Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

The first and second rounds of the Football League Cup are always an early season treat, a chance to play an interesting ‘lower league’ club and maybe visit a ground never visited before, in fact that was almost guaranteed back in the days of two-legged ties.  Added to that, summer isn’t over (if it has ever started) and a hot and sticky road trip precedes a balmy evening of lengthening shadows beneath a maturing, setting sun. Early season evening games are blissful, beautiful occasions and I fondly remember visits to Torquay, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Darlington, Brentford, Stockport, Bolton and Wigan.   Sadly, Ipswich Town are now one of those lower league teams, and a decade or more of abject failure has transformed cup ties from nights of wonder and joy into painful experiences to be endured like a trip to the dentist or having your car MoT’d.

Tonight, our opponents are ‘little Newport County’, a phoenix club resurrected from the one that went bust in 1988, following relegation from the fourth division.  I recall seeing the original County play out a magnificently awful goalless draw at Layer Road, Colchester in that fabulously terrible relegation season, but I also recall their glorious 2-3 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final defeat to Carl Zeiss Jena at the same time as Town were cruising past St Etienne on our way to winning the UEFA Cup.  Again, like on Saturday when Morecambe played their first ever third division game at Portman Road sixty years after Town played our first ever top division game, it is somehow fitting that Newport and Town should meet forty years after both clubs’ finest moments in European competition. I visited Newport’s old Somerton Park ground back in 1988 and could only think how their opponents from the German Democratic Republic must have been glad to get back behind the ’iron curtain’, doubtless with renewed faith that Communism was far superior to Capitalism and produced much better football stadiums, which of course it is and did, if you do it right.  Communism is a bit like sex, a great idea but best only conducted between consenting adults.

Shamefully arriving by car and not public transport because of continuing Covid induced paranoia, I park-up in West End Road car park at a little after 7 pm; the tariff is £1.00 until 8.00pm, after which it is free.  Stepping from my trusty, air-conditioned Citroen C3 the warmth of the evening air hits me unexpectedly and stirs pleasant memories of going to night matches in more exotic locations such as Beziers, Nice, Marseille and Montpellier whilst on holiday in the south of France.  Musing that the stadium catering at Portman Road probably doesn’t serve espresso coffee or cheese and ham baguettes, I stroll to the ground where there are queues at the guichets (look it up). I buy a programme (£2.50) from a booth in which the gently smiling young female programme seller seems rather heavily made-up for the occasion, but then it’s nice that she’s made the effort.  Drinking in the pre-match ambience I pass by the back of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and enter Portman Road, which is strangely quiet.  I realise later that this is because the only people occupying the Cobbold Stand tonight are the 131 from Newport, many of whom will have travelled on the six-wheeled charabanc of Watt’s Coaches, which idles by the Portman Road bus stop; I ask one of the drivers how long the journey took; “Five and a half hours” he tells me stretching out his vowel sounds with his rich, lilting and somewhat tired sounding South Walean accent, which oozes Rarebit and Eisteddfods.

Returning to Sir Alf Ramsey Way the queues for turnstiles 43 to 47 are lengthening and beginning to snake, so I head for turnstile 49 where there’s hardly anyone ahead of me at all.  Inside the ground a line of Heras fencing separates the fanzone from those of us who have passed through the turnstiles. The back of the stand is a noisy place as a disco inside a shipping container seems to be operating from a corner of the fanzone, predictably no one is dancing, and I wonder what the point of it is.   Fearing that my hearing is being damaged I head for my seat which tonight is in Block H, so lettered I will discover because at the end of the match it’s difficult to get out of, like the prisoner cell block.

As I stand and flick through my programme, kick-off comes ever closer and the PA system which successfully scrambles any spoken word delivers a medley of tunes associated with the Town.  I enjoy the anthemic Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown from the 1970’s, but cringe at the dire Singin’ the Blues of the George Burley era, which sounds as if it is performed by Vic Reeves and Suzi Quattro, and the surreal and corny Sweet Caroline.  My only pleasure is from a childish giggle provoked by the name of a Newport substitute, Evan Ovendale. 

Finally, my torture by music is ended when the teams come onto the pitch, and I’m pleased to report are warmly applauded as they ‘take the knee’.  The match kicks off; Newport pointing in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand in their traditional amber shirts and black shorts and getting first go with the ball.  Barely two minutes pass and an Armando Dobra shot strikes Newport’s right hand goal post. Within a further two minutes Newport lead.  One of Town’s many debutants, Sone Aluko needlessly concedes a free kick, from which a low cross is diverted into the net via the heel of Timmy Abraham, who rather wonderfully sounds like he should be, and indeed he is, the little brother of the Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham.

At least we probably still have 90 minutes to score a couple of goals of our own. But inevitably, given Town’s recent record in cup competitions, I have a nagging sensation that some writing is already being daubed on a wall somewhere.  Meanwhile, Armando Dobra has a shot saved and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads over the Newport cross bar.   When Newport are awarded the game’s first corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” to the taker, displaying a boastfulness of their own ignorance that is fitting in a town that voted for Brexit.

Town may be losing, but the game is nevertheless an entertaining one and despite the mostly empty stands the spectacle is enhanced by the fading daylight. With 21 minutes gone Sone Aluko claims the glory as the first player to be booked by the strangely competent referee Mr Neil Hair, or Herr Hair as he would be known if this were the Bundesliga.  Quite suddenly at about ten past eight I notice that all sunlight has gone and the ground is totally in the shade of whatever the Pioneer stand is now called.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne strikes the outside of Newport’s left-hand post with a shot and some childish banter ensues between him and the Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend, with Bonne clutching his stomach to indicate that that Townsend is not merely big-boned; you can take the boy out of Chantry High School but you can’t …etcetera.

Five minutes of the half remain, and Town produce a delightful passing move, sending the ball from Luke Woolfenden to Idris El-Mizouni (whose father incidentally drank a post-match coffee with me when AS Meudon played St Ouen L’Aumone in the Coupe de France in 2018) to Sone Aluko to Armando Dobra, whose cross is headed over by the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  There is still time for Newport’s short and dumpy, but wonderfully named and impressively numbered (he’s No 56) Aneurin Livermore to be booked, for Idris El-Mizouni to have a free kick saved, and for him to provide a deliciously whipped-in cross for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to head over the bar yet again.

Half-time brings relief from the claustrophobia of the oldest part of the stadium, as those around me leave to get refreshment; people genuinely were smaller in the 1950’s when the old West Stand was built, possibly because there was no stadium catering back then.  Tonight, I am seemingly surrounded by youths in their late teens and early twenties who are all about 2metres tall.  Two of them return with trays of chips and the game begins again.

My seat is closer to “Churchman’s” than the Bobby Robson Stand and perhaps that’s why I notice for the first time this evening that Tomas Holy is a vision in cerise, he’s quite a sight.  Five minutes pass and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a looping cross into the goal, the giants all around me stand as one, but I had already spotted the offside flag.  “You fat bastard” chant the North Standers, presumably at goalkeeper Townsend and not to the oddly named Macauley Bonne.

Tonight’s attendance of 6,154 is announced and a good proportion of that number applaud themselves like performing seals do after catching a fish thrown at them from a bucket.  Town’s Scott Fraser replaces Sone Aluko who looks like he knows he’s had a poor game.  “He’s weird in ‘e? He’s got funny little legs in ’e?” I hear a voice behind me say.  I think the voice is talking about Newport’s left-back Aaron Lewis, who indeed does have funny little legs; he also has hair like Grayson Perry; he’s not a bad footballer mind, and I like to think he might also be able to knock up some decent ceramics or tapestries.

Over an hour of the match has passed and a fine shot from Armando Dobra brings an equally fine flying save from the fat bastard in the Newport goal; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson replace Louie Barry and the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Newport mount a rare attack down the right and Town’s Corrie Ndaba, whose first name reminds me of the episode in series nine of The Simpsons in which Lisa becomes addicted to ringing the ‘Corey hotline’, spectacularly and miraculously slices the ball into the arms of Tomas Holy who is stood behind him.

With the match in the final twenty minutes Newport players twice clear the ball off their own goal line in the space of a few seconds and James Norwood heads a decent cross from Bailey Clements over the bar in a manner which I had thought was the preserve of the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Just a short while later Norwood begins to limp and then leaves the field of play to be replaced by no one at all because we’ve used all our substitutes.  The bloke next to me doesn’t notice for a further few minutes that we are down to ten men and when he does, he thinks we’ve had someone sent off; “What happened?” he asks; and I thought I was guilty of not paying attention.

Newport’s shaven headed forty-two-year-old, Kevin Ellison is substituted and hobbles off, clearly attempting to eke out the remaining time in a way which doesn’t involve football being played. “Get off you old git” I bawl at him despite being almost twenty years his senior. I’m not sure what came over me, although these West Standers seem rather dull and need livening up.  Unfortunately, Ellison and his team win the day with their time-wasting ways and despite five minutes of added on time Ipswich fail to score, and so once again leave the League Cup at the earliest opportunity, leaving Newport County and the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Barrow and Oldham Athletic to seek the sort of glory we can only dream of.

Despite the result it’s been an enjoyable match, with some fine performances from young players, particularly Bailey Clements, Idris El-Mizouni and Cameron Humphreys. As I stand helplessly waiting to get out of the slowly clearing stand, I applaud Newport and their intrepid supporters and reassure myself by believing that although the score reads as another Cup defeat I have simply witnessed the birth pangs of a Grand Projet that will one day see us reach the next round.

Ipswich Town 2 Swindon Town 3

I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was in an Ipswich which had a similar layout to the real place but all the buildings were different and weirdly the buses were like those from the 1970’s; I got on one in a shopping-centre painted chocolate brown and it unexpectedly took me up a fast road to what might have been Chantry; I got off and wandered back towards Portman Road because there was a match on.  I walked through streets of medieval, half-timbered buildings and past a pub I had never been in before where they were calling last orders, it was only two o’clock; I knew I had had a pint already but I couldn’t remember where.  That’s when I woke up.

After a welcome mid-season break which has made me feel even greater kinship with the people of France, and Germany that Brexit has tried to divorce me from, I have spent the last few days in keen anticipation of today and the match versus Swindon Town, even though it’s only on the telly, but this is the new reality to which I have become accustomed.  I even ordered a match programme yesterday (£3.50 including postage and packing), but the waking day gets off to a bad start because when I check my post it hasn’t arrived.  Kick-off today is at 5.30 so after a morning of dull, domestic normalcy and a light lunch of chorizo sausage and salad I take an afternoon walk, slipping, trudging and sliding across frosty, muddy fields, squinting into the low January sunlight and avoiding human contact.

Mud & trees

Back home, with the help of tea and biscuits I watch the FA Cup scores develop on BBC 1 where a man who looks like a bigger version of Pep Guardiola fills the air time once occupied by Grandstand and the seat left vacant by Frank Bough.  Gradually, 5.30 draws near.  I log onto the ifollow in time to catch the last three names of today’s virtual mascots, Georgia, Rory and Albi; I am reminded of Albi the racist dragon, who Bret and Jermaine sang about in episode seven of Flight of the Conchords.  There follows a compilation of the best bits from the commentary the last time Town played Swindon, which was back in January 2000, even before Flight of the Conchords was first on television. In goal for Swindon that day was Frank Talia and I amuse myself by wondering if he had a sister called Jenny.  There’s time to get a pre-match ‘pint’, if not to drink it, before kick-off and I pour a glass of Fuller’s 1845 (on offer before Christmas at £3.00 for two from Waitrose) for me, and a glass of ‘mother’s ruin’ for my wife Paulene, which she takes topped up with fizzy water.

As the players take the knee we are informed that today’s fixture is a ‘memorial match’ for everyone who has died in the last year.  Paulene chuckles and we both roll our eyes.  “What the heck is a memorial match?” asks Paulene.  It’s as if people have never died before.  What a sentimental, maudlin lot we have become.  As the handover is made from the Radio Suffolk studio to the commentary team we learn that today’s commentary will not be from Brenner Woolley, who sadly is unwell, instead Radio Suffolk have enlisted the services of former Northgate school boy Stuart Jarrold, who should by rights be enjoying his retirement; I can remember him on Anglia TV forty years ago; he must be well over seventy.  Happily Stuart’s co-commentator is still the dependable Mick Mills who will hopefully add to his record of 741 games played for Town by co-commentating on a similar number.  It was Mick’s birthday this week; he was seventy-three. With two septuagenarians at the microphone there is an undeniable hint of Last of the Summer Wine pervading the airwaves.

Stuart begins his introduction to the game assuredly and authoritatively, he’s an old pro. But then the game begins; Swindon kick off, play the ball back and Dion Conroy lumps it up field.  It is immediately clear that Stuart doesn’t recognise any of the players; he doesn’t even seem to be familiar with their names. His assuredness has departed quicker than a season ticket holder in the top tier of the Cobbold stand when we’ve just conceded a third goal with twenty minutes to go.  Just to make it clear to anyone who hadn’t picked it up from his commentary, Stuart now admits he hasn’t watched Town at all this season.  Stuart can’t tell Luke Chambers from Luke Woolfenden.  He struggles on.  Usually it’s Brenner that interrupts Mick, but today Mick has to interrupt Stuart to clarify what’s just happened.  “Was that Brett Pitman firing in a shot there?” asks Stuart sounding reasonably confident “No, it was Matt Smith” replies Mick.

The camera lingers on a man in glasses and a black hat with a dark scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face.  I can’t tell who it is.  It could be Marcus Evans, it could be Paul Lambert.  Either one of them could be forgiven for not wanting to be recognised at Portman Road.  “I can’t see Paul Lambert here” says Stuart, quite coincidentally and no doubt unaware of the picture on the tv screen.  Would Stuart even recognise Paul Lambert if he saw him?

Stuart tells us that three minutes have been played, but the figures in the corner of the tv screen suggest he is living some three minutes in the past. “Can’t see who’s taking the corner from here, can you Mick?” Mick is having to work hard today.  “Cleared by one of the Lukes” says Stuart.  Armando Dobra is fouled by Paul Caddis. “Did Caddis get a yellow card for that?” asks Stuart in the latest in a series of questions “I think he did”.   Mick resorts to saying things which Stuart can re-use in his commentary.   “Luke Chambers knocks it back to err…err… err… Luke Woolfenden” says Stuart. 

I don’t know if it’s wheeziness due to his age or just anxiety, but Stuart’s breathing is audible over the microphone.   Paulene cringes, but she’s feeling sorry for Stuart.  I am too, but I don’t let it stop me from laughing, this is what makes local radio so great. “It’s a bit aimless in the middle there Mick” says Stuart, sounding slightly incredulous that the game is as bad as it is.  Further proof, if proof were needed, that he hasn’t seen Town play previously this season.  Stuart mentions that Swindon’s Diallang Jaiyesimi had been at Norwich City.  Mick asks if he ‘came through the ranks’ there.  Unsurprisingly, Stuart doesn’t know.

It’s the 16th minute, Swindon score.  “Err, yes, it’s a goal, it’s a goal” says Stuart, sounding as unprepared as the Town defence was and as if, like them, he wasn’t really watching when it happened.  Paulene cheers, I think because Brett Pitman played for Pompey, although he didn’t score the goal,  that was our friend from Norwich City.   I look at Paulene coldly.

The game resumes. “I haven’t mentioned Judge yet, I’ve rarely seen him touch the ball” says Stuart optimistically suggesting he would recognise Judge if he did see him touch the ball.  “I’ve got to get used to these players, haven’t I” he adds, more realistically.  He is improving, a little.  “This is Emyr Huws now, tussling with the ball” says Stuart in a moment of clear vision, but also a weird use of language worthy of Brenner Woolley.  “We are beginning to sit back and watch them play” says Mick of the Ipswich players. “That’s not what we should be doing is it Mick?” says Stuart asking a question so stupid it would sound sarcastic if he hadn’t grown so childishly reliant upon Mick’s every word.

A half an hour passes. Andre Dozzell sends a brilliant pass over the top of the Swindon defence, little Alan Judge runs through but incredibly fails to score with just the Swindon ‘keeper Mark Travers to beat.  It’s a unique moment of inspiration coupled to the usual failure and frustration in an otherwise featureless first half. 

Half-time begins to loom like an oasis.  “Luke Chambers…left foots it forward” says Stuart making up a new verb.  “The last six or seven minutes seem to have dragged a bit, without a lot happening” Stuart then adds, clearly beginning to get into the feel and rhythm of Portman Road on match day.  At the end of two minutes of added time Mick provides a concise summary of the half before being cut-off by advertisements which, not being a fan of the consumer-society, I ignore, “You’ve got to say Swindon have been the better side”.

Half-time is a delicious blur of more Fuller’s 1845 and gin.

The second-half arrives all too soon and James Norwood and Flynn Downes replace Aaron Drinan, who Stuart didn’t even mention not having mentioned, and Emyr Huws.  Swindon’s Scott Twine has an early chance to double his team’s lead but doesn’t and Stuart carries on not knowing which Ipswich player is which “…..putting Jackson away, no, that’s not Jackson”.  But Town do look a bit better now, with Norwood seeing more of the ball within a few seconds than Aaron Drinan did in the whole of the first half.  It’s the 51st minute and Stuart and Mick are now honing their double act to perfection.  Little Alan Judge shoots on goal, “I thought it was going to hit the post” exclaims Stuart. “It did hit the post” explains Mick, demonstrating the value of having an expert co-commentator who has played the game at the highest level and is therefore capable of spotting the difference between the ball hitting the post and not hitting the post.

Two minutes later and Flynn Downes shows that he has settled back in to the team and receives his customary booking.  Town continue to look like they have now been given a rough outline of the aim of the game and with just over an hour of our lives wasted Kayden Jackson unexpectedly plays in an early cross which James Norwood reaches just a few metres from goal.  Showing an unimaginable level of skill Norwood slices an attempt to shoot onto a Swindon defender standing the statutory two metres away, the ball rebounds back to him and he strokes it into the goal. “We’ve scored” I utter cautiously, scarcely able to believe my eyes.  Victory must now be ours, surely; how can we not go on to win against the team second from bottom in the league who have lost five of their last six matches conceding fifteen goals in the process?

Confident, I sit back, but unfortunately so does the Town defence and together we watch Scott Twine score from about 35yards.  “It was a stupendous goal” says Stuart almost shouting with excitement and clearly scarcely able to believe that such a goal could be scored amongst what otherwise seems a pretty lamentable standard of football.  Mick is appreciative of the finish, but generally less enthusiastic than wide-eyed Stuart, citing Ipswich’s contribution by virtually “inviting” Twine to shoot.  Mick sensibly adds that it was a somewhat freakish goal too, although I would add not freakish enough to have actually been scored by Ipswich.

James Norwood harvests another booking for a pointless tug at a Swindon player before Brett Pitman appears to score a third goal for Swindon, but sadly it’s not Brett who scored it’s that bloke who played for Norwich instead.   Had it been Pitman’s goal it would have been a good goal, a deft flick no less, but instead it’s a cross that has sneaked in at the far post because everyone else misread it, a bit like the weirdly named Keanen Bennett’s goal against Shrewsbury a few weeks ago.  “It’s almost an embarrassment isn’t it?” says Stuart really getting to grips with the reality of commentating on Ipswich Town in the 21st century.

We’ve watched seventy-eight minutes now, Town trail 3-1 and Jack Lankester replaces Armando Dobra. “Will that make much difference Mick?” asks Stuart , probably having worked out by now that it won’t. But with four minutes remaining of normal time a punt forward is controlled by James Norwood who lays the ball off for little Alan Judge to score simply and unexpectedly for Town. “That came out of nothing” says Stuart,  not having yet realised that this is true of nearly every goal scored in the third division.

In the remaining minutes Mark McGuinness has a shot which might have been an equaliser if hit harder and wider of Travers in the Swindon goal and Swindon make a final substitution to eke out the dying seconds before another home defeat is confirmed.  To misquote Elton John, I guess that’s why they call us the Blues. The players must be so pleased that the supporters are once again safely locked down at home and not in Portman Road, but if any has particularly good hearing they can probably discern the boos emanating from sofas and easy chairs all across the town  as they leave the pitch.

What a disappointing afternoon it has been, but one in which Stuart Jarrold can at least feel reasonably happy that his inability to recognise Town players was matched by the Town players themselves, and that at least he had a really good excuse; unless they have all been in isolation for the past fortnight they didn’t.  For myself, I at least now understand that dream, because I can no longer recognise the Ipswich Town I knew either, but I shall be back again next week to try again.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The man entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Ipswich Town 1 Peterborough United 4

This morning I awoke in Belgium. A couple of days on the windy West Flanders coast have passed in a flurry of sightseeing interspersed with seafood and glasses of excellent Orval, Chimay brun, Westmalle dubbel and advocaat plus rides on the brilliant Kusttram, the world’s longest tramline (68 kilometres).  Tonight KV Oostende have a home game with Sint-Tuiden, which they will win one-nil, and the Albertparkstadion or Versluys Arena as the sponsors would have it known is but a handy dozen stops away on the tram from where I have been staying, but I am loyal to Ipswich Town and courtesy of the E40, A16, le shuttle, M20, M25 and A12 and my trusty Citroën C3 I return home arriving shortly after 11am in plenty of time to catch the train to Ipswich.  I hope I don’t regret all this travelling and effort.

It’s a breezy, almost Spring-like day and some of the hedgerows have been fooled into blooming; yellow gorse almost glows on the bank behind the station platform.  I wait behind four millennials with scrubby, wispy attempts at beards who are struggling to buy tickets from the automatic ticket machine; I thought these ‘youngsters’ knew all about this technology.  The wait seemed longer than it was and the train is not due for another five minutes or it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t thirteen minutes late. I separate myself from the dozen or so people waiting for the train by the metal footbridge and sit further up the platform where a large, lumbering man swigs from a can of Abbott Ale; he looks like Jonathan Meades if Jonathan Meades wore a tracky top and woolly hat and swigged Abbot Ale from a can.  The man leaps into action with a film camera as an inter-city train thunders through the station; he’s a boozy, Jonathan Meades-look-a-like train spotter.  The whispering station announcements are carried away on the wind but heck, the train will either turn up or it won’t. It does.

Ipswich is busy with police, mostly stood in pairs, a policeman and a policewoman, like coppers on dates. The Station Hotel is enjoying the custom of Peterborough United supporters. I proceed in a north westerly direction on my way to St Jude’s Tavern.  In Portman Road a man who may have learning difficulties stands awkwardly as he stuffs his wallet and programme in his coat pockets; unwisely I make eye contact.  “What do you think the score will be today then?” he says as if he’s known me all his life and asks me this every week.  “I’ve absolutely no idea whatsoever” I reply as I walk on.

At St Jude’s I buy a pie (steak & kidney) and a pint (Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde Mild) for a fiver and sit at a table with one of the small group of old gits who are in here every match day.  Two more old gits arrive and then a third.  “If you’re not careful he’ll tell you about his scarf” says one of them about another who is wearing a football scarf. Unfortunately he does tell me about his scarf, which features the names and badges of both Ipswich Town and Fortuna Dusseldorf. The same man later relates how he lost his rucksack in Brussels and got on the wrong train, going to Antwerp instead of Bruges.  My eyes glaze over and the other old gits start to laugh; my honest face reveals the boredom we all share.

After another pint of Oscar Wilde Mild (£3.20) and more conversation, some of it about a big woman called Diane, who they know and I don’t, I make for Portman Road and the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. I don’t really know why but I buy a programme (£3.50), perhaps because it’s not every week we play Peterborough United. I sit down as the teams appear from the hole in the corner of the stadium.  Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, predictably, and today he is accompanied by young Elwood his heir. Pat from Clacton is here too and she knew I’d be here, even though I’ve been in Belgium.  The game begins with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and kicking it mostly towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood when not going sideways and backwards.  The referee, Mr Andy Woolmer possesses the appearance of a vertically challenged skinhead, but in common with his two assistants he wears a salmon pink shirt T-shirt affair rather than a Ben Sherman.  The salmon pink shirts are possibly the result of Peterborough United’s decision to don a largely black kit, although with burgundy-coloured raglan sleeves and candy pink socks; for a football kit I find it overly camp.

The game begins in a swirl of passing and running about and these opening minutes are entertaining with the promise of a good match.  Peterborough, with their raglan sleeves hugging their muscular shoulders win the game’s first corner and the first shot ensues, a volley from Mark Beevers which Town goalkeeper Will Norris saves.   A tall man with quite long hair arrives late and shuffles along in front of Pat from Clacton and me; he sits next to me and places a large rucksack beneath his seat.   The noise in the ground is what you might expect from a football match although the Sir Bobby Robson stand supporters succeed in bringing the atmosphere down a notch with a typical rendition of the half speed, dirge version of “When the Town go marching in”; it’s as if they are toy bunnies whose Duracell batteries have all run down at once.

Back on the pitch and Town’s Luke Woolfenden appears to have recently visited a barbershop, or bought a little hat; fellow Blue James Wilson wears a matching design.  Behind me two blokes with local accents talk roughly and indistinctly as if they have mouths full of bees and every now and then I get a hint of body spray or eau de cologne, which smells faintly either of herbs or perhaps toilet duck.  Pat from Clacton decides to see if the popular crooner Ed Sheeran is here today and trains her telephoto lens on the executive boxes in whatever the West Stand is called nowadays.  I am impressed and a little worried that Pat knows where to point her camera to find the ginger multi-millionaire.  A man sat in front of Pat and me who has heavily brylcreemed hair suggests that Ed only comes to Cup matches, I make the point that he wouldn’t see many games in that case.  Pat soon shows me a grainy snap which confirms that Ed is ‘in the building’, although apparently he likes to leave early to beat the rush.  We coin the term ‘Patarazzi’ before Kayden Jackson wins a first corner for Town and some of the 1,908 Peterborough supporters in the Cobbold stand begin chanting “Who the fucking hell are you?” and then answer their own enquiry, albeit incorrectly, with “Shit Norwich City, you’re just a shit Norwich City”.  It’s not for nothing that the innate wit and ready repartee of people from Peterborough has never been mentioned before.  Displaying a misplaced and overblown faith in their own sense of superiority and importance which helps to explain the Brexit vote, the Sir Bobby Robson standers respond to the Peterborough-ites with chants of “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich”.

Fifteen minutes pass and wing back on-loan Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt has to be replaced by jazz trumpeter Myles Kenlock.  Luke leaves the arena gingerly drawing the top of the right leg of his shorts up to reveal an expanse of what we must guess is injured thigh.  A group of seagulls hover overhead, floating on the wind and getting a free view of the game.   Five minutes later and there is a rainbow above the corner of the Cobbold and Sir Bobby Robson stands, but it’s just reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets and has no bearing on the game although it’s not long before James Wilson fouls Peterborough’s Siriki Dembele in the penalty area and the linesman tells Mr Woolmer that he should award a penalty to the away team;  Ivan Toney scores as he sees Luke Norris feint to his right giving him the opportunity to coolly roll the ball to the goalkeeper’s left before Norris can react and follow the direction of the actual ball.

“It’s no Super Bowl” says one of the blokes behind me oddly, but in a rare moment of intelligibility. After 33 minutes the match is possibly even less like the Super Bowl, whatever that means, as Town goalkeeper Luke Norris attempts to dribble the ball around Peterborough’s Sammie Smozdics, but fails in his attempt thus allowing Sammie to score one of the easiest goals it is possible to score.  Is this the same Norris that used to be in Coronation Street I wonder to myself. Pat and I are disappointed but remain optimistic of a comeback. “If we can just get a quick goal” says Pat and I add fuel to optimism’s flames by expressing my sudden belief that being two goals behind isn’t really that different to being just one down, in fact it’s the same thing. Pat look⁹⁸s at me a little weirdly.  The blokes behind me leave their seats and don’t return before half time.  Four minutes of added time fail to deliver the quick goal that Pat from Clacton had been hoping for.

The toilet, the half-time scores and a koetjes reep (Flemish or Dutch for chocolate bar) await me.  It’s a particularly fine chocolate bar for which some of the proceeds go to fund Mercy Ships a charity which provides free surgery in sub-Saharan Africa for people in need and helps fight poverty and disease.  I flick through the over-priced and overly thick match programme, the front cover of which make me think it’s Christmas still; I think it’s the red lettering with dark background and the little white spots which look like snowflakes or fairy dust.  The featured player today in the programme is Gwion Edwards and for my amusement I read the largely boring, clichéd piece to myself in the voice of uncle Bryn from Gavin and Stacey.  There is still time to have a quick chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison before at six minutes past four the second half begins.

The blokes behind me have returned and unless they are simply calling out random small groups of numbers between two and six are deep in discussion about the formations of the teams.  I’m bored already and Pat from Clacton tells me how she’s having a baked potato for her tea, she always has baked potato for Saturday tea and always starts thinking about her tea when the football gets a bit too much to bear.  It’s not just a baked potato of course, there’s crab sticks too and other stuff I can’t remember; it’s a small feast with a baked potato as the centre piece.  I tell her I will be having sausage and mash, and it’s true, I will.

It’s only ten past four and the diminutive Siriki Dembele scores a third goal for Peterborough, perhaps whilst Ipswich’s defenders are wondering what they’ve got for tea. From the Cobbold stand it sounds as if the Peterborough supporters are singing “Ernie, Ernie, gives us a wave” and the huge white cross girder between the floodlights on the Sir Bobby Robson stand takes on a faint orange glow as it reflects the rays of the slowly sinking sun.  The Peterborough fans are now in cruise control and break into that old favourite “Is this a library”,  possibly because they have genuinely never been in a library and are curious.

Ipswich have been playing alright in that they have played attractively enough, but without really looking like they will score a goal.  It’s twenty-five to five now and Sammie Smozdics scores again for Peterborough as Ipswich’s defenders prove sluggish returning from an impromptu drinks break by the dugouts; getting the opposition out of position with a pitch-side drinks party seems like a useful tactic.  This fourth goal leads to a mass evacuation of the ground and I wonder how I missed hearing the unpleasant “Woo-oo, Woo-oo, Woo-oo” sound that the woman with the strange Irish accent always tells me about every time I visit a Portman Road toilet.   The old dear and old boy who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me get up to go. “We can see you sneaking out” says Pat from Clacton.  “I’m not sneaking, I’m proud to be going” says the old dear twisting logic to try and make a virtue of her despicable fickleness.

With hopes of anything other than misery and defeat receding faster than former Town centre forward Steve Parkin’s hair, Pat from Clacton tells me about a TV programme she will be watching tonight in which celebrities dress up as animals and sing whilst other celebrities have to guess who the disguised celebrities are.  I had thought Belgium was an odd country.

There is time for James Norwood to raise Town supporters’ spirits by a tiny amount by scoring a penalty after being hacked down by the lanky Mark Beevers, but nothing else occurs to ease the pain.  Ten minutes plus five minutes of added on time elapse and all that happens of note is that a shot from Peterborough’s Jack Taylor heads over the cross bar towards me and Pat from Clacton; the ball smacks the seats in front of us and unbeknown to us at the time also hits young Elwood on the back of the head.  Ever-present Phil comforts the lad and a paramedic gives him an ice pack to hold over the bump that he says has formed; it’s sad end to a depressing afternoon, but at least Pat from Clacton’s got a baked potato to look forward to, and I’ve got sausage and mash.

Ipswich Town 0 Swansea City 1


Despite being fortunate enough to grow up and go to school in Suffolk, I was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I lived until I was a few months old and my parents moved to my mother’s home village of Shotley  and took me and my sister with them, like the good parents that they were.  The nearest Football League club to Haverfordwest is Swansea City, (still Swansea Town when I was born) and there is an argument that says I might follow their fortunes, but I don’t.  The dual nationality comes in handy when Wales do well in the rugby and I like leeks,  cheese on toast, Ivor the Engine, Sgorio  and daffodils; but that’s as Welsh as I am see.  I wouldn’t normally mention it but today Town play Swansea City, and I’ve written this first paragraph in a Welsh accent. 

At the railway station it’s another gloriously warm, cloudless day and sunlight glints off the tracks.  The only travellers are all bound for Ipswich and the match; the train is on time.  The carriage is sparsely populated and I share it with a hard looking woman and two young children, a girl and a boy.  As the train arrives into Colchester she scolds them in a harsh voice that sounds like a man’s. “Drake, McKenna get away from the door”.  I can’t help but derive amusement from the names of children nowadays, it’s my age.  The children seem almost to roll their eyes as she speaks.  Pleasingly they leave the train at Colchester and twenty five minutes later I arrive peacefully in Ipswich.

Ipswich is best under a blue sky and everything is beautiful as I walk up Princes Street and past the peeling paint of Portman Road with its ragged club flag to St Jude’s Tavern, which is dingy and the customers are reassuringly as old and ugly as ever. I order a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50)  Nethergate Venture.  At the bar I meet Kev’ who I know from my days with Wivenhoe Town.  Kev’ is wearing a dark flat cap which in the gloom of St Jude’s looks like a beret.  I am wearing my “Allez les bleus” T-shirt today and tell him I thought the French had come to take me “home” to where I imagine I belong  –  that’s France, not Wales.   I sit with the regular old gits who assemble here on match days.  I talk to one of them (Phil) about statues of footballers and tell him that even Carlisle United has one, although I can’t remember who it is a statue of. Phil suggests it’s not a footballer but one of the Hairy Bikers because he knows one of them is from Cumbria.  I tell him the Hairy Biker he’s thinking of is from Barrow In Furness, where the nuclear submarines come from.  I drain my glass and fetch a pint of Butcomb Gold (£3.60), which seems livelier than the Venture even though I can’t help thinking Butcomb might be a West Country word for anus.

With the big hand heading up the clock face towards the figure eight, the pub empties and carried on a gentle human tide I soon find myself back in Portman Road.  A selection of people are hawking copies of the Turnstile Blue fanzine where Portman Road meets Sir Alf Ramsey Way and I buy one (£1);  it’s issue 20 and it’s much like the previous nineteen in its tone, but it’s nice when things are familiar.  Unusually there are queues to get into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand; not because of weight of numbers but because not all the turnstiles are open.  Nevertheless, despite my desire to be French I like a good queue to get in the ground; it carries a faint hint of the ‘big match’ atmosphere, which is the best 17,247 people can really hope for in a 30,000 seat stadium.  I enter turnstile number seven and wish the bespectacled female operator a happy Easter as she returns my freshly scanned season ticket card to me.  She looks up, surprised as if she’d forgotten about the resurrection.

Bladder drained, I occupy a seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just along from Pat from Clacton.  Pat is fed up because a large man in a red hat is sat directly in front of her today and she’s only short; whichever way she looks a big red head is in her field of vision.  We sit and wait for the teams to appear from the tunnel.   

Town have been officially relegated for over a week now and today’s match is amongst the most pointless they have ever played, childishly I live in the hope that  they will therefore treat it as a bit of fun, a bit like testimonial games  are supposed to be.  Would anyone be bothered if the two teams each agreed to play a 2-3-5 formation?   I am not optimistic for this however as professional football tends to take itself much too seriously, like many of the fans, as the drivel that appears on social media testifies.   The teams are announced and my hopes of football for fun are dashed. 

The flags of tiny mascots and larger furry mascots sway to an amplified soundtrack of swirling music giving an undeserved aura of grandeur to the two teams as they walk out for this meaningless encounter, but I stand and applaud nevertheless, swept up with the lie that this match is bigger than really it is. As the game begins the noise level simmers down and a degree of reality returns. Town are hopefully aiming at the goal just to the left of me, ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton; they inevitably wear blue and white shirts adorned with the unwelcome red adidas stripes and that nasty sponsors’ logo. In crisp white shorts and black shorts Swansea look like Germany, they are the Teutonic Taffies.

“One Dylan Thomas, There’s only one Dylan Thomas” sing the male voice choir from Swansea from the top corner of the Cobbold Stand, or perhaps they don’t. A serious looking steward collects blue and white balloons that have drifted from the stand, thereby  suppressing someone’s expression of joy; no doubt the balloons had strayed dangerously close to the pitch. I like to think that as part of the club’s Community programme the balloons will later be released at the birthday parties of deprived children. Next to me Pat from Clacton continues to glower at the big red hat on the big head of the big man sitting in front of her. On the touchline Paul Lambert is celebrating Easter with a new jumper, a grey one, an infinite number of shades lighter than his usual black one, and people still accuse Scots of being dour.

On the pitch referee Mr Darren England, which seems a good name for a football referee, makes himself unpopular with the home support by seemingly giving fouls against Ipswich players and not Swansea ones.  “You’re not fit to referee Subbuteo, you tiny little bugger” bawls an incensed voice from somewhere behind me, failing to notice that being tiny is actually one of the main requirements of being a Subbuteo referee along with being made from brittle plastic and glued into a circular base.   The game is rather boring and Swansea are hogging the ball; like every other club that has been to Portman Road this season, they have the better players, the better team.  Forty minutes pass and Town’s Flynn Downes gets into the Swansea penalty area and wins a corner. Will Keane misses a header and scuffs the ball against a post, the ball bounces about like it’s made of rubber bands before Trevoh Chalobah sends it flying past the other post into the stand.  Sixty seconds later, give or take, another corner is won and Toto N’siala heads Alan Judge’s kick solidly over the cross bar. The supporters behind the goal are getting almost as much possession of the ball as Andre Dozzell.  Pat and I are breathless at the sudden burst of attacking football from Town and are glad for the rest that half-time soon brings.

I use the facilities beneath the stand, eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and catch up on the half-time scores.  A young man in a shirt and tie and smart trousers compliments me on my ‘Allez les Bleus’ T-shirt, “Cool T-shirt” he says brightly. He’s not wrong.  The match stats on the TV screen above the concourse are blatantly wrong however, claiming Ipswich have had eight shots to Swansea’s six; it’s as if the stats are being reported by Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign.  I return to the stand to talk to Ray who confesses to being underwhelmed by the first half.

At six minutes past four the game resumes.  I laugh when Gwion Edwards stretches to head the ball by the touchline then tumbles out of sight over the perimeter wall; “well for me” to quote Mick Channon, it’s the best move of the match so far.  Happily, Gwion quickly bounces back up and plays on, but that’s the sort of entertainment end of season games need.  Minutes later Dean Gerken makes a  quite spectacular low,  diving, ‘finger-tip save’ from a Daniel James shot before the very tiny, thirty-four year old Wayne Routledge, whose shorts almost reach his calves, runs the ball over the goal line and is met with jeers and guffaws from the appreciative crowd in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.   But Wayne has a friend in fate today and within a few minutes a shot rebounds off Town’s right hand post and straight onto the turf in front of Wayne who is quick enough not to miss an open goal and Swansea are winning.

The attendance is announced as 17,247 with 557 of those being from Swansea; Collin Quaner and Kayden Jackson replace Andre Dozzell and Will Keane.  Wayne Routledge is replaced by Nathan Dyer.  “I can’t believe we’re losing again” says Pat from Clacton.  I make a sympathetic humming noise in reply, I couldn’t think of any proper words to say.   Behind Pat sit two large middle aged women. “We don’t really get the sun here, do we” says one obviously engrossed in the game, before adding “Coronation Street’s on tonight”.

Town struggle to equalise and Pat and I are a little despondent, “I don’t really enjoy coming here anymore” she says “It’s not like it used to be”.  We are Ipswich’s spoilt generation who remember the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  But Pat is already planning to renew her season ticket and might get one for her young niece too.   Of course I am going to renew mine as well as will ever-present Phi who never misses game; I’m looking forward to the big discount when the other 13, 996 sign up.  Pat takes a photograph using the 20x zoom lens on her compact Sony camera and picks out her brother stood in the North Stand, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen all afternoon. 

Time drifts by under a hazy blue sky and at last the stadium clock turns nine minutes to five.  It’s been a disappointing hour and a half of football and to add insult to injury we are forced to sit through six minutes of time added on; as if relegation wasn’t bad enough we are now all in detention.  Hopes are raised with a last minute corner and Dean Gerken leaves his goal to join in the penalty area melee at the far end; I stand up and lurch forward as if to join him too, but realise just  in time that that sort of commitment is generally frowned upon nowadays.  Little Alan Judge’s corner kick is poorly judged and sails away over everyone’s heads anyway.  Finally Mr Darren England makes a belated and vain bid for popularity by blowing the final whistle.

Normally the team does a lap of honour or appreciation around the pitch after the last game of the season, but because the last game of this season will be against Leeds United that lap is occurring today.  Having been relegated the Town players don’t want thousands of oafish Yorkshireman flicking v’s at the them and screaming at  them from the Cobbold Stand to “Fuck Off” as they wander round clutching assorted  babies and toddlers and waving nicely.   The players re-emerge from the tunnel without delay and I slavishly applaud as they drift by beyond a wall of stewards; within a couple of minutes I go home for my tea.