You have to go back thirteen years to 2010, when Britain had a Labour government and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ was on at the cinema to find an FA Cup run for Ipswich Town that wasn’t more than just an initial tie and defeat in a replay. Admittedly, first round ties were won last year and two years before that, but the fourth round is unchartered territory for many a millennial. Back when I was a lad, when things were still fab, groovy and magic, in the time before the world seemed to go completely and utterly insane, three consecutive FA Cup victories for Town would have seen us into the quarter finals. But fate has been a cruel mistress to Ipswich since then and now our FA Cup begins in November and any story of success is by its very nature an epic tale.
Today’s FA Cup opponents are Burnley, the club against whom Ipswich Town recorded their first ever victory in what is now laughably known as the Premier League. That victory, on a Tuesday night in August 1961, was just sixteen months after Burnley had become League Champions, but Town won 6-2 and the less than snappy sports headline in the Ipswich Evening Star read “Six goal Ipswich rock mighty Burnley in great game”. Ipswich and Burnley are the smallest two Towns in England to have ever been home to the football League Champions and when Town were Champions in 1962 Burnley were runners-up, so if you’re feeling sentimental think of us as sort of footballing twins separated at birth; luckily for Town we’re the one that didn’t get taken to live ‘up North’.
With thoughts of football history and past glories illuminating the manuscript of my mind, I park up my smoothly silent Citroen e-C4 and step out across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arb beyond. It’s a cold, dull day like all the others lately, but the exercise of the walk warms me up. In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to buy a programme (£2) in the modern cashless manner and from inside his moulded booth the programme seller tells me to enjoy the match. I thank him and realise that there’s something about the little programme sellers’ booths that makes me think they should also sell ice creams.
At the ‘The Arb’, I buy a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) and the landlord explains that he is doing his best to keep the price down below £4.00, which is good of him. I retire to the beer garden where an electrician is fitting new heaters to the shelter. I sit at a table beneath an umbrella, I am alone, but not for long as Mick soon appears apologising for being late before disappearing again only to reappear with his own pint of Suffolk Pride. We talk of my electric car and trip to Oxford last Saturday, of newspapers and the France 24 news channel and app, doctor’s surgeries and how I find the appearance of a man in a cowboy hat who has come outside for a smoke a little weird; i expect he’s smoking Marlboros.
Time passes and before long we have to leave for Portman Road, or otherwise we’d miss the kick-off. In Sir Alf Ramsey Way we enter by the turnstiles where there is no queue. A steward with a loud hailer announces the existence of these magical turnstiles and encourages their use, but to little avail. As usual for cup ties, our seats are the ‘posh’ padded ones in Block Y, seemingly designed for people short in leg and tender in buttock. The teams are already on the pitch as we edge our way to our seats past a homely looking, grey-haired woman and her slightly chubby, bearded male accomplice, perhaps a husband or paramour. We catch the tail end of the “Na-na-nas” from the Beatles “Hey Jude” and the game begins. Town have first go with the ball and kick from left to right towards the stand of Sir Alf Ramsey, architect of that 6-2 win in the late summer of 1961, when supporters still travelled to the match by trolleybus.
Within a minute or so Kayden Jackson is sprinting away down the right, ball at his feet, he crosses the ball low and hard and George Hirst hits it past the near post from somewhere near the middle of the penalty area, just like he did at Oxford last week. It’s a very exciting start to the game and helps to temper my disappointment that Burnley are not wearing their traditional claret shirts, but are instead decked out in what has become the ubiquitous and profoundly boring all-black away kit, which every club seems to have. Burnley’s kit features red trim, as if that could make any difference whatsoever.
Burnley’s Scott Twine stoops to tie a boot lace. “Come on referee!” bawls a whiny man behind me. “Why are we stopped to let him tie his laces” he continues, “ I’ve never seen a game stopped for a player to tie his laces, I’ve never seen it before”. The whiney man is absolutely apoplectic and wants everyone to know he’s never seen such a thing before. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anyone so angry, so early in a game about a player tying his boot lace, but I decide not to shout it out. I did see the game delayed whilst Sam Morsy put on a pair of new boots last week at Oxford, I don’t shout that out either.
“I didn’t get a programme” says the chubby bearded man beside me to the homely, grey-haired woman, “Because of the high demand”. Something in his voice tells me he was too mean. Marcus Harness hits the cross bar with a right-footed shot from the centre of the penalty box. With the ball returned to goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, Town pass the ball out from the back and Burnley players are quick to close down the Town defenders, causing a ripple of unease amongst some supporters. “Playing from the back, it’s what modern teams do” calls out the whiny bloke again to ensure we all know that he understands ‘modern football’. I can’t help but chuckle.
Eleven minute have gone and Burnley win the first corner. “Come on Burnli, Come On Burnli” chant the Lancastrians in their deep accent full of short vowels, rolled ‘r’s and lolling ‘l’s. Jordan Beyer tugs at Sone Aluko’s shirt as Sone tries to break forward, and is booked by referee Tom Nield. “Dirty northern bastard” I say to Mick, because it amuses me to do so. The noise inside the ground is stirring as both home and away fans get into the spirit of what the FA Cup used to be all about. It feels like 1974. As Burnley’s Scott Twine writhes on the ground and then gets up and plays on when he doesn’t get a free-kick, the chubby man next to me mansplains to the homely woman that he wasn’t really hurt. It’s twenty past three and Burnley’s Jay Rodriguez shoots high over the Town cross bar, spurning Burnley’s first chance of a goal.
Town win their first corner. “Come On You Blues” chant several people, even in the west stand. The booking count is levelled up when inexplicably Marcus Harness fails to stop when running and collides with Ameen Al-Dakhil’s ankles. Town win another corner as something of a hit and hope cross from Kayden Jackson looks like it might dip under the Burnley cross-bar, forcing their extensively named goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell to tip the ball over. Another corner follows and the chubby man next to me tells the homely looking woman that it’s a very exciting game; it’s nice of him because she might not have realised if she was busy knitting or making a shopping list perhaps.
Only ten minutes until half-time now, and in an outbreak of astounding cheek or wilful absence of self-awareness, Town fans chant “Your support is fucking shit” presumably to the Burnley fans, although singing it to one another would be understandable in the context of many previous matches. Shocked, I inexplicably imagine that Vaclav Hladky reminds me a bit of Laurie Sivell, probably because he looks quite a bit shorter than all his defenders. A beautifully flowing Town moves produces another corner to Town and the whiny bloke behind me gets all self-righteous again loudly expounding “We don’t play that way anymore, lumping it forward” as if no one else can possibly have noticed.
It’s been a fine half of football despite the whiny man and by way of celebration the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “ Oh when the Town go marching in” at the proper speed, although possibly without quite the joy of genuine evangelists. Finally, the fact that no more than a minute of added-on time is to be played seems to confirm that for forty-five minutes at least all has been right with the world – except that we haven’t scored.
With half-time Mick and I use the facilities to disperse excess Suffolk Pride, but the queues for the toilets are so long it’s impossible to find where they end in the cramped confines of the upper stair cases and bars of the west stand. We return to ground level where there is more space and more square footage of urinal. Returning to our seats in time for the re-start, we ease past the homely looking woman and the chubby man and I pause to take a look at who might be the whiny man behind me, I think he is wearing tinted glasses and has a very pink face beneath a hat.
The game resumes at six minutes past four and Burnley up their game a bit, being a tiny but significant bit quicker and pressing more than in the first half. As a result Vaclav Hladky has to make two excellent saves, but make them he does, and with aplomb, reminding us of why we have a goalkeeper. But it’s not all Burnley and Town soon win a corner. “ There are people say we can’t defend…” expounds the whiny bloke, but I’m fed up with him and tune out before he concludes his latest treatise. In the Cobbold Stand the Lancashire hordes start to sing “The Irish Rover”, which seems a little odd, although there were a lot of Irish immigrants to Lancashire in the nineteenth century, but they’d be getting on a bit now. More odd is that the chubby bloke beside me joins in.
Mick asks me what substitutions I think Kieran Mc Kenna will make and I tell him that George Hirst and Marcus Harness and possibly Sone Aluko are most likely to go off first , and so it proves, as with an hour gone Freddie Ladapo, Nathan Broadhead and Conor Chaplin replace them. Burnley make three substitutions too, although I’m disappointed that neither of their other two players with double-barrelled surnames are in today’s squad. Who’d have thought Burnley would have so many players with double-barrelled surnames?
Ten minutes later and Sam Morsy is shown his usual yellow card for a pretty unexceptional foul, “He collects them doesn’t he?” says Mick. I can’t disagree. Stadium announcer Stephen Foster announces that today’s attendance is 25,420 of which 1,581 are from Burnley; he thanks everyone for their ‘tremendous’ support. “You’re not sitting where I am Stephen” I think to myself. Six minutes after his booking Sam Morsy is replaced by new signing Massimo Luongo, who like Morsy joined Town from Middlesbrough. With his beard, dark hair and large frame, Luongo even looks a bit like Morsy from up here, and I ponder for a moment on the possible advantages and desirability of bringing on substitutes who look like the player they replace.
“Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” chant the crowd in all parts of the ground as full-time begins to draw ever closer. Kyle Edwards replaces Kayden Jackson who trots off the pitch to a loud ovation; he has been truly excellent today. “ I know why you play” calls the whiny bloke loudly as if no one else does and everyone sat around him is one of the people who criticises Jackson on social media. Time is running out, Town win a corner but Luke Woolfenden can only head the ball wide. Massimo Luongo is even playing like Sam Morsy, but hasn’t been booked, and indeed he gets fouled by the economically-named Jack Cork, provoking frantic flagging from the linesman and a final yellow card of the afternoon from Mr Nield. Four minutes of added on time are announced, five are played and the game ends.
It’s been yet another excellent afternoon of football at Portman Road, even though not winning can rarely be anything but a little disappointing. Best of all however, this felt like a proper FA Cup tie, played in front of a big crowd who have turned up with hope and may be expectation and possibly because it’s the FA Cup. It’s been a very long time since that happened, not thirteen years, more like thirty.