Colchester United 2 Harrogate Town 1

It’s the first day of the second weekend in October and in the space of a week the leaves on the trees have begun to turn to shades of yellow and brown; it’s autumn and it’s cool.  I had wanted to head north to Morecambe today following Ipswich Town, but fate conspired to leave me without a car this morning and a hoped-for message that would have seen me ‘get a lift’ never arrived.  But like Ray Davies I like my football on a Saturday and so I have sought my fun elsewhere.  Local non-league football is always an attraction and Halstead Town, both Stanway Rovers and Stanway Pegasus, Little Oakley and Coggeshall United are all at home this afternoon but sticking two fingers up to the cost of living crisis I choose Colchester United versus Harrogate Town.  As some people collect vinyl records, Smurfs or infectious diseases so I collect Football League teams (well sort of) and I’ve never seen Harrogate Town.  It should be an “interesting” match, with the teams being third and fourth from bottom of the fourth division, but at least Col U should have a chance of winning.

Since Colchester United stopped running shuttle buses to their ridiculously remote stadium at Cuckoo Farm I have only been to see them there once, I used to be a regular. The Colchester United website now makes no reference to getting to the Community Stadium by public transport, the implication being that you can only get there by car, which is scandalous given the urgent need to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.   We are all doomed, but nevertheless I book a space on-line for my trusty Citroen C3 at the ‘Park and Walk’ car park (£3.00), which is over the A12 from the stadium, and make the short drive towards oblivion.   

It’s a pleasant walk from the car park beneath pale blue afternoon skies punctuated with fluffy clouds, over the roaring A12 to United Way and its vacant expanses of tarmac haunted by the ghosts of terminally delayed shuttle buses.  At the ground I visit the club shop to marvel at the pencils, mugs, cuddly toys and fridge magnets; this is Colchester’s Fitzwilliam Museum.  I pick up a programme in the shop and am pleasantly surprised to find that these are still free, “It’s like being in France” I tell the woman at the counter.  Mysteriously the cover of the programme is printed with the words “£3.00 where sold” and I wonder where that might be. Outside, I take a wander, easily resisting the temptation to pay £4.00 for a plastic cup of fizzy ‘IPA’ from the Legends Bar, although the alfresco Yogi Bear-style tables look inviting and £4.00 a pint is actually very cheap for a football ground.  Up a shaded corner sits the Harrogate Town team bus, provided by a local company with the fabulously Yorkshire name of ‘Murgatroyd’; it’s a name straight out of “Last of the Summer Wine”, and I imagine the Harrogate team running out to the theme tune at home games.

My fascination with the outside of the Community Stadium is soon exhausted and I head inside the stadium, successfully scanning my ticket and pushing through the turnstile at the third or fourth attempt; computer technology frequently succeeds in belittling me like this and I expect I shall meet my eventual demise at the hands of artificial intelligence.  I drift past the poorly patronised food stand beneath the stand, with its alluring smell of hot cooking oil and grease and find my way to my seat, which is sufficiently close to the foot of the stairs for the safety rail to be annoyingly in my field of vision.  Over the PA system, ‘Lost in music’ by Sister Sledge is followed by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ and I wonder if I’m not back at Layer Road in 1979 waiting to see Mick Packer, Steve Leslie and Trevor Lee strut their stuff.  Some of the people sat around about me look as if they would have been getting the benefit of a ticket at the concessionary price even back then.

“The teams are in the tunnel” announces the voice of the PA system excitedly to no reaction whatsoever from the crowd.  The teams soon emerge and as they line up for the usual pre-match pleasantries my view of them is almost totally obscured by the rail and the steward zealously guarding it.  Quickly, a couple of old boys sarcastically ask him if he’s going to stand there for the whole match, whilst also telling him to retreat into the stairwell, which he obligingly does; but I think he’s here to see the match as much as we are.

Colchester United get first go with the ball as the match begins and they attempt to aim at the goal closest to the town itself, which is over 3.5 kilometres away.  The U’s are wearing their traditional kit of blue and white striped shirts with white shorts and blue socks, and very smart it is too, particularly with just three broad blue stripes, although the red numbers on the backs of their shirts are mostly illegible.  Harrogate are regrettably one of the increasing number of teams that feel compelled to wear a funereal all-black away kit, despite there being no colour clash whatsoever between their yellow and black home kit and the U’s blue and white.   On the plus side, today is the first home league game for Col U’s new manager Matt Bloomfield, who joins the long list of former Ipswich Town players and managers at ‘Layer Road’, albeit that he only played one game for Town

“Col U” bang-bang-bang is the noise off to my right as the heirs to the Barside and Layer Road end get behind their team with a chant and the aid of a drum that sounds like a large cardboard box.  “Oooh, they’re in black, another bad sign and we’re kicking the wrong way” says the old bloke behind me cheerily like some soothsayer who might have told fortunes for Queen Boudicca.  “Only about bloody ten of ‘em” he continues, commenting on the Harrogate supporters in the opposite stand. “Got bloody cars in Yorkshire in’t they?”  He then proceeds to count them coming to a total of twenty-one.  Regrettably, I can’t resist doing the same and make the total twenty-five, although I don’t tell him.

“Blue and white army, de-de-de-de-dur” chant the home fans behind the goal as if they’ve either forgotten half the words or just couldn’t be bothered to think up any more.  “Hit the bloody thing” calls the old bloke behind me as Col U get into the Harrogate penalty area.  So far, so scruffy, it’s hard to  believe Col U beat Ipswich in the  League Cup earlier in the season.  “New manager’s made a difference, don’t you think” says someone behind the bloke behind me, perhaps only half in jest.  “Give him a chance, we’ve only had five minutes” says the voice of reason next to him, not quite getting the ’joke’.   “Who’s the wanker in the black” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, which is as close to wit as most football chants ever come.

When football is not of a high quality there comes a tipping point where this increases the likelihood of goals due to mistakes or ineptness, and happily this is what happens next.  A punt forward by Tom Dallison sails over the head of a Harrogate defender, who was either stood in the wrong place or didn’t jump high enough, and lands at the feet of Kwesi Appiah who is left with an unimpeded 20 odd metre run towards goal; he easily evades the Harrogate goalkeeper and runs the ball into an empty net whilst looking slightly surprised and possibly embarrassed.  Col U lead 1-0.

With Col U winning I relax and realise I haven’t seen the Col U mascot Eddie the Eagle, I hope he hasn’t succumbed to bird flu.  Col U are the better team with more attacking ideas, I hesitate to call it ‘verve’. “Go on push him” shouts the bloke next to me as Appiah chases another punt forward and the Harrogate defender who is ahead of him. Unfortunately, Appiah takes the bloke at his word and physically pushes the defender, inevitably conceding a free-kick.   The game is 25% gone and Frank Nouble heads a cross against the inside of a goal post, but it defies the laws of physics, and the angle of refraction somehow falls short of the angle of incidence and the ball stays out of the goal.  “There’s been more action in this first twenty minutes than in the whole season” says the bloke behind me sounding uncharacteristically positive.

I count the Harrogate fans again and it looks like there are thirty of them now, if they go on like this there might be forty of them by full-time; it seems unlikely though.  Perhaps aware of their swelling support, the Harrogate team begin to get something of a game together and win a corner and then another as Harrogate’s Armstrong, a bearded man with his hair tied back dangles a foot at the ball by way of an attempt on goal.   At first referee Mr Hicks give no decision and looks to his linesman. When the linesman signals goal-kick Mr Hicks awards the corner. “That’s teamwork” says the bloke next to me.

With ten minutes to go until half-time, Harrogate’s Joe Mattock has the honour of being the first player to be booked as he fouls the mouthy and theatrical Appiah.  Col U are strongest down the flanks and two minutes later a low cross from Junior Tchamadeu evades everyone in the penalty area expect Frank Nouble who is lurking beyond the far post and strikes the ball firmly into he goal to give Col U a 2-0 lead.  “Ole, Ole, Ole” chant the crowd behind the goal, simultaneously celebrating the goal and re-living holidays on the Costa Brava.

Four minutes of added on time are announced. “Where’d he get that from?” asks the bloke behind me but no one answers.  “You officials are a joke” shouts someone else when a possible handball is ignored and then Harrogate have their first shot on target, but it’s easily caught by Sam Hornby in the Col U goal.

With the half-time whistle I stand up to stretch my legs, and devour a Nature Valley Canadian Maple Syrup Crunchy bar as I check the half-time scores and discover that Ipswich are losing 1-0 at Morecambe. 

With the re-start of the game Harrogate replace Joe Mattock with Warren Burrell, I agree with the bloke beside me that Mattock had looked like he might get sent off if he wasn’t substituted, such was his enthusiasm.  Harrogate’s kick-off for the second half doesn’t show much hope for their approach as the ball is tapped back from the centre spot and then launched straight into touch as if just trying to gain distance from their own goal.  The other half-time substitute for Harrogate, Josh Falkingham fouls Appiah and quickly becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Hicks. “You dirty northern bastards” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, to my shame it’s a chant which, as someone who has never lived north of Ipswich, I have always found enjoyable.

Col U soon win another free-kick, but in the Harrogate half;  Mr Hicks sprays a line on the pitch ten yards from where the foul was given but  there is not a Harrogate player within ten yards of it. When Col U come to take the kick, they play it backwards.  “Go on boy, open your legs” cries the bloke next to me as Tchamadeu breaks forward again down the wing, I try not to look. Behind the goal the home fans have moved the choice of music in the stadium from the 1970’s to the 1980’s as they launch into a rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘I just can’t get enough’.  They switch to ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ as Mr Hicks brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Col U’s Cole Skuse.  As the sun goes down,  over half of the pitch is now in shadow and I’ve got cold hands.

Not quite an hour of the match has gone and as happened when Col U scored their first goal, a moment in which any ability a player has suddenly deserts him occurs again.  This time Hornby’s seemingly easy clearance barely leaves the ground and travels directly to Harrogate’s Daniel Grant who strides forward, and slips the ball through to Pattison who shoots the ball into the far corner of the Colchester goal, the score is 2-1.  Weirdly, the Harrogate fans do not appear to celebrate; if they do they do it quickly and quietly, but then, it might not be possible to hear them because they are so well spread throughout the away fans enclosure in groups of no more than two or three, it’s almost as if they don’t get on or are embarrassed to be seen with one another.

Harrogate win another corner from which McArdle heads over the cross-bar and then they make another pair of substitutions.  When a Harrogate player is injured and stays down he’s attended to by the physio who is a woman.  At least one person in the stand behind the goal feels it’s appropriate to produce a wolf whistle and the bloke behind me suggests that the injured player will be looking into her eyes and telling her the pain is in his groin area.  It is sobering to find there are people who still think like this.

The last twenty-five minutes of the match play out in a series of free-kicks, the occasional corner, the evening up of the number of yellow cards shown and some more substitutions, three for Col U and one for Harrogate.  Col U’s defending gets more desperate with Luke Chambers hoofing the ball inelegantly even when he doesn’t have to, like he did for Ipswich in his latter days. When Col U win a free-kick the bloke behind me suggests they bring on Freddie Sears who has already been substituted. “It’s what they do in America” he says, attempting to justify his stupid comment, with an equally stupid one. 

In the final ten minutes of normal time Luke Chambers is booked, almost wilfully it appears, and Alex Newby and Luke Hannant miss simple looking chances in quick succession that could have secured the win for Col U. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon is the nine minutes of added on time that is to be played, but this might just be because in previous years four minutes has always been what we’ve come to expect.

With the final whistle there is applause, the crowd has clearly enjoyed the win even if it wasn’t the greatest game ever played. Often however a game between two evenly matched teams will be perfectly watchable regardless of how good they are; Col U and Harrogate were evenly matched today but Col U were the better team and deserved their victory.  I head off back over the A12 to the car park and learn that Ipswich have come from behind to beat Morecambe 2-1 and all is right with the world.

Ipswich Town 0 Cambridge United 1

When I first started attending Portman Road, almost exactly fifty-two years ago (April 6th1971, a goalless draw versus Everton), Cambridge United were putting the finishing touches to their first ever season in the Football League.  I remember looking out for Cambridge’s results every week and hoping they’d do well; I think I must have been excited by the idea of a new club in the Football League and the fact that they were almost local, being in the next county.  I continued to follow Cambridge’s results throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s and still recall players with memorable names and haircuts such as Brian Greenhalgh, Steve Spriggs, Steve Fallon, Brendon Batson, Alan Biley and Lindsay Smith.   Twenty years later , I had lost my youthful joie de vivre and when Town met Cambridge for the first time in a League fixture, I was much less enthused by the Cambridge United team under the management of John Beck, a man who looked and sounded uncannily like Trigger in the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses.  That Cambridge team had some talented players (Dublin, Claridge, Kimble, Fensome, Daish) but was horrible; in November they beat Town 2-1 at Portman Road and the following April held us to a draw at the Abbey Stadium; their main tactic as I recall was to keep the ball as far above the ground as possible at all times.

Today, Ipswich are playing Cambridge United in a Football League fixture at Portman Road for only the second time in fifty-two years. It’s a beautifully sunny, but desperately cold afternoon and cotton wool clouds festoon a pale blue sky, like in an imaginary art deco poster advertising day trips by rail to some chilly east coast resort.  Having been delayed by cones surrounding non-existent roadworks on the A12 at Capel St Mary, I hurry across Gippeswyk Park after parking up my trusty Citroen C3.  Two youths walk towards me across the grass.  “Alright mate?” says one, perhaps trying to impress his much taller accomplice with his cheeky enquiry of a random adult. “Yes, I’m alright mate, are you?” I reply, returning his familiarity right back at him with an enquiring raised eyebrow. 

The sound of football chants carries on the bitter north easterly wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel where Cambridge United supporters fortify themselves against the cold and their inevitable disappointment. In Portman Road, I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern, cashless way, but just like last week the technology is not working. Disappointed, but not entirely surprised, I fish for a five-pound note in my wallet and wait for my change.  Five or so minutes later, as I reach the Arboretum pub (currently known, for reasons unknown, as the Arbor House), a large Honda car draws up and out steps Ray who is being dropped off by his wife Roz. After waving to Roz and having a brief conversation with Ray , which I politely curtail as I am already late, I head into the pub and Ray heads into town to complete undisclosed errands.  Service is slow at the bar where one of the staff seems to struggle to remember which drinks he has poured and which he hasn’t; eventually I take a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) out into the beer garden where Mick is already some way through his own pint of something similar.   We talk of solar power, dizzy spells, Mick’s son continuing to work whilst suffering from Covid, cycling and Germany’s admirable, open and honest attitude towards its past.  With a little under half an hour until kick-off we leave for Portman Road after first taking our empty glasses back to the bar.

Bidding Mick farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Group West Stand, I walk to the Constantine Road entrance and then past the serried ranks of the players’ cars;  mostly black or grey Mercedes and Audi SUVs; they look like hearses . I enter the ground through turnstile 61, which I choose in preference to turnstiles 59 and 60 because Ipswich were Football League Champions in the 1961-62 season. I hope for the day when they open turnstile 62.  I thank the turnstile operator and he thanks me, but he doesn’t wish me ‘bon match’ or that I have a lovely time, and I can’t deny that I’m slightly disappointed by this. 

My first port of call inside the stand is the lavatory where the sound of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown is echoing round the tiled walls, I think the two men standing either side of me at the urinal are singing along to it, which strikes me as a little odd, but nevertheless I join in.  It’s only when the song gets to the chorus that I’m not sure if the two blokes actually were singing or if it wasn’t an aural ‘illusion’ created by lavatorial acoustics. With flies zipped up and hands washed, the teams are now on the pitch. With hellos said to Pat from Clacton and Mark, who is again in Fiona’s seat because she is on a cruise, and mental notes taken that ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood are both here, it is almost time for the game to begin.  In the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand a banner reads “Something tells me I’m into something good”, revealing an unexpected enthusiasm amongst North Standers for the hits of Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits.  I like to believe that they perhaps hope Herman of the Hermits and Hermann Hreidarsson are one and the same.

With knees taken and applauded it is a minute past three and Town kick off in their traditional blue and white kit, whilst our opponents display a regrettable lack of imagination by wearing all-black in the manner of antipodean rugby teams, old-style referees and the baddies in cowboy films.  A cloud of smoke drifts across the pitch, evidence of some pyrotechnics, the smell of which makes me think of Apocalypse Now, it must be the smell of victory.  “U’s, U’s” chant the Cambridge supporters between bouts of rhythmic clapping; ”Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, seemingly confused about the time of year and who we’re playing, although to be fair it is cold enough to be Christmas. 

Two minutes in and Bersant Celina has a shot on goal, but it’s an easy catch for the Cambridge goalkeeper Dimitri Mitov.  “He might of saved it” sniggers the bloke behind me making the all too common grammatical error of using the word ‘of’  instead of ‘have’.   “Blue Army” bawls the bloke next to me, who is slumped back in his seat as if it’s part of a three-piece suite. “Ally, Ally, Ally-O, I-T-F-C, We’re the Blue Arm-y” continues my neighbour. “No Noise from the Ipswich Boys” chant the Cambridge fans re-purposing Village People’s ‘Go West’; they should be sat where I am. Five minutes later and a cross strikes Cambridge’s James Brophy on the arm; VAR might deem it a penalty if we were in the Evil Premier League, but we’re not, so we have the game’s first corner instead.

We’ve seen 14 minutes go by and Town aren’t yet into their stride, and as if to make the point Cambridge succeed in getting the ball into the Ipswich goal net. Mark and I have resolved ourselves to the crushing disappointment of going a goal behind so soon into the match when the linesman comes to our rescue; it was offside. Two minutes later and Tommy Carroll volleys a shot over the crossbar.  Town are still not dominating in the manner which we have quickly come to expect, and Cambridge have the cheek to win a free-kick from which the ball is laid back to Adam May, whose shot is deflected away for a corner and then Christian Walton athletically tips a George Williams header over the crossbar.

It’s getting on for half-past three and James Norwood successfully chases a ball over the top, but his chipped cross is to no one in particular, and then a Town corner eludes the looming head of Cameron Burgess.  As the promise of a goal subsides Pat from Clacton tells me how the Clacton supporters’ bus was pulled over by the police today near the Holiday Inn hotel, only for the policeman to board and say “Oh, you’re Ipswich”.  I like to think that he probably also mistakenly stopped a couple of coach loads of pensioners on an afternoon excursion and several buses from the Copdock Park and Ride.

With time ticking down inexorably towards half-time, Conor Chaplin’s cross is headed firmly into the arms of Mitov by Bersant Celina and a Dominic Thompson cross is hit low towards the Cambridge goal by Sam Morsy, but not hard enough to get past the goalkeeper.  At the other end of the pitch Luke Woolfenden saves possible embarrassment with a superbly timed tackle on Cambridge’s Joe Ironside as he threatens to break through on goal.  Embarrassment soon follows however as Dominic Thompson is victim of some dubious play acting by George Williams, and inexplicably James Norwood steps into the fray like some sort of deranged avenging angel and along with Sam Smith gets a personal viewing of referee Mr Craig Hicks’ yellow card.

Symptomatic of it having been a frustrating half, Town have another penalty appeal for handball rejected and a woman with a voice like a wailing banshee a couple of rows behind me launches a blistering high pitched verbal assault on the linesman.  It would be amusing if only it didn’t hurt my ears so much.  Her justification for her outburst is apparently that when someone is paid to do a job she hates to see them not do it.  Town are awarded a corner however, which is scant consolation to me, and a Conor Chaplin shot then squirms into Mitov’s arms before another Cambridge corner and three minutes of additional time.

Mark and I hope that half-time will elicit words of wisdom from Town manager Kieron McKenna, and the avalanche of goals into the Cambridge net that we were hoping for will eventually come to pass.  In the stand half-time brings a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar for me along with a chat with Ray who says he can’t see the point of peanuts if not they’re not roasted and salted; I tell him that the magic ingredient is chocolate, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

The match resumes at eight minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon diving low to his right to stop a header from Joe Ironside.  Conor Chaplin then shoots wide and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 26,515 with 2,009 from Cambridge; the referee Mr Hicks then makes a decent attempt at tackling Sam Morsy, although Sam seems far from impressed.  Town win a corner and Wes Burns shoots wide of the right hand post and then Conor Chaplin shoots wide of the left.  Two minutes later and Ironside is awarded a free-kick for a somewhat pointless and innocuous foul by Luke Woolfenden.  The subsequent free-kick is whipped across the penalty area and rebounds off Dominic Thompson at the far post and into the goal. 

Ten minutes later and things aren’t looking up until Pat from Clacton gets out her bag of sweets. They’ve been sitting around for a week or two she tells us. Mine is one of those chewy ones that look like an extruded strip of sugar cut into bits; I’m not good at identifying flavours, but I think it’s probably raspberry, and it cheers me up as much as much as anything else other than an Ipswich goal probably could right now.  Tommy Carroll and Conor Chaplin are replaced by Sone Aluko and the oddly-named Macauley Bonne.

It’s gone half-past four and James Norwood gets Mitov to make a save and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne drops a header onto the roof of the Cambridge goal.  Matt Penney replaces Dominic Thompson to whom fate has been rather mean today.  Cambridge United win a free-kick with fifteen minutes of normal time remaining and their supporters chant “Cry in a minute, you’re gonna cry in a minute”, which may be a chant unique to them, although I think I might have heard it when a team is about to be relegated or lose a play-off tie.   The free-kick is a waste of time and no one gets tearful as predicted, although ironically the only person who might have done so was the Cambridge number 26, the cutely named Harvey Knibbs ,  who rolled around like a big baby to win the free-kick.  Janoi Doncaien is booked.  Twelve minutes remain and Sam Morsy has a shot saved by Mitov but then a major diplomatic incident breaks out all around me as Pat from Clacton complains to the bloke behind me about his and his associates relentless swearing.  Mark backs her up. The bloke behind me opines that this is an important end of season match and he’s just showing some emotion, but he doesn’t agree to stop swearing, believing it seems that the purchase of his ticket gives him certain rights to express himself by ‘effing and jeffing’ , as Pat calls it.  The screechy woman a couple of rows behind then also becomes involved before stewards are called and the bloke behind me is accused by the man who is with the screechy woman of threatening to strangle him with his own scarf.  Eventually the sweary blokes leave and peace is restored, although rather impressively I think, the bloke behind me later returns with a steward to apologise to Pat.

“Is there a fire drill, Is there a fire drill?” sing the Cambridge fans resorting to opera to serenade the departing Town supporters who have either given up on a Town goal or whose modes of transport will turn back into pumpkins if they’re not home on time.  The game peters out over the five minutes of added on time and almost inevitably Town lose, perpetuating our record of never having beaten Cambridge United in a league match, something also true of mighty Cheltenham Town.   I had expected a Town victory today, but it would not have been deserved; the team performed as if the players had all been given some disturbing news just before kick-off, as if someone had told them perhaps that large German SUVs aren’t cool and are much less environmentally friendly than smaller cars.

Ipswich Town 1 Crewe Alexandra 0

I first saw Crewe Alexandra in January of 1983 in a Friday night fourth division match at Layer Road, Colchester. Crewe lost 4-3.  Watching fourth division football was a release from the tension of following a declining Ipswich Town in our first season without Bobby Robson as manager and without the saintly Arnold Muhren in midfield.  The fourth division was fun and my friend Stephen and I had adopted Colchester United as our fun ‘second team’, although Stephen also professed a liking for East Stirling, and as we drove down the A12 we would add to our amusement by making up deprecatory poems about Col U’s opponents.

What are you gonna do

Crewe

when we beat ya four-two

Crewe

We’d rather watch Scooby-Doo

Crewe

Than watch you

 Crewe

It explains why your supporters are so few

Crewe.

We were young and didn’t know any better, although I still believe beat poetry has a place in professional football.  Back in 1983 Crewe Alexandra were perennial strugglers and were destined to finish the season twenty-third in the twenty-four team fourth division, one place higher than they had finished the season before; they had finished bottom and second from bottom in 1979 and 1980 too, whilst Ipswich were making hay whilst the sun shone at the other end of the Football League. Times change.

Today it’s a grey, cloudy day and rain streaks the windows on the back of my house blurring and obscuring the views of the garden and turning every window into a bathroom window.  I log onto the ifollow in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots, it’s like Junior Choice but without Sparky’s Magic Piano, and Brenner Woolley has replaced Ed Stewart, which is just as well given that Ed died in 2016.  “Alongside me” says Brenner is Mick Mills. Good old Mick.

Kick-off is nigh, but the novelty of the new Saturday afternoon routine of football on the radio or the ifollow has begun to wear off and lose its lustre. Attempting to re-invigorate it I have foregone my usual pre-match ‘pint’ and today I am sticking up two fingers to those of the football licensing authorities who would crush our enjoyment and am pouring a ‘pint’ (500ml) of Adnams Broadside which I will proceed to drink during the game and in sight of the pitch.

The game begins with Brenner telling me that it is Crewe that are kicking-off and playing from right to left.  Brenner draws our attention to Omar Beckles because he used to play for Shrewsbury Town under former Town fuhrer Paul Hurst and alongside Jon Nolan and Toto Nsiala.  I recall the 2018 League One play-off final in which Beckles was terrible; but on the plus side his surname sounds like a Suffolk town and his first name reminds me of the marvellous HBO tv series The Wire.  The referee is Mr Trevor Kettle, which is also a great name, for a bloke with a whistle.  Brenner adds even more biographical detail for the Crewe team, telling us that Michael Mandron played for Colchester United.  Brenner surpasses himself referring to Mandron the next time he touches the ball as “The big Frenchman”. Mandron was indeed born in Boulogne and amusingly, on his Wikipedia page under the heading ‘Personal Life’ all it says is that he “…supported Real Madrid when growing up, while he also followed the results of Paris Saint-Germain.” What a fulfilling life he must have outside football.

 In the absence of any decent on-pitch action from Town Brenner reveals that Town manager Paul Lambert is stood with “…arms folded, in his black overcoat”.

Fifteen minutes pass and as an Ipswich supporter I am not enjoying the match; Crewe are selfishly keeping the ball to themselves most of the time, whilst Ipswich rarely have possession in the Crewe half of the field.  A caption appears in the corner of the screen revealing that possession of the ball is 57% to 43% in Crewe’s favour.  “Crewe the better side, at the moment” says Brenner honestly, but offering hope that things can change.  I don’t know if it’s the feebleness of Town’s performance that’s getting me hot under the collar or if I’ve got the radiator turned up too high but I’m feeling warm and am compelled to take off my jumper uncovering  my “Allez les Bleus” T-shirt beneath.

Crewe’s Ng has a shot which Brenner tells us Tomas Holy “throws his cap on”, although given the weather today he would have done better to have worn a sou’wester.  Over twenty minutes have passed and Gwion Edwards has Town’s first shot at goal, if you exclude Andre Dozzell’s hopeful punt which hits a Crewe player before it has travelled a yard, which I do; Gwion’s shot travels harmlessly wide of the Crewe goal.  Eight more minutes pass and Tomas Holy blocks a shot from Crewe’s Lowery who is unmarked about six metres from the goal; Lowery should probably have scored.  Such is the absence of any decent play from Town that Brenner and Mick begin to talk about the weather.  Mick starts it, making just a passing reference, but Brenner picks it up and carries on “…it has been terrible weather hasn’t it” says Brenner, sounding like a housewife chatting with her neighbour over the garden fence.

There are ten minutes until half time and the ifollow stutters, a quadrant of a circle flashes on the screen and play stands still.   The picture moves, and then stops again and does so three or four times more.  The feed returns in time for me to hear Brenner listing Town’s forthcoming fixtures, the last of which is against Crawley Town in what Brenner reveals is now called the Papa John’s Trophy; at last a sponsor to do this competition justice.

On the pitch things don’t improve “We’re just watching the game at the moment” says Mick, not of Brenner and himself, but of the Town team. Half-time arrives as a blessed relief but as the teams leave the field the ifollow pictures show that Paul  Lambert is not sporting an overcoat as Brenner had described earlier but is actually wearing an anorak or a parka.  This not only calls in to doubt Brenner’s knowledge of jackets and outer garments, but also for a man who earns his living from painting an aural picture of what he sees before him, his inability to accurately describe a coat has shaken my faith in the accuracy of his commentary.  Seeking solace in tea and nut based snacks I put the kettle on and unwrap a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.

At four minutes past nine the game resumes on the ifollow.  The pictures are soon interrupted by buffering and I miss Town winning a corner and then another.  Six minutes pass “This is a different game so far second half” says Mick, not quite forming a proper sentence but making himself understood nevertheless.  Mick is right, as he so often is.

Andre Dozzell is booked for the fifth time this season, which is an incredible feat for a player of his supposed ability; he needs to learn how to tackle or not bother.   Oliver Hawkins has a diving header saved by the Crewe goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen.  Town are no the longer the feeble team they were in the first half, but Crewe haven’t given up just yet and construct another intricate passing move “Almost gymnasium football that they play” says Mick. “Yes, almost 5-a-side” says Brenner clarifying the matter for those listeners who might be sat at home wondering what the hell ‘gymnasium football’ is.

It’s the 62nd minute. Town win a corner; it is taken short, little Alan Judge crosses the ball and big Oliver Hawkins heads the ball into the goal.  Despite having not played as well as Crewe for most of the past hour, Ipswich are winning.  My happiness is tempered within ten minutes however as without warning the ifollow goes completely berserk and transports me back to the 55th minute and I get to see Andre Dozzell being booked for a second time.  The only good thing is that he’s not sent off, but I quickly realise that I can fast forward to the present day and catch up in time to see Kayden Jackson replace Oliver Hawkins.

  Crewe make two substitutions replacing Owen Dale and the “Big Frenchman” with Daniel Powell and Chris Porter and the balance of the game swings back in Crewe’s favour. Town are forced to defend for much of the last fifteen minutes. “McGuiness makes one of his customary leaps” says Brenner growing tired, and Wintle shoots from distance, his shot going “…down the throat of Holy”.

The ifollow starts playing up again with more buffering and Brenner and Mick’s commentary takes on the character of a tribute act to Norman Collier.  Service is restored with the good news that  Leiston, Lowestoft, Needham and Felixstowe are all winning their respective FA Trophy ties.  It’s a quarter to five and I turn the kitchen light on to create my own little homespun version of floodlit atmosphere.  Keanan Bennetts replaces Freddie Sears, and Brenner refers to Tomas Holy as “The giant Czech keeper”.  Kayden Jackson is booked for idiocy and Gwion Edwards is booked too, but for Andre Dozzell style tackling.  Brenner adds colour to the grey afternoon and his commentary for the benefit of radio listeners describing “Ward just drying the white ball on his blue jersey”.

There will be five minutes of added time for assorted delays and possibly the ifollow buffering.  Crewe continue to press for an equaliser; “This is a bit awkward to watch Mick” says Brenner seeking support from his side-kick whilst audibly squirming in his press box seat.  More bad news for Mick is that Boris Johnson’s planned broadcast to a disinterested nation has been delayed until 6.30 and therefore the post-match phone-in will take place.  As Brenner unfeelingly tells him, Mick can’t go home early but must “…do a full shift”.

At last the game ends with Town blagging their way through the remaining minutes and even succeeding in retaining possession for a short while to frustrate their opponents.  Brenner asks for Mick’s summary “We’d not be telling the truth if we said Ipswich deserved to win the game” says Mick almost apologising for what he is saying as he says it.  But he’s right, even though trying to play decent football in the third division is possibly doomed to failure. 

Mick’s thoughts are abruptly cut short as the ifollow feed ends and I am left alone in my kitchen trying to think of words that rhyme with Brenner.

AFC Wimbledon 0 Ipswich Town 0

After six months off-work due to illness, today is my first day back, albeit for a shortened day of just six hours toil.  Keen to prove to the world and myself that this really marks a return to normal life, I am going for broke and also making my first away trip of the season, catching one of three supporters’ buses from Portman Road (£21, but half price with my Season Ticket holder’s voucher) to Kingsmeadow (aka the Cherry Red Records Stadium), Kingston, current home of AFC Wimbledon.  At the start of the season I drew up a list of six third division football grounds, of which Kingsmeadow was one, that I would be able to visit for the first time following the Town; four of those away fixtures have already passed with me in no fit state to attend, so for someone who is blissfully transported by the sight of unfamiliar arrangements of floodlight pylons, coloured polyurethane seats, corrugated sheet metal and concrete steps tonight is an opportunity not to be missed.

Leaving my office at 3pm I make the short walk to Portman Road and approach the back of the short line of three buses. I am booked on Coach Two, which as logic demands is helpfully parked in front of Coach Three and behind Coach One.   I prepare to board but stood by the door and subtly blocking my path is a stern, un-smiling woman with a clipboard and passenger list; “Surname” she says and a subversive voice in my head says “Don’t tell her Pike!”. There was a time not long ago when it was possible to travel on these supporters’ buses anonymously, but times change and football clubs seem to have become ever more controlling and paranoid. In a spirit of mild rebellion and in an attempt to inject the friendly face of humanity I give her my first name also, she eyes me suspiciously as I mount the steps into the bus acknowledging the driver with a nod and muffled greeting as I climb.

The bus is almost full with the usual misfits that travel like this and most pairs of seats are occupied by at least one person; after checking that it is not taken I settle down on the first vacant single seat I come to next to a balding, grey haired and bearded man in a blue polyester football shirt.  Within not many minutes the buses set off one by one to make the left turn onto Handford Road and the highways beyond.  As the bus slows at the Tesco roundabout at the edge of town I check my watch; we’ve been on the road for ten minutes, it seems like hours.  I know I have to take my copy of “Soccer Empire The World Cup and the Future of France” (Laurent Dubois, University of California Press 2010) from my blue cloth bag decorated with the stars of the EU flag (a 2 Euro purchase from the gift shop at the EU Parliament in Brussels )and begin to read to pass the time.

Whilst I learn of Jules Rimet, Guadeloupe and Felix Eboue the buses speed beyond the Suffolk border and on past Colchester with its football ground sitting remote and detached from the town by the A12, past dull Witham and bland Chelmsford towards the M25.  The buses bear the name Suffolk Norse on their flanks, it’s a curious moniker for a fleet of coaches, but then I see the vision of us all lined up in pairs side by side down the length of the bus and I see a longship full of Vikings, of Norsemen, albeit Vikings and Norsemen who have lost their oars. The fleet name makes sense; we are a collection of middle aged blokes led by one severe woman setting off to metaphorically rape and pillage a small corner of metropolitan Surrey. 

Darkness falls somewhere in Kent and crawling through the endless pre-war Tudorbethan suburbia of Chessington, Tolworth and New Malden, two hours and fifty minutes after leaving Ipswich, we eventually spy the floodlights of Kingsmeadow, which shine like beacons to these weary, but in my case well-read travellers.  The buses draw up in front of a parade of suburban shops and I alight as fast as good manners will allow, turning back towards the entrance to the ground where I  have arranged to meet a longstanding friend who is known as Jah on account of his love of reggae music.  Jah lives nearby in Kingston (Surrey not Jamaica) and has sourced our tickets for tonight’s game.  With handshakes and greetings out of the way I buy a match programme (£3) and we head for what is not by any means the nearest public house; however, knowledgeable of my loathing of ‘rubbish beer’ Jah has selected a pub called The Norbiton where he says the beer is ‘decent’. It’s a 15 minute walk through anonymous residential streets to The Norbiton which appears gloriously out of the gloom, light spilling from its tall Edwardian windows and beckoning us in.  Inside we meet Jeremy a friend of Jah who already nurses a pint of what looks suspiciously like lager; he buys me a pint of an Espresso Stout the exact name of which I forget, whilst Jah has a pint of Sambrooke Junction Bitter.   Jeremy is kindly providing one of our tickets.  We talk of our past, our age, of my health, of politics, of women’s football and of Jeremy’s unusually small Toyota IQ car in which we will soon travel back to Kingsmeadow. Jeremy is impressed that I have travelled all the way down from Ipswich for tonight’s game.  Part way through our conversation I realise that although I paid for my programme back at the ground and took my change (four fifty pence pieces) I never actually took the programme.  Bugger.  After Jah treats me to a second pint, this time the Junction Bitter, and has a half himself, it is about twenty-five minutes past seven and time to head for the match. I fold myself into the back of the tiny Toyota whilst Jah, who for a man who is not yet sixty years old is very inflexible, clambers into the front passenger seat.  Jeremy tells us that he usually parks the Toyota directly outside the ground, but tonight the kerbs of Kingston Road are tightly packed and no spaces can be found, and kick off is fast approaching. We drive around the block again and praise be,  in a side road just opposite the ground we find a couple of metres of tarmac between a Vauxhall and a dropped kerb into which the Toyota will fit.

It’s a matter of yards across the street to Kingsmeadow; we enter through the main entrance beneath a high metal arch that announces the name “Kingsmeadow” and spotting the programme sellers beneath  I explain how I didn’t take my programme earlier; he must have realised too as he straightaway hands me one. Around the corner on Jack Goodchild Way we meet a man called Jonathan who incidentally has a Mexican wife, but more importantly the other ‘spare’ ticket and he also hands us each a programme; together we head for the entrance to the main stand.  Entering the stadium is like walking into a social club and it is self-evident that this is very much a non-league stadium. There are no turnstiles as such but we form two orderly queues and pass our bar coded tickets beneath a scanner; looking ahead through a short tunnel beneath the stand I can see the players are already on the pitch, it’s like a snatched glimpse into another world through a magic portal.  A few steps on and we are into the stand and stood at the side of the pitch; our seats are a little to the left beyond the players tunnel which we cross in front of, in the front row behind a thickly painted blue metal crush barrier.

The illuminated scoreboard in the corner of the ground shows that we have missed the first two minutes of the match but it also confirms that we haven’t missed any goals; no real surprise there.  Our seats are within a couple of metres of the pitch and it feels like we are truly part of the game, as indeed the crowd should be.  The atmosphere in this small stand is sociable and happy, clearly everyone here is a regular; club officials, coaches and players mingle in the stand and plainly know some of the supporters, this is like being at a non-league match.  Behind me a man who shouts to the referee that he’s a muppet sounds just like a man who shouts the same thing at Coggeshall Town.

The football is unexceptional.  Ipswich, playing in red and blue with pale yellow socks towards the beautifully and exotically named Chemflow Stand, also known less interestingly as the Athletics End, pass the ball about a bit and if this was a competition to see who could pass the most and most accurately they would win, but inaccurate hoofs and hopeful punts play their part in ensuring that incisive moves are kept to the barest minimum.  The Wimbledon supporters whose team is in all blue get their kicks where they can and cheer with more enthusiasm than perhaps the players’ abilities deserve.  Architecturally Kingsmeadow is a dull little arena, but beneath the floodlights with the backdrop of a few gaunt, grey, leafless trees it springs to life.

Jah and I point and chuckle and guffaw as play after play come to naught. We observe that the referee Mr Craig Hicks has very, very neat hair and Jah mentions the recently aired TV programme Inside Number Nine.   I admit to Jah that I have often wondered about referees’ sexuality.   Mr Hicks may just be light on his feet as he tiptoes away from a tete-a-tete with an errant player and then flicks his wrist theatrically for a free-kick, after which Jah and I spontaneously raise our arms to mimic his slightly camp wrist action whilst the people behind us probably wonder about our sexuality.

“Go on Piggy” shouts Jeremy at Wimbledon number thirty-nine Joe Pigott and I tell him how much I envy Wimbledon supporters having a player they can call Piggy.  Jeremy adds to my jealousy, telling me that they also shout “Feed the Pig”.   Joe Pigott is featured on the front of the match programme. Jonathan asks if I was at the 1978 FA Cup final and seems impressed when I tell him I was.  There are very few sustained songs or chants coming from either set of supporters and Jah and I lament the loss of the great tunes of Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band which are no longer socially acceptable.  When I returned to work this morning I would have very much liked to have sung to my colleagues “Did you miss me when I was away, did you hang my picture on your wall? Did you miss me every single day? I bet you didn’t miss me at all, at all, I bet you didn’t miss me at all. Hello, Hello. It’s good to be back. It’s good to be back.”

Ipswich hit the cross bar in a moment of madness and half-time arrives, and I am in great need of a visit to the small toilet beneath the stand; it’s a cold night and those two pints are trying to get out, but first we must wait for the players to leave the pitch and the blue polythene players’ tunnel to be retracted.  This stadium is the antithesis of the theatre of dreams and it’s great because it is full of the inconveniences that reflect real life.

Relieved we return to our seats for the second half.  If the first half was unexceptional the second is exceptional for being even more unexceptional. It’s as if the players have become frustrated or bored by their inability to do anything much very successfully and have given up.  Weirdly however, it’s not the sort of game that people boo because it retains a kind of competitive tension, either side could score because they are both so inept that either one could just hand victory to the other at any moment.  Hope remains but of course our hopes are foolish.  The absence of appreciable football does at least let me appreciate the fine oak tree that stands and spreads itself behind the covered terrace opposite in which the Ipswich supporters are stood. Jah and I also enjoy the mask worn by Town’s on-loan number three Josh Earl who inspires a conversation about the TV series “My name is Earl”.  When Earl is substituted a man behind us, possibly the “You’re a Muppet ref” man attempts to riff on the problem of a masked player taking off his mask when substituted and then coming back on to the field unrecognised. If anyone laughs, they do so quietly.  Meanwhile a small knot of Ipswich supporters try to scuff-up the bonhomie that has existed for most of the match with a chant of “Who the fucking hell are you?” but it is in no way clear to whom they are addressing their song and no one seems to care.

My hands are cold but I remember I have gloves in my pocket and I put them on, but warmer hands don’t make up for the poor standard of football in the second half, nor does a half volley by Town’s Will Keane which is spectacularly kept out of the goal net by Wimbledon goalkeeper Joe Day, a name which is impressive in its economic use of syllables.  Keane’s attempt is as close as Ipswich come to scoring and the game ends with Wimbledon pretending to be the attacking team as they win a couple of corners and generally mill about threateningly in the Ipswich penalty area.  The final whistle comes as a relief to all and Wimbledon’s supporters, again displaying the pragmatism of the lower leagues, seem happy with claiming a point, realising it’s better than not existing at all.

The evening is over so quickly and I bid Jeremy, Jah and Jonathan good night before heading back to my six-wheeled golden long ship and the voyage home. I’ve had a lovely time and look forward to coming back next season.

Ipswich Town 4 Accrington Stanley 1

Before starting this account of Ipswich Town’s latest fixture I must let you the reader know that I am sick and tired of people droning on, repeating that 1980’s advertisement for milk whenever Accrington Stanley is mentioned. There is no excuse for not knowing the name of Accrington Stanley and that child in the advert was an ignoramus and possibly an imbecile and deserves to suffer from calcium deficiency.

Today, I am extremely excited; as excited as a Liverpudlian child with weak bones or a deficiency of vitamins E, B6 and B12 should be when offered a glass of milk. Today for the first time in five months I am returning to Portman Road to watch the latest chapter in the Superblues’ epic march back towards world domination, and today Town face the famous Accrington Stanley. The last game I saw was Town’s tepid one-all draw with Sunderland in August, soon after which I was found to have pneumonia, was put in a coma, diagnosed with Endocarditis, given open heart surgery to replace two valves eaten away by bacterial infection and placed on a two-month long course of industrial strength anti-biotics. Sunderland AFC was not implicated in these events.   Unlike Gloria Gaynor, who after all these years is still all about what she will do, I actually did survive, thanks to the fantastic NHS, and at last I now feel fit enough to once more brave the streets and terraces of Suffolk’s capital city. Consider Emyr Huws’ return to the team after long-term injury, Andre Dozzell’s return to the team after torn ligaments, Ian Marshall’s return to the team after being run over by a shopping trolley; roll them all into one and you will come close to how I feel today. Today is, as those who speak in modern parlance say, ’massive’ or at least quite big.

It is a grey and windy Saturday, becoming of early January, and the trains are not running. Refusing to pay train fares to travel by Corporation bus, yesterday I experimentally sought the assistance of fellow Ipswich Town supporters on social media and attempted to politely solicit a lift to Ipswich. With the sole exception of a sensible answer from a kind man in his sixties called Ian, the responses I received were at worst rude, ignorant or stupid and at best unhelpful. These responses included one from a man whose profile indicates somewhat worryingly that he is chairman of governors at an infants’ school, whilst another respondent claimed to be three years old after I notified him that his initial response implied he was not able to offer me a lift and that was all I needed to know.  Depressed that idiots and dumb arses trying to be smart arses are also Ipswich Town fans, I muse that at least Ian proves that decent people do exist and today I convey my gratitude to him as we travel up the A12 in his grey Volkswagen Tiguan. We talk of football and our plans for the pre-match period. Once the VW is parked up we go our separate ways, departing each other’s company with the reciprocal wish that we might enjoy the drive home on the back of a good win.

It’s only a quarter to one and Portman Road is still open to motor traffic; I assiduously keep to the pavement because it would be a waste to be mown down by a car now, having dodged death only a few months before and at public expense too. After stopping to buy a programme (£3.50) I continue up the gentle incline, across Handford Road to St Matthews Street, passing a few early-arrivers walking in the opposite direction.  I have time on my hands and rather than fall prey too early to the demon drink I walk on past St Jude’s Tavern to Francesco’s Hair Salon at 61 St Matthew’s Street.  My long period of convalescence has left me looking like Howard Hughes and I need a haircut, so I get one (£15.50) courtesy of a charming lady hairdresser with whom I chat about going to football, Christmas, family, drinking enough fluids and fruit.  Francesco’s is incidentally the same establishment where Bobby Robson would get his hair cut.  Although Francesco has moved premises since Sir Bobby’s time, I nevertheless can’t helping feeling I would have had Bobby’s endorsement for this match-day tonsorial, although it is only in my imagination that I see him smiling back at me from the mirror giving me the thumbs-up.

Looking like a new man I leave Francesco’s and make the short walk back to St Jude’s Tavern; upon entering I think I hear a small voice say “Martin”, but I pay no attention believing I have just happened to walk in on the end of a conversation about relatives of the polecat or cast members of ‘That was the week that was’.  I proceed to the bar, but before I can order a pint of today’s Match Day Special (£2.50) my friend and colleague Roly is at my shoulder and wishing me well, for it was he who spoke my name.  I have not seen Roly for several weeks and we talk agreeably, making jokes of everything we can think of, none of which we will remember.  Soon, my mouth parched from incessant conversation, I get a second pint of the Match Day Special which today is Mr B’s Hexagon, a name which refers to the shape of the honeycomb, but which I as a lover of all things French prefer to think of as celebrating the mainland part of metropolitan France, which the natives often refer to as l’hexagone due to its approximate shape.  I treat Roly to a half a pint of the same drink; he is on reduced ration because later he will be driving home in his second-hand Vauxhall Astra.

Before we leave St Jude’s for the match, Mick pops in to give me my season ticket which he has been using whilst I have been confined to my sick bed. Mick doesn’t stay for a drink but lingers long enough to tell us how he met his friend Chris at the railway station and they had a drink in the Station Hotel, which on match days is dedicated as the ‘away supporters’ pub.  Unable to spot any away supporters Mick asked a bouncer where they all were; the bouncer turned and pointed to two blokes drinking quietly in the corner of the bar.  Later the number of away supporters attending the match will be announced on the Portman Road scoreboard as 155 in a crowd of 17,536.  I do not believe that 153 of these 155 Accringtonians are teetotal and I am pleased therefore that they paid no heed to being confined to the ‘away pub’ and sought their pleasure like free men and women, wherever they could find it.

Time passes and eventually with glasses and bladders drained Roly and I descend Portman Road in time for kick-off; the day remains dull and defined by grey cloud. I dodge my way across the stream of supporters flowing out of Portman Road car park and into Sir Alf Ramsey Way; I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile seven after a brief internal dialogue about which is the luckier number, seven or eight; I decide I don’t believe in lucky numbers. I say a hearty, smiling ‘hello’ to the lady turnstile operator and a little bizarrely also bid her ‘goodbye’ as the turnstile clicks; my excuse is that I am out of practice with this match-going lark, but I am also feeling a lot of love for the world and everyone in it.  After another brief visit to the toilet facilities I ascend the steps from the concourse into the lower tier of the stand to reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Ray, the old dears who formerly sat behind me, Bluey, Crazee and my view of the green, green turf and its dramatic, part human, part concrete, part blue plastic and steel backdrop.

It is with a heavy heart that I learn from ever-present Phil that Pat from Clacton is not at the game today because she is on a cruise, but I speak excitedly with Ray and his grandson Harrison before taking up a seat two along from ever-present Phil and in front of the old dears.  With all that lining up to shake hands malarkey out of the way referee Mr Charles Breakspear, whose name sounds like he might have played Association Football for Old Carthusians in the 1870’s, parps his whistle to begin the match.  Accrington Stanley get first go with the ball all dressed in a strong shade of red, which makes them look a bit like Liverpool and is ironic given that at least one fictional, undernourished child from that city has never heard of them.  Incidentally, my earliest contact with anything Accringtonesque was a short, balding bloke called Steve who I met when at university; he came from Accrington but shamefully supported Liverpool, I think if I described him as dwarfish and ugly it wouldn’t be an injustice.  My second contact with something touched by Accrington was by contrast an attractive lady work colleague who was a native of Oswaldtwistle or Ozzy as she called it, a town contiguous with Accrington or Accy as she called it. She was well versed in the names of Burnley players of the 1970’s  and rarely wore a brassiere, two possible reasons why I remember her over thirty years later.

With Town in their customary blue and white and the turf glowing green beneath the floodlights this could be a scene conjured up from a Club Edition Subbuteo set. Town start well, passing the ball accurately, playing towards me and ever-present Phil and looking keen to do well.  My attention is taken however by Accrington’s enormously tall number 5 whose name, the shoulder of his shirt tells me is Sykes, not Eric or even Bill sadly but Ross, like the fish fingers.  “Cor! He’s skinny” shouts a voice behind me. Sykes’s gangliness is however overshadowed by that of Accy’s number 36 Jerome Opuku, a player on loan from Fulham whose flailing arms and legs give him the appearance of a piece of nineteenth century agricultural reaping machinery or a drunken octopus; when tackled he collapses to the floor like a puppet that has had its strings cut.  That said he’s a half decent player.

After kick-off just twelve minutes pass and Ipswich take the lead; a glorious passing move involving the eye-rubbingly strange sight of Luke Woolfenden surging into the penalty area in open play (‘underlapping’ as ever-present Phil christens it) from his centre back position. I can’t recall having seen such a thing before at Portman Road, it’s tantamount to ‘Total Football’; a marvel, even if the ultimate finish from Kayden Jackson looks a bit scruffy as he slides on his bum side by side with an Accrington player to get the ball over the goal line.

“Come On Ipswich” chants the crowd, bemused or tentatively intrigued by the stylish football before them. Two minutes later another passing moving ends with James Norwood hopelessly mishitting the ball when well placed to score. In a rare idle moment I watch a seagull arc above the pitch, but this is a game that demands to be watched and before a half an hour has passed Norwood runs on to an instinctively reactive, first time volleyed pass from Emyr Huws and casually lobs the ball over the head of the Lambeth born Accrington ‘keeper Josef Bursik.  Time slows down as the ball follows a graceful arc, although I’ve yet to see an arc that isn’t so, and descends perfectly beneath the cross bar before striking the net.  The goal inspires a thankfully brief dirge version of “When the Town going marching in” from the North Stand and I decide that Jerome Opuku’s squad number of ‘36’ refers to his inside leg measurement.  Life is good if you’re a Town supporter inside Portman Road football ground today and just to prove the point a third goal is scored by little Alan Judge a minute before half-time. It’s the result of another fine passing move which this time has seen centre half Luke Chambers push forward in open play to set it off.  Luke Chambers mostly looks angry when he’s playing football, some might say he is pulling a determined face perhap. His snarly reaction to the latest goal today seems to imply he is claiming some responsibility for it, almost as much as Alan Judge; perhaps scoring again was his idea. 

Applause is the sound of the day as the teams clear off for half-time and I head down to the toilet before consuming a Nature Valley Protein Peanut and Chocolate bar which I had had the foresight to put in my coat pocket before leaving home almost four hours ago.  The queues for the refreshment kiosks are long and I’m pleased I am not in one.  I check the half-time scores on one of the overhead TV sets beneath the stand but get bored waiting to see anything of interest and consider how literally pointless half-time scores are.  My already cheerful mood is enhanced further however when I learn that Norwich City are losing and in my mind’s eye I see a poky, high up corner of Old Trafford where funny looking folk in yellow and green knitwear have paid exorbitant Premier League prices for the privilege of seeing their team humiliated.  I return to the stand and speak again with Ray before the teams return to play out the second half which with a satisfying sense of symmetry begins at four minutes past four.

The greyness of the afternoon deepens behind the stands making the floodlights seem to shine all the more brightly.  Predictably perhaps, the second half does not reach the heights of the first, in spite of the efforts of the glowing beams of electric light illuminating the pitch. Town begin well enough and continue to dominate possession, but the gaps in Accrington’s defence have been plugged and whilst the football is not bad, it’s been downgraded from the first half’s Copacabana-style to something more like Felixstowe-at-low-tide-style.  It’s been a game pleasantly devoid of histrionics or naughty fouls but at half past four Accrington substitute Ajibola Alese, who is on loan from West Ham United and is only 18 years old commits a foul on little Alan Judge which Mr Breakspear considers worthy of yellow card style censure. Cole Skuse replaces the wonderfully Welsh Emyr Huws, which is nice because their surnames rhyme, and then Teddy Bishop replaces little Alan Judge.   There are now two Bishops on the field as Accrington also have one in Colby Bishop, although to be honest he sounds more like a firm of estate agents than a footballer.

It’s getting on for a quarter to five and an Accrington player, possibly Dion Charles is left unmarked close to Ipswich’s goal; he shoots with his right boot; he should score but Town’s James Wilson, who makes me think of Labour prime ministers of the 1970’s moves across to deflect the ball away above the angle of the goal post and cross bar with his calf. “Lucky Ipswich” says the old boy behind me, but it wasn’t luck, it was good defending, eventually.  If it had been luck that stopped an Accrington goal it would have been of the sort that didn’t last because within a minute or so Accrington’s Congolese substitute Offrande Zanzala, who has previously played for Stevenage, Barnet and Chester, is pulled back and has a leg swiped across his chest courtesy of James Wilson. Zanzala manages to beat off a team mate who seemed to want to take the resultant penalty before he could and then scores.

There is still time for stomping Luke Chambers to get himself booked un-necessarily, which he does, and for Accrington to score two more goals, and that’s the sort of scenario that wouldn’t surprise an Ipswich supporter considering Town’s aggregate form over the last thirty years or so.  Today proves not to be the sort of day for that to happen however, and with the game into the time added on to compensate for substitutions and any nihilistic attempts to fritter away existence, Town’s third substitute, the imposing Will Keane robs an Accrington player of the ball, turns back towards the away team’s goal and sends a low shot past the man known to the French as le gardien and to Emyr Huws as the gol-geidwad.  With his hair drawn back in a scrappy pony tail Keane has the look from a distance, a long distance, of a poor man’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his record of three goals in the last four games is worthy of the big Swede.

The game ends amid much clapping and self-congratulation and after bidding ever-present Phil adieu I make a final visit to the toilet beneath the stand and then walk out into the evening, towards Ian’s Volkswagen, the soporific tones of Mick Mills on the car radio, the voices of assorted opinionated people calling to give Mick their worthless views and the journey home.

Finally, after Ian drops me off I walk around the corner to my house; a small coach drives by with the name ‘Enigma Travel’ painted on the side; “Probably on a mystery trip” I think to myself.