In my near fifty-two seasons of watching professional football, I’ve seen Sheffield Wednesday play twenty-five times, and today will be the twenty-sixth. The majority of those games have also involved Ipswich Town, with just two being against Colchester United. Like those Colchester matches, today’s game, in common with the previous two is a third division fixture. This is a very boring introduction to this match report, but it’s about history, which for many is possibly the whole point of watching football. Both Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday have a history of glory which they currently exist in the shadow of. Ipswich’s glory was over forty years ago, but it’s recent compared to that of Sheffield, which was over forty years before that, with Wednesday last winning the FA Cup in 1935 and the League in 1930, beyond living memory for most mortals. Today is important therefore.
Looking forward and only in my rear view mirror when necessary I park up my air-quality enhancing Citroen e-C4 and head across Gippeswyk Park for Portman Road and the joys of ‘The Arb’ beyond. The streets are full of policemen in uniforms that look as if they have been designed to be wipe-clean. A tall, wide-eyed man approaches me and asks what the score will be. “2-0 to Town” I say because I always expect Ipswich to win and he cheers and lurches off up the road. Two policemen eye him suspiciously as if it might be a crime to be a bit eccentric or off your gourde. In Portman Road, the boringly grey Sheffield Wednesday team bus is backing into its parking space behind the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I stop at one of the kiosks which look like they should sell ice cream, and attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) using my season ticket card. Predictably this doesn’t work, but I realise my mistake at the about the same time as the young man in the kiosk and blame it on my bank card and season ticket card both being blue.
At ‘the Arb’ I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.41 with the 10% Camra discount) and retire to the beer garden where the covered shelter is occupied by people who seem unable to talk without shouting; it’s as if I’m hearing a conversation between a group of town criers. I move away into the beer garden fearing permanent damage to my ears. Mick soon appears, unexpectedly making his entrance through the side gate. He disappears into the building and quickly returns with his own pint of Suffolk Pride and packet of Fairfield’s Farms cheese and onion crisps. We talk of our distrust and dislike of Ipswich’s Tory MP’s and their attempts at political point scoring off Ipswich’s Labour led council, of forthcoming fixtures, of Grayson Perry, of transitioning and of sexual politics.
At about two-thirty the beer garden suddenly falls silent as everybody else departs for the match leaving just Mick and I supping alone. For a moment we don’t know what to say other than to remark on how quiet it is. We drain our pint glasses and it’s not long before we leave for Portman Road ourselves, feeling like reluctant followers of fashion. We part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way as I head off between the assembled supporters’ buses and coaches towards the Constantine Road entrance and Mick finds a place to park his pushbike. At the portal to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand there are no queues and of turnstiles 59 to 62, only the latter is not open, I choose turnstile 61 and am entreated to “enjoy the match” by the brown-haired woman who nonchalantly scans my season ticket card. In the stand, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, the man from Stowmarket, and his grandson are all here and the sense of anticipation is palpable.
As stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster reads out the Town team I shout out the surnames in the French style and am pleased that ever-present Phil joins in , although I botch it a bit because the scoreboard isn’t keeping up with Stephen Foster and I find I’m not quite as good at picking the right surnames to match the first names as I ought to be. It’s a lot of fun nevertheless, but then we pause to show our respects to the many thousands who have died in the recent earthquake across southern Turkey and Syria. The silence is well observed as it should be; the only sounds being the squawking of seagulls and shushes from the Sheffield fans to those of their number emerging onto the stand ignorant of the gesture being made.
At two minutes past three o’clock the games begins with Town getting first go with the ball and hoping to stick it in the net closest to me, Pat, Fiona and Phil. Town are in resplendent in royal blue shirts and white shorts whilst Wednesday are anaemic in pale yellow shirts with pale blue sleeves and pale blue short; it’s a kit that looks like it’s been washed too many times or has faded in strong sunlight whilst on the washing line. “Hark now here the Wednesday sing, United ran away” chant the northerners in the Cobbold Stand showing an unexpected appreciation of Harry Belafonte and Boney M, which is matched by the Town fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand who proceed to sing the same song but about Town and Norwich. Other parts of the ground remain silent as if still remembering the earthquake victims.
Almost a quarter of an hour passes before any football breaks out and supporters are reduced to jeering and cheering throws and mis-placed passes. A tall man sat next to me tenses and jerks forward every time it looks like the ball will come near the goal. Conor Chaplin bounces a shot into the ground which is easily collected by the Wednesday goalkeeper Cameron Dawson, who is a vision in cerise. A Wednesday shot travels spectacularly high over the Town cross bar. “Tell you what, they’re big at the back int they” says the bloke behind me of the three Sheffield defenders Akin Famewo, Dominic Iorfa and Aden ‘Larry’ Flint. Iorfa previously played for Town, but looks to have been on a course of steroids since then.
The afternoon is dull and still, the flags on the Cobbold stand hang lifelessly beneath heavy grey cloud, it’s like a summer’s day, just a bit colder. The fifteenth minute brings a corner to Town and then another. With the second corner kick Wes Burns falls to the ground inside the penalty area. I see him fall but don’t spot the perpetrator who must have had a getaway car waiting, and it seems like that is everyone’s experience including the referee’s assistant who gingerly and briefly signals for a penalty kick. The referee, Mr Geoff Eltringham walks over to speak to his assistant before a posse of Wednesday players run over to argue the toss like professional footballers always do. “Get over it” I shout, uncharacteristically. “Haven’t you ever conceded a penalty before?” I’m not sure what’s the matter with me.
Eventually, about four minutes later, the penalty is taken and Conor Chaplin’s kick fails to find any of the important corners inaccessible to goalkeepers and instead it strikes the diving figure of Dawson. What disappointment. But life and the game carries on. “He’s a unit, we’re not gonna beat him in the air” says the bloke behind me of ‘Larry’ Flint, still obsessing about the size of the Wednesday defenders as a Wes Burns cross is repelled. It takes twenty-five minutes, but finally the Wednesday supporters find their Welsh hymn books and sing “Your support , your support , your support is fucking shit”. Two minutes later their piety and use of rude words is rewarded as Town ignore the fart-joke aficionados’ favourite player Josh Windass, allowing him as much time and space as he wants to cross the ball for the more prosaically named Michael Smith to twist a spectacularly decent header from near post to far post and into the Town net, and Sheffield lead.
Depression is setting in at Portman Road and only mild relief comes from Geoff the ref showing Wednesday’s Will Vaulks his yellow card for aimlessly wandering off with the ball in an attempt to waste time. The pleasure this brings is soon lost however as a minute later Wednesday score a second goal when the ball is crossed and then drops to the ground conveniently for George Byers to smite into the goal. Another goal almost follows as Town get in a muddle and Vaulks has a shot saved by Christian Walton. A few rows behind me it’s all too much for one bloke who erupts into a tirade of expletives and sounds like he might burst into tears at any moment. A woman with him seems to plead for a more rational approach but this only seems to fuel his ire provoking a full scale ‘domestic’ which ends with what sounds like him telling her “Leave me alone”. All this and a football match to watch too!
The quiet, even silent brooding of the home crowd ,with the obvious exception of the two having the domestic, is worrying me and as Town win a free-kick for a foul on Nathan Broadhead near the penalty area I begin to sing “Come On You Blues” and “Allez les bleus” in the hope that others will join in to build a crescendo of noise which will carry the team to victory. Ever-present Phil joins in and I think Fiona and Pat do too; I keep it going for long enough for several people to look round fearfully to see who the weirdo is. Then Nathan Broadhead takes the free-kick and hits the top right-hand corner of the goal net with the ball, it’s a fantastic goal. “Your singing, it worked” says a young girl in front of me smiling broadly amongst the cheers and the joy. Well, why wouldn’t it?
Four minutes of added on time are the prequel to half-time and I go down the front to see Ray and his grandson Harrison. The consensus is that Wednesday are big and physical and do a lot of pushing for which the Geoff the ref has not given us the appropriate number of free-kicks. Also, until we let Wednesday score we were doing alright; after that it wasn’t so good. Ray asks about my solar panels because his wife has asked him to ask me about them. Regrettably I have not come to football armed with the facts and figures, so I tell him I will have to gather the data and let him know, although the main point is that money aside, whilst the solar panels are making electricity no one is having to burn fossil fuels to power my house or car, hence life on Earth will be saved and future generations will be able to enjoy football like we do.
Returning to my seat, the bloke behind me apologises for his language, I shrug my shoulders and purse my lips as if I were French. I hadn’t really noticed to be honest, and he should probably apologise to Pat rather than to me. The game resumes. Within five minutes the scorer of Wednesday’s second goal, Byers, is booked for a foul on Conor Chaplin and from the free-kick Leif Davis launches the ball into the top corner of the goal. That’ll teach Byers. It’s a fabulous comeback by Town and without doing much more than taking a couple of free-kicks after getting hacked down by the dirty Wednesday players. I am at once both ecstatic that we are no longer losing but disappointed that we haven’t yet scored a proper goal by carving open the opposition defence with cunning passes and superior wit. Pat from Clacton reveals that in the ‘draw the correct score’ competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus she has drawn 3-2 to Town.
The second half largely belongs to Ipswich. Corners are won and the ball is passed and seldom comes near Christian Walton’s goal. Town have shots on goal, but most are blocked and when Conor Chaplin fashions a seemingly spectacular effort, turning and striking the ball athletically in a single movement it seems impossible that it ends up going straight to the goalkeeper for an easy catch. The usual clutches of substitutions are made, and for once they don’t make much difference. For a short while Wednesday get back into the game as they hurl in some long throws and win a couple of corners that threaten, and ‘Larry’ Flint finds space to head across goal and then blast the ball over the cross bar. Today’s ‘sold out’ attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 29,072 with 2,148 fans from Sheffield although he doesn’t mention that where I am sat there are at least six empty seats within a couple of metres of me. For a sell-out crowd the level of vocal support for the Town has been very disappointing however, just as it was against Plymouth, with an aire of tortured anxiety pervading the stands.
The game rolls on towards its not fully satisfactory conclusion. Desperation arrives as Pat from Clacton releases the figure of the masturbating monkey from her bag and rubs his head for luck. Sadly, the powers of this Cambodian or Vietnamese lucky charm seem to have drooped or left him altogether. Sheffield Wednesday substitute their small Scottish captain Barry Bannan for Dennis Adeniran and I remark to Fiona that there have never been many players called Barry, past or present. We try to think of some, but all I can come up with are Barry Sheen and Barry White, neither of whom were footballers. At primary school a teacher sat me next to a boy called Barry, hoping I would be a good influence on him, but sadly it was bad Barry who had more influence on me. A late flurry sees Freddie Ladapo have a shot which looks like it is goalward bound, but it flies past the side of the goal post that doesn’t have a net to stop it and that’s that, the game is drawn.
It’s both a point gained and two points lost for Town today, so it’s best not to dwell on it, we can leave that for the future when it won’t feel like it matters so much and it’s just history .
Post Script: I remember Barry Butlin playing for Luton Town.