Ipswich Town 2 Accrington Stanley 0

It’s Saturday again.  It’s football again.  The week has been worthwhile after all. Today sees a return to Portman Road for Ipswich Town, after a very successful excursion to Blackpool, and a return to the ifollow for me after the football of imagination through the commentary of Radio Suffolk.  Today has been a good day already, the postwoman having delivered a brown cardboard sleeve containing a pristine copy of ‘Snapshot’ – Scenes and stories from the heartlands of Scottish football.  I’m hi on the stink of glossy ink after burying my head in this wonderful book intermittently throughout the morning.  I’ve only ever been to one football match in Scotland (Hibernian v Raith Rovers, a one-all draw in January 2015), but leaving aside the boring duopoly of Celtic and Rangers I perceive the same humanity and lack of pretence in Scottish football that pervades much of English non-league football, with an added bleakness courtesy of its latitude.  The reverent prose of Daniel Gray and photographs of Alan McCredie bring it to life and are an absolute joy; recommended (£12.99 from Blackwell’s with free postage).

Clearing my head with a walk over the fields near my house I return for a lunch of last night’s leftover home-made curry and a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Dark Star Revelation (£1.50 a bottle from Waitrose). Agreeing to let my wife Paulene enjoy the comfort and warmth of the living room to watch the Giro d’Italia cycle race on the telly, I consign myself to the kitchen where I log on to my lap-top and connect it to the kitchen telly in time to catch the announcement of the names of today’s virtual mascots; kids lucky enough to have parents with 25 quid to ‘spaff’ on a video message and signed letter from a favourite player, a choice of drawstring bag, gym bag, pencil case or beanie hat all costing a tenner in Planet Blue, a programme with their name in, a certificate and that ‘shout out’ on the Radio Suffolk ifollow commentary.  The fact that I am firmly into the second half of my lifespan is brought home to me as I smile at what I perceive to be the weird first names of today’s under tens; they sound to me like place names, surnames, occupations and the names of random objects not the names of people, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills snap me from my ageist reverie as Brenner asks Mick to provide some sort of summary of the state of the team, which he does, but stutteringly at first as he punctuates his monologue with frequent  ‘you knows’ until he gets into his stride, when he begins to talk quite normally.  It’s as if Brenner had asked him when he wasn’t quite ready.  In the background the teams appear and the Portman Road tannoy is blaring out the recently deceased Eddie Van Halen’s “Jump”, a tune I had hoped, vainly it turns out, would die with the sixty-five year old Dutch born rocker.  Brenner comments on how the Accrington manager John Colman and Town’s Toto Nsiala embrace, describing them as the “two Merseysiders”, which I like to think was the working title for the 1970’s BBC tv situation comedy the Liver Birds.  Clearly Brenner has still not caught up with the fact that Toto was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The game begins. “A throw in for Accrington inside 90 seconds” says Brenner as if that is significant and thereby suggesting that he is perhaps commentating for the benefit of some sort of spread betting syndicate.  Meanwhile on screen, views of the interior of the stand roof and empty seats suggest that Luis Bunuel, Yoko Ono and Marcel Duchamp are taking it in turns to direct the camera. Town are looking timid and Accrington have the ascendency. “Trying to play football, Accrington Stanley” says Brenner trying to construct a sentence in the right order whilst simultaneously being patronising and stating the obvious.

“Accrington goalkeeper, young goalkeeper, very alert” says Brenner still struggling with his sentences and possibly implying that he would expect a young goalkeeper to be a bit sleepy.  Out on the left Miles Kenlock and Andre Dozzell pass the ball between each other four or five times without moving as if saying to each other “No, you have it, I don’t want it”.  It’s a cameo from the two Town starlets that sums up the team’s apparent absence of a plan. “Sears scythed down by Sykes” says Brenner offering some satisfying alliteration in the absence of exciting action. But then out of very little Freddie Sears is as good as through on goal, only for the Accrington ‘keeper, Toby Savin, who is sporting a shirt and shorts ensemble the same colours as the Ipswich Buses livery, to make a good save.  Quickly Toto Nsiala is making a weak, headed back pass and Stanley’s Matt Butcher,  appropriately wearing the number six shirt, has his shot saved by Tomas Holy.  The goalkeepers are the best players on the field and Brenner tells us that we “…don’t see many 20 year old goalkeepers at this level” implying that Savin is very young but clearly forgetting that Town’s last opponents at Portman Road, Rochdale, had a ‘keeper who is just 18  years old.

The camera work is moving from avant garde to a hint of inebriation in the cameraman and I wonder if James Norwood has arrived by taxi to join Luis, Yoko and Marcel up on the gantry.  Hopefully the ineptness is not a symptom of Covid-19, but it seems to have become contagious as a goal kick from Savin carries all the way through to Tomas Holy who boots it straight at Andre Dozzell; the ball falls to Stanley’s Colby Bishop who instinctively shoots wide of the open goal.  In midfield, Gwion Edwards keeps pushing the ball past opponents and forgetting to run after it, whilst the camera work evolves further to a state where it seems to be predicting where the ball is going to go, thereby showing an empty patch of grass whilst unseen Savin takes a goal kick.

Mick Mills’ first meaningful contribution to the afternoon is to remark that Stanley’s Ross Sykes, who incidentally is a towering 1.96m tall, reminds him of Allan Hunter or Jack Charlton, players who had retired almost 20 years before Sykes was born.  Brenner suggests that Sykes would be flattered, but I think Mick was merely implying that Sykes main ability is to kick people up in the air.  Accrington are looking more likely to score than Town and Tomas Holy saves a free-kick with a smart dive to his right .“ Well done by the Czech” says Brenner reducing our goalkeeper to a mere nationality.

Town win a corner and the camera zooms in on the corner flag before travelling up into the Cobbold stand for a close up of the rows of blue seats.  I expect Brenner and Mick to quote lines from a poem by Andre Breton.  The corner comes to nothing and my frustration grows.  I am happy to get to half time with the score still goalless.

I enjoy my fifteen minute respite from the combined hopelessness of Town’s performance and that of the ifollow cameraman through the medium of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.  Adverts for products and services I do not fully understand are interspersed with the half-time scores from League One and match statistics, which reveal Ipswich have had three shots on goal to Accrington’s ten.  Ipswich however have had about 10% more possession and a slightly better passing accuracy; a paltry 73% for Town against a miserable 69% for Accrington.  But it is generally easier to pass the ball accurately if you don’t pass it forwards.

The games resumes and Brenner enlightens his radio listeners that it is blues versus reds with Town kicking off from right to left.  I of course already know this thanks to my possession of a colour television and having witnessed the previous 45 minutes.  Mick soon adds to the new found clarity advising that Sears and Edwards are now playing in their preferred positions (the middle and the left respectively). Accrington however have the first half-chance of the half as a through ball outpaces their number eight Jonathan Russell, who Mick tells us “…didn’t look like he could get away from the defenders” with something Mick calls “ a turn of foot”; I’m not surprised. 

Fifty-two minutes have passed and Teddy Bishop shoots past the post, “Better from Ipswich Town, a lot perkier” says Brenner. Two minutes later and Town lead after Gwion Edwards finishes a fine passing move. “Really incisive football from Ipswich Town” is Brenner’s wholly accurate assessment.  I cheer loudly out of sheer relief. The lifting of spirits caused by the goal is palpable and Mick introduces some jocularity into his co-commentary as he refers to the former Allan Hunter and Jack Charlton imitator Ross Sykes as “Big Sykesie”, an epithet Brenner considers “Brilliant” for its “familiarity”, something which is in itself brilliant. 

The goal has worked wonders and Mick is now clearly smitten with Ross Sykes.  Gwion Edwards runs in to the penalty area again. “Edwards absolutely ghosted past Big Syksie” says Mick now unable to stop saying “Big Syksie”.   This is the ingredient Mick’s co-commentary has been missing all season, a catch phrase character to liven it up like a few well-placed jokes in a best man’s speech.  I’m feeling a lot happier now and am still confident when Tomas Holy is forced into making another low diving save with about twenty-five minutes still to go.  My confidence is well placed and four minutes later a poor pass out of the Accrington defence is seized upon by Town and Freddie Sears is released in to the penalty area to ‘dink’ the ball over Sivon and make the score two-nil.  I cheer loudly because I think Freddie deserves it.

Nolan replaces Huws. Town play the ball around at the back like they’re in Ligue 1 not League One. Accrington’s Cameron Burgess becomes the first and only player to be booked as he fouls Luke Chambers.  The oddly named Keanen Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge.  Bennett has a shot on goal but “ It’s a trundle straight at Savin” says Brenner, unintentionally reminding me of Lee Trundle, the former Neath, Haverfordwest County, Llanelli Town, Rhyl, Swansea City and Wrexham striker.

An Accrington corner is cleared and an Accrington player is left in a heap on the ground.  The game carries on but is eventually stopped by referee Mr Lewis.  “He let play go on too early, he should’ve stopped it” says Mick confusingly, seemingly muddling up not stopping play soon enough with the abstract and illogical concept of letting it carry on too soon.  The game enters time added on, “Long kick from Holy and Sears is on his bike” says Brenner, attempting not to be outdone by Mick’s efforts to rival the weirdness of the earlier camera work.   Sears and his bike are quickly substituted before the referee notices, with Tyreece Simpson coming on in their stead.

Ninety four minutes have passed and a bit more and Mr Lewis the referee confirms Town’s third consecutive two-nil home win.  Despite entreaties from Brenner during the game to phone 0800 212121 after the game to speak to Mick or to comment by text I decide that like all the people who will phone and text I have nothing worth saying and nothing to say that anyone should want to hear. Anyway, I’d rather return to the heady smell of the pages of Snapshot – Scenes and stories from the heartland of Scottish football.

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.

Cornard United 2 Norwich CBS 2

When Accrington Stanley’s name came out in the FA Cup draw I immediately had a premonition that the next name out would be that of my team, Ipswich Town; it was and I had every intention of travelling to The Crown Ground or ‘Wham Stadium’ as I believe the estate of the late George Michael now pays for it to be called, to witness the match. I still believe in the magic of the FA Cup, like my step-grandson still believes in Father Christmas; stupidly of course because the Premier League has ensured that in England only the same small group of ‘big’ teams will ever win anything ever again. Sadly, I never quite reconciled myself to forking out £37 for a ticket for an 800 kilometre round bus trip that would leave Ipswich at a quarter to seven in the morning, meaning I would have to get up no later than half past five, almost an hour earlier than I do when going to work. To misquote the lyrics of the marvellous Only Ones’ song Another Girl, Another Planet, long journeys wear me out and I can live without it. As a result, today I got up at a little after eight o’clock and am travelling a mere 20 kilometres from my home to Great Cornard to see Cornard United versus Norwich CBS in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division North, an eight-word title worthy of the tenth level of the football league pyramid.
Cornard, which is largely Great Cornard is just outside Sudbury on the north bank of the River Stour, which marks the boundary between Suffolk and Essex. Great Cornard grew massively in the 1960’s with unflatteringly named ‘overspill’ from London, this will account for most of the accents I hear this afternoon being more “Gor blimey guvnor” than “Cor blaaast buh”. I only hear one Suffolk accent this afternoon, my own and I’m only putting it on. My journey today is mostly along the river valley, through Bures and up and down and along the twisting B1508, a rural ride if ever there was one. If I hadn’t felt the cold hand of death at my shoulder I might have taken the time to catch a train and then a No 754 bus followed by a ten or fifteen minute walk, but time is precious at my age so I rely on Andre Citroen’s latest C3 model to deliver me to Blackhouse Lane. Forgetting how close to Sudbury Blackhouse Lane is, I turn right too soon and take a detour in to Little Cornard, but I soon get back on to the B1508, make the correct right turn, and arrive at Cornard United’s Blackhouse Lane ground having allowed a number 754 bus that I first saw in my rear view mirror, to ‘overtake’ me due to my detour.

entrance/turnstile

It is a cold, still, grey, January day. There are plenty of parking spaces in the car park from where it is a short walk along a gated concrete roadway to the ‘turnstile,’ except there is no turnstile just a gap in the conifer hedge marked by a large white sign with red letters that reads ‘Entrance’. The clubhouse is visible across a sports pitch that sits between the car park and the ground, the words Cornard United are painted in large letters on the side of the building to prove I am in the right place. A man in a shapeless blue sports coat stands in the gap in the hedge and retreats into a small wooden garden shed as I approach. I hand a clean, new ten pound note through a window in the shed to cover the entrance money (£6) and a programme. “We don’t do a programme” I am told and am given an explanation about costs and how the League has said they no longer need to produce a programme. I tell him I understand, and I do, but it’s disappointing; there is a programme on-line, but it’s not the same, it doesn’t even feature a league table let alone a half-time quiz. A printed programme, like a stand, a rail around the pitch or a turnstile marks the difference between a proper football club and just teams kicking around on the local rec’. Having discussed the programme, the man in the coat asks me hesitantly if I’m ‘normal’. Fortunately, I instinctively know what he means and tell him I am. Disappointingly, he seems a little surprised, possibly because the blokes who turn up to watch this level of football are mostly pensioners, but he goes on to explain how some folk will pay the concessionary price (£4) when he doesn’t really think they are as old as they are making out. Privately and controversially I put this down to Suffolk people being stingy and Londoners being dishonest, but I don’t say so.
As we part the man in the shapeless coat tells me that the tea hut and bar are open and I head off towards the club house; it is thinly populated, just three blokes and the bar man, and noting that there is no real ale, I return outside where through a hatch in the front wall I buy a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup. I stand and watch the two teams warming up, there is hardly anyone else here. As the Norwich CBS players and coaches then return to the dressing room prior to kick-off I ask one of them what the CBS stands for; he has no idea.

It’s soon approaching 3 o’clock and the referee is to be heard banging on the dressing room doors like a parent trying to rouse a teenage son from his bed; they evidently don’t have the luxury of bells in the dressing rooms here at Cornard. By and by the two teams line up at the double doors, which are just a few feet from the pitch, and Mr Darling leads them out. Unusually, there is no lining up on the pitch and shaking of everyone’s hands and instead the two teams sprint off to their respective halves of the pitch, with Cornard forming a team-building huddle. Eventually it is Norwich who get first go with the ball, kicking off in the direction of Little Cornard and wearing an unusual ensemble of lime green shirts and socks with grey shorts. Cornard, or the ‘nard as they are known, aim in the direction of the neighbouring Thomas Gainsborough School and Sudbury beyond, when they get the ball; they wear blue shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and blue socks, it’s a more tasteful version of the current Ipswich Town kit and doesn’t advertise on-line gambling; which is nice.
The opening couple of minutes of the match are fast, furious and very messy. Norwich immediately look more assured when in possession but not so when not; Cornard look a bit shaky whether they’ve got the ball or not. At four minutes past three a long through ball is chased by Norwich number ten Jordan Rocastle (nephew of the late Arsenal and England player David Rocastle); he catches up with it and places a low shot past joint manager and goalkeeper Matt Groves to put Cornard a goal behind. Suddenly, near to the Cornard dugout is not a good place to be for people likely to be offended by expletives, profanity and generally naughty words. “Fuckin’ shit, get you’re fuckin’ heads outta your fuckin’ arses” is the coaching advice from the technical area. These are not Suffolk dialect words.
Surprisingly, the coaching seems to work as within two minutes large ‘on-loan’ striker Ben Parkin, formerly known as ‘Omelette’ to his fans when at Wivenhoe Town wins a corner from a deflected shot. The corner kick is headed towards goal but is going well wide before Cornard number six Dave Dowding appears on the far side of the goal and heads the ball firmly across and into the other corner. The scores are level and compared to that of his counterpart, the advice of the Norwich coach is more considered, if less entertaining; “Start again”. Having paid out six quid to watch I hope they do start again, or with the game just six minutes old I shall feel somewhat short-changed.
With both teams having had the satisfaction of scoring a goal, the game settles down. Norwich still look the more accomplished side, but Cornard have improved hugely from the opening two minutes and their heads are now where they should be in relation to their bottoms. When Cornard have the ball they pass it well, when they don’t they defend well; it’s an entertaining match.
I watch from behind the dugouts where a covered pergola type structure shields the tea bar from stray footballs but also helps keep the cold out, a bit anyway. Off to the right, over the fence, beyond the Thomas Gainsborough School I can see the spire of Grade 1 listed St Andrew’s Church.

lone man in the stand

I decide to take a wander round and watch the game from different perspectives. The main stand is empty but for a lone man in an Ipswich Town beanie hat who seems to be making notes. I doubt he’s a scout, possibly just writing a match report. Further down the valley behind the stand is Sudbury rugby club; every now and then I hear what sounds like a hunting horn as if all the local Hooray-Henry types are now all watching the rugby since it’s illegal to chase foxes. There are nevertheless far more people watching the game there than there are here, I doubt the crowd watching this game exceeds thirty in number. AFC Sudbury are also at home today just a mile or two away and playing in a league two levels above Cornard are probably a bigger attraction to most, as is the Nethergate ale they serve in their clubhouse.
At twenty-five past three the floodlights flicker into life and then in an unrelated incident Cornard’s number four, Ryan McGibbon becomes the first player to be shown the glow of Mr Darling’s yellow card. Matt Grove makes a very impressive flying save from a volleyed shot following a corner. Norwich’s number three Kieran Rose, a bald man with a colourfully tattooed right arm shares Ryan McGibbon’s experience five minutes before half-time and then entertains everyone by slipping over as he goes to control the ball and then slicing it away, high between the dugouts; it’s an impressive feat of maximum technical difficulty and draws generous laughter from his own team mates and coaches.
Half-time arrives and I quickly get to the tea bar to warm my hands around another polystyrene cupped, pound’s worth of tea. Another man in a ‘sports coat’ who is taking away three cups of tea on a tray (presumably for the referee and his chums) fails to fool me into believing there are no more hot drinks, although it is a plausible ruse. I go inside the clubhouse to check the half-time scores; Ipswich aren’t losing, yet, brilliant! The clubhouse bar has an impressive parquet floor but the tables and chairs look like they might have had a previous life in a school dining room and there is perhaps a faint smell of school dinner, or it could just be floor polish.
At three minutes past four the second half begins and at four minutes past four Cornard’s number ten Jack Graham lobs the ball from a good 20 metres from goal over the advancing pink-clad Norwich goalkeeper who rather fabulously is called Asa Swatman; a name to grace any novel. There is a moment when time stops and nothing seems certain and then everyone sees the ball bounce up into the goal net. People cheer long and loud to make up for the lack of numbers in the crowd.
On the Norwich bench, or rather outside it because he is standing up, the Norwich coach is having a breakdown. “How does that happen?” he asks after clutching his head in his hands. “I can’t believe it”. It’s as if he’s never seen a football match in his life before. Perhaps his previous experience of football was coaching a team of robots. But as theatre he’s worth the entrance money and continues to do so as he queries the portly linesman’s decision that goalkeeper Matt Groves had caught the ball inside his penalty area as opposed to outside it. It’s as if sensing the futility of life he feels he might as well argue about anything, even though he can’t really be certain of the truth and it won’t make any difference anyway. I see one of the Norwich substitutes smiling to himself.

The linesmen by the way are called Mr Bigg and Mr Copsey; I’m guessing which one is which.
Norwich are dominating the game now with Cornard restricted to defending stoutly and engineering the occasional breakaway; but they’re doing a good job of it with Jack Graham running at and around the Norwich defenders like the proverbial pain in the arse. Norwich win a corner and the ball is swung in close to the goal but Cornard clear; the Norwich coach is allowing his frustration to run away with him and resorts to bizarre and previously unknown allegories. “We should start a fuckin’ perfume stand behind the goal” he moans surreally. “They should be fuckin’ throwing themselves in there” he adds, perhaps trying, but failing to make sense of his own words.
It’s not much after four fifteen and Norwich are somewhat fortuitously awarded a free-kick by Mr Darling just outside the Cornard penalty area. Their number ten Tim Hewery steps up to arc the ball over the defensive wall and in to the top left hand corner of the Cornard goal. The scores are once again level and Norwich seem to expect to go on and win; their general play indicates that they might but they don’t and striving to be more ‘direct’ they bring on a large, lumpy target man who they call Cookie, he’s a nuisance but the game is less beautiful for it. Cornard keep breaking away through Jack Graham and from one break a header hits the cross bar and they also hit a post. Matt Groves tips a Norwich shot acrobatically over his cross bar but it’s hard to say which team came closest to scoring.
The referee proves not to be the darling of either side as he makes decisions to frustrate and annoy both, although Norwich are definitely the most upset, no doubt because they expect to win and they aren’t doing so, whilst Cornard are just happy to be here, and not losing. At ten to five Mr Darling uses his whistle for the final time this afternoon and sets the Norwich number ten, Tim Hewery off on a mad rant both at him and possibly the whole Norwich team. He storms off to the dressing room alone, leaving an embarrassed silence amongst everyone else in the ground, which is quite an achievement.
It’s an entertaining end to what has been a very entertaining game. I take a final trip in to the clubhouse to syphon off some of that two pounds worth of tea and on the way out of the ground I speak to the other Cornard co-manager Mike Schofield, who like me, his brother Andy, Matt Groves, Ben Parkin and Ryan McGibbon is one of the many people to have left Wivenhoe Town in recent years. Mike is very pleased with the result, with the game having gone just as planned. Sadly Ipswich have lost at Accrington and are once again out of the FA Cup without making any impression whatsoever, but heck I’m alright I’ll be home in time for tea and although I don’t know it yet will witness Norwich City lose at home to Portsmouth on Serbian TV.

Postscript: An internet search reveals that CBS might stand for Carpentry and Building Services, but then again it might not.

Colchester United 2 Yeovil Town 0

It is the last Saturday of the football league season, well sort of; in fact it is one of two last Saturdays of the football season and a last Sunday. Thanks to the need to create a television extravaganza out of the resolution of the promotion and relegation places the third division finished last Sunday, the second division finishes with noon kick-offs tomorrow and the fourth division finishes today with all the games kicking off at five-thirty, a time when most civilised people should be thinking about what they’re having for tea. The first division (I think they call it the Premier League nowadays) finishes I don’t know when and I don’t care; I don’t suppose Leicester will be winning it this year though, it’ll be back in the oily grasp of one of the usual cartel no doubt.
It’s a bit of a grey uninteresting day for the time of year, but with the occasional burst of sunshine, which conveniently is how I would sum up the season I have just witnessed following mostly Ipswich Town and Colchester United. I take the train to Colchester sitting across the gangway from of a man in a sports jacket and jeans and neatly coiffured hair and his female companion who is dressed similarly, but her jacket is more tailored and the jeans more tapered and a bit too tight if I’m honest; it’s not a look I would endorse for either of them, if asked. I sneeze from the effects of their perfume and body spray which mingle poisonously.

Arriving in Colchester I make the short walk to the Bricklayers Arms and drink £7.30’s worth of Adnams Oyster Stout, which sounds a lot when written like that. I drink one pint indoors and one in the garden, where I risk lung disease from the smokers. The pub is busy and I joke with the bloke on the table next to me about how long he is going to have to wait for his mate to come back with another beer. Eventually everyone is drinking and talking football. “He’s a good player that Alves”… I like that Spanish football”…. “Still a lot of diving though”…”That Luiz, wasn’t he good at free-kicks?” …”Yeah, he scored a good one earlier in the season” ….” Who’d he play for before then?” ….”PSG and Benfica”. Worn down by the conversation people clear off to get the bus to the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Stadium. As I leave the pub a bill board of Pierce Brosnan33751939113_3657b1eba5_o makes me laugh out loud as I recall his Texan accent from a trailer I saw for his new BT TV epic serial; but with his bushy grey beard he just looks a bit of a twat too.

As I get to the bus stop I’ve just missed one bus, but having parted with £2.50 I get to choose whatever seat I want on the top-deck of the next one. 34432079531_5ee09c1af6_oThis bus soon fills up and then we’re off and then we’re there; it’s not far. A young lad in the seat behind me is incredulous as the bus draws up outside the stadium and he sees the car park and crowds beyond. “Cor! That’s really good for League Two” he says with the enthusiasm of youth. “Yeah, but it’s all glory hunters today innit” replies his slightly older and more worldly wise friend and indeed the older boy is right. Having struggled by on gates on three thousand for most of the season , there are more than twice as many here today (6,565 is the official figure) as Colchester have a chance of making the play-offs, along with about half the other teams in the division.

After purchasing a programme (£3) I join one of34521082746_bfe9c98d07_o four long queues into the South Stand, standing behind a fat man with a very growly voice. At the back of the stand on the way from the bus stops a man in uniform with a little green Land Rover is recruiting for the Army. It seems a bit unfair to try and recruit from Col U fans who it seems are already an endangered species without actively putting them in harm’s way. I don’t suppose we will be hearing “Billy don’t be a hero” played over the public address system this evening.
The queue moves slowly, and finally at the third attempt my bar-coded ticket unlocks the turnstile. After using the minimalist, almost “Scandi-style” stainless steel and breeze-block urinals I take up my seat not long before the game kicks-off. The game begins, I watch the opening exchanges carefully, intently even, but then see a steward I know who is peering up into the stand, looking for ‘troublemakers’ most likely . She sees me too and we give a little wave diffusing the intensity of the start of the game. Phew.
The atmosphere today is atypical of a Col U match; I can’t hear those echoing calls from lone voices abusing the opposition and giving quirky encouragement; if they are here they are lost in the murmur of an additional three and half thousand voices, 34431994831_7b94f39b19_opeople unfamiliar with the etiquette that demands you sound off at football. It’s not a bad game though and Col U are looking the better team and with a half hour gone that provokes one spectator, presumably anxious about a play-off place and therefore frustrated that the U’s haven’t scored yet, to break ranks and shout critically “we’re going backwards”. In England the concept of just keeping possession of the ball is still one that a lot of people struggle with.

Then, at about five past six, a space appears, enough to allow No 31 Tarique Fosu-Henry a clear sight of the Yeovil goal; he shoots, he scores and Colchester are winning and for the time being are in 7th position in the league, and in the play-offs.34431988691_2b98262141_o “Layer Road” is all of a quiver now and a few people are on their feet whilst the stewards gather at one end of the stand to quell any over-excitement.  34431963621_31fee1312a_oFifteen minutes later and the voice from the public address system still sounds unfeasibly excited as he announces that the fourth official has indicated there will be at least 2 minutes of added on time to be played before it’s time for a cuppa.

With the half-time whistle I dash back to the Scandi-lav just in time to have to avoid a collision with a woman turning around and rushing out in a state of sheer panic. She’d taken a wrong turn, I guess, I hope. Having left the khasi and then spoken to my steward friend I return to my seat to peruse the programme, enjoying a couple of the names in the Yeovil squad, starting with their number four who rejoices under the name of Bevis Mugabi, which is wonderful and beautifully reminds us that the odious president of Zimbabwe is Butthead Mugabe. Two other fine names belong to Brandon Goodship and Ollie Bassett, Bertie’s brother.

The start of the second half witnesses mental flip-flopping from the two teams as Colchester seem to switch from thinking “Yay, we’re winning” to “No, we have something to lose” whilst Yeovil switch from “Oh crap, we’re losing” to “We’re losing, that is an affront to our sporting sensibilities”. Hence Yeovil, or the Glovers as they are known, take the upper hand, gloved presumably and metaphorically they throw a few punches or lay down the gauntlet. It doesn’t last long though and Colchester’s Drey (yeah, like the squirrel nest) Wright is sent through on goal with just the goalie to beat. But Jonathan Maddison’s gloves, hopefully made in Yeovil, are not tested as Drey simply misses the goal.

The excitement subsides a bit as the scoreboard tells us about forthcoming Status Quo and Bon Jovi tribute acts and the man next to me folds his arms across his chest because it’s getting a bit chilly, or perhaps because he doesn’t like tribute acts. I notice that Yeovil are playing up to a West Country stereotype by advertising the name of Thatcher’s cider on their shirts and then the scoreboard tells us that we could “Get close to the action for as little as 10p a day”, which makes me wonder if there is £36.50’s worth of stuff I need or even want to know about Col U in the course of a year. At the edge of pitch an advertising board says “Macron” ;34562258905_5849f92e67_o it’s good to know that we’re not supporting that dreadful Le Pen woman in tomorrow’s French presidential election.

Col U are still in the play-offs but not too much is happening and on 72 minutes some supporters desperate to cheer something celebrate a goal for Accrington Stanley at Stevenage, another team with a chance of qualifying for a play-off place. But there is a better reason to celebrate four minutes later as the ball is pulled back across goal leaving Tarique Fosu-Henry in sufficient space for a second time to score for a second time.  A lairy looking character runs onto the pitch and is hauled away by stewards.

Everything is going swimmingly for Col U or is it? Word arrives that just before Colchester scored their second goal Carlisle United had taken the lead away at Exeter City, pushing Colchester United down into 8th place, outside the play-off places. A pall of near silence falls over “Layer Road”. It’s now quiet enough to hear an anxious voice shout “tackle him”, although he’d better advised to try and cheer on Exeter City. The dream is fading and the part-time supporters first drift and then flood away, 34400546302_31fa352b77_oleaving a row of empty seats in front of me along with a pile of empty sweet wrappers but taking with them the promise of tooth decay, obesity and type two diabetes.

With the final whistle I head post-haste for the bus back to the railway station. Col U played well and deserve their lap of honour in front of their fans, but stuff that I want to get home. My wife has been keeping me updated about her team Portsmouth, who have won the Division Four championship this afternoon and champagne is once again in the fridge just waiting for me to open it for her. Play Up Pompey!

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Later that evening I fall asleep on the bed fully clothed.

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