Ipswich Town 2 Bristol Rovers 1

Bristol Rovers, The Pirates, The Gas; I first saw them at Portman Road on a cold Wednseday evening in February 1978.  Although the 29,090 souls gathered there that night couldn’t have been certain of it at the time, it was an auspicious occasion that would forever be significant in the history of Ipswich Town as the one replay on the route to FA Cup glory.  I remember Bristol in their anaemic yellow shirts and black shirts and how we thrashed them by three goals to nil (Mills, Mariner and Woods). At the time, I thought it was an exotic fixture; Ipswich an established, top First Division club, albeit having an iffy season in the league, and Bristol Rovers the underdogs, perennial under achievers from one of England’s biggest cities and a club Town hadn’t played at Portman Road  since before I was born.  A little more than a decade after that cup tie and Town v Rovers was a Second Division fixture and now thirty years further on we meet in the third division again as we did in the 1950’s.  Time is round, there doesn’t seem much doubt.

I switch on my Lenovo lap-top, connect it to the tv set in the kitchen and log on to the ifollow.  “Sex or nothing for me” I think I hear Mick Mills say.  It’s not what I expected, even though with his fulsome moustache and mahogany tan, back in the 1970’s Mick would not have looked out of place in a porn flick.  I soon adjust my perception however and realise that Mick had said ‘six’ not ‘sex’ and was talking about the number of points Ipswich would take from their next two fixtures, which are against the two teams currently bottom and second from bottom of the third division table, Bristol Rovers and Rochdale.  Deciding that despite my admiration for Mick, what he thinks about how many points Town will amass over Easter isn’t very interesting I mentally tune out and don’t tune back in until the game begins and I hear Brenner Woolley explaining that Bristol Rovers are wearing their away kit of black with yellow pinstripes and flashing down the sides of their shorts.  I find Brenner’s attention to detail admirable and hope that the listeners to BBC Radio Suffolk who don’t have access to the pictures from the ifollow appreciate the picture he paints for them.

After about 50 seconds Town score; “A most bizarre goal” is Brenner’s description. “Well explain that one” says Mick in a challenge to Brenner, before admitting “I haven’t a clue what happened”.   It’s a goal that if it were a painting would be in the Tate Gallery or Pompidou Centre alongside the works of the abstract expressionists.  Marvelling at the thought of a goal that it is impossible to describe I can only attribute it to some sort of early Easter miracle.  The metaphorical stone that usually blocks the opposition goal has rolled away and let the ball in the net, and it’s still only Good Friday.  The caption on the ifollow screen attributes the goal to Rovers’ Luke Leahy, whose surname I imagine is pronounced ‘leaky’.  In my world I award the goal to Jackson Pollock.

“What you want now is a real response from Ipswich” says Mick, living in hope of seeing the current team live up to the benchmark he helped set forty-three years ago.  “This is the time of all times you want to get on your front foot” he continues, clearly believing that the current team has a front foot. As part of his usual rendering of mini-biographies of opposition players in the opening minutes, Brenner mentions Ed Upson, a former FA Youth Cup winner with Town who is today playing for Bristol Rovers. Meanwhile Mick doesn’t seem able to get over that goal. “A strange sort of opening to the game…we’re winning one-nil” he says, sounding bemused.

Ed Upson fouls little Alan Judge; “Upson, no stranger to the yellow card” says Brenner, introducing a turn of phrase I haven’t heard him use before.  Referee Steve Martin meanwhile is not swayed by the fact that Upson has ‘previous’ and doesn’t book him.  It’s the eleventh minute; Andre Dozzell shoots weakly, the Bristol goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola saves and according to Brenner, Alan Judge “finishes off at the second time of asking”.  It’s two-nil to Town.  “Andre’s shot was awful” says Mick tempering our excitement with a reminder of the reality, but the reality is also that Town have now scored twice. Simply unable to resist the pun, Brenner tells us that it’s “…a good Friday for Town”.  I sigh deeply with resignation but am shaken from my torpor as I hear Mick say “Inevitably going to be a win for Town”.  I can only think that Mick has adopted the attitude of Donald Trump and that if he says something, then he thinks it’s true. 

Egged on by Mick’s optimism I begin to dream of Town scoring five or six.  Brenner meanwhile returns to the world of using his words to paint a picture for the BBC Radio Suffolk listeners.  But figurative art isn’t wholly Brenner’s style and he likes to add a dash of surrealism’ “Paul Cook being rather noisy…he’s got his beanie hat and gloves on”.  Back on the field of play the Rovers’ goalkeeper receives the ball; “The Finn plays it out quickly” says Brenner, as ever ensuring that the ‘leave’ voting BBC Radio Suffolk listeners can single out the foreigners if they need to.  “I can’t quite decide what Bristol Rovers are doing” admits Mick suddenly, but perhaps still thinking about the opening goal.

It’s the eighteenth minute. “That was shocking from Dozzell” says Brenner. “Awful play from Andre Dozzell” says Mick as Rovers’ Luke McCormick robs the dawdling midfielder of the ball, advances and chips the ball over Tomas Holy and into the Town goal.  “First goal of the season for Bristol Rovers against Ipswich Town” announces Brenner weirdly.  My dreams of a crushing victory evaporate and Bristol Rovers instantly and miraculously become the better side.  Five minutes later Tomas Holy collides with a Bristol player outside the penalty area and is booked by referee Steve Martin, although Brenner implies that Rovers’ manager Joey Barton is advocating a sending off.  “Joey Barton not happy” he says of the vengeful Scouser.  “It’s an awful mistake by Luke Chambers” says Mick, pinpointing where the blame really lies.  “Paul Cook’s head in his hands” continues Brenner, adding a layer to his aural picture which now resembles something by Hieronymous Bosch.  Happily, Rovers fail to score from the ensuing free-kick.

Thirty-four minutes pass and Town win a corner. “This hasn’t been a great performance” says Mick. “Both teams very untidy” he adds in explanation.  Mick is on good form; “Just taking his time there Andre, like he does”.   Bristol Rovers are dominating possession, making Town play on the break.  There are seven minutes until half-time. Suddenly Luke McCormick swings a leg at the ball in the town penalty area; “He should’ve made that two-two” says Brenner as the snap shot bounces past Tomas Holy’s left hand post. “Possibly” replies Mick, providing the voice of reason to quell Brenner’s hysterical panic.  “I thought it was in, and so did Tomas Holy, he was rooted to the spot” opines Brenner unconvincingly. 

Town fail to improve, “It’s not good viewing at the moment; Bristol Rovers the better side” confirms Brenner before adding a dollop of symbolism to his aural picture with “They’re really knocking on the door at the moment Bristol Rovers”.  Two minutes of additional time are added in which Town win another corner which produces nothing to excite.  It’s half-time and Mick’s assessment is that “It’s been a very average performance”.  I put the kettle on.

The second half begins with Aaron Drinan replacing James Norwood.  The assumption would usually be that if not a tactical change Norwood is injured, after all, as Brenner himself might say “Norwood is no stranger to the treatment table”.  But today Brenner speaks obliquely about Norwood’s “health” as if he hasn’t been substituted because of an injury but something more sinister like an affliction with Tourette’s, Dysentery or Cholera.

The game begins anew. “Free-kick to Bristol Rovers early doors” says Brenner, using his favourite football commentary expression before it’s too late.   Quickly, Mick and Brenner establish for us that the portents for the second half are not good. “Everything seems to be coming from mistakes” says Mick, as if he’s never seen a third division match before. “This could be a horrible forty-two minutes to watch” adds Brenner with a mixture of fear and ghoulish optimism.

Seven minutes into the half and in a rare moment of actively trying to influence the result, Teddy Bishop has a shot on goal, but it’s very weak and straight at Jaakola.  Seemingly already losing interest in today’s match Brenner is looking ahead; “Three successive away games in a row for Town” he says, exhibiting a disappointingly poor understanding of tautology and how to avoid it.  Returning to the present, Gwion Edwards has a shot cleared; “off the goal line” according to Brenner, although in truth it hadn’t got that far.  In the aftermath Luke Chambers goes down clutching some or other piece of his anatomy and whilst he receives treatment Brenner asks Mick to summarise things so far this half.  Rather than comment on the use of colour and poetic licence in Brenner’s commentary, Mick answers with another question “Why aren’t we much better than these teams rooted down the bottom?”

Chambers recovers and play resumes. An hour has passed. “Still not comfortable viewing” says Brenner moments before Teddy Bishop breaks down the right to the by-line. “That was a terrific Teddy Bishop burst on the ball, he just went past people as if they weren’t there” declares Mick incredulously.  Sadly Teddy’s low cross is easily blocked.  Twenty five minutes of normal time remain, “A long way to go” remarks Brenner before telling us of “Parrott stretching his hamstrings” as the pssitacine-named player warms up on the touchline.  It makes me wonder to myself if parrots actually have hamstrings.   Back on the pitch Aaron Drinan is booked for colliding with an opposition player.  Troy Parrott replaces Kayden Jackson.  “How did they do?” asks Brenner of Mick referring to the Norwood and Jackson striking partnership.  “They didn’t do very well” is Mick’s considered response, although he does go on to describe the mitigating circumstances of an absence of any helpful passes from our midfield.

The sixty-seventh minute and Gwion Edwards wins a corner for Town; nothing comes of it.  “Still for the most part a very poor football team to watch, Ipswich Town” says Brenner trying to keep us in suspense until the end of his sentence to find out which team he is talking about.  A little over fifteen minutes remain of normal time. “I can’t believe how cold it is at Portman Road, there hasn’t been much to warm the cockles it has to be said”  says Brenner, possibly  hinting at some contractual obligation to mention either the weather or Town’s inability to make people feel good.  The seventy-fourth minute and Rovers’ Brandon Hanlon runs past Luke Chambers and strikes the ball across the face of the goal; it’s either a poor shot or a poor cross, but probably both. “Not the first time the Ipswich Town captain has been caught out for pace in this game, it has to be said” says Brenner telling us once again that there are just some things that he has to say, although presumably as a radio commentator if he didn’t say anything he wouldn’t get paid.

Thirteen minutes remain. Rover’s substitute Oztumer, whose surname sounds horribly like an Australian cancer, is booked for a foul on Stephen Ward.  “Three goals in eighteen minutes, a mad period really” says Mick reminiscing about happier times.  Six minutes later and Brenner tells us that Town have won “their fourth corner of this second half”.  Unusually, Luke Chambers makes it to the ball first and sends a near post header onto the roof of the net. “Decent effort” says Mick, “Not the best corner I would have said” he adds making Luke’s achievement sound all the more impressive.  A fifth corner soon follows, cleverly won by Aaron Drinan.   It’s just a shame Town are not very good at corners.  “My goodness it’s really been very poor” fires off Mick, “I don’t think Ipswich have performed at all…just so messy…nothing to excite you at all”,

Normal time has almost expired and for no apparent reason other than to use up time, Teddy Bishop and little Alan Judge are replaced by Josh Harrop and Armando Dobra.  Meanwhile, Bristol Rovers replace David Ayunga with Josh Barrett who, Brenner tells us “is very stocky”.  Four minutes of added time are played, and twenty-two seconds into the ninety-fifth minute, through the medium of his referee’s whistle ,  Mr Martin says enough is enough and Town win.  Mick was right.

Mick’s closing words before the ifollow broadcast rudely cuts him off are “Everything seemed to be messy and untidy; the performance again, it’s miles away from what you want.”  Of course Mick’s not wrong, how could he be?  But heck, on the bright side we have won.  During the week I watched a programme about Trappist monks in Leicestershire who set up a brewery; one of them said that people are happiest when living life in the moment not thinking of what’s gone or what the future holds.  Tonight Town have won, be happy, the future will look after itself, like it did in 1978.

Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 0

Sunday bloody, Sunday, a classic angst ridden film drama from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger starring Glenda Jackson, Murray Head and Peter Finch and featuring a doomed dog called Kenyatta, but also how I describe the Christian Sabbath when Town have to play on it.  I like my football on a Saturday and at 3 pm to boot.  Noon on a Sunday should be when the pubs open and nothing else.  To make matters worse today’s is the first match of the league season, a fixture which for the sake of symmetry if nothing else should kick off at the same time as every other club’s first game of the season.  As if Boris ‘Bozo’ Johnson being Prime Minister wasn’t enough to cope with.  Why do things only ever get worse?

Waking from my slumbers a little before 8 o’clock I draw the blinds and am bathed in bright early autumn sunlight. I shower and dress, donning my button neck, blue, Ipswich Town branded T-shirt purchased over the summer from the Planet Blue website, where my review of the garment has never appeared despite having been submitted three times (see previous blog post “Consumer City 1 Lockdown Town 0”); I’m not bitter, but the truth must be told. After a breakfast with my wife Paulene of bacon, egg, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms with tea and an espresso coffee, all prepared by me, I look for things to fill the time until shortly before noon when I will switch on my lap top, log on to the ifollow and hope that it lets me watch the match.  I have heard that yesterday Portsmouth supporters were unable to watch their game versus Shrewsbury Town on the ifollow and ended up listening to local radio.  I am soon in my garage breaking up cardboard boxes to put out for the refuse collection on Wednesday; it’s been a busy week of deliveries with two new toilet seats and thirty-two bottles of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer pale ale all arriving courtesy of men driving white vans.  Boxes crushed, I potter about and fold away the blue and white bunting that bedecks my garden each summer to celebrate the season the sun and the Town.

Time passes quickly and Paulene is soon telling me that she has logged me onto to the ifollow and  it’s working.  I pour myself a pint of water, which I liven up with a squirt of lime juice, and lie on my back on  the orange canvas bean bag that normally sits in the corner of the room, but which I have re-positioned centrally in front of the smart tv.   I have today’s match programme by my side; impressively it arrived in yesterday’s post in time for the match.  It’s not the best programme I’ve ever seen, it’s front cover, which appears to be an homage to the programmes of the 1980-81 season is a little speckled at the edges, like a poor photocopy, which is possibly the source of the design, but at least the cover price is a £1 cheaper than if this was a normal game.  I don’t mind if there are fewer pages and less to read, I just want a few folded sheets of paper that are specific to this match and which lists the teams or at least the names from which the teams will be selected.  Who actually reads all the other drivel that’s printed in the massive programmes we pay the price of a paperback book for anyway? Less is more in the world of football match programmes and I pine for those of the 1960’s and 70’s.  In France, the clubs that produce a programme do not charge for it.

I am now comfortably slumped and as the broadcast begins I am surprised, but pleased, to hear the familiar, nearly Geordie tones (he’s from Berwick-Upon-Tweed) of Brenner Woolley and the flat, steady delivery of Mick Mills.  Mick sets out on a lengthy monologue in which he immediately tempts fate by explaining that this is a good time to play Wigan.  He goes on to explain in a manner which suggest he thinks we should be surprised, that he has been doing a bit of research and had logged on to the Wigan website to see who is in their squad.  But he tells us that they have shipped out sixteen players and only brought in two so it was a waste of time; presumably he didn’t recognise any of the names. 

The players are now walking onto the pitch to the accompaniment of the crap-rock strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”, this despite the absence of a crowd.  I wonder to myself if the ‘entrance music’ is meant to inspire the players, and feel glad I am not a professional footballer.  Sadly the opportunity has not been taken to have some fun with the entrance music by playing something like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” or something by Roger Whittaker.  I’m pleased to see the players ‘take the knee’ and hope that all the people that it annoys, and sadly there are some,  are so annoyed that they slam their heads repeatedly against the nearest wall and pour boiling water over their own genitals.  Today’s referee and assistants are wearing purple tops which make them look like sporting Anglican bishops, which is appropriate for a Sunday game.  Meanwhile , Brenner Woolley tries to trump Mick Mills efforts to tempt fate by telling us that Wigan Athletic as a club are “in free fall”, which is probably not quite true.   At 12:02 little Alan Judge literally gets the ball rolling for Town who are resplendent in their new kit of all blue with Adidas decorations and the yellow  and blue badge that the team wore back in the days when it won Cups and was one of the very best in Europe, if not the World.  Wigan in contrast are today’s ‘baddies’, wearing all-black, although the gift of the tv close-up reveals that the shirt features a grim machine-like pattern of various shades of grey hexagon.

The game begins like a tennis match with the ball being knocked back and forward pointlessly between the two teams, but this disappointment is tempered by the realisation that Brenner Woolley’s radio commentary is actually much better than the usual tv commentary because he makes the effort to say who has the ball, and that is all we really need to know. On a tv screen the numbers and names on the backs of the players’ shirts are too small to read and most of the players look the same with their conscripts’ haircuts.

Eight minutes pass and Wigan should be ahead as 19 year old Nigerian Emeka Obi is left all alone to head Gary Roberts’ corner powerfully but clumsily past the post; the Ipswich defence seemingly need to learn the lesson that black lives especially matter when they’re in your own penalty area.  At about this time Paulene comes into the room and by some sorcery manages to make the screen bigger.  This naturally adds to my enjoyment but not as much as Teddy Bishop does in the eleventh minute as he heads into the goal an attempted clearance of a Freddie Sears’ left-wing cross.  It’s a goal that in its construction has something in common with Roger Osborne’s FA Cup winning goal in 1978, with the Wigan defender playing the role of the hapless Willie Young and with Freddie Sears as David Geddes.

As well as putting Town ahead, the goal highlights the fact that the commentary is fractionally ahead of the pictures on the screen as Brenner tells me that Teddy has scored a moment before the ball strikes the net.  As the game continues it’s a lack of synchronisation that ultimately proves reassuring as Emeka Obi is twice more left free to score, but Brenner promptly tells me that he fails to do so at the very moment when my heart is about to enter my mouth.  Brenner spoils it a bit though when he confirms that Wigan should be ahead, but adds, sounding slightly disappointed “…as it is , it’s 1-0 to Town”.  From wrongly placed bias Brenner then veers towards surrealism with the phrase “Ipswich Town’s ball, in the shape of Stephen Ward”.   The picture in the programme of Stephen only adds to my worries because I hadn’t realised he had a nose bigger than mine and hair neat enough to suggest he might follow a career as a referee once his playing days are over.

Whilst Brenner Woolley’s commentary adds things to the commentary not visible to the human eye, Mick Mills is I think having a very good day, providing some convincing and totally plausible tactical analysis about the full-backs and how the two teams’ respective line-ups and formations cancel each other out.  On days like this it’s as if Mick is wearing the number 4 shirt again in Frans Thijssen’s absence and is running the midfield.

Wigan had looked quite good for a spell but Town are looking better, and a passage of absolutely marvellous play ends with Teddy Bishop having a shot tipped away on to the post by Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones, whose name instantly has me breaking into the opening song on the Clash’s eponymous first album.  It’s easily the highlight of the match so far, but soon Brenner is competing with more weirdness as he tells how “Naismith scoops Sears’ cross away with his left shoe”.  His left shoe! No wonder we’re winning if Wigan are playing in their shoes; but presumably for these Lancastrians it’s better than playing in clogs.

With a half hour gone there is a drinks break and the camera lingers on Wigan manager John Sheridan and his coach gesticulating and pointing enthusiastically as if relaying the latest odds on another relegation to the club’s former owners.  Meanwhile Town manager Paul Lambert is wearing a rather unpleasant shiny grey Adidas training top and a blue Ipswich Town branded baseball cap.  I’m not a fan of baseball caps, to me they just say “Sir Francis Chichester”, and whilst I have nothing against the sadly deceased circumnavigator, he wasn’t a Town fan.  What have you done with your v-neck black jumper Paul? That looked much more classy.

As the end of the half draws nigh Joe Garner hits the Town cross bar with an overhead kick and my attention is grabbed by his nascent ginger beard, but also his skinhead haircut, which makes him look like he could be a member of the BNP, although I’m certain he isn’t.  The half ends with Mick Mills telling us that “A second goal would be handy to say you’re in a good position” before the sound from Radio Suffolk takes on a weirdness to match Brenner’s commentary making the co-commentators sound like a cross between the Daleks and Peter Frampton. Oddly it’s an aural effect that suits Mick more than Brenner.

Half-time brings adverts like on the real telly and I am being encouraged to purchase the services of Screwfix, something called Utilita, some sort of video game and to watch the EFL on Quest, and then it happens all over again as if I might need reminding.  Not really interested in this commercially driven filling of the football broadcast sandwich I head to the fridge and pour myself a glass of Faro Foudroyante lambic beer.  Paulene is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen and expresses her surprise that Town are winning.  My beer tastes a bit like cider and is very refreshing on a warm day like today.

The joys of the ifollow broadcast return with Norwood replacing Drinan for Town and Perry replacing a Wigan player; like Mick Mills, I don’t know who.  At 13:07 the fun begins again and soon Brenner is saying “Norwood takes the ball on his shoe”. What is it with these northerners playing in shoes? Are Church’s and Clark’s suddenly offering better sponsorship deals than Nike and Adidas?  This doesn’t bode well I’m thinking; thank goodness we’ve already scored one goal because I can’t see Norwood scoring  if he’s not wearing boots.  Idiot.  I’m surprised Paul Lambert allows it.

The second half is interesting enough to begin with; but Wigan are doing better and Brenner suggests that Town let Gary Roberts go too soon, although he is now thirty-six years old; but it’s an opinion I support. In recent years Town and English football in general have valued athleticism and endurance above skill far too much. I want to watch football not long distance running.  Brenner now adds incontrovertible facts to set alongside his opinions and lets us know that Town have won only four of their last sixteen home games before Mick Mills advises that someone else should have a go at the free-kicks after Freddie Sears sends  a second hopelessly over the cross bar; I couldn’t quite understand why he took them when Bishop and Dozzell are both playing, but perhaps  I am wrong to see them as the heirs to Peter Morris, Arnold Muhren, Mark Brennan, Ian Redford and Jimmy Juan.

An hour has passed and Luke Chambers is the first player booked, but the match is becoming a bit boring; Mick Mills euphemistically describes it as ‘mundane’ and asks if Wigan aren’t beginning to be the better team.  If I didn’t have beer to hand I’d be hoping for Pat from Clacton to appear with a bag of sweets now; hopefully the sugar would help me feel less queasy at the sight of Joe Garner’s completely tattooed left arm, which makes him look as if he has a nasty skin condition, all his veins and capillaries are a little too close to the surface  or he hasn’t washed his arm for a year.  But more to do with the game I am currently unimpressed with Norwood who seems to be wrongly playing beyond the defender who is marking him (Naismith), which means the ball is always intercepted before it reaches him, whereas Drinan played in front of the defender, received the ball, controlled it and laid it off bringing Dozzell and Bishop, the attacking midfield players, into the game.  I like to think that Mick Mills would be impressed with my tactical evaluation.

 Seventy-three minutes pass and Edwards replaces Sears, and three minutes later Huws replaces Bishop and the game swings back in Town’s favour.  Just four minutes after Huws comes on Edwards doubles Town’s lead after a second excellent passing moving from Town, again down the left, and our record of sixteen successive games televised by Sky tv without a win looks set to end.  The game is as good as won and the remaining highlights are reduced to seeing Wigan substitute Oliver Crankshaw massaging his right buttock, although he does have reassuringly long hair.  Town attempt to end the game with panache, playing ‘keep ball’ until it reaches Luke Chambers and it’s good to see Emyr Huws then kick Joe Garner in the stomach. But there’s nothing more to this and at four minutes to two referee Mr Thomas Bramall calls time. 

It’s been an afternoon of mixed and fluid emotions just as should be the case with proper football matches.  The game has been won, but the result was often in doubt and credit to Messrs Woolley and Mills, today they have reflected and explained the turmoil, the trouble and the ultimate satisfaction, a much better performance than last Saturday.  The ifollow has also done its job and I feel more confident about watching future broadcasts, even if I am paying over the odds just to watch the telly.

Ipswich Town 0 Burton Albion 0

During the night I kept waking up in the middle of strange dreams, dreams of a spiritual, religious nature. In one I seemed to be a captive of some religious sect and a younger man who was with me wrote something on a piece of paper and hid it inside what looked like a part of a curtain rail. At that moment another man, who looked as if he might be a priest walked in, took the curtain rail and looked at the message etched inside, which consisted of the numbers 6 and 10. The ‘priest’ smiled and I seemed to know what he was going to say, but was a bit surprised when he said ‘Love thy Club’. That’s a bit naff, I thought. Either my descent into madness is further advanced than I realised or a large brandy before going to bed is not advisable.
Today is grey and cold and as I walk to catch the train to Ipswich, there is the occasional spot of rain in the air carried on a swirling breeze. I walk past a dead bird that lies in the road, its feathers are ruffled by the wind. Only three people wait for the train with me, a man and two women, one of whom wears a white coat. I enjoy a poster urging me to keep what would be an imaginary child strapped in. The train arrives, I board and as I walk through the carriage a man in his sixties eyes me and my blue and white scarf

suspiciously, as though he may be a Daily Mail reader. I sit in a seat that I must give up if an elderly or disabled person needs it; I’m not a betting man but I’ll take my chances, it’ll add some excitement to the journey. On the opposite side of the carriage to me are a couple who wear grey, comfortable clothing which blends in with the upholstery. Three people get into the carriage at Manningtree, one is wearing a very large, hooded, Ipswich Town ‘sports coat’; the cream and red stripe on the arms dates it to the mid 1990’s; he looks like a huge gnome.
Arriving in Ipswich it is raining and the plaza in front of the station shines with the wet

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sending reflections of lamp posts deep into the ground, a seagull perches on the ridge of a slate roof. There is no one much about and little sign that a football match will soon take place. In Portman Road stewards huddle out of the rain in a doorway and a car park attendant shelters beneath an umbrella.

The only crowd is one of twenty or so Burton Albion supporters waiting to buy tickets.

Rain drops run down the faces of the statues of Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey and look like tears, droplets form at the ends of their noses. Sir Bobby’s fist looks like he’s angrily squeezing a wet sponge. I buy a programme (£3) from a girl in a box with a window, “Enjoy the match” she says.

St Jude’s Tavern welcomes me in from the rain and the gloom with the warm sound of retired men’s conversation. I buy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) and standing at the bar a man with a straggly beard tells me a ‘joke’ about the definition of the word ‘pansexual’, the punchline is something to do with kitchen utensils, which is a bit obvious, but he seems very amused. I take a seat and my friend Mick arrives; he has a pint of the Match Day Special too and asks if non-meat pies are on the menu; they’re not, so he buys a packet of Guinness flavoured crisps. We talk and our conversation covers walnut cake, organised crime, Mick McCarthy, Gilou Escoffier, the attractions of Lille, Charles de Gaulle and his ‘blown-up’ Citroen DS. Mick is considering buying a season ticket next year. We both drink a further pint of the Match Day Special as other drinkers drift away towards Portman Road. Eventually, It is time to leave too, we say goodbye; I depart for the match and Mick for the toilet. Outside, a foreign man waiting at a bus stop steps aside to let me pass, he smiles and says something I don’t understand and I ask him where he’s from. “Turkish” he says and then “Istanbul”. He shakes my hand and I say “Welcome to England”.
There are very few people heading down Portman Road and I half worry that my watch is slow and it’s later than I think, but it’s not, it’s just that the Ipswich public would seem not to be enthused by the prospect of today’s fixture against Burton Albion, the team 24th in the league table, who have lost their last five matches. I don’t understand why, surely it’s a good opportunity to see Town win, and isn’t that the point? Personally, I enjoy games against ‘small’ clubs like Burton Albion, which people who favour analogies drawn from other sports describe as ‘punching above their weight’. I sometimes consider that I am a person more suited to watching lower division football, but I am ‘punching above my weight’ in supporting a team in the Second Division, and I don’t even like boxing.
Portman Road is so quiet I feel like a bit like Charlton Heston in the Omega Man as I head for the turnstiles. I waste no time queueing today, only in deciding which queue-free turnstile to go through; too much choice. Once inside I head straight for ever-present Phil, eschewing my allocated seat in favour of human contact. Today Phil has his young son Elwood with him. The teams are already on the pitch, Burton wearing all yellow, weirdly with black shoulders; they are kicking towards the North Stand.

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Ipswich of course wear blue shirts and white shorts with what once were called blue stockings, before socks entered common parlance. The game starts slowly and Ipswich even slower, allowing Burton Albion, nickname ‘the Brewers’ to keep the ball much of the time. Burton’s club badge is a stylised B and an A set within the outline of a man with a beer belly kicking a ball; it’s not about bravado and ‘sporting excellence’ and I like it all the more for that.
An elderly sounding couple with distinct Suffolk accents sit behind me. “There isn’t many here today; twelve thousand?” he says. “They’ll say fifteen, but there in’t ” she says dismissively and almost angrily. A lot of Ipswich supporters seem convinced that the club overstates its attendance figures, it’s a mystery why, particularly given that Marcus Evans the club owner is probably the sort of bloke who is constantly running scared of the Inland Revenue. That’s Ipswich people for you, a suspicious lot.
The football takes on the character of the afternoon, drizzly and soggy. Burton Albion are playing better than Ipswich, but nevertheless there seems little likelihood of them scoring a goal despite the presence in their team of former Ipswich prodigy Darren Bent, but he’s now aged thirty-three and his best years are a fading memory. Behind me, talk turns to how players ‘nowadays’ stay on the ground for ages when they get a knock and thump the turf with their fists; why do they do that other than for reasons of pure affectation? “They’ve got tha wages, why not take ‘em orf” is the frustrated question behind as a Burton player receives treatment. “They could use that cart their got”.
The absence of match atmosphere is palpable. Nevertheless, despite the paucity of the crowd I sense a mild collective will to win as if the real miseries are not here today and those left are as optimistic as Ipswich people get. They sit in near silence in terms of vocal support, but there is a background hum of hope and expectation, although it could just be the rain on the roof. The half ends with Ipswich winning a corner, which there isn’t time to take. There is some booing as the teams leave the field, but I applaud enthusiastically, partly by way of hopeful encouragement and partly because what I have just seen was so poor that I am a little in awe.
At half time I go down onto the concourse to drain off some of the Match Day Special and then stare with the others at one of the TV screens. The statistics show that Burton Albion had four shots on goal but none was on target; Ipswich did not have a single shot on goal. That of course does not tell the whole story, because the team were terrible in many other ways as well.  I turn to leave and see two children looking disbelievingly at the price list of drinks and snacks from the refreshment counter.

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I look at the programme which is as dull as the game, but for a piece on Town’s 6-1 victory at Millwall in the sixth round of the FA Cup back in 1978. It was a game that was memorable as a great win, but also for the violent behaviour of some Millwall fans, and Bobby Robson was quoted by Jimmy Hill on Match of the Day as having said that “they should turn the flamethrowers on them”. The piece reports that Bobby Robson later explained that what he had said after the match was said in private and was not for public consumption. The piece then adds rather startlingly that Bobby said it was apparent from letters he had received that what he had said actually summed up the feelings of “all genuine football lovers”. Those were the days.

I return to my seat in time for the re-start of the game, which shows a very slight improvement on the first half as Ipswich finally manage a shot at, but not on goal, which is greeted with ironic and sarcastic cheers and extended applause by the witty home crowd. With an hour gone Ipswich make a double substitution and Mustapha Carayol makes his debut for the team; he is Town’s first ever Ghanaian player, which is nice. Carayol looks keen and wins a free-kick with his first touch; a little later he runs past two Burtonians with ease, but sends in a weak cross, which is effortlessly cleared as he quickly assimilates into the team. Passes go astray and the ball is booted aimlessly up field and the woman behind me is baffled by how inept these highly paid footballers can be. “That’s all they gotta do all day long, practice”. She pauses for a moment’s thought then adds “Until lunchtime; when they go to the bookies”.

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On the Burton Albion bench manager Nigel Clough is well wrapped-up against the cold up with  a scarf across his face like some hybrid manager-cum-ultra.  There is genuine, warm applause from the Ipswich crowd as Darren Bent is substituted in the 71st minute, but then the north stand decide that enough is enough and they remind Mick McCarthy through the medium of Sloop John ‘B’ that his football is faecal. But the singing is not delivered with gusto and soon fades away, perhaps because there aren’t enough of them here to really do the song justice. The afternoon’s attendance is announced as 13,815, the lowest figure for a league game at Portman Road since the late 1990’s apparently. There are 169 supporters from Burton and they become the first away fans this season not to have employed opera or any other means to tell the home crowd that their support smells much the same as Mick McCarthy’s football. Given however, that they have travelled from Staffordshire on a cold, wet, February afternoon to watch a miserable game of football, they would have had every right to do so.

Burton finish the game on the attack and goalkeeper Bart Bialkowski literally single-handedly saves Ipswich from defeat with a spectacular one-handed save, before referee Mr David Webb breathily spins the pea in his whistle for the final time and releases us from his thrall. It has been a terrible afternoon of football and utterly life affirming.   If it wasn’t for misery there would be no great art. Football like life is wonderful and simultaneously bloody awful too.

Phil, Elwood and I walk away from the towering lights and stands of Portman Road and we are all the stronger for our experience this afternoon. I have invited Phil and Elwood back for dinner and we’re having sausage and mash with carrots because that’s what Elwood likes.