I first saw Shrewsbury Town back in February 1982. I was an unemployed, fresh-faced graduate, Ipswich Town were sitting pretty somewhere near the top of what is now called the Premier League and Margaret Thatcher was vigorously laying the foundations for today’s unpleasant climate of self-centred, “I’m alright Jack” nationalist politics. With that Shrewsbury match at Gay Meadow I witnessed an Ipswich Town performance over thirty years ahead of its time as Town dropped out of the of the FA Cup to lower league opposition, although to be fair we had made it to the fifth round. I returned to Gay Meadow two years later for another FA Cup defeat and then in August of 1987 for a goalless League match. Disillusioned with the poor returns from long trips to Shropshire I didn’t bother to travel the following season and consequently missed our 5-1 victory under the obviously inspirational captaincy of the World’s greatest living Canadian, Frank Yallop.
As I mull over those dark days of the 1980’s I log in to the i-follow on my lap-top and breathe a sigh of relief that it works. I am just in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots being read out on Radio Suffolk; they are older people today, it’s something to do with highlighting or counter acting loneliness during lockdown. What I take from it is that a lot of the mascots seem to be called John.
The pictures from Portman Road appear on my screen and the dulcet, gently north-eastern tones of Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley tell me that Shrewsbury Town, who are visible doing pre-match warm-ups, are today wearing all-white, although he omits to mention the purple flashes on their shoulders which for me give the kit a much needed je ne sais quoi. Ipswich are soon taking the field and Brenner refers to captain Luke Chambers “Bursting out from the pack” as the players run from the tunnel, and to Tomas Holy’s all lime green kit. My mind’s eye momentarily conjures an image of Luke Chambers bursting.
As the on-screen caption advises that today’s referee is Tim Robinson I start to beat out the intro’ to ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ on the arm of my Ikea Poang chair and the game begins. Shrewsbury are kicking from right to left towards what was called Churchman’s back in the days when Mr Robinson was on Top of the Pops before everything was converted into money. I am just beginning to wonder if Brenner has his trusty co-commentator with him today when I hear a stifled chuckle in the back ground and Mick Mills joins in describing with much merriment how Town’s Mark McGuinness has been pole-axed by what Brenner later refers to as a “winding challenge”, (that’s winding as in forcing air from the body rather than turning something).
Mick’s presence is a blessing and he soon adds value to the commentary suggesting that Paul Lambert not only prefers Nsiala and McGuinness as centre-backs but as ‘individuals’. This immediately makes me wonder what this might mean and whether Nsiala and McGuinness offer not only strength at the back but also more interesting conversation than Woolfenden and Wilson; do they have better dress sense, better personal hygiene, give better presents at birthdays and Christmas, have broader musical tastes; are they better read and have more cohesive political views? Which central-defensive partneship would you invite to dinner?
My reverie is cut short as Mark McGuinness betrays a lack of manners and clumsily trips Shaun Whalley to give Shrewsbury a penalty. As Oliver Norburn runs up to take the spot-kick Brenner tells me that Shrewsbury haven’t scored at Portman Road in 53 years; presumably Brenner says this just to make sure that Shrewsbury do score now. Brenner’s tempting of fate is successful, although had Tomas Holy not dived before Norburn kicked the ball he might have saved it; Brenner says as much in a roundabout way, asking if Tomas might not be “self-critical there”.
Depressed by Shrewsbury taking the lead and Brenner’s silly commentary (this is only the fifth time in 53 years that Shrewsbury have even played at Portman Road), I console myself with the thought that there is plenty of time to equalise, score a winning goal and apply icing to a metaphorical cake. As if to celebrate Shrewsbury’s goal Brenner unleashes some of his familiar commentator-speak, referring to little Alan Judge “running-into traffic” as he brings the ball out of defence and Tomas Holy “putting his foot through the ball” as he boots it up field. Not satisfied with this, Brenner proceeds to wilfully muddle up his footballs suggesting that Brett McGavin is playing in a “quarter-back” position.
Despite their goal deficit Town show only occasional urgency along with a very limited ability to equalise; they don’t exactly play badly, they just don’t do enough to make Shrewsbury worry that that they might not win despite being a goal ahead. In the sixteenth minute Shrewsbury make claims for a second penalty as someone in a white shirt with purple trim “goes” in the words of Brenner “to ground”, which makes him sound like a small animal retreating into a burrow instead of a footballer falling over.
Time passes and Jon Nolan is hurt and replaced by Jack Lankester, and Shrewsbury’s Marc Pugh becomes another “Shrew” to fall over in the penalty area, and he gets short shrift from Brenner for doing so. “Crawling along the deck in rather embarrassing fashion” says Brenner of Pugh sounding every bit as witty and cutting as Oscar Wilde might have if he’d been a sports commentator for BBC local radio.
Town earn their first corner. “A little opportunity for us with the big boys coming up” says Mick. The opportunity is spurned by the ‘big boys’ and the small ones too. Little Alan Judge is not having a good game, every time he has the ball he passes to a Shrewsbury player or just loses it. I notice that the Shrewsbury goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne, who is a vision from head to toe in pink, is also sporting a moustache that any mid-twentieth century European dictator would have been proud of.
There are about seven minutes until half-time; Kayden Jackson successfully chases a pass into the penalty area, pulls the ball back to set up Jack Lankester for a shot that is blocked and thereby sets up Freddie Sears for a shot that is deflected away for a corner; it’s the most excitement I’ve had all half. Four minutes of time are added on and pass without incident worthy of mention. Half-time arrives, the pitch is vacated and I wonder to myself why it is that referees and their assistants always walk off the field together, it surely makes them an easier target for a well-aimed grenade.
Half-time passes in a flurry of tea, half-time scores, stats and an advertisement for the ifollow in which a threatening Scouse voice claims that there is no better way to show your love than the ifollow; by the end of the advert I feel that if I don’t subscribe I should start avoiding dark alleys . The players appear for the second half and Brenner tells me that Town are now “attacking the Sir Bobby Robson end”, which seems a little disrespectful.
The standard of play does not improve, nor does the commentary; a pass is under hit and Brenner tells me “the ball doesn’t have enough steam on it”. Teddy Bishop is substituted for Emyr Huws, who I have decided to make my favourite player because he sounds like an extra from ‘Ivor the Engine’ and unlike a lot of modern players doesn’t have a haircut that makes him look like a First World War conscript.
Not very much happens, or at least not enough to result in Town scoring a goal. Brenner airs his obsession with Tomas Holy’s nationality “The Czech was dependable” he says as Tomas catches a cross. Mick Mills embarks on a long explanation about something, but is interrupted without apology by Brenner as something happens on the pitch that looks like it could result in one those “goals” that I’ve heard about, perhaps predictably however it doesn’t. It’s a pattern that is repeated and I can’t quite decide if Brenner is rude to interrupt or if Mick just tends to witter on a bit too long and needs to learn how to be more concise. It also worries me that Mick doesn’t notice what is happening on the pitch and doesn’t interrupt himself. Either way, it adds to the fun.
Town’s patient approach isn’t producing very much in the way of excitement although a shimmy and a cross from Freddie Sears almost results in little Alan Judge forcing the ball over the goal line, but his legs were just that bit too short. The game enters its final 20 minutes; I haven’t fallen asleep yet because in truth it isn’t exactly boring and oddly I’m feeling quite relaxed and not frustrated at all by the absence of an equaliser. Suddenly, the weirdly named Keanen Bennetts sends a low, not particularly good cross in to the penalty area and without another Town player touching the ball it runs just inside the far post and Town have equalised. Not quite believing what I’ve seen I cheer, quietly in case it’s a false alarm, but happily it’s not.
The remainder of normal time runs out, much as the other 75 minutes did with nothing overly exciting happening and Town patiently and at times monotonously passing the ball. Shrewsbury are provoked into trying to regain their lead and more of them fall over in the penalty area when in close proximity to Toto Nsiala, but unusually the tactic fails to influence Mr Robinson. Substitution follows substitution follows substitution and there is so much added on time that new layers of geology are formed. It is the 97th minute, little Alan Judge pops up on the left , he cuts in , he shoots, the man all in pink with the moustache parries the shot and Jack Lankester hurls himself headlong to propel the ball into the Shrewsbury goal, “… Town have won it,” says Brenner. I cheer in the same manner as before.
Despite a valiant attempt to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, Luke Chambers clearing a Shrewsbury shot off the goal line in the tiny amount of time left, Town hang on to win as Brenner predicted. “What a huge victory this could be for Ipswich Town” says Brenner excitedly and without explanation. Town haven’t really deserved to win this game “says Mick more soberly when asked to sum up.
The ifollow broadcast quickly ceases as the players leave the field, disappointingly cutting off Mick and Brenner in their prime. Despite Brenner’s entreaties to phone in and talk to Mick, I don’t. Having turned off my lap-top I head for the back garden where I light the fire-pit and celebrate with a bottle of Adnams Old Ale and my wife Paulene. “A win is a win is a win” we chant as we dance around the flickering flames and think of the unfortunate Shrewsbury Town players “truckin on through the night” back to Shropshire, as Tom and possibly Tim Robinson might sing.