It’s another cold, clear, cold, bright and cold December day. Today is Ipswich Town’s last home game before Christmas. As I walk to the railway station I fear breathing too deeply because that can cause a heart attack in a man of my age. But I enjoy the pale blue sky, decked with fuzzy white lines like a somewhat anaemic Mark Rothko canvas. It’s odd how the noxious, condensed exhaust fumes from jet airliners can be beautiful.
At the railway station a small dark haired and excitable man is shouting into his mobile phone; he’ll be ‘there’ about 1.30 apparently because the train is running late; with his phone call over, he proceeds to laugh girlishly and talk loudly to a man with a fashionable haircut and beard and a checked grey coat. A third man arrives wearing a Rupert Bear scarf and I can’t shake them off as they board the same carriage as me when the train arrives eight minutes late. On the train another man asks me if this train stops at Manningtree “Er yes, yes it does” I tell him, growing in confidence through the course of my short sentence. The excitable man is talking loudly to Rupert Bear; he squints because the sun is shining into his eyes, which makes him look worried as if he expects Rupert Bear to tell him some bad news; Badger Bill has been gassed.
Approaching Ipswich the train stops and a bored and world-weary sounding driver informs us that a train has broken down so another train has had to return to Ipswich and as a result there is no room in Ipswich station for our train. It’s like the Christmas story all over again; if there is a pregnant woman on this train her child might have to be born in a railway cutting. But this doesn’t come to pass and a slow descent into Ipswich precedes an amusing apology from our driver who sounds ready to cut his wrists as he tells of “…strange things happening and trains breaking down all around us as we continued on our course” before wishing us joy in whatever we are doing this afternoon.
It’s about twenty to two and the train has arrived a good fifteen minutes late. Leaving the station and crossing the road outside, a strange looking man in Ipswich Town shirt, tracky bottoms and a huge coat that looks like a bivouac breaks into a run. Time is less pressing for me so I simply stride purposefully across the bridge opposite the station and on towards Portman Road. On the opening day of the season the lampposts on the bridge were adorned with blue banners in support of the Town, but today they are bare and skeletal like the winter trees, as if the banners fell with the autumn leaves. In Portman Road the turnstiles are open; a man eats a banana, people queue for burgers, stewards crowd around the ‘Search Dog’ who barks, some very ordinary looking people enter the Legends Bar and Hall of Fame and the six-wheeled Reading team bus sits secure behind sturdy steel gates, looking like a cross between a juggernaut and a 1950’s Cadillac. Behind the North (Sir Bobby Robson) stand The Salvation Army band take five. Competing fast food stands try to attract custom with staff dressed up as St Nicholas and as some rather conspiratorial looking elves. There are signs on the back of the North Stand directing the way to the ‘Fanzone’, arrows point skywards suggesting a heavenly place, but I know it’s just a big tent on the practice pitch, serving insipid Greene King beer. I would love to use the ‘Fanzone’, but my good taste won’t allow me.
As I head on beyond the stadium the Salvation Army strike up, delivering a rendition of one of the most joyless of all Christmas carols, Once in Royal David’s City; probably a Town supporters’ favourite. As ever I soon arrive at St Jude’s Tavern and today take solace in a pint of the “Football Special”, St Jude’s Elderflower (£2), which happily does not smell like elderflowers, but is nevertheless light and slightly floral. The pub is busier today because much of the population seem to rediscover pubs near Christmas, which is
a bit annoying for us all year round pub users who enjoy a quiet drink. Having consumed my first pint I return to the bar (where else?) for a second. A full-faced man who has just been served is picking up a glass of a dark looking beer, I ask him what it is; he doesn’t know. I fancy something dark, because it’s winter, something that tastes like Christmas pudding. I ask the barman for a dark beer and in exchange for £3.40 he brings me what he says is a new amber beer from Nethergate brewery, but it’s quite a dark amber and full of flavour. I sit at a small round table and look about the bar full of mostly men, middle-aged and older. In front of me stands a man in a ‘retro-style’ Reading shirt; he seems to be listening to a pod-cast through ear phones, either that or he is profoundly deaf, it’s difficult to tell nowadays. His shirt has a rather attractive badge that features three trees and I ask him if these trees are the elms of Reading’s former Elm Park ground; it turns out they are. We talk more, reminiscing about Elm Park and moving onto our dislike of modern football and not really wanting our respective teams to get promotion. He tells me that Reading currently play a sort of ‘anti-football’ whereby they just pass it around endlessly across the back four. I say that Ipswich let the opposition have the ball and play on the break, and on the basis of this he predicts that Ipswich will win. This Reading fan lives in Brighton and doesn’t go to home games, but just picks away trips that appeal to him, and Ipswich is such a trip. He says he likes Portman Road, knows there is good beer here and now that Ipswich Town have dropped the away tickets to a sensible price (£24 instead of £40) that’s enough. I feel pleased that an away supporter likes to come to Ipswich, and he’s right, we are truly blessed in Ipswich, it is fine town with a perfectly situated football stadium, close to both the railway station and the town centre; possibly the best located football ground in the whole of Britain.
Eager to avoid strange men who come up and talk to you about your shirt, the Reading supporter sups his beer and leaves, but not before we shake hands and wish each other well; now alone I sit down to finish my dark amber beer. One of the bunch of older blokes on the next table starts to talk to me; we discuss school reunions, Harvey’s brewery of Lewes and Whitehawk football club, which we agree is like having a Chantry football club in Ipswich, although to our shame we strangely forget Whitton United.
I seem to have crammed a lot into my 45 minutes in the pub today. Outside the cold air is invigorating and it’s a lovely walk down Portman Road, with the floodlights revealing themselves one by one as I draw closer to the ground. The ‘Turnstile Blue’ fanzine sellers on the corner in front of Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue are waving fanzines about enthusiastically, and selling some too. I always buy a copy, although it can be a bit sanctimonious and earnest at times, with too few articles about footballers’ haircuts. The Cobbold stand is looking good today, it’s row of white painted concrete struts producing a fine repetitive rhythm along the street, above people waiting, looking at their watches and heading for the turnstiles where there are no queues today.
Inside the ground I buy a programme (£3) and drain my bladder, then go to my seat. The teams are on the pitch and Reading kick-off towards the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand wearing orange hi-vis and black shorts; they look like they should be out gritting the roads of Berkshire on a day like today, not playing football. In the third minute Ipswich add to the possibility that we are watching Ipswich Town v Berkshire County Council Highways Department by scoring easily with their first attack, Callum Connolly placing the ball inside Italian Vito Mannone’s near post. Thereafter, Reading just pass the ball amongst themselves, as the Reading fan in the pub had forecast, and then they do it some more. Despite being a goal ahead the Portman Road crowd are as quiet as ever; they probably get more animated watching Strictly Come Dancing on the telly than they do here. As all visiting fans do, the Reading fans ask through the medium of la donna e mobile from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto if this is a library. Arts Council money is never wasted. Reading do succeed in missing a few opportunities to score and Ipswich are having to defend, but then a bit before half past three a corner is headed on and Joe Garner heads a second goal. It’s as if someone has tried to leave the library without checking their book out and the alarms have gone off. But the excitement is temporary and Reading keep passing the ball.
Half-time comes as a relief for the ball which has visibly shrunk with all that constant Reading passing. Having used the toilet facilities I take a wander about; down on the concourse beneath the stand strings of lights dangle from above as Ipswich Town embraces the festive season. I eat a Fairtrade cereal bar, which I brought with me from home, because the football club does not sell such things. On the pitch a small brass band play Christmas carols. I flick through the programme in which club captain Luke Chambers tells us that “You never know in life what is just around the corner. What grenade can hit you”. He goes on to add “I think most people would have taken where we are if it was offered to us at the start of the season, especially with the injuries we’ve had”. It makes me think “Blimey, shrapnel wounds”. Also in the programme there is a feature on Town’s Grant Ward who I like to confuse with the twentieth century American artist Grant Wood, famous for American Gothic. Grant Wood attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and wonderfully the article tells us that Grant Ward played for Chicago Fire in the MLS. Incidentally, why did the Americans name a football club after a disaster that befell the city? It’s like the Japanese having a club called Hiroshima Bomb.
I decide to change seats for the second half and go to the other side of the goal and nearer the pitch to join super-fan Phil who never misses a game. I speak with Pat, the secretary of the Clacton-On-Sea branch of the supporters club who sits a couple of rows behind Phil; apparently only sixteen people have travelled on the supporters’ bus from Clacton today. She tells me how a fastidious female steward always carefully searches her bag each week as she enters the stadium, whilst people in big coats are not even patted down. There are no security searches entering the ground from Portman Road, just signs saying there will be. Pat asked the steward what she was looking for; the answer was “wires”. Marcus Evans is probably fearful of being tapped but Pat now carries her grenades on a belt under her coat; she’s been coming to Portman Road since the 1960’s.
It’s dark now and the floodlights shine through the translucent roof of the stand above
me. Being closer to the pitch lends this position an atmosphere not present at the back of the stand. In front of us is the disabled supporters enclosure and a boy with Downs Syndrome puts everyone to shame with his enthusiastic shouts and clapping; he gets what this being a football fan is about.
The second half is oddly compelling given that Reading continue to pass the ball ceaselessly but pointlessly and Ipswich just give the ball back to them whenever they win it. On 52 minutes Reading’s Paul McShane is booked and I recall one of several reasons why I never liked Hi-de-hi. Reading are hopelessly ineffective; Bart Bialkowski in the Ipswich goal catches or punches away several crosses, but doesn’t have a shot to save. The highlight of the half is the 67th minute applause for Dick Murphy, the kitman and caretaker at the club academy who died during the week. A piece in the programme pays tribute to Dick who is described as a “loyal servant of the Blues”. I had never heard of Dick Murphy before today and think it’s an awful shame I have now only heard of him because he is dead.
There is a kind of tension about the second half as the home fans wonder if Town will hold on without actually touching the ball which gives the game its name. Occasionally this tension translates into some crowd noise; based on the experience of the first half if Town do manage to keep the ball long enough to make four or five passes they could score again. It fools us all into thinking we’re being entertained.
Despite five minutes of added on time for a number of real and imagined injuries the match doesn’t seem to drag on and at about five minutes to five referee Mr Bankes closes proceedings in the customary shrill manner. As the stands empty a serious looking steward wearing a large head set watches on; I like to think he’s listening to the classified results. It’s been a strangely enjoyable afternoon, possibly only because Town have won; the football was largely forgettable.