Ipswich Town 1 Nostalgia 1

On a damp May evening three years ago, I recall thinking to myself that it feels like 1978 and Ipswich Town have won the FA Cup all over again.  With my Portsmouth supporting wife Paulene, I had gone to see the Wolsey Theatre’s production of ‘Our Blue Heaven’, the music-backed play that celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Town’s FA Cup win. I can honestly say it was the most enjoyable Ipswich Town related evening I had had in nearly twenty years, since that season in the sun at the start of the third millennium when Town did things like beating Liverpool and Manchester City at their own grounds, having finally managed the previous May, to win a play-off semi-final and victoriously tread the turf at the old Wembley stadium for the last time. 

Fast forward to October 9th 2021, and in the spirit of celebration of Town’s winning the UEFA Cup forty years and five months before, which the club itself has seen fit to mark with the sale of a wallet, luxury boxed badge, and travel mug, the New Wolsey Theatre is staging the final performance of its production ‘Never Lost at Home’, the story of the 1980-81 season, but mainly the winning of the UEFA Cup, something no ordinarily lovable, small town football club will probably ever do again.  Not keen on spending an evening in an enclosed space with about 400 other people, most of whom will probably not be wearing a face mask, I have opted to cough up the £20 to watch the two- and a-bit hour performance on-line from the safety of my living room.

Forty and a bit years ago in May of 1981, I had just finished my final exam at the University of Sussex and I was now just wasting my time, until the lease on my shared student house was up, by playing football, going on pub crawls, walking on the Downs, visiting friends at the other end of the country and taking days out in an aged, bright orange, Dutch registered, left-hand drive Fiat 600 which my friend Chris (mainly known as ‘Jah’ due to his love of Reggae) had borrowed from a woman on his Social Anthropology course.  A lack of available cash and the demands of academia had sadly meant that in Town’s run to the final of the 1981 UEFA Cup final, I had only seen two home games, those against Aris Salonika and FC Koln.  Of the other games, I mostly remember the nervous anticipation of waiting for the result on the radio or television news.  The away matches I recall most are those at St Etienne and Koln.  I remember learning that Town were a goal down in St Etienne and was very chuffed to hear they had equalised as I headed off to the Student Union bar that March evening.  When I discovered Town had won 4-1, I could hardly believe it, and indeed it was a performance that has gone down in history as one of the best-ever by a British club in Europe and possibly Ipswich Town’s greatest performance ever.  As for the game in Koln, I remember that my friend Stephen went to the game on a supporters’ coach from Shotley and I remember seeing Terry Butcher’s winning goal on television, having been fearful that the one goal lead from the first leg would not be enough.

On the morning of 20th May 1981 my sister dropped me and my father off at Ipswich railway station where we caught a chartered train to Parkeston Quay and a chartered ferry to the Hook of Holland before boarding a chartered coach to Amsterdam.  Everyone travelled with the Ipswich Town Supporters Club and Anglia Tours back then, and I still have the pennant to prove it.  I wouldn’t enter Holland again for another 35 years, until I drove through a small corner of it on my way to Dusseldorf for a pre-season game in 2016, but I recall it being very neat.  In Amsterdam my father and I spent the time before the game in a small bar where we drank Amstel, a beer rarely seen in Britain back then, thankfully.  My father had encountered it before in foreign ports when in the Royal Navy and had warned me that it was gnats’; he was right, but it was all there was, they didn’t have any Tolly Cobbold Original.    Amsterdam was beautifully warm that May evening, which was just as well because terraces of the Olympic Stadium were open to the elements, which given that it was built for the 1928 Olympics isn’t that surprising; stadium builders weren’t always big on rooves back then.  In 1987 the Dutch government designated the Olympic Stadium as a National Monument, obviously because Town won the UEFA Cup there, but also because of the fine brick architecture by Jan Wils, an exponent of the Amsterdamse School.  It’s good to know that there is a corner of the Dutch capital that will forever be imbued with the memory of the presence of 7,500 Town fans.

My memory of the match that night in Amsterdam is one of anxiety and tension, despite taking an early lead that put us 4-0 up on aggregate and then gaining a second away goal.  AZ 67 Alkmaar were a bloody good team, but happily not quite good enough, despite Town being visibly knackered at the end of a colossal sixty-six game season. Forty years is a long time, and I’m not sure now what I remember from being there and what I remember from having seen various tv clips since.  I think I remember being frustrated that in the second half we couldn’t keep the ball away from Alkmaar, but I know I do recall wishing away the last twenty minutes of the game, and constantly checking my watch; willing Alkmaar not to score again and the Town defence to hold firm.  I remember nothing of the journey home, although I think my father might have invested in the luxury of a two-berth cabin in the hope of a couple of hours of sleep.

Tonight, “Never Lost at Home” picks up the story of the fictional Coombes family who followed Town to Wembley in “Our Blue Heaven”, and the story very much has the feel of being a sequel, which of course it is.  This time the tale begins with the family vowing to have someone at every game for what promises to be the greatest season in the club’s history as it vies to win an unprecedented treble.  Once again, the story is set against the background of the events of the times, in particular the high rates of unemployment resulting from the Thatcher government’s monetarist policies and indeed Scott loses his job to create some jeopardy in the story as it inevitably hinders his ability to get to games. Once again also, the story and the season unfold to a soundtrack of popular tunes of the time, although just like in ‘Our Blue Heaven’ it doesn’t, because several of the songs are from as much a four years later, which rankles somewhat because songs such as Tears for Fears ‘Everybody wants to rule the world’ (1985) were actually the soundtrack to avoiding relegation, not seeking glory.

Despite the failure to use the actual music of 1980 and 1981 (what a pity we never played Rapid Vienna or IK Start), rather than just generic 1980’s hits, there is nevertheless an authentic feeling of nostalgia for a time and a place.  I can’t fully explain why, but I had tears in my eyes in the first part of this production.  It might have been because I was reminded of how awful some of the music of the 1980’s was; I always hated ‘Eye of The Tiger’ (1982) and have consequently never seen any of the ‘Rocky’ films, but more likely I was mourning my lost youth and my lost football team, both of which seemed to go missing at much the same time.

 One major departure from the mostly repeated formula of “Our Blue Heaven” is the introduction in “Never Lost at Home” of one of the players as a recurring character, that player being the now legendary Arnold Muhren.  The choice of Arnold was, if not inspired, then obvious, because perhaps more than any other player, even his fellow Dutchman Frans Thijssen, Arnold somehow personifies that 1980-81 team, despite having actually joined Town three years before in September of 1978.  Again, the story employs a little artistic license as it almost implies that Arnold and Frans joined for the 80-81 season, but that is easily forgiven and does add to the mythology of that remarkable season.  I can only think that in casting actor Dan Bottomley as Arnold Muhren, one of the main considerations must have been his legs, because these have the same straight up and down shape of Arnold’s.  Not for Arnold the meaty thighs of Mick Mills or Paul Mariner; Arnold was a sinewy thoroughbred, built for the measured pass, the clever change of pace and direction in a single stride, the sort of footballer who simply danced through midfield and no longer exists in a game where speed, strength and bulk has usurped grace and subtlety.

The greatest triumph of ‘Never Lost at Home’, as it was of ‘Our Blue Heaven’, is the performance of Peter Peverley as Bobby Robson.   Not only does Peverley, with his gently hoarse County Durham accent, and perfectly observed Robson-esque mannerisms create a wholly believable vision of the Town manager, but he also delivers the great man’s words as he sends his team out in search of glory.  So stirring and convincing are Peverley’s words it might be an idea if the current Town management employed him to give Paul Cook’s team talks.

Oddly perhaps, ‘Never Lost at Home’ tails off towards the end, in contrast to the prequel which had something of a grand finale as the stories of the characters all came together on 6th May with a birth, a marriage and the Cup Final itself.  This time the characters don’t have their own stories to be resolved other than what happens to them as they travel across Europe in the rounds leading up to the final. We all know the ending, and although Town ultimately win the UEFA Cup, sadly mine and a lot of people’s memories of 1980-81 are probably tinged with a feeling of ‘what should have been’ with the loss of the FA Cup semi-final to the hugely inferior Manchester City and the loss of the ever-elusive League Championship to Aston Villa, a team we beat no less than three times over the course of the season.  But as one of the characters in the play points out, we had already won the Cup and the League before, so if it was to be only one out of three, best that it was the UEFA Cup.   Reassuringly however, it’s good to know that we only lost out in the Cup and the League because none of the characters in the play could get to the Cup semi-final or the penultimate League game of the season at Middlesbrough.

In truth, ‘Never Lost at Home’ wasn’t quite as good as ‘My Blue Heaven’, although my seeing it through the television screen rather than in the flesh is doubtless a factor in that. The story doesn’t have the drama of its predecessor and by drifting further into 1980’s the music is not so much ‘not as good’, as ‘worse’. Nevertheless, it was still massively enjoyable all the same, bringing back those memories of what genuinely was a marvelous time to be a Town supporter and which seems even more so given all that’s happened since. I can only hope that both ‘Our Blue Heaven’ and ‘Never Lost at Home’ are both resurrected in ten years time, not only to celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of the FA Cup and UEFA Cup wins, but also their own 10th anniversaries; or perhaps we could have a musical about going to a musical about winning the FA Cup and UEFA Cup; I’d watch it.

Ipswich Town 1 West Bromwich Albion 2

It has been a grey November day, but this afternoon there have been glimpses of blue sky, small windows of hope amongst the otherwise perpetual gloom, proof perhaps that life is not all bad. Further proof, if further proof is needed lies in the existence of flexi-time. It is the end of the ‘flexi-month’ and I have worked so many hours these past four weeks that if I don’t leave at four o’clock today, I shall be working for free and that would be contrary to my strictly held religious beliefs. “Thou shalt not be a mug” is my credo.

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Tonight I’m a latter day Arthur Seaton and I’m out for a good  time so from work I head, with my accomplice Roly, for the Briarbank Brewery. The bar above the Briarbank Brewery is by far the best decorated bar I know, the walls festooned with black and white photos of closed Ipswich pubs, the sort Arthur Seaton would have drunk in had ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ been set in Ipswich, not Nottingham. I have a pint of Samuel Harvey VC (£3.50) a beer named after one of two men from Ipswich who were awarded the Victoria Cross medal. As well as a beer, Samuel (who was born in Nottingham) has a bus in the Ipswich Buses fleet that bears his name. My conversation with Roly covers a wide range of subjects including Noel Edmonds, Ciiff Richard and Sue Barker, Shake n’Vac and Billy Joel.
From the Briarbank Brewery, Roly and I make the short walk up Fore Street to TheOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Spread Eagle, a Grade 2 listed building that dates back to the 17th century, where I drink Grain Brewery Best Bitter (£3.50 a pint). The leather aprons of the bar staff remind me of Fred Gee, the pot-man at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, but I don’t suppose he’s still in it, particularly since Fred Feast, the actor who played him died in 1999. Roly and I continue not to talk about football, not from any previous agreement, but just because there doesn’t seem anything to say. From the Spread Eagle it is a bit more of a walk along Orwell Place and Tacket Street, up Brook Street and Buttermarket, over Giles Circus and Cornhill, along Westgate Street to St Jude’s Tavern in St Matthew’s Street. They may not all be looking at their best, but Ipswich’s medieval or even Saxon pattern of streets remains and is brim-full of fine buildings; if only the locals appreciated it.
St Jude’s Tavern is busy with Friday night drinkers and football supporters when we arrive a bit before six o’clock. After a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which tonight is St Jude’s Thaddeus (Thaddeus is another name for Jude in case you didn’t know), we have a beef and onion pie each, mine is accompanied by a pint of something the name of which I can’t recall (pie and a pint £5.00). I garnish my pie with red sauce, Roly prefers brown. After we’ve eaten, a drunk staggers into the pub and sits at a table of regulars; he tries to cadge a drink but the bar man is quickly wise to his presence and succeeds in throwing him out before apologising to his patrons; but we all re-assure him that we enjoyed the show, it beats open-mike night.
Beer glasses drained, Roly is keen to get to Portman Road because he is meeting his friend Andrew and because not satiated by a beef and onion pie, he has it in mind to eat a burger. Rolling down Portman Road the glow of the floodlights draws us like moths to a flame or in Roly’s case a glutton to a fast-food joint. The streets are unusually busy and due to the football club having made tickets being made available for the realistic price of ten pounds each a crowd of 22,995 will watch the game tonight. Roly meets Andrew, and I visit the club shop because at short notice I have been informed that ever -present Phil’s son Elwood is eight years old today! How I love the club shop and its fabulous array of blue and white toot. Today my eye is drawn to a gnome and the club’s ‘retro’ range which I imagine outsells everything else given that our best days are all in the past. Although at least we have won major trophies, something many of our rivals and other clubs from towns and cities bigger than Ipswich cannot claim with real conviction (League Cups pffft!).

 

 

It’s twenty-five past seven and a coach disgorges tardy West Bromwich supporters into Portman Road. An Ipswich fan points at a West Bromwichians yellow and green away shirt. “ You can’t wear that here mate”. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The visitor looks somewhat bemused and blurts some exasperated expletives in the direction of one of his fellow supporters; his thick Midland’s accent rendering them incomprehensible and unpleasantly nasal. I pass the grinning statue of Bobby Robson; his best playing days were arguably with the ‘Baggies’ of West Bromwich, but thankfully he never picked up the accent.
At the Alf Ramsey Stand (Churchmans) all the turnstiles are open but the queues are of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAunequal lengths.; with a self-satisfied air of streetwise, intellectual superiority I join one of shorter ones and am inside the ground whilst others still queue. On nights like this it’s fun to laugh and sneer at those people who aren’t regular supporters and are only here because the tickets are cheap. I head for the betting shop bit beneath the stand where the handy shelf gives me somewhere to write the greeting on Elwood’s birthday card. I stop to talk to a steward I know called Dave, but at the very moment I arrive at his side so does another acquaintance of his who begins a personal monologue. I wait for the other man to pause so that I might speak to Dave, but the other man breathes through his ears and doesn’t draw breath for a second; so I screw my eyes up at Dave and nod sympathetically; I imagine my face might look a bit like the one Gary Lineker pulled in the 1990 World Cup semi-final after Paul Gascoigne was booked and became tearful. But tonight I’m not indicating that Gazza is upset, I’m signalling to Dave that I’m going to bugger off, and that’s what I do.
Up in the stand Bluey is playing the part of ‘greeter’ and gives me the thumbs up, which is nice, even though I do know he’s not a real Suffolk Punch. Ever-present Phil who never OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmisses a game and son Elwood are already here and I settle down a couple of seats along before giving Elwood his birthday card and a few ITFC ‘goodies’. Phil tells me that earlier in the club shop Elwood had handed in an ITFC badge that he found on the floor to the staff serving behind the counter. One of the things I have given Elwood is such a badge; it seems like Elwood has been rewarded for his honesty and whilst we all know that’s not true, in an ideal world it would be.
Between each seat is a folded up piece of printed card which makes a clapping noise when hit against another surface; I saw that people were cynical about this on social media but I think it should be lauded; something needs to be done to shake Ipswich and Suffolk people out of their puritan misery and to “make some noise for the Tractor Boys”, as I believe the saying goes.

 


The teams appear; the match ball is plucked from its plinth and once multiple hands are shaken the game begins with Ipswich literally getting the ball rolling in the direction of me, Elwood, Phil and Pat from Clacton who has arrived a bit late due to the traffic. Town wear blue shirts and socks with white sleeves and shorts; West Bromwich cause offence to many by wearing yellow and green striped shirts with green shorts and socks. The Baggies win an early corner and Jay Rodriguez (that’s his ‘Equity’ name surely) heads the ball over the cross bar. There is noise in the ground tonight and it’s not all from the 1,000OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA odd West Bromwich Albion supporters cooped up in the corner of the Cobbold Stand. In the corner, in the bottom of the North Stand blue and white flags are being waved and drums drummed and voices voiced; for a little while anyway. But West Bromwich Albion are better at football than Town and as they start to dominate, some of the enthusiasm ebbs away, which is the opposite of what should happen of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcourse because it obvious that a struggling team needs most support. But then logic is not always a strong point in ‘Leave’ voting Ipswich. The West Bromwich fans soon sense our weakness and after first chanting something stupid about being a “…shit Norwich City”, which is a bit rich from people supporting a team wearing yellow and green, they go for the jugular with the reliable old “ Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”. Cut to the quick I try some chants of my own but the cowering reticence of the Suffolk public means I’m beaten before I begin, even with my cardboard clapper, which is a little too lightweight and disintegrates as I bash it relentlessly on the back of the seat in front of me. Only ten minutes have gone and Town’s Matthew Pennington is booked by referee Mr Keith Stroud who is possibly theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA smallest referee I have ever seen; he doesn’t even rival Paul Hurst in stature.
On the touchline Paul Lambert prowls like a black panther in his trademark black Marks & Spencer jumper and black slacks, kicking every ball and seemingly feeling the self-same emotions as the fans in the stands, but with added Celtic menace. It’s a chilly evening and he should really get himself a coat, even if that jumper is pure new lambs’ wool. Perhaps Marcus Evans should put his hand in his pocket for a coat for our Paul.
Sadly, Town are second best to West Bromwich, who despite having been ‘a bit rubbish’ in the context of the evil Premier League last season are evidently still too good for us tonight. But we are trying and what we’re watching is recognisable as football, which wasn’t always true last season. Perhaps we can hold on and then sneak a goal I think to myself. A paper plane engineered from a re-purposed cardboard clapper lands next to the West Bromwich goal keeper Sam Johnstone. The fact that it disappoints the home crowd by not hitting Johnstone is a portent for the evening. Within minutes Town’s defence watch the ball cross from one side of the pitch to the other and back into the middle where Jay Rodriguez scores from very close to the goal. Oh well. How I was hoping that wouldn’t happen, and now it has. The West Bromwichians are happy though, their high spirits expressed by making good use of Chicory Tip’s 1972 chart topping single “Son of my father” with a chorus of “Woah wanky-wanky, wanky-wanky, wank-wanky Wanderers”, in honour of their own version of Norwich City, the neatly alliterative Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The clock moves on and behind me a man explains to his child that there are another five minutes until half-time and then another forty-five minutes after that before they can go home. A minute of the half left and Ipswich win a corner from which West Brom’ come closer to scoring than the home team as they breakaway courtesy of a failed tackle from Jordan Spence. One minute’s added time passes and then it’s half-time. I wander down to the front row of seats to have a chat with Ray and generously he offers me one of his wife Roz’s sausage rolls, I accept the offer. Behind us dancing girls with Lycra bottoms, bare mid-riffs and sparkly tops gyrate; a human manifestation of the popular retro-range.

 

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The second Act begins amidst shouts of “Come On Ipswich”, but the man behind me feels compelled to admit that West Brom’ are stronger than us “…in every department”; I think of Debenhams and John Inman. But Town are playing better than in the first half; they have more possession of the ball and in more locations across the pitch and Matthew Pennington even has a decent looking shot on goal. But then West Brom’ also have a decent shot, which causes a sharp intake of breath as it hits a post; a lad called Harvey Barnes is the perpetrator, it’s a name that sounds like it was copied from a 1914-18 War Memorial.
Town must be doing alright though, people aren’t moaning but still most of them aren’t really supporting either, at least not vocally. The club should have said “We’ll let you in for a tenner, but you have to make a noise or we’ll chuck you out”. The ‘Blue Action’ group in the North Stand do their best, but there aren’t really enough of them, Ultra Culture hasn’t yet made its mark in Ipswich. I remain hopeful however that the Rodin exhibition in the gallery behind Christchurch Mansion, which opens this weekend, will stir people’s inner passions. Rodin is to sculpture what Arnold Muhren was to midfield artistry.
We’re only losing 1-0, a draw is still a possibility, a win even. But the seventy sixth minutes arrives and that Harvey Barnes is in the penalty area, he shuffles about a bit and shoots; he scores. The shot somehow avoids at least four legs and Bartosz Bialkowski’s left hand. It couldn’t hurt more if he’d missed and the ball had hit me in the ‘groin area’.
Substitutions ensue and the West Brom’ supporters sing “Lambert, Lambert, what’s the score?” seemingly labouring under the mis-apprehension that he is still manager of Aston Villa. They compound their mistake with a rendition of “Shit on the Villa, shit on the Villa tonight” to the tune of ‘Roll out the barrel’. Ipswich supporters may not sing much, but at least when they do the songs are relevant.
Both teams have shots on goal which are blocked as the game heads towards its finale, Ipswich are looking as likely to score as concede, which on balance with only ten minutes left is a good thing. With six minutes of normal time left to play substitute Kayden Jackson scores for Town and there is belief that may be, just may- be, Town could get a draw. Clearly West Brom’ think so too and they resort to foul or generally unsporting play with Matthew Phillips, Kieran Gibbs and Sam Johnstone all getting their own personal viewings of Mr Stroud’s yellow card. Town have no luck however and when Jack Lankester’s shot hits a post and deflects away rather than hitting a heel or a divot and deflecting in to the goal, we get confirmation that Portman Road will remain joyless for another week.
The skies today were grey and despite glimpses of blue, they remain so. But at least there have been glimpses. I retain the faith and like Arthur Seaton I won’t let the bastards grind me down.

 

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IpswichTown 1 Aston Villa 1

 

It’s a sombre August afternoon beneath overcast, grey skies; I walk to the railway station.  The heat and bright sunshine that greeted the first match of the football season have gone and with three games played Ipswich have still not won.  But it’s warm.20180818_125516_44115116991_o

On the platform at the railway station a poster entreats me not to get on the train if I feel unwell, but I’m okay, it’s too early in the season to feel ill at the thought of another match.   The train arrives and is a minute later than it was a fortnight ago; the timetable seems to have changed.  On the other side of the carriage sits a young woman with a flourish of wild blond hair and dark eyebrows. She checks her make-up using her mobile phone.  I look out of the window.

In Ipswich a group of Aston Villa fans look over the bridge parapet opposite the railway station; perhaps they will jump into the river below if their team loses, or maybe it’s just their way of joining in with Maritime Ipswich. Portman Road is busy with people indulging in pre-match hanging about; two lads, one in an Ipswich shirt, one in a Villa shirt create a pleasing tableau of inter-club friendliness beneath the statue of Sir Alf Ramsey.

I buy a programme (£3.00) and  walk on to St Jude’s Tavern where Mick has arrived, seconds before; he buys me a pint of Colchester Brewery Metropolis (£3.00), which I choose because of Fritz Lang’s 1926 film of the same name. Mick has a pint of peach flavoured beer, which he discovers he doesn’t really like (£3.00).   We sit at a small table, the only one that is free; the pub is busy.  We talk of football, of what my wife and I might do on a forthcoming trip to Paris, of how we perceive our lives and the reality of them, of what Mick will do now he has split with his partner of the past fourteen years and what he really does in his shed.  I buy a second pint of beer, Colchester Brewery Sweeney Todd (£3.00), whilst Mick has a half of Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£1.50).

An hour gone and glasses drained we leave with a host of others bound for the match.  Mick and I part at the corner of Portman Road and St Matthews Street, he will be going to 20180818_153709_30246974478_oSainsbury’s.  Down in Portman Road there are queues for the turnstiles, which is surprising.  I assess which queue is shortest and join it, it is very short and I am soon inside the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I thank the turnstile operator, drain off some excess liquid and head for my seat near Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and who today has his son Elwood with him.  The teams appear to the strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, I don’t know why, but apparently people voted for it, like Brexit.

The game begins; Ipswich kicking off and playing towards me and Phil, Elwood and Pat.  20180818_161256_44065987012_oIpswich sport their new kit for this season; blue shirts with white sleeves evoking a memory of the shirts of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but with added Addidas branded stripes in red to make sure we don’t miss them.  Ipswich’s Polish goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski looks like a huge ‘Mivvi’ in all-orange.  Aston Villa wear white shirts and maroon shorts and socks. Boots come in many colours, a rainbow of feet.

Inside Portman Road it is quite noisy today, mostly thanks to the 2,027 Aston Villa supporters but the Town fans are doing their best to contribute in a week when a new group of supporters ‘Blue Action’ has launched itself on social media with its stated aim to “…ignite and unite the support”.  Its name might sound like a washing powder but the aim of the group seems laudable provided nothing gets burnt.  The Villa fans sing a song about empty seats, which is hard to decipher and then their star player Jack Grealish falls to the ground, the first of many, many times which he will do this this afternoon; for someone with such big legs, he seems incredibly frail.  “He’s dead again” says the old fella behind me “Get up you creep” – well it sounded like creep.  Town’s Trevoh Chalobah then receives treatment after he is fouled and I have time to check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there.  In the first ten minutes ten free-kicks are awarded by referee Mr Tim Robinson for fouls.  Town manager Paul Hurst watches on, arms folded across his chest.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” sing the Aston Villa fans.  It’s lovely of them to offer to do requests like that I think to myself, but then disappointingly they don’t bother; something from Bizet’s Carmen would have been nice.

It’s not 3.15 yet and Town’s Gwion Edwards hits the Aston Villa cross bar at the end of a flowing move across the pitch from one side to the other and back, which started with him dribbling the ball away from the Town penalty area.  This is the stuff.  Town fans sing and clap a bit, but not for long and within minutes Villa fans are chanting “No noise from the Tractor Boys”.  Then town have another shot, which bobbles past a post but then Aston Villa score; Ivorian Jonathon Kodjia being left to head in a cross.  The old couple behind me are amused by his surname which they pronounce ‘Codger’ as in ‘old codger’.  Very droll.

The game continues with free-kicks a-plenty as Aston Villa players seem keen to lay about on the turf whilst Mr Robinson seems keen to blame Ipswich players for this.  Town’s Tayo Edun does nothing more than collide with Villa’s Ahmed El Mohamady and is cautioned by the increasingly officious Mr Robinson.  Kodjia hits the Town cross bar with a header from the resultant free-kick.  When Gwion Edwards is then fouled and a free-kick awarded, the decision is greeted with a hail of ironic cheers from Town fans; it’s what we do best, sarcasm.   It’s about twenty five to four and a long throw falls to the feet of Trevoh Chalobah who turns and bounces a low shot just inside the goalpost and a little unexpectedly Town have equalised.

Things are looking up, but only temporarily as just two minutes later Tayo Edun is booked again by Mr Robinson for a foul and is therefore sent off.  Despite the scores being level, Aston Villa have looked the better team in the first half and with just ten players I feel that defeat for Town looks inevitable.  The Town supporters are not happy, but they seem to like it like that.  “You don’t know what you’re doing” they chant to Mr Robinson and “You’re not fit to referee”.  Kodjia goes down again under a challenge and receives treatment; “Get up ya pansy” shouts the old boy behind me, following it up with “What a bunch of pansies”.  The half ends in acrimony, which is always a good thing for the atmosphere at a football match.

Mr Robinson leaves the field guarded by stewards who happily can do nothing to protect him from the hail of vitriol and verbal abuse which is directed at him.  If he has any sort20180818_120714_42299377040_o of a heart he will hopefully sit in his little room and weep over his half-time tea whilst his two assistants ignore him and whisper between themselves.  I eat a Panda brand liquorice bar and chat to Ray who is not impressed and foresees defeat, although he considers the sending off to have been unjust.  I visit the latrines and beneath the stand people stare up at the TV screens replaying highlights of the first half.

With everyone refreshed the game begins anew.  The old girl behind me offers up her insight playing the part of the half-time TV pundit “Sometimes it’s harder to play ten men” she says sounding unconvinced by her own words. Following a pause she adds “Cos you don’t know where they’re going”.  As qualifying statements go it’s a poor one, but at least she realised one was needed.

Aston Villa begin the new half with even more resolve to fall over at every opportunity and Town’s St Lucian Janoi Donacien is soon cautioned by Mr Robinson, who shows no sign of having reflected upon his rank first half performance. Aside from ‘rank Robbo’ the villain of the piece this afternoon  is Jack Grealish who despite showing ample skill and poise on the ball mostly falls down  Bambi-like attempting to win free-kicks, which is a sad indictment of modern football and the reliance on set-pieces.  In ‘rank Robbo’ Villa have discovered a referee who loves to award free-kicks as much as they love to win them and he evidently has no understanding of the concept of players falling over on purpose to win free-kicks.

But despite the efforts of ‘rank Robbo’ and Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish the game is overall an entertaining one and Ipswich overcome the handicap of having only ten players admirably.   Sunshine is breaking through the clouds and the crowd is engrossed in the game, but not so much that they don’t every now and then cheer and clap and behave like a football crowd should.  With about fifteen minutes to play Villa’s Irish substitute Conor Hourihane falls screaming to the ground in the Ipswich penalty area as if haunted by wailing banshees and he rightly incurs the displeasure of both Luke Chambers and Jonas Knudsen; his is the afternoon’s most blatant attempt at cheating.  Aston Villa then bring on the player with the most exotic name of the day, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy whose surname conjures up images of a triste between a sophisticated looking lady in a little black dress and a jobbing builder.

Jack ‘Bambi’ Grealish looks purposeful with the ball at his feet but with his slicked back hair and confident air he possibly believes he is better than he is and with time running out and Villa encamped around the Town penalty area he carefully picks out the perfect pass to the only Villa player in an offside position.   Grealish should really have worn a dark cape, black hat and grown a twirly waxed moustache for today’s game, although he might have had to fight ‘rank Robbo’ for it, which would have been an entertainment in itself.

With the final whistle a great cheer goes up, which is not really commensurate with a home draw, but today it feels like Town have won because it has been achieved in adversity against a club which is expected to be challenging for promotion and is still profiting from Premier League ‘parachute’ payments.  As befits a team managed by 5’5” Paul Hurst, today Town have played the ‘little guy’ and have come through.  I stay to applaud and although Town have now gone four games without winning, this game was well worth being at.  Perhaps our first win will be against Norwich City in a fortnight’s time.

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Ipswich Town 0 Aston Villa 4

It is April 21st but today it feels like summer. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless blue sky and it’s warm as I catch the train to a Saturday match in Ipswich for the last time this season. The platform is busy with people of various ages and shapes. Young men show off their legs and women their bra straps. A grey-haired man with a crooked mouth wears polyester trousers and carries a rucksack. The train is on time. On the train a bare-legged man drinks Smirnoff vodka with tonic from a can and looks at his mobile phone. A smooth-faced, bald headed man wearing two hearing aids looks at his mobile phone and talks hoarsely to his grey-haired wife. At Manningtree five ‘lads’ board and share out a pack of Budweiser beers. They all wear knee length shorts with turn-ups. One wears a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and Ray-Bans, he picks his nose.
At Ipswich there are policemen in what looks like spongeable ‘battledress’ on the

platform and outside on the forecourt and on the bridge over the river and in Portman Road; the implication is that large numbers of people from the West Midlands cannot be trusted to behave nicely. In Portman Road huddles of stewards in hi-vis await the arrival of the Aston Villa team bus. Soft rolls and burgers get folded into mouths of will-be spectators and everyone is standing and waiting. I carry on and orbiting the club shop, Planet Blue, buy a programme (£3.00). Up Portman Road and round to the right St Jude’s Tavern is busy, I head for the bar, nodding hellos to the regular patrons. The Match Day Special today is Springhead Left Lion and I order a pint (£2.50). I take a seat next to the regulars, glance through the programme and talk a little with them; the regular next to me can recall Town being promoted from Division Three South in 1957, no one else here can. In a while I am joined by Mick, who treats me to another pint of the Match Day Special and I give him his birthday present, which I have wrapped in a page from an old road atlas of France, handy if he needs to travel from Chalons-sur-Saone to Dijon. It was Mick’s birthday three weeks ago, so I’m a bit late. After yet another pint of Match Day Special, which is now Wigan Junction (same price as before) it’s time to set off for the main event, the match which Mick will be listening to on the radio; he has said he is considering getting a season ticket for next season, but seems unsure. I can’t say I blame him.
Back in Portman Road people are scurrying to the turnstiles, kick-off is fast approaching. Aston Villa have a large following at the game today as their team chases promotion;

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there are several supporters’ coaches parked up behind Sir Bobby Robson’s statue, which looks as if he’s helpfully pointing the way from the coach park to the away fans enclosure. Entry through the turnstile to the Sir Alf Ramsey stand is swift, but as I leave the gents under the stand the strains of ‘My Way’ are receding and the game is set to begin.

Portman Road stadium

The stadium is looking good today, two-thirds full under a summer sky. Town kick off towards me in their customary blue shirts and white shorts, but Aston Villa disappointingly sport a dull and anonymous all-black kit that says the club has no imagination; such a pity when their first choice colours are tasteful claret and pale blue.
For one of the few occasions this season the home crowd are in good voice, but somewhat weirdly they sing “Hark now hear, The Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away…” The song trails off before the end as ‘the choir’ seemingly becomes aware that the words go on to mention Boxing Day, which is somewhat unseasonal on a day like today; but they probably never got to sing it in December, numbed as they were by the dire goalless draw with QPR. Picking up perhaps on the Town fans’ choice of a Christmas carol the Villa fans then proceed to sing an equally unseasonal ditty, “Walking along, Singing a song, Walking in a Villa wonderland”. It’s all a little odd and smacks of football supporters no longer fluent in supporting their team through the medium of song.
On the pitch, Ipswich start quite well with an early corner and with Grant Ward and Jordan Spence progressing down the right to send in crosses to the big man up front that only they can see. Town’s Luke Hyam commits the first foul and Miles Kenlock has the first shot. Perhaps this inspires over confidence in the home supporters in the North Stand or perhaps they are just being ironic, but they sing to the Villa fans “You’re support is fucking shit”. Alternatively they could just be the type of people for whom something is always “fucking shit” as they so eloquently describe it, and with the loss of Mick McCarthy’s football they had to find something else to bemoan. Off their faces on their miraculous new found optimism, Town supporters applaud an offside. But Aston Villa look like they have a plan and they also have some very sharp haircuts and luxuriant facial hair, particularly number 15 Mile Jedinak whose enormous beard makes him looksMile Jedinak like an Imam. Villa’s number 19 Jack Grealish has calves the size of other men’s thighs and by twenty past three Villa are somewhat greedily beginning to keep the ball pretty much to themselves. They win some corners and then at about twenty five past three rudely score a goal as Conor Hourihane shoots when unsportingly close to the goal.
Unusually, the goal provokes a positive response from some Town supporters who chant “Blue Army”, although sadly these chants don’t build into a crescendo of noise that pushes Town onto quickly equalise and then take the lead with a display of scintillating short passes and powerful running. The singing soon dies away and normality returns as the Villa fans employ Guiseppe Verdi in the time honoured way to ask “Is this a library?”, although understandably it’s taken them a while to realise today. Buoyed by the discovery of their own razor sharp wit they eschew any reference to opera with their subsequent chant of “You’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”. What is it with football supporters and “fucking shit”?

Three minutes before half time Grant Ward is sent off by the shiny cue ball-headed referee Mr Simon Hooper for a poorly executed attempt at a tackle. Ward’s victim Neil Taylor recovers and is consequently booed thereafter for his trouble. It’s why we love the game. Ward receives generous applause from the Town fans as he walks to the dressing room.
Half-time brings some relief as the players hide in the dressing room for ten minutes or so and I talk to Ray who is nearby with his grandson Harrison who has cerebral palsy. Ray is of the opinion that Bersant Celina is not doing much, I agree and add the simple truth that overall Town’s players are not as good as Aston Villa’s. I re-visit the gents, eat a Panda brand stick of liquorice and look at the programme which contains a marvellous picture of the late Colin Harper in which he sports extensive sideburns and a moustache as if he was a member of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; it was a great look, in 1967. I recall attending Harper’s testimonial versus a Don Revie XI, I think the final score was something like 6-5, which is what the final score should be in all benefit matches. Also in the programme is a piece by a fellow supporter I know called Steve Cook in which he talks about his late mother’s dementia; I find it quite touching. Cookie is a lovely bloke.
The footballers return before I do and I miss the first minute of play but it doesn’t matter. A bit before a quarter past four Aston Villa score a second goal through Lewis Grabban, a former Norwich City player. As he runs behind the goal to celebrate in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Grabban cups his hand to his ear, but quickly desists as if realising that he is in Ipswich so there wasn’t much noise even before he scored. Today’s attendance is announced as 20,034 and as if to torment Town fans further by reminding us of the year when Villa pipped us to the League Title, the number of visiting Aston Villa supporters is recorded as 1981.
Aston Villa are comfortably in control of this match and from the touchline theirSteve Bruce corpulent manager Steve Bruce looks on over his expanded waist, possibly affording time to imagine the enormous meal that he will perhaps later eat to celebrate the victory. I hope he has regular cardiovascular checks. Around him Villa’s coaching staff look like UPS delivery drivers in their dull uniforms. I admire the angles of the roofs of the stands at the other end of the ground.
With thirty minutes left to play, Martyn Waghorn has a shot for Ipswich and the Ipswich fans applaud, but honestly, not sarcastically as they had been doing a few weeks ago. In the 78th minute American, Cameron Carter-Vickers, one of Town’s inevitable cohort of loanees passes the ball rather carelessly to Villa’s Josh Onomah who quickly passes to Grabban, who scores for a second time.
The Villa fans, now feeling secure enough to gloat, once again ask if this is a library, but then something almost miraculous happens as a chorus of “I’m Ipswich ‘til I die” drifts up from behind the North Stand goal; it doesn’t last long, the team doesn’t respond and in the 82nd minute another former Norwich player (albeit a loanee), Henri Lansbury scores a fourth goal for Villa. I think of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Murder, She Wrote. Ipswich are well and truly beaten, soundly thrashed even and the dream that many people perhaps harboured that with Mick McCarthy gone the team would straightaway blossom into a creative, attacking force and would never look back is dashed. Nevertheless, Town fans rally and there is clapping and singing the like of which has not been heard almost since the days of terracing, or at least since 2001. It’s a bit late in the game, but the Town fans are giving vocal encouragement to a struggling team. Town are 4-0 down at home to a club managed by an ex-Canary and three of the goals have been scored by ex-Canaries, but it’s the happiest some supporters have been all season.
But I wonder if they are really supporting the team, or are they just covering their embarrassment that the football is actually no better despite Mick McCarthy’s departure? Sensibly it’s probably too soon to say, but we shall see if the same sort of support continues.
Summer is not here yet, even though the sun is shining.

Bluey at Portman Road

Colchester United 1 Aston Villa 2

I hadn’t intended to go to this match; well I thought about it but just didn’t get around to buying a ticket. It’s what happens at the start of the season. I’m still in summer mode, it seems way too early for football, but it creeps up on you and all of a sudden the match is here and I’m sat at home ticketless.
Come the day of the match however, the bloke I sit next to at work, let’s call him Oliver, which coincidentally is his name, asks if I’d like his ticket because he has committed himself to watching Framlingham Town’s FA Cup extra-preliminary round replay against Wadham Lodge so can’t make it. Severe, heavy rain is forecast, the wind is in the north and the seat is in the south stand. Armed with this valuable potentially life-saving knowledge I say “Yes, I’ll take that ticket off your hands”.
I didn’t get home from work until just before six o’clock tonight because of heavy traffic and the fact that the A12 is partly flooded near Ardleigh. So rather than linger over dinner with a fine wine I gulp it down and am out again in time to catch the 18:46 train to Colchester. The rain is hurling down as I walk to the railway station, as it has been for the past couple of hours or more. Tonight trying to stay dry will be a challenge, one I am meeting by means of an umbrella, long navy blue raincoat, which my father bought in about 1954 and a pair of Wellington boots (green).36301663442_fac2cda0d1_o Proud to be different. A tall man walking towards me appears to be wearing spats but as he gets close I see he is wearing black and cream trainers; they won’t keep his feet dry like my wellies will.
From Colchester station it’s a short walk to the bus stop35634451744_9e9bf25d93_o to take me to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Stadium, the bit of Colchester the Romans just couldn’t be arsed to occupy. There’s no time to stop for a pint of Adnam’s Oyster Stout in the Bricklayers Arms tonight as the train is late and I just want to get in the stadium and out of the rain as quickly as possible. I step onto the bus and fumble for change, but the driver says that it’s free tonight, which is just as well because the top deck is already full so I will have to sit downstairs. A woman in her sixties politely budges-up and thanking her I settle down in a seat at the foot of the stairs. This bus is sweltering; it has warm air blowing down from vents in the roof and nearly everyone is sat in steaming wet coats. Most of the passengers are men, several are in their seventies or older. It’s not long before the bus is officially declared full, the doors sweep closed and it pulls away. The roar of the engine fills the ‘saloon’ and the swish of the rain and splash of the puddles in the gutter create an exciting cacophony of sound; men have to shout to be heard above the noise of this speeding, softly lit, mobile tin sauna. “With this team we should win about 3-0 most weeks” expounds an obese Villa fan of Asian descent. Less confidently he adds that Steve Bruce “..is a good manager, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he could be better”. He concludes that if Villa aren’t promoted at the end of the season Bruce will be sacked.
Arriving at “Layer Road” we politely pile out of the bus, many of us thanking the driver for his labour. It is gloomy and wet and people queue unhappily for programmes and draw tickets. The cameras of Sky TV are here tonight to broadcast the match live and at35661501913_6f1d94c088_o the corner of the stadium is a corral of trucks and broadcasting paraphernalia which looks like a traveller site; I half expect to see a couple of straggly-haired lurchers running about and some half-dressed, snotty-faced kids playing in the puddles. Sky TV have deigned to visit “Layer Road” tonight because this is a League Cup match with the prospect of plucky little fourth division Colchester knocking out famous, big city, and until recently Premier League club Aston Villa. Whilst I have called it a League Cup match it is in fact known by the name of its sponsor, a company I have never heard of , something like Caramac or Caribou. Whatever the cup is now called the sponsor is probably something to do with alcohol or on-line betting because modern football is classy like that.
I buy a programme (£3) and join the queue to get in the stadium; only one turnstile is open at the south end of the ground although not long after I join the queue, two more open. It is still raining of course and a gust of wind blows my umbrella inside out. “He-he it’s not doing much like that” blurts a drowned rat of a youth in front of me in the queue who looks like an extra from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!. I want to tell him that even inside out it’s a lot more effective than his non-existent umbrella, which is why he looks like he has just stepped out of Albert dock and will probably die next week of pneumonia in depressing Dickensian circumstances. I, meanwhile will of course live on to enjoy watching Colchester United on many a wet night to come as he moulders in a damp pauper’s grave.
At length I get to the turnstile where I hand my slightly soggy and bedraggled ticket36469586505_8b71af2da1_o to a steward who passes it across the sensor on the automatic turnstile, which rather defeats the object of automatic turnstiles, but hey-ho. Safe and dry In the strip-lit cosiness of the breeze-block concourse beneath the stand I seek re-invigoration with a pounds-worth of Tetley tea and then head for my seat.
Once the adverts on the telly are over the game begins to a spectacular backdrop of floodlit, teeming rain.35661459713_ae68344f0a_o Wow. Colchester are quick and play freely, but so do Aston Villa; this is good, an open game. Sadly, unluckily and possibly unfairly for the U’s, they trail quite soon when their goalkeeper spills the greasy ball, or has it kicked from his grasp and a Villain rolls it accurately beyond those around him into the net. The goal scorer’s name is announced as what sounds, perhaps because of the hiss and bubble of rain on standing water, like Squat Hogan. I think his name may be Scott, but he is a bit squat being slightly bandy and having the disfigured, pumped-up torso of a spinach filled Popeye. But soon afterwards Colchester are awarded a penalty, only to have it saved athletically by the Villa goalkeeper. It’s not even eight o’clock yet.
The referee is not popular with the home supporters due to that dodgy goal and for a series of free-kicks he awards to the Villains who seem quite unable to stay upright as if they have some unpleasant infection of the inner ear. The referee is called John Brooks a name he shares with my dead grandfather who, nice as he was, would probably have made a terrible football referee, so a bit like this bloke, who along with his assistants sports a shirt the colour of palest primrose. At about five past eight the U’s trail further as the tubby, balding linesman on the main stand side seems to react slowly to a probable offside and Col U’s number six Frankie Kent slides across the wet grass on his bum to clear the ball, only to deflect it into his own goal. A stroke of bad luck combined perhaps with misadventure and the uncertainty of the balding linesman.
The game looks up for the U’s despite the fact that they are matching their opponents all over the pitch and creating goal scoring chances; I start to wonder if their best bet would be for the game to be abandoned because of the weather. My hopes of this are raised as36301673682_59ebd56d1e_o the intensity of the rain increases and the water bounces off the roofs of the stands and cascades down making the floodlights appear as watery roman candles through the moisture laden night air.
A late arriver sits next to me and asks if John Terry is playing; had I thought for just a second I should have said “Who”? But to my eternal shame I just tell him there’s no one I’ve ever heard of playing for Villa, adding that there was no Dennis Mortimer, no Peter Withe and no Gary Shaw. I’m not sure if he understood, although he didn’t look that young.
It’s twenty-five past eight and at last Colchester get a break as a shot from some distance is deflected into the Villa goal by Kent allowing him to atone for his earlier bum-sliding error. How we cheer. But half time follows soon after and the like of such chances for Colchester is not seen again. Aston Villa, under the management of the well-fed and somewhat boozie-looking Steve Bruce, unsportingly tighten up in midfield and the flowing football we enjoyed up until half-past eight becomes just a fading memory.
The home supporters console themselves by taunting the Villa fans, singing “You’re not famous anymore” which kind of contradicts itself and there’s a bit of native American style drumming at the few corners the U’s win. For my own part I gain disproportionate enjoyment from an advert on the illuminated scoreboard which displays the message “Watch from a box” and has me imagining fans sat in coffins along the touchline. Some fans have their loved-ones ashes sprinkled on the pitch, well why shouldn’t those not lucky enough to be cremated be able to come along too?
Despite their team being ahead for all but the first seven minutes of the match, The Villa fans have not been overly vocal, something the Col U fans have pointed out to them through the medium of song. The stadium announcer tells us somewhat too excitedly that there will be five minutes of added-on time and then with two minutes left of those five minutes the visitors from the West Midlands finally feel bold enough to mount a chorus of “We shall not be moved”. These are perhaps some of Britain’s more pragmatic, not to say cautious supporters. But there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s infinitely preferable to the big-headed, cocky attitude displayed by certain clubs’ fans from London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Indeed, it’s rather endearing.
As much as I don’t want Colchester to be knocked out of the Caribou Cup, I’m not too sorry when Mr Brooks blows for the last time and a further half an hour in the cold and damp has been averted by the U’s failure to equalise. The rain is still falling as the crowd of 6,600 odd file out of the stadium, but it falls with a bit less vigour and intensity as befits the moment when the game is over and the excitement has ended; it’s time to go home and dry out .