It’s the first Saturday in September and the weather has broken, although to be truthful it’s been looking a bit cracked for a while now. Autumn approaches. It rained overnight and whilst there are glimpses of sunshine it is straining to penetrate through the clouds and worst of all it feels cold. But on the bright side, today sees the start of the football season and mighty Ipswich Town, the vessel in which the hopes and dreams of a good many of the people of Suffolk are invested will be playing Bristol Rovers in what I refer to as the League Cup, but the football club, media and those who don’t know any better call the Carabao Cup. I didn’t used to know what Carabao was, I erroneously thought it was a wrongly spelt American name for a reindeer, but because of the League Cup, and thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it is a domestic water buffalo from the Philippines and also a drink; not a proper drink mind, like Adnams Broadside, tea, Noilly Prat, milk, red wine, Fuller’s 1845, espresso coffee, Crémant, pineapple juice, Champagne, lime cordial, Belgian Trappist beer , hot chocolate or malt whisky but something called an ‘energy drink’. The sponsorship of football competitions is a curious thing and only adds to the feelings I have that I live as an outsider on the fringes of society, with the Milk Marketing Board being the only sponsor whose product I can honestly admit to ever having set out to purchase.
Kick-off is at three o’clock, but of course due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is not safe for a large crowd to gather and therefore no one is going to Portman Road today. Sadly, I shall be denied the joys of travelling on the trains of Greater Anglia, the pre-match pints, the quickening anticipation-filled walk down Portman Road and the click of the turnstile. Today I will not hear the moans of the home supporters nor the witless abuse of the away supporters; I will not receive the suspicious glances of luminous stewards nor feel the soft artificial fur of Bluey and Crazee as they brush past me with their out-sized heads and weird hoof-hands; I will not become engrossed in conversation nor share see-sawing emotions with Mick, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, the old dears, Ray and his grandson Harrison, or Pat from Clacton with her bag of sweets and lucky charm, the masturbating monkey.
Not thinking of what I am missing, I enjoy a light lunch of home-made spicy carrot soup with my wife Paulene whilst resisting the temptation of a beer, despite a choice of Adnams Ghostship, Adnams Ease Up IPA, Fuller’s Bengal Lancer, Chimay, Chimay Brun, Orval, Westmalle and Faro Foudroyante from my ‘beer cupboard’. We watch the Tour de France on the television, losing ourselves in the French countryside as an escape from the memory of lockdown. We talk and reminisce about holidays and trips to France. It’s a quarter past three. Flippin’ eck! The game has started and I hadn’t realised, this is what life is like without the discipline of the railway timetable to get me to the match. I leave Paulene somewhere in the Haute Garonne and find my radio, which is already tuned to BBC Radio Suffolk, because I like a laugh. I decided long ago that watching Town on the ifollow is not worth £10, particularly when I’ve already spent over £300 on a season ticket, so I settle down in an Ikea Poang chair in the back bedroom with Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills. Elvis Costello was right ” Radio is a sound salvation”.
Very quickly I learn that Aaron Drinan is pronounced Dry-nen and doesn’t rhyme with ‘linen’ as I previously thought it did, which I think is a useful start and then Mick Mills tells me that a half-chance for Bristol Rovers is the first time they have threatened Town’s goal so at least I can now be confident that we’re not losing. Brenner and Mick witter on and Brenner tells me that Tomas Holy “puts his foot through the ball”; I wait for the referee to stop the game to extricate Holy’s foot, but rather confusingly the commentary carries on with Brenner describing the ball as being passed “along the deck “and I now wonder if the game has been moved from Portman Road to an oil tanker; it’s common after all for the size of such ships to be measured in terms of football pitches. I’m still not sure of the up to date score but Brenner is hoping for a result in normal time, which implies the scores are still level and that he’s got better things to do after five o’clock than commentate on this. The absence of any crowd noise then strikes me for the first time and I am conscious of the shouts of the players echoing through the stands left cavernous and empty. Fittingly in all this blankness, Brenner at last reprises the score, it’s still nil-nil; I haven’t missed anything then. Phew.
Mick Mills is not a man to ever sound at all excited, but he feels moved to say that our left hand side has ‘come to life’ and produced two or three ‘moments’. That’s what the game is all about I think to myself and am heartened to hear Mick provide balance by wishing that the right hand side of the team could do the same. Brenner takes back control of the commentary and I learn that today Paul Lambert is wearing a big over coat, which is most unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in a black v-neck sweater; perhaps the added security of his five year contract has led him to invest in a more extensive wardrobe, but I do worry that it’s a bit early in the year for an overcoat and surely this can only provoke more abuse from his critics on social media.
As I drift off into reverie about what is an appropriate coat for a football manager on a cool early September Saturday, Brenner announces that “Sears was not going to miss” and Town are 1-0 up. It’s twenty-eight minutes past three, I clench my left fist and softly whisper a sibilant ‘Yes’ to myself. “It was easy to get the ball down the corridor to Sears” says Mick Mills and once again I’m a bit lost trying to imagine where I’d seen any corridors at Portman Road, except beneath the stands, and worrying that if the ball was in a corridor surely it should have been a throw-in. I thank our lucky stars that our level of football is not subject to VAR.
With Town a goal up the game soon sounds like it has become a tad dull, or it could just be the commentary. Mick Mills increasingly seems like a comfortably retired man in his seventies, but the I remember that he is. Brenner meanwhile goes off piste and begins to talk about Town’s next game at home to the Arsenal Under-23 team in the now despicably compromised, credibility-lacking EFL Trophy, expressing his interest in seeing “…how good the latest crop of kids at the Emirates are”. If he’s so interested in bleedin’ Arsenal perhaps he should clear off to BBC London. Hopefully as annoyed as I am by Brenner’s concern about a club that isn’t Ipswich Town, Mick tries to break the mould by injecting a hint of excitement into the commentary and announces “That was a super pass from Dozzell” but he spoils it rather by pausing and then adding “so that was good”, as if his use of the adjective “super” was in retrospect going a bit far.
I look at my watch and find that it’s approaching half time and I think I discern from the commentary that Town have a corner. They do, and now it’s 2-0 courtesy of what Mick Mills dubs a ‘fabulous goal’ from Luke Chambers. “Luke Chambers is pretty deadly in the opposition box” says Mick leaving me to fill in the blanks that he can, on occasions, be quite deadly in his own box too. Half-time arrives and unlike at Portman Road I don’t make an undignified dash to the khasi but stay in my seat. This is no doubt in part due to not having a bladder full of the remnants of two or more pints of beer and partly because at Portman Road I am not pleasantly paralysed through sitting on a comfortable chair. For remaining seated I am rewarded by hearing Mick Mills refer to Aaron Drinan as Aaron Dry-nan although he instantly corrects himself to make Aaron’s surname rhyme with linen a la Brenner Woolley. Mick goes on to tempt fate horribly by saying that he “…cannot see Bristol Rovers coming back in to this”. I admire Mick’s forthrightness, but recent experience nevertheless leads me to offer a small prayer for him, and his opinion, despite my probable atheism. I take a brief trip downstairs to France to bring the gospel to my Christian wife that Town are winning 2-0. She asks if I am sure I have tuned into the right radio station.
The second half begins at the ridiculously late time of 4:06pm, and it’s not long before Mick Mills is telling me that the game has become a “…little but drab, a little bit boring”; if anyone should know about that it’s monotone Mick. Personally, I am finding the experience of sitting in my back bedroom listening to the wireless quite exciting and probably more interesting than if I had had to fork out a tenner or so for a match ticket plus as much again for the train fare, beer and perhaps a pie, all requirements if I was to attend in person. I am further enthralled when Brenner advises me as the ball is booted off the pitch that “…the ball is dipped in some sort of sterilizing solution when it goes in the seats over there”. I can’t help wondering why this is necessary; who normally sits in that part of the ground? What sort of unpleasant residue have they left? Why hasn’t that corner of the ground be cleaned since last March?
Moving on, Mick Mills is providing the most enjoyable moments of the commentary and, as he did in the first half, he gives praise but then tempers it. “That was a wonderful corner by Judge” he says before qualifying his statement by explaining “It was…………good”, once again suggesting that given time to think about it perhaps his initial assessment was a little too enthusiastic. It’s either that or he just doesn’t know that many adjectives. But there is no doubt that lurking beneath Mick’s inherent reticence and quietude there is a passion and he soon lets it out with the statement “There’s a lot of football in the team”. As for Brenner he can’t help but betray a certain cynicism, no doubt borne of over fifteen years commentating on the mighty Blues; “Good play from the Blues” says Brenner, before adding with perfect timing “At the moment”.
The second half is clearly not totally thrilling, but the impression received is thankfully that Town are playing within themselves and have the measure of these “Pirates”. The game plays on and I am guilty of paying more attention to Twitter than to Brenner and Mick as I seek to discover how the likes of Whitton United, Long Melford, Ipswich Wanderers, Stowmarket Town and Framlingham Town are getting on. I admit I haven’t really been paying close attention to the commentary but am nevertheless surprised at four thirty-three to hear Brenner say that Town are now 3-0 up, and although I will admit to reading Twitter I wonder how I could have missed hearing the goal go in. I am left to suppose Mick’s less than excited general delivery and Brenner’s overriding interest in the Arsenal’s “kids” could explain why neither commentator had succeeded in grabbing my attention. Fortunately, Twitter can also tell me that it was Freddie Sears who scored the third goal, in the 68th minute as well as actually showing me the first two goals and then the third as well.
Time moves on inexorably and it’s now four forty-nine, and Brenner confirms that it’s been “all over really” since Freddie Sears scored Town’s third goal, as he stifles a yawn. Fittingly the commentary peters out a little with periods of silence punctuated with commentator clichés letting the eager listeners know that Bristol Rovers don’t have “enough left in the tank” to change the result and that Town have been “good value” for their lead. “Three-nil, Ipswich Town” says Brenner, saving up his allocation of useful verbs and adjectives for another day, perhaps when Arsenal’s “kids” might be playing. “Town, winding the clock down” says Mick. “According to my watch we’re just about there” are Brenner’s final words, as if prompting the referee to blow his whistle, which miraculously he then does.
Pleased that Town have won and pleased that I can leave Brenner and Mick alone together and return downstairs to my wife, I turn off my radio. I haven’t really had a clue what’s been going on all afternoon but I do know that Town have won a cup tie, scoring three times in the process and not conceding, even if I only noticed two of the goals and it feels as if it all happened in a far off universe, but being divorced from the proceedings the result is all that matters. Back to reality, if not normality; a glass of beer and fish and chips for tea. As Ray Davies of the Kinks told us in Autumn Almanac, “I like my football on a Saturday”.