Ipswich Town 2 AFC Wimbledon 2

Back in 2004 as Ipswich Town were yet again failing to win yet another play-off tie (we have won just two out of nine ties), AFC Wimbledon were winning the Combined Counties Premier Division title.  Since then, Wimbledon have continued to collect promotions and Ipswich Town haven’t, and so today we find ourselves playing the 2004 Combined Counties Premier Division Champions for a third consecutive season.  Town and the original Wimbledon, the one that famously beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, had of course met in both the Premier League and the Championship and my wife Paulene is the proud owner of a cuddly Womble in Wimbledon kit that dated from when the original club was being eaten alive; apparently when she bought it, it was the last one in the shop.

Shamefully, playing fast and loose with the future of our planet, I have again driven to the match today, still fearful of using public transport as Covid cases spiral upwards in number and the government gambles the lives of the clinically vulnerable so that money can change hands, as it does most of the time to be fair, but usually more obliquely. Parking my trusty Citroen C3 up on Chantry I stroll down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a sky of picturesquely heaped up clouds, the afternoon is warm but dull, as English summers often are.

Rocking up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk) at about twenty past two, I join a short queue for the Fanzone just as the steward checking tickets and Covid credential announces that the bar in the Fanzone is now closed.  Brimming with disappointment and thwarted thirst I leave the queue and hang about aimlessly for a few minutes watching the crowds and counting the number of people wearing face masks, I see four.  It really is as if most people are convinced the pandemic is over.  Quickly bored with my own company I trudge off between the supporters’ coaches artfully arranged outside the old Corporation tram depot and head for the Constantine Road gate to the ground, where I join a very short queue to show off my Covid credentials.  “Thank you Martin” says the female steward as I flash my NHS vaccination card; it seems a bit familiar of her and I wonder if we know each other; she’s one of the few people wearing a mask so I can’t properly see her face. 

On the walk from the gate to the turnstile I purchase a programme (£3.50) and join a queue for turnstile fifty-nine because of the four turnstiles on this corner of the ground (numbers 59 to 62) it’s the only one that’s open. My favourite turnstile is number 62 because when using it I feel I am paying homage to Town’s Football League winning team of 1962.  Behind me in the queue a bunch of blokes chatter like excited youths, making weak jokes and commenting on there being only one turnstile open. “Cutting costs” suggests one.  “A bit naughty if it’s nearly kick-off” says another, weirdly imagining a scenario in which he hasn’t arrived twenty minutes before the game is due to start.  Another reads out loud the sign explaining what items are prohibited from the ground. “No tools” he chuckles, prompting his accomplices to each name a tool they would have liked to bring with them starting with a blow torch.

In the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with his son Elwood, but Pat from Clacton is on holiday in Ireland and Fiona, Ray and his son and his grandson Harrison are yet to arrive.  I speak with Phil who, in the course of our conversation explains that the bar in the Fanzone closes early because people hadn’t been drinking up in time to comply with the licence.  It starts to rain.

It’s still raining when the teams come on to the pitch and after a very brief ‘taking the knee’ which is so brief it looks a bit like a curtsy, the game begins beneath a battleship grey sky. Wimbledon get first go with the ball, lumping it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  For the third consecutive home league match Town’s opponents are wearing a kit of all-red; I think back to when most club’s away kit was yellow shirts and blue shorts,  except of course for Oxford United and Mansfield Town, but we never played them in the 1970’s.

Continuing the 1970’s theme the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are quickly into a rendition of Boney M’s 1978 Christmas number one ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but with lyrics altered to celebrate Ipswich singing, Norwich running away, and eternal fighting because of Boxing Day rather than the birth of the Messiah.  Just four minutes pass and Town’s Scott Fraser has the first shot on goal.  After seven minutes the weather seems to be brightening up a bit and the Wimbledon fans chant “The animals went in two by two”, which seems a bit odd given that it looks like it is about to stop raining and any plans to build an ark will have been put on hold, particularly since no one is allowed to bring tools into the ground.

With about a quarter of an hour played Wimbledon’s Alexander Woodyard is the first player to get sight of referee Mr Rock’s yellow card after he fouls Joe Piggott.  “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Wimbledon supporters somewhat coarsely and unimaginatively and then Town’s Rekeem Harper takes a shot from 18 metres or so which is easily gathered by Wimbledon goalkeeper Nik Tzanev.  The clouds are parting to reveal blue sky and as if attempting to create some sort of allegory, Town breach the Wimbledon defence and make several forays down the right flank, with Kane Vincent-Young and Wes Burns getting in a number of crosses, although none of them is met by a Town player and when one is the shot is weak.  The first half is almost half over, and Town win the game’s first corner.  “Come on you Blues” I chant, to the apparent bafflement of those around me.

Town are playing some exciting football but have little presence in the penalty area.  “Chase it, put him under pressure” shouts a voice a few rows behind me as Joe Piggott pursues a punt up field.  Another corner comes to nothing after thirty-seven minutes and the linesman with the red and yellow quartered flag minces back to the half-way line as Tzanev takes the goal kick.  As the half draws to a close a man with a loud, penetrating, and annoying voice is sharing a conversation with all those around him, although I doubt any of us want him to.  We learn that he was ‘the editor’, of what we don’t know or care, but he was “furious with himself”.  I’m not too pleased with him either, he needs to find his volume control, or just shut up.  Happily, only a minute of added time is to be played so respite soon arrives.  It’s been a pretty good half, although I can’t help feeling that although Town look good enough to be winning, somehow we haven’t really created good enough chances; perhaps it’s because we still have not ‘gelled’ yet.

Half-time involves consumption of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and then a cupcake, which is one of a whole tray-full that Ray shares with those around him to mark the occasion of his retirement, something that is also recorded on page 55 of today’s programme.   The happy events of real-life retreat again into the shadows as the second half begins at two minutes past four and like last week there is a mysterious hush around the ground in the opening minutes, almost as if people are disappointed that the players have returned.  Within seven minutes however, Wimbledon’s William Nightingale fails to live up to the high ideals of his namesake Florence and comes closer to wounding Wes Burns rather than offering succour and from the resultant penalty kick, Joe Piggott gives Town the lead, placing his penalty in the right-hand corner of the goal as Tzanev stupidly dives to the left.  The Sir Bobby Robson stand reprises “Mary’s Boy Child” in a state of heightened ecstasy whilst the Wimbledon supporters chant “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” to the tune of Guantanamera, thereby introducing a welcome Cuban folk vibe to the afternoon, something which is often conspicuously absent from Portman Road.  William Nightingale’s name is recorded in Mr Rock’s notebook to punish him further for being so unlike Florence.

With Town ahead Portman Road rocks to Boney M and thoughts of victory, and within two minutes Wes Burns doubles Town’s lead collecting a crucial pass from Kane Vincent-Young and smacking a fine shot across Tzanev into the far top left-hand corner of the goal.  Town will surely win now after four fruitless matches; on the basis of what has happened in the previous fifty-four minutes our lead is unassailable.  Four minutes later Wimbledon win a free kick, the ball skids off the top of Luke Woolfenden’s head and is set up ideally at the far post for Wimbledon’s Ben Heneghan, whose name makes me think of Feyenoord’s Wim Van Hanegem, to head down past Vaclav Hladky and make the score 2-1.  It must be Wimbledon’s first goal attempt on target.  “Bloody hell”, I think to myself.

“I don’t rate him” says a voice sitting behind me blaming Hladky for the goal “No, I don’t” says a neighbouring, voice “I don’t see how there’s any difference between him and Holy”.  It’s a point which I will hear no lesser expert than Mick Mills echo over the airwaves of Radio Suffolk as I drive home from the match in an hour’s time.  The discussion behind me continues as Hladky launches the ball up field; “He just boots the fuckin’ ball, he don’t look for no one do ‘e?

Dissatisfaction with the goalkeeper is however balanced by satisfaction with Wes Burns, “He’s superb, he is, he’s a helluva player” and it’s true, he is playing very well today and is linking up to goal scoring effect with Kane Vincent-Young down the right.   Within ten minutes Wimbledon have made their permitted three substitutions bringing on the more exotically and lengthily named Nesta Guinness-Walker and Dapo Awokoya-Mebude for plain old Luke McCormick and Aaron Pressley and swapping the fifty percent exotic Cheye Alexander for equally exotic Jack Rudoni, both of whom sound like they may possess an Equity card.

Seventy-four minutes of the game have got up and gone and Hladky has to save a shot from Ollie Palmer giving Wimbledon a corner.  Four minutes later and a hobbling Wes Burns is replaced by Janoi Donacien and less understandably Kane Vincent-Young is replaced by Sone Aluko.   The excellent Hayden Coulson also appears to be injured and is replaced by Matthew Penney.  Vaclav Hladky is booked for time-wasting, although it looked as if he merely didn’t understand Mr Rock’s wafting hand gestures about where a free kick should be taken from.  “I can’t help falling in love with you” sing the Wimbledon supporters enigmatically.  What is it with football supporters and naff “adult orientated” popular music?

“The momentum has gone” says one of the voices behind me and then repeats the phrase, perhaps for added emphasis, but possibly because it’s true.  Wimbledon now press as they have never done before in the game, it’s as if the two teams have swapped shirts.  The Wimbledon players seem to want to score a goal whilst the Ipswich players just want to get indoors and have a shower before driving home in their sickeningly ostentatious cars.  Time added on arrives and there are six minutes of it, Fiona and I roll our eyes.   Five minutes into the additional six minutes and what we have come to think of as the inevitable happens; a Wimbledon corner is headed goalwards by Ben Heneghan, Hladky saves but doesn’t catch the ball and Jack Rudoni boots the ball over the goal line, unable to miss, even if by some freakish desire to see Ipswich win, he had wanted to.

The final whistle follows soon afterwards and predictably a number of attention seekers in the crowd of 19,051 and people who were perhaps spoiled as children boo because their team hasn’t won.  Maybe someone will buy them an ice cream on the way home to appease their bawling and moaning.  I stay to applaud the Town players from the field and see them hang their heads in disappointment.  I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but football is that sort of a game and when I get home I shall flush that cuddly Womble down the toilet.

Ipswich Town 0 AFC Wimbledon 0

I’ve been waiting a while to see my team Ipswich Town play AFC Wimbledon at Portman Road. Sadly for me I missed the clubs’ first encounter back in September 2019 having been detained by the National Health Service; something to do with heart valves. Town’s 2-1 victory back then no doubt aided my recovery from surgery and now, re-built using bovine spare parts, I am fit enough to attend Portman Road,  but circumstances have conspired against me again and the global pandemic means I along with everyone else must once again witness today’s match via the marvel of modern technology that is the ifollow.  But with Town in a remarkable run of form that has seen them fail to score a single goal in five matches, mine and everyone else’s exile from Portman Road is probably for the best.  Excited at the prospect of today’s game nevertheless, I have made the effort to order a programme, on the cover which is a slightly startled, or possibly forlorn, looking Kane Vincent-Young

Startled or forlorn?

Earlier today, as part of an attempt to ensure that the nation’s investment in one of my vital organs should not be in vain, I pumped up the tyres on my bicycle for the first time in three years and cycled a little over six miles.  I had quite forgotten how uncomfortable a bicycle saddle can be and I am now only just able to walk, my legs feeling as if I am wading thigh deep through thick mud.  Such exercise requires reward and I therefore enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ of Fuller’s ESB (four for £6 from Waitrose) as I slump lifelessly in front of the telly catching the tail-end of Portsmouth versus Bristol Rovers on the ifollow, which my wife Paulene has been watching, Pompey being her team.  Pompey win and Bristol Rovers are relegated.  Coincidentally,  Pompey and Bristol Rovers are the only two teams against whom Ipswich have scored in the last nine games; furthermore Town have beaten Bristol Rovers three times this season whilst  Pompey have beaten Ipswich three times.  I regale Paulene with these fascinating facts in the style of a radio commentator; predictably she is unimpressed, but it doesn’t stop me.

Pre-match ‘pint’

With tv pictures of Fratton Park now just a memory, I log on to the ifollow in time to catch the names of today’s virtual mascots who are Finlay, Harrison, and what sounds like RJ and Milan, but I could be wrong. It nevertheless sets me to hoping that Milan has a sister called Florence and that somewhere in northern Italy there is a child called Ipswich.  In the manner of the FA Cup draw the next voice I hear is that of BBC Radio Suffolk’s stalwart commentator Brenner Woolley, who as ever has alongside him the redoubtable and legendary Mick Mills.  “We really are at the business end of the season” says Brenner , by which I think he means that all the speculation since August about which teams would be promoted and relegated will soon be resolved.  Ipswich will neither be promoted nor relegated, but their ‘business’ appears to be that of setting a new record for consecutive matches without scoring a goal; five and counting.

Brenner asks Mick to expound his current theory as to Town’s existence.  Mick postulates that Town “…went from playing ‘A’ class football and not being able to do it and going for a more direct style”.  Mick continues at length and I start to stare into the distance, but I get the drift.  “No sign of the boys in blue” says Brenner as the Town team begin to saunter onto the pitch.  I don’t think he’s talking about the police, he’s just not being very observant.

After the teams “take the knee” the game begins, Wimbledon getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand.  “Here’s Vincent-Young coming in-field with pink footwear” announces Brenner, eschewing deeper analysis for the sheer colour of the spectacle.  “Not very much has happened so far but the one thing that’s happened is watching Teddy Bishop…” chips in Mick before completing his observation, which is  that Teddy Bishop has been pushing forward down the left; so far he’s successfully been caught offside twice, but Mick’s advice is that he should keep trying.

“Paul Cook sipping on his coffee” says Brenner, introducing the by now obligatory mention of Paul Cook drinking coffee, and providing the sort of aimless detail worthy of an existential novel.  It’s the fourth minute and Wimbledon’s Will Nightingale heads over the Town cross-bar.  Mick Mills muses on how Town goalkeeper David Cornell stayed on his goal line but should have come to catch the cross. Mick is not impressed.  Meanwhile Brenner tells us that Wimbledon have scored as many goals in their last four games as Ipswich have in their last nineteen, before reporting  “Beautiful day at Portman Road, nil-nil, Town have now gone nine hours without a goal”.  It’s a careful combination of facts from Brenner that leaves me not knowing whether to feel happy, disappointed or in awe.  Wimbledon win a corner, Town win a corner.  A punt forward sees Mark McGuinness head the ball away from David Cornell as he comes out to collect the ball. “McGuinness and Cornell got in a bit of a sixes and sevens situation” is Brenner’s peculiar description of events.

The match proceeds much as all recent games have done. “Bennetts; that was terrible” says Brenner as the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts runs at the Wimbledon defence and then sends a shot hopelessly wide of the far post.  At the other end Wimbledon are no better. “Rudoni shoots wide, he should have scored”.  Twenty minutes have passed. “Wimbledon on top at the moment; the better side” is Brenner’s assessment and then Wimbledon are awarded a penalty, possibly for shirt-pulling.  Happily Joe Piggott’s spot-kick is easily saved by Cornell, albeit with his legs and feet. “ I didn’t like the run-up of the player” explains Mick relaying how he thought Piggott would miss.

“Bennetts; terrible lay-off” says Brenner, continuing the theme of inept play that has “ Paul Cook screaming his heart out down below” ; it’s a description from Brenner that suggests an image of the  Town manager suffering  infernal torment.  There are twelve minutes of the half remaining. “Surprise, surprise it’s nil-nil” says Brenner, introducing an unwelcome note of sarcasm.  Gwion Edwards shoots over the Wimbledon cross-bar; it’s Town’s second shot on goal in thirty-four minutes. “A massive difference in positivity in both teams” says Mick attempting to explain what we’re seeing.

Some passing breaks out. “Good play this from Ipswich Town” says Brenner as a corner is won, but then taken short and Mick shares our frustration.  With none of the current Town team capable of scoring, Brenner resorts to telling BBC Radio Suffolk listeners that former Town player Will Keane has scored for Wigan Athletic and is currently in a “rich vein of form”.  It’s just the sort of thing we all want to hear.  Back to Portman Road and “Poor from Dozzell, ball out” are Brenner’s words.  “He wanted to do something that wasn’t there” explains Mick raising philosophical questions about the nature of reality.  Gwion Edwards wins Town’s third corner of the half with two minutes to go before a minute of added on time is…added on.  It’s time enough for Brenner to refer to “Cornell…the Welshman” in much the same way that he usually refers to “Holy…the Czech”.  Half-time arrives and Brenner concludes that “Ipswich continue to struggle”. “We are the inferior team” is Mick’s summation before he is rudely cut-off by the ifollow commercial break; it’s a phrase from Mick that would look good on a banner in the North Stand or on a t-shirt.

Half-time relief comes in the form of a mug of tea and two Christmas tree-shaped ginger biscuits; stocks of the un-seasonal confections acquired at a knock-down price remain healthy.  All too quickly the game begins again. “Just three and a half more games for us to suffer” says Brenner.  Armando Dobra has replaced the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts although “…anybody could have come off at half-time” is the honest assessment of Brenner.

Cornell is soon making a decent save at the feet of Wimbledon’s Ayoub Assal.  “A lovely afternoon at Portman Road” says Brenner trying hard to look on the bright side of life before referring to “spring-heeled McGuinness”, which almost sounds like an epithet he’d pre-prepared.  Ollie Hawkins appears to head the ball against the Wimbledon crossbar but Town earn a corner so he probably didn’t.  “Nice little spell, it’s not lasted long, but it’s promising” says Mick as Town start to look more like a team that hasn’t just turned up because it’s a sunny afternoon and they’ve nothing better to do.

The game is nearly an hour old.  “Nine and three-quarter hours since a Town goal” says Brenner, clearly not counting down the minutes until he can say that Town haven’t scored in ten hours.  Kane Vincent-Young breaks down the right. “Vincent-Young has got open grass in front of him, just opening his legs” is Brenner’s slightly unpleasant description which probably sounds even more disturbing to BBC Radio Suffolk listeners who don’t have the accompanying tv pictures.  Town players are moving and passing the ball well; another corner kick ensues which Gwion Edwards steps up to take and lumps way beyond the penalty area.  “Ridiculous” says Mick “An awful corner kick”, and there is not a soul on Earth who would contradict him.

Woolfenden wrestles the ball from Assal; “…too big and strong for the young Moroccan” says Brenner, ticking another off the list of nationalities that he has referenced in his commentaries this season.  Cole Skuse replaces Teddy Bishop and Armando Dobra has a shot on goal. “Tzanev finally makes a save after sixty-three minutes of this game” says Brenner.  Mick then points out that Vincent-Young had made a good run ahead of Dobra “…if he’d rolled the ball to him” says Mick “I think we might have created a walk-in opportunity”.  Oh for a “walk-in opportunity” I think to myself, whilst also reflecting that Brenner’s pronunciation of Tzanev sounds a lot like Sanef, the company that manages the  best part of 2,000 kilometres of the French motorway network. 

Aaron Drinan replaces Ollie Hawkins. Wimbledon are awarded a free-kick about 25 metres from goal after a foul by Andre Dozzell; Joe Piggott takes the kick, “The Welshman had to make the save and he did” Brenner tells us leaving radio listeners unsure if the shot had been saved by David Cornell, Gwion Edwards or Harry Secombe. The game reaches its seventieth minute; “Ipswich Town have now gone ten hours without scoring a goal” announces Brenner unable to hide the fact that he has been waiting all afternoon to say it.

“We’ve been better in this half” says Mick very reasonably. “Are Ipswich Town going to score another goal this season?” asks Brenner, rhetorically I assume and so does Mick because he doesn’t offer an answer.  Kayden Jackson replaces Andre Dozzell and I begin to feel a little sleepy.  Tzanev makes a block at the feet of Jackson. Mick suggests Town could score “since we’ve tinkered with a few changes”.  Brenner guffaws loudly, seemingly amused by Mick’s tentative suggestion that this Town team “could score a goal against AFC Wimbledon”. How dare Brenner laugh at anything Mick says, particularly just two days before the forty-fifth anniversary of his testimonial match against FC Twente Enschede.

With the game into its final ten minutes of normal time, Town win a free-kick to the left of the Wimbledon penalty area.  “It’s ten hours since Ipswich Town last scored a goal, is this their moment?” asks Brenner as Gwion Edwards steps up to take it.  Edwards boots the ball high over the penalty area and cross-bar and into the North Stand. “Oh, Christ” Mick can be heard to say off-mike, sounding as glum as Marvin the paranoid android in the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Despite excellent comic timing Mick apologises for his blasphemy whilst Brenner laughs like a schoolboy.  This is the sort of enjoyment supporters of clubs at the top of the table will never know.

Five minutes remain of normal time.  My eyes close involuntarily and I have to try hard to stay awake; I blame strong beer at lunchtime.  Wimbledon win a corner, Cornell takes a drop kick and “…hits it high into the Suffolk sky” according to Brenner.  A throw-in is taken and “Dobra offers himself up” continues Brenner in his own slightly weird poetic mode.  Three minutes of added on time are played and the game ends. “Another ninety-minutes in the can for Vincent -Young” is as good as it gets from Brenner who doesn’t bother to explain, depending on your choice of slang, either why he is now drawing analogies with film making or why Vincent-Young spent ninety minutes in the toilet.

The ifollow doesn’t allow us to enjoy Mick’s match summary before its broadcast effs-off into adverts and match statistics.  For myself, I think the second half has been reasonably enjoyable despite the absence of goals, but after  six and a bit matches I have now become accustomed to that and have sought my pleasure where I can.  Today I have particularly enjoyed the exotic name of the Wimbledon right-back Nesta Guinness-Walker and every mention by Brenner of Wimbledon’s  Ben Heneghan has to my addled mind sounded like  van Hanegem,  and has had me imagining I was watching  Feyenoord or Holland in the mid 1970’s.  On that basis, the wait to watch AFC Wimbledon play at Portman Road was worth it. 

Three more matches, four and half more hours…plus time added-on.

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.