccurate crosses and mis-place their passes whilst they wait to run away down the wings again when they get the chance.  Referee Mr John Brooks shares his name with my grandfather, but disgraces it with a series of unwelcome decisions.  Had the late John Henry Brooks been in charge I am sure Ipswich would have won, not because he was an Ipswich supporter, he grew up in rural Oxfordshire, but because he would have had a bet on the game beforehand and would have backed the team with the longest odds.

Pat shows me some of the pictures she took of the seals on Horsey Beach; it’s a second half highlight.  With an hour played the large and angular German, Collin Quaner replaces nippy Kayden Jackson, who has played quite well considering the standard of the overall team performance.  Paul Lambert urges his team on, prowling the ‘technical area’ in his Marks and Spencer v-neck jumper whilst Hull’s manager is less animated and wears a jacket and tie and looks a trifle staid.  On seventy four minutes eighteen year old French-Tunisian Idris El Mizouni from Meudon just outside Paris makes his first appearance at Portman Road.  As I tell Pat, I met Idris’s dad in Meudon last September when I saw Meudon play St Ouen in an early round of the French Cup.  I very much hope Idris does well, we need more foreign players, they’re better than the British ones, they tend to be able to control the ball and pass to their own team mates.

There are moments where Town ‘come close’ but never close enough.  The old boy behind me isn’t happy “ We pay good money to see this” he says .  It’s Hull that come closest to another goal in time added on as a Marc Pugh shot curls against a post. With the game in its final minutes the crowd show a bit of life with some rhythmic clapping and a few supportive chants from the North Stand, which is unusual after a not very-good performance. Nevertheless, such support is a good thing even if the team could perhaps have done with it earlier in the game, rather than as a show of sympathy at the end.  The final whistle is greeted with a bit of a love-in at the North Stand end of the ground despite abject defeat and the fact that Paul Lambert’s record as manager is now worse than Paul Hurst’s.   Relegation is as good as certain but a lot of supporters remain simply satisfied that Mick McCarthy is no longer manager, or that’s what they’re saying.

On the train home I speak with three Hull supporters who are saddened that Ipswich should be going down and surprised that we have never played in the national third tier.   They add that they know from experience that third division football is bloody awful, we should do well.

Heybridge Swifts 2 Grays Athletic 1


It’s a Spring-like Saturday in late March and there is just a week to go until the clocks go forward; there are tiny buds on the trees and although the sky is overcast the air smells fresh and clear.  Frogs are mating in my garden pond and frisky Collared Doves are settling on my satellite dish and messing up the signal.  It’s a beautiful day to make the twenty-odd kilometre trip by Citroen C3, past Feering to Tiptree and on through Great and Little Totham to Heybridge, a village of about 8,000 people on the north side of the River Blackwater from Maldon.  Until September 1964 it would have been possible to catch a train from Witham to Maldon East and Heybridge station, but the evil Dr Richard Beeching put an end to that and thoughtlessly condemned this corner of Essex to a future of increased traffic and air pollution.

Leaving the B1022 I turn left into Scraley Road, home of Heybridge Swifts Football Club.  Scraley Road is not an attractive name, it sounds a bit like Scaley Road and conjures up images of an unfortunate skin condition.  It’s only about two-thirty but the rough, unsurfaced car park is already full; happily there is an overflow car park about 50 metres along on the right, although for some people that’s too far and they have chosen to park at the side of the road.  The overflow car park is just a muddy track to the local rugby club but it’ll do and I pull up out of the mud and puddles onto a patch of lush grass to park the Citroen.   I walk back to football ground which, as a large sign tells me, is now known as the Aspen Waite Arena, which sounds extremely posh.  When did football grounds become arenas I wonder to myself; probably about the same time that ‘naming rights’ became ‘a thing’ I reply, but silently so as not to appear weird.   I cross the main car park to the black and white painted metal turnstile block avoiding more puddles and form a fledgling queue behind one other person, although I have to walk around two others who seem to be having difficulty finding their money.  Entry costs £10 for an adult and I ask for a programme too (£2).  “There you are dear” says the friendly lady turnstile operator, handing me a glossy programme and a small amber cloakroom ticket with the word ‘Adult’ on, which I soon lose.

From the turnstile I emerge directly into an open space behind one of the goals, to my left a blue polythene tunnel doesn’t quite make it from the changing rooms to the perimeter of the pitch, beyond that is a well populated open patch of grass behind which sit the clubhouse/bar and the tea bar.  I step inside the busy clubhouse but there’s no real ale on the bar, just the usual bland, mass-produced, heavily advertised fizzy stuff, so I head back outside to the tea bar to join a queue of one.  With the previous customer gone away clutching a burger and cup of tea I ask the smiley-faced young woman behind the counter if there are any sausage rolls.  There are and having found his oven gloves the ‘chef’, a more serious-faced, grey-haired man, takes a baking tray from the oven and prises a row of half a dozen sausage rolls from it with a spatula.  I pay the young woman (£1.50) and smiling she hands me one of the ‘released’ sausage rolls in a white paper napkin.   The sausage roll tastes much better for that smile but otherwise compares to one from Greggs, although not as greasy, which is a good thing.

I have time to wander around the ground and take in the architecture before the teams emerge from the blue polythene tunnel and line-up to say “hello” to one another;  as they do so the theme from ‘Z Cars’ plays over the public address system.  The music ends abruptly and the teams are announced very rapidly by a man inside a glass box in the middle of the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  This afternoon’s opponents are Grays Athletic.  As I drove here listening to BBC Radio Essex, the match was described as a ‘derby’ by a young-sounding presenter called Victoria. But given that all but six of the twenty teams in the Bostik Football League North Division there are from Essex there are rather a lot of ‘derbys’. 

The Swifts kick-off towards the First Call Community Stand and the River Blackwater and Maldon beyond; they wear black and white striped shirts with white shorts and socks, a colour scheme no doubt inspired by the colours of Apus Apus, the Swift, although seen up close Swifts are actually dark brown.   Grays Athletic meanwhile are in all blue with white sleeves and look a bit like Ipswich Town playing away to a team that wears white shorts; they are playing in the direction of the club house and Tiptree.   As much as  Grays might look like my team Ipswich Town and even though the legendary Fabian Wilnis played for them (33 times in 2008-09 season) I decide to support Heybridge Swifts today;  Swifts are my favourite birds because they remind me of warm summer evenings and Swifts is such a great if disappointingly rare name for a football club.  I grew up in Shotley  in Suffolk where the village team, now known as Shotley Rose after the village pub, were originally the Shotley Swifts; in the 1920’s my grandfather was on the committee and  I have a much-prized photo of him with the team posing with a trophy.

A long line of home supporters file from the clubhouse to the far end of the ground to stand behind the goal into which the Swifts are hoping to score.  The home team dominate the opening stages and have the first shot as the ball rebounds to their number seven the top-notch wearing Elliott Ronto whose shot is well saved by the Grays ‘keeper, the beautifully named Clark Bogard.   Although he sounds like a matinee idol, Clark is a large man who clearly does not possess a ‘six-pack’ and from a distance his all yellow kit would, for a short-sighted person, perhaps give the impression of a naked Homer Simpson.  Predictably the ‘wit’ of the home supporters is soon in evidence. “Come on Fatty” shouts an estuarine voice as Bogard lingers over a goal kick.  There is a rowdy atmosphere on the shallow covered terrace and two lads self-consciously bang a couple of drums, but not enough to really annoy anyone.  “ E’s only ‘ere for the after match meal” shouts someone else at the ‘keeper. “The food’s good here” responds Clark with a greedy expression, admirably entering into the fun.  “Ello princess” shouts a pre-pubescent lad following a strangely different tack.   A man in his sixties shuffles through the stand selling half-time draw tickets. “Afternoon Steve, Bob” he says to a couple of regulars.  I buy a strip of tickets, numbers 416 to 420 for a pound, I am not destined to win.

The name of Swifts’ Toib Adeyemi is an early entry in the notebook of the tall, elegant referee Mr Farai Hallam, but Swifts continue to get closer to the Grays’ goal than vice versa.  It’s a bit after a quarter past three and Grays number 11 Joao Carlos surges past the Swifts left-back and crosses the ball, it ends up in the Heybridge net and Grays are winning; it’s an own goal and is attributed to Swifts’ number nine Daniel Walker. “Come on you Swifts” is the not-downhearted response from the terrace of the First Call Community Stand.  A black-headed gull wheels above the pitch and disappears over the stand; I move from behind the goal to sit in the main stand, a structure with a row of tubular stanchions along its front, behind which the blue plastic seats have a shallow rake; it’s a classic non-league football stand in a classic non-league ground, a bit home-made looking and scruffy in places, but therein lies its character.  A German Shepherd and two other dogs that look like poodles but aren’t look on, although it’s doubtful they brought themselves here on their own. As the half wears on I move again, closer to the tea bar this time, and am now amongst the Grays Athletic supporters.  Grays are now doing better in terms of possession of the ball and are enjoying a few breakaways.  Number eleven Joao Carlos is a threat down the left, “Go on Carlos” and “Get in the fuckin’ box” shout the Grays fans, before Carlos is booked by Mr Hallam for diving. 

Half-time arrives a little late because of a few stoppages for injuries and I make the short walk to the tea bar but have to join a slow moving queue.  Behind me two men, a West Ham supporter and an Orient supporter talk about the Orient; the football club, not the far East.  The Hammers fan has a habit of finishing the O’s fan’s sentences, like in that sketch by The Two Ronnies, but not as funny. They agree that West Ham isn’t proper football anymore; this (Heybridge Swifts) is proper football.  Eventually my turn comes and I ask the smiley-faced young woman for a tea (£1); she’s still smiling and her smile can’t help but raise the spirits of Swifts fans unhappy that their team is losing.

I drink my polystyrene cup of tea as I take a look through the programme.   I read the thoughts of Swifts’ manager Julian Dicks which are plain and straightforward except for one sentence which reads “Then we gave away a free kick and no one stood on the ball and they popped the ball out and their forward hit a worldy.  He wont hit a ball like that again down hill with the wind behind and Chris had no chance”.  Sheer poetry.

It is five past four and with the start of the second-half I take up a place on one of the two rows of wooden benches in the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  There don’t seem to be any families in the stand although the rest of the ground is well peopled with mums and dads and children of all ages.  I wonder who Mick Gibson is or was and if the stand is just for his family.  The Swifts seem re-invigorated by their half-time tea and the words of Julian Dicks.  Firstly Manny Osei-Owusi gets wide and plays the ball back only for number four Nicholas Brown to skew his shot embarrassingly wide, but minutes later a corner is won, the ball is sent towards goal and repulsed, but only as far as  Toib Adeyemi who is on hand to send it into the goal from close range and the scores are level at one each.  The crowd cheers, although not as much as I thought they would, but then lunchtime and afternoon drinking does make you feel a little sluggish.

I make the same circuit of the ground that I made in the first-half enjoying the different back drops to the action on the field; bare trees on one side, 1960’s suburban houses on the other and blue skies and wispy cloud above.  The sun is now shining through the cloud and shadows of trees and the Mick Gibson Family Stand play across the pitch.  On the opposite side of the ground spectators shadows play against the corrugated metal boundary fence; it’s beautiful in a way that a football match inside a large stadium never can be.

I sit again in the main stand and catch half a conversation behind me as a man explains to his friend about a holiday or short-break he’s been on.  “They’re good hotels too, they suit me, know what I mean?” he says. I don’t know what he means, but then he wasn’t talking to me.  It’s about twenty five past four and the Swifts win a free-kick and rather unexpectedly their number eight, the ostentatiously named Jack Adlington-Pile scores with what might be termed a Jack Adlington-Pile driver, a thundering direct shot worthy of winning any game.   Unavoidably there is a bit more of a reaction to this goal as people voice a collective “Cor!”.   Grays are marshalled well by their imposing captain Stanley Muguo but they can’t get back in to the game and it’s the Swifts who come closest to scoring again as another free-kick, this time from number four Nicholas Brown defies the laws of physics by hitting the inside of a post and re-bounding out.  

As the match heads towards its conclusion Adlington-Pile and Luke Wilson get to see Mr Hallam’s yellow card, as disappointingly they attempt to hang on to the lead by foul means as well as fair.  Whilst the match remains interesting, Grays are just not good enough to score again and the fact that although only four places separate the teams in the league table, Swifts have nineteen, and now twenty-two more points tells a story.

With the final whistle the Grays Athletic players form a post-match huddle, perhaps to stem recriminations, whilst the Swifts enjoy a bit of a love-in with their justifiably appreciative supporters.  It’s been a good match, and arguably going a goal behind and coming back to win is the best sort of win there is.  Scraley Road, or the Aspen Waite Arena as it is known until someone makes a better offer, is a fine non-league ground even if they don’t serve proper beer and like Swifts on summer evenings I look forward to a return.  

Ipswich Town 1 Nottingham Forest 1


Thirty-eight years ago today, give or take ten days, Ipswich Town played Nottingham Forest in the sixth round of the FA Cup.  I travelled up to Nottingham for the game, taking the train from Brighton where I was at university and then, having met up with three other Town fans in London, by Morris Minor 1000 up the M1.  We spent the night in Nottingham after the match, ate mushy peas and chips, drank large quantities of Home Ales bitter, slept on a floor of someone we knew at Nottingham University and drove back down south the next day.  Nottingham Forest were the reigning European Cup holders and in two months’ time Ipswich Town would win the UEFA Cup.  They were happy times.

Today, both clubs languish in the second division, Town awaiting inevitable relegation whilst Forest struggle in vain for a play-off place; but they meet in the day’s only match between the former winners of European cup competitions. It is a dull, blustery, mid-March day and layers of grey cloud are stacked up overhead as I walk to the railway station.  Blossom from the trees is blown into the gutter.  I pass by a newspaper recycling bin and feel perplexed that it is considered necessary to paint a sign on it advising people not to climb inside.  At the railway station I meet Roly; the train is on time.  Roly shows me a short video on his mobile phone of his eighteen month old daughter kicking a ball. Roly is nothing if not a very proud father.

Arriving in Ipswich the weather hasn’t changed; Roly gets some cash from an ATM whilst a group of Ipswich supporters struggle to get a car park ticket from an automatic machine. We head down Princes Street towards Portman Road and on to St Jude’s Tavern.  As usual people mill about aimlessly in Portman Road waiting for the turnstiles to open, they must retain the hope that one week they will open early, otherwise why get here early week after week after week?  There is always hope.

At St Jude’s Tavern Roly has a pint of Nethergate Bulldog (£2.50) and I have a similar quantity of the Match Day Special, which once again is St Jude’s own attractively named Goblin’s Piss (£2.50), a name that St Jude’s should really offer to Greene King for their IPA.  We sit at a table next to the usual retirees who meet here pre-match. We talk football.  Another clutch of retirees arrives, “What do you recommend” one asks looking at the beer list, “That you clear off somewhere else” is the response. Statler and Waldorf live. Not entirely satisfied by the ‘tired’ condition of our first pints, Roly and I switch to Nethergate Venture (£3.40) for our second; it’s okay but a bit too ‘floral’ for my tastes.

Jackson

At about twenty to three the pub begins to empty out and Roly and I leave too.  He doesn’t admit it but I suspect Roly wants time to get something to eat, that’s the kind of guy he is.  With fifteen minutes until kick-off Portman Road is busy but the club shop isn’t and I pop in, much as I might pop to the Co-op, and buy a programme, redeeming the 115 loyalty points I have accrued from previous purchases in the process.  In the past week I have now enjoyed two free programmes (at Kirkley & Pakefield and Colchester United) and a cut-price one, I am feeling blessed and if this carries on I will soon have saved enough to retire; hopefully Brexit won’t happen and I can go and live in the south of France, although if it does happen that is probably all the more reason to move to the south of France, or anywhere.

There is no queue at the turnstiles, I smile and thank the moustachioed turnstile operator as I pass through.   After a brief conversation with Dave the steward, a former work colleague, I use the toilet facilities and then take up my place alongside Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  There are a lot of Nottingham Forest supporters here today (the score board will tell us during the second-half that there are 1,691 in a crowd of 16,709) and Phil recounts how he visited his mum in Newmarket this morning and as he left he even saw one heading for Newmarket railway station.  The teams enter the field and my view is through the net of a practice goal which hadn’t been wheeled away before the concertina-like players’ tunnel was extended out to the corner of the pitch. 

The game begins with Nottingham Forest getting first go with the ball and playing towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and Alderman Road rec’, they are wearing red shirts, shorts and socks.  Town are in their customary blue and white kit, despoiled by an ugly advert for an on-line scamming organisation, a likely contributor to this season’s eventual relegation; they are aiming in the direction of me, Pat, Phil and Elwood, but hopefully a bit to our right.   The Nottingham supporters are in very good voice regaling us with a lyrically altered version of Land of Hope & Glory that tells of how they hate a number of other clubs but love Nottingham Forest, it’s an old favourite and takes me back to the 1970’s; the old ones are the best I think, sounding like my late father and his father and probably his father before that.  Enjoy your youth while you can Elwood, because one day you will be an old git too.

Barely five minutes pass and Town produce a quick move of short passes in front of the East of England Co-operative Stand and the lifeless souls that populate it; Gwion Edwards gets behind the Nottingham defence, delivers a low cross and like a magical genie the hard to hide Collin Quaner appears from nowhere to deftly stroke the ball into the goal to give Ipswich the lead.  It was a most beautiful goal.  I have heard so-called supporters say rude things about Collin Quaner but I like him, he’s German, he has the distinctive, exotic look of an Easter Island statue (minus the big ears), but most of all he plays for Ipswich Town and therefore he’s alright.

The goal gets the home crowd going for a short while, “Allez, Allez-Allez-Allez” some of us sing, enjoying the linguistic abilities that a meeting of two former European competition winners bring.  The noise of the crowd rises and swirls around in the strongly gusting breeze. But by and by the enthusiasm recedes and that goal is one of the last exciting things that happens at my end of the pitch as Nottingham Forest go on to un-sportingly monopolise the remainder of the first half winning four corners to Town’s none and having eight shot to our two.   It’s not long before the home crowd is quiet once again and the Nottingham Forest supporters can begin their goading. “One-nil, and you still don’t sing” they chant to the tune of the Village People’s “Go West”, but without the manly bravura of the original version.  Exasperated perhaps by the lack of a reaction the Forest fans invoke the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B to sing “We’ll sing on our own, we’ll sing on own”, which is probably the sensible thing to do in the circumstances, before their attention then turns to an obese Town supporter to whom they sing “Fatty, Fatty, give us a song”.  After enquiring through the medium of song if he has ever seen his own genitals they entreat him to “Get your tits out for the lads”, he duly obliges.  It’s hard to say if ‘Fatty’ enjoys his five minutes or fame, but he doesn’t return to his seat after half-time.   

The game carries on and Ipswich are denied what looked like a corner “That was literally in front of you, you Muppet” shouts a woman from behind me at the linesman.  Would that we could really have Muppet linesman I think to myself; the FA and The Jim Henson Company should forge closer links.  I note how many foreign players Nottingham’s are fielding and am impressed by the performance of Pele at number 28 which is remarkable for a man in his seventies, but I am surprised to learn from the tiny little Guinea-Bissau flag against his name on the back of the programme that he is no longer Brazilian.  My attention is also drawn to Forest’s number 29, Tunisian Yohan Benalouane who, with his completely bald head and pale complexion makes me think of Nosferatu; I don’t get a look at his finger nails.

It’s just gone half-past three and Nottingham Forest win a corner, the ball is directed towards goal, Bartosz Bialkowski dives to his left, Nottingham players raise their arms and the diminutive referee Mr Keith Stroud signals a goal, which the scoreboard attributes to the Malian number 13 Molla Wague, although it will later be said to be a Jon Nolan own-goal.  It’s a shame for Town, for Molla Wague and for Jon Nolan and given that the goal has brought so much disappointment I am surprised it is allowed to stand.   “Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be, You’re going to Shrewsbury, Que Sera Sera” sing the gloating Nottinghamians, revealing a hitherto unexpected admiration for Doris Day, although the earlier Go West song was perhaps a clue as to their preferences.

Half-time arrives and briefly Portman Road is once again back in the long lost 1970’s as the PA system provides an aural treat in the sound of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s  “You ain’t seen nothing yet”, a song which makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I visit the facilities beneath the stand to drain off some more of that Goblin’s Piss; at the urinal I stand next to a man who is simultaneously either texting or checking the half-time scores on his mobile phone.  I find the scene rather disconcerting and leave as quickly as nature allows before consuming a Panda brand liquorice stick as a tasty half-time snack and to help me forget.

The second half begins and Trevoh Chalobah replaces Cole Skuse.  At ten past four Trev’ unleashes a spectacular shot that whistles just centimetres outside the right hand post of the Nottingham goal.  Sometimes such a narrow miss is more thrilling than a goal, particularly an opposition one.  The second half turns out to be much better than the first for Ipswich and Town dominate the attacking play, although admittedly without making too many clear cut chances to score.  Chants of “Come on You Blues, Come on Blues” burst from stands on all sides of the ground and with increasing frequency. The referee Keith Stroud, who ‘has previous’ as far as Town fans are concerned adds to his record of failure and bias by not awarding Town free-kicks whilst giving undeserved favour to Nottingham, whose fans are now largely quiet.  “Short refs, we only get short refs” sing Phil and I to the tune of Blue Moon. On the touchline Paul Lambert, as ever in his black v-neck jumper and black trousers, swings his arms about encouraging his team and the crowd.  Little Alan Judge crosses the ball and Jon Nolan heads wide of an open goal.

On the Nottingham bench Roy Keane at first looks his usual sullen self, but as Town dominate more and more and the game moves into its last ten minutes he stands in the technical area gesticulating, looking annoyed and filled with murderous intent.  The combination of the ‘enigmatic’ Martin O’Neil and psychopathic Roy Keane as a sort of latter day Celtic incarnation of the Clough/Taylor partnership can surely only end badly, but it could be fun to watch. I ensure that when the game is over I stay on long enough to boo Keane from the field for what he did to Ipswich Town.  I offered to my friend Mick to boo Keane on his behalf as he could not be here today, he said to feel free and he was happy for me to spit for him too if I wanted. I thought that was going a bit far, although I imagine it is the sort of protest Keane might respect as he would then feel justified in meeting it with extreme violence.

Ipswich deserve to score again but don’t and the result is yet another one-all draw.  This has arguably been the best game of the season at Portman Road and curiously despite being bottom of the league by several points for several months, with very little or no hope of staying up and only two home wins since August it has been the most enjoyable season for several years.  What is more, the crowd are at last getting behind the team; if this is what it takes perhaps Town should just go for relegation every year.

To the tune of Auld Lang Syne….all together now…

We’ve won the League, we’ve won the Cup

We’ve won in Europe too

Now every week we draw one-all

There’s f-all else to do.