Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 0

I have been in the office, where I now work just one day a week, since eight o’clock this morning and it’s now half past four in the afternoon.  I have wasted enough of my day just existing and accumulating the means to continue my shallow, feckless Western lifestyle, now it’s time to live and be shallow and feckless.  I check my mobile telephone. At 16:12 I received a message from Pat from Clacton. Pat tells me she was joking last week when she told me she would not be at the match tonight, but then proceeds to tell me she won’t be at the match tonight.  Pat says she’s still suffering the after-effects of Covid, which apparently includes heavy breathing. As much as watching a football match with a 1968 vintage Jane Birkin appeals to me, it’s probably best for Pat that she stays in Clacton tonight.  The good news however is that Pat won £51.25 playing whist whilst on holiday in Great Yarmouth, but the real point of the message, I think, is to ask me to photograph ever-present Phil who never misses a game when he celebrates Town having scored a goal.  Pat from Clacton always photographs ever-present Phil when he celebrates a Town goal at Portman Road, it’s a ritual like a state funeral or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Tonight, Town are playing Derby County in a third division fixture, something that has never ever happened before in this universe, like Boris Johnson telling the truth.  If casually asked how many times I had seen Derby County play I would have guessed at a mere fifteen or sixteen. In fact, I have discovered that Derby County are one of twenty professional clubs I’ve seen play over thirty times.  Despite two League Championships, Brian Clough and Robert Maxwell, Derby County have seemingly made little impression on me, perhaps because of their anonymous monochrome kit or their uninteresting out of town stadium which has meant I know little of Derby itself. What is Derby famous for? Rolls Royce engines and East Midlands airport?  Still without answers to these questions time passes and a little short of two hours after receiving Pat from Clacton’s text message I walk through the front door of the Arbor House formerly the Arboretum pub; it’s heaving with Friday night revellers. I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£4.00) and a Scotch egg (£4.50) and retire to the beer garden to wait for my Scotch egg and the arrival of Mick.  As the evening light recedes into darkness I struggle to read the programme (£3.50) I had bought earlier in the club shop after I left work, but this is partly because the programme is hopelessly dull too, despite its rainbow colours on the front page, which also features an un-flattering cartoon image of George Edmundson in which he looks uncannily like Kryten from the BBC TV comedy series Red Dwarf.

By the time Mick arrives I’ve eaten my Scotch egg and am amusing myself with a private mobile phone-based exhibition of the photos from my holiday in Brittany whilst unavoidably hearing the conversation of the middle-aged couples on the next table which concerns whether they would go to a concert by Ed Sheeran at Portman Road. The consensus seems to be that they would go “just to say they’d seen him”.   It seems to me a bit like flushing a couple of fifty-pound notes down the khasi.  Over by the window to the gents’ toilet two old boys, possibly on their way to, or from, a ‘Tarts and Tramps’ fancy dress party shuffle in, one wears a floppy hat and talks loudly about the range of beers at the Moon and Mushroom pub in Swilland, whilst the other sounds like he’s growling.

When Mick arrives he buys us both pints of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride plus a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps, which pleasingly have only travelled from Wormingford near Colchester, some 33 kilometres away.  Our conversation this evening is punctuated with laughter as we discuss burials and the disposal of people’s ashes and how people seem to have become strangely sentimental lately.  With kick-off not until 8 o’clock this evening, courtesy of Sky TV’s broadcasting schedule, we have more time than usual to laugh about such things and don’t notice everyone else leaving for the match and it’s closer to kick-off than usual when we eventually leave, making a sharp exit through the back gate.

Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way are less busy than usual when we arrive because most people are already inside the ground.  As I hasten through the turnstiles, I can hear former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster ‘giving it large’ as he reads out the team line-ups in his archetypal radio DJ manner; he sounds even more Tony Blackburn than usual tonight, no doubt for the benefit of Sky TV. By the time I take my seat next but one to the man from Stowmarket, the teams are on the pitch, and the Town team are forming a collaborative huddle preparing to start the match.  It’s Town who get first go with the ball I think, I’m not really paying attention yet as I get to grips with seeing Ipswich wearing all black and Derby in maroon or burgundy shirts and white shorts.  I imagine Derby think they look exotic like AS Roma or Sparta Prague, but they remind me of Northampton Town.  As for the Ipswich team, they look like Johnny Cash, though I guess that’s preferable to looking like Ed Sheeran.

With the start of the game come the chants from both sets of supporters, Derby transporting us back to the 1970’s by repeating “Derby, Derby, Derby” over and over again to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’, just like Town fans used to chant “Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” in that run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1975, the year Derby last won what I believe is now called the Premier League.  “Score in a minute, we’re gonna score in a minute” continue the Derbeians less nostalgically but more optimistically.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” add the Town fans from what in 1975 was the North Stand, and there are even a few chants of the same from the top of what was the West Stand.  It’s a sign that the stadium must be as good as full to capacity.

 A young bloke with a beard sits himself down in Pat from Clacton’s seat. I give him a look like Paddington Bear. “Is this seat free” he asks a little nervously. “Well, there’s no one sitting there tonight” I tell him in a voice that’s as close as I can get to sounding like a Suffolk Johnny Cash.  He smiles broadly.  I think I’ve put him at his ease.  On the pitch the play is frenetic, with both teams trying to play neat, passing football but frequently interrupting one another. Sam Morsy is booked after just ten minutes for a foul on the wonderfully named Lewis Dobbin. Ipswich have more success at getting close to their opponents’ goal and win three early corners, George Edmundson heads wide and Tyreece John-Jules clearly dives in the penalty area having won a few free-kicks already elsewhere.  I thought it was an obvious dive; the way he had already established eye-contact with referee as he fell gave it away, a bit like a Labrador staring at you as you eat your dinner.  He should be told to leave any desire to cheat in North London where it belongs, or Kieran McKenna will write to his mum.

“Come on Dorby” comes the chant from the Cobbold Stand and I think I detect a hint of a Midlands accent. Soon the away support are riffing on a familiar theme,  “Football in a library, de-de-dur” is followed by “No noise from the Tractor Boys” and “Shall we sing a song for you” as the youth of Derby vainly goad the pensioners and families in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, who stoically wait for Town to take the lead before thinking about whether they might start to clap or break a smile.  But the ground has gone a little quiet, they’re right.

The half is half over and Derby equalise in the competition to see who can have most players booked as  the name of James Chester is recorded in referee Mr Swabey’s notebook.   The game is almost a third over before Derby win their first corner.  “Are you alright mate?” says the bloke behind me to his son, who answers “Yeah”.   My view of the pitch is temporarily blocked as the people in front all stand up to let pass someone, who I guess couldn’t wait thirteen minutes until half-time for a pee.  A chant of “Blue and White Army” builds quickly and then falls away just as soon.  I notice that Derby have no sponsor’s name on their shirts.  “Peter Sykes, please contact the nearest steward” announces the voice of Stephen Foster.  I look but can’t see anyone approaching their nearest steward. It’s not that the game isn’t holding my attention, it is, and it is unpredictable, but the goalkeepers could have made hammocks from their goal nets and it wouldn’t really have mattered.  Perhaps to relieve his own boredom, Derby ‘keeper Joe Wildsmith gestures wildly at the linesman for not flagging Kayden Jackson offside.  The linesman predictably ignores the wild Wildsmith,  but would probably secretly like to give him ‘the finger’.   The half ends with hopes of a goal as Town win a free-kick on the edge of the Derby penalty box.  Children at the front of the stand prepare to video the event with their mobile phones, but their youthful hope and enthusiasm is dashed as Lee Evans shot avoids the defensive wall but not Joe Wildsmith. Three minutes of added on time are announced with a flourish by Stephen Foster but bring forth nothing to justify his optimistic tones.

The half time break sees me join Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad Michael ‘down the front’ where I encourage Harrison to buy ‘Shufflemania’, the new LP by Robyn Hitchcock which is released today.  Ray regales me with a story about his dad who used to drive the Ipswich Town team bus in the 1960’s.  Ray’s dad was known as ‘The Cat’ by the Town players and he maintained that this was because he would play in goal in 6 or 7-a-side warm up games when only twelve or thirteen players would travel as there was only one substitute allowed, and before 1965 no substitutes at all.  Ray was to find out later from a Town player of the period that his dad wasn’t called ‘The Cat’ because of his goal keeping prowess, but because late one night, having returned from a distant away trip , he backed the bus off Constantine Road and over the club cat.

The second half begins with renewed vigour from Ipswich and Derby fans alike who both sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” as if vying with one another in some sort of choral competition.  The encouragement seemingly works and just seven minutes into the half we witness the first shot from open play that is worthy of the name as Marcus Harness conjures up a half-volley that is blocked.   It’s a symptom of Town now dominating possession and looking the team most likely to score.  In the Cobbold Stand the Derby fans sing a song which to my ears sounds as if it’s about a man, possibly called Michael, who found an octopus, but I doubt that’s right. “ We forgot that you were here” respond the Town fans in the old North Stand in a curious role reversal; I conclude that the half-time break can do funny things to people and to prove the point the Derby fans produce a chant which sounds like the theme from the Addams Family, but then it is nearly Hallowe’en.

The second half is a better ‘watch’ for home fans even if it is ‘all up the other end’ from my perspective in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. In the sixty-seventh minute it all gets much better still as Kayden Jackson breaks down the right, loses the ball but carries on running as the unsuspecting Derby defender decides on a back pass which is nothing more than a pass to Jackson who shoots on goal.  The ball hits the post but rebounds to Wes Burns who has plenty of time to hit the ball into the net and give Town a lead which they now probably deserve, and they haven’t even made any substitutions yet.  I remember to take ever-present Phil’s photo for Pat from Clacton as Phil and his son Elwood hold their arms aloft whilst grinning joyfully.  “E-i E-i E-i-o, Up the Football league we go” sing the Town fans, and not to be outdone the Derby fans sing the same before deciding that they would be better served by a chorus of the sneering “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.”

Tonight’s attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 28,415, with 1,777 of them being the people who have been shouting all evening about Derby and what poor supporters Ipswich fans are. Ipswich continue to be the better team however, and Kayden Jackson shoots the wrong side of the goal post, substitutions are made and with seven minutes left former Town player David McGoldrick tries to make amends for collecting much of his salary from Town whilst not actually playing, by kicking Wes Burns in the penalty area.  After pausing to decide if he should really give Ipswich a penalty, Mr Swabey points to the spot.  It seems he was right to pause for thought because sadly Town will waste the opportunity given to them.  “Jackson’s taking it! ” says the bloke behind me somewhat incredulously and his surprise proves well-founded as Kayden’s kick lacks both the pace and accuracy required unless the goalkeeper dives the wrong way.  Wildsmith dives the right way and the score remains 1-0. 

“Ken Rodwell, contact the nearest steward” announces Stephen Foster perhaps making up a surname laced with double entendre to help reduce the tension of the closing minutes as Derby win a rare corner.  Seven minutes of added on time are announced and at the first stoppage in play four Town players collapse to the ground.  I don’t think they’ve got the hang of this time-wasting thing, they’re surely meant to go down one at a time? 

Time moves on inexorably. “Got to be it” says the bloke behind me after what he thinks seven minutes feels like. “Got to be it” he says again a short while later and then again. “Got to be it, innit” he says before saying “Got to be” at least twice, and then inevitably it is it, the final whistle, and a tidal wave of relief floods from the stands, not because Derby had looked like scoring, but just because no one has any faith that Town can win a match that’s shown live on the telly, well they just did.

Ipswich Town 3 Cambridge United 0

If I had known on the third of April this year, as I made my way home from seeing Town lose 1-0 to Cambridge United, that tonight Town would again be playing Cambridge United, I would have been looking forward to it, even then.  I had been looking forward to that game back in April because I wanted revenge for a 2-1 home defeat to Cambridge over thirty years before in the season that Town last won the second division championship.  Back in 1991, entertaining, skilful, sexy Ipswich were beaten by a horrible Cambridge team managed by John Beck who had reduced the beautiful game to something like a cross between rugby league, cage fighting and carpet bombing. I’m a mild-mannered fellow, I don’t think I’m one to bear a grudge, but in this case, I seem to have made an exception; I hated that bloody Cambridge team and want revenge.

After over eight hours of my one day a week in the office, I decide that I have been here long enough and break free of the shackles of my desk, tablet and screen; I start to roam, then I’m in town; it’s a sadly depressing place at this time of day, everything is closed, it’s like a ruin. After I’ve browsed the books in Waterstones and bought my mother a bottle of Croft original sherry (£12.50) for her birthday from Sainsbury’s, where the very old man at the checkout struggles amusingly to remove the magnetic security tag, there’s nothing to do.  I take the sherry back to my car and head for the Arbor House, formerly known as the Arboretum.  I walk past the Axa Insurance building (formerly Guardian Royal Exchange) and through the window I see one those supposedly inspiring quotes printed on a wall. “Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered” it says. “Sod that”, I think.

At the top of High Street, what was once the Arboretum shines out like a beacon in the fading evening light, as pubs do. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) and a portion of ‘Very French French Fries’ (£7.00) which consists of thick cut chips intermingled with bits of bacon and brie. Out in the beer garden I sit and wait for Mick and cannot avoid hearing the conversation of three lads sat a few tables away.  They are talking football, it’s a boring conversation.  My Very French French Fries arrive before Mick does, but he’s not far behind and he orders some chips covered with stuff too; we talk of my recent holiday in France and the six football matches I went to, of the French resistance and German U-boat docks, of Rennes, Nantes and the long deceased (1514) Duchess Anne of Brittany and driving in French cities.

With beers drunk and chips eaten, we depart for Portman Road, a bit earlier than usual but it’s dark now and the lure of football under floodlights is drawing us in like moths to a flame, or even a floodlight.  Leaving Mick at the turnstiles to the Magnus Group Stand (formerly the plain old West Stand) in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk), I wish him ‘Bon match’ and strike out for turnstile 60 at the back of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand (formerly Churchman’s). The cheery young turnstile operator bids me hello, cheerily, and I thank her for doing whatever it is she does to let me into the temple of Sir Alf.

In the lower tier of the stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here, but Fiona isn’t and Pat from Clacton still has Covid, and for the first time ever I have arrived before the man who is definitely from Stowmarket. As I reach my seat stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us that kick-off will be delayed by 15 minutes because of an earlier incident on the Orwell Bridge, which has apparently caused traffic congestion in the town. I am left to stand alone and watch the pitch being heavily watered and  the stands fill up inexorably, which of course they do and before I know it the teams are striding onto the pitch and Fiona and the man from Stowmarket are sat beside me.  Before kick-off we observe a minute’s silence as mark of respect for the 174 football supporters killed in a stampede or crush at a match in Indonesia between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya. But for the roaring drone of a jet aeroplane above and a few coughs the silence is perfect and still.

When kick-off comes it is Town who get first go with the ball and are quickly into their swift passing game, producing slick interchanges of the ball down the right and crosses into the Cambridge penalty area.   Up in the Cobbold stand close to 2,000 Cantabrigians are gathered and many ramble through some unintelligible, tuneless mantra as the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand launch into their signature version of Boney M’s million-selling Christmas number one from 1978, although credit must also go to Harry Belafonte who first recorded it in 1956.  “Who the fuck? Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” continue the Cambridge boys rather mysteriously, as if they’d forgotten where they’d come to in the course of an 85 kilometre one hour journey.  

After the initial burst of noise from the excitement of kick-off, the stands fall quiet for a while, then Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball to raucous encouragement before being flagged offside. Town are on top, but the ball is moving too swiftly over the wet turf and through balls and forward passes are eluding the likes of Wes Burns and Freddie Ladapo.  When Cambridge get the ball they try to break quickly too, causing ripples of concern amongst the home crowd.  In fact, it is Cambridge who have the first shot that isn’t blocked, although the player responsible might have wished it had been as Jubril Okedina’s effort poses more threat to the people sat behind the goal than it does to Christian Walton’s clean sheet. 

The man from Stowmarket and I are swopping comments about the wet pitch; he says he is expecting to see a submarine surface any minute.  As long as the torpedoes are ours I tell him, and it’s not a Russian submarine,  he adds.  Nearly twenty minutes have been lost to history and talk of underwater craft; Conor Chaplin wins a free-kick on the edge of the Cambridge penalty area as he appears to be lifted off the ground by a challenge.  Chaplin gets back on his feet to lift the ball over the defensive wall nicely enough, but it’s an easy catch the Cambridge ‘keeper Dimitar Mitov. “De, de-de-de, de- fuckin’ useless” chant the Cambridge boys to the tune of Pigbags’ ‘Papa’s got a brand new pigbag’, which they obviously know reached number three in the UK singles chart in 1982.   The Town fans retaliate with the same chant just a few minutes later as full-back George Williams wellies the ball hopelessly into touch with all the finesse and control of Boris Johnson’s hair stylist.

In a break from tradition tonight at Portman Road, it is the away supporters who are telling the referee that he doesn’t know what he is doing as he resists the temptation to award free-kicks whenever a Cambridge player comes in contact with the wet grass.  Some habits die harder however, and the Cambridge fans are still the ones to ask “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” and as per usual no one takes them up on their kind offer.

Nearly half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich are dominating, their frequent crosses and forays down the flanks aren’t producing many shots that Mitov is having to save. Again, Cambridge spurn a rare chance when Sam Smith shoots both high and wide after a free-kick and low cross.  Cambridge are frustrating Town with their dense defending and as usual the Town supporters clam up when their team aren’t winning.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Cambridge fans, quickly following it up with “You’re supposed to be at home”, and I imagine a youth up in the Cobbold stand sat thinking “which chant criticising their support shall we sing next?” and someone else is saying “Oooh yeah, that’s a good one, let’s do that”.

Wes Burns can’t keep the ball in play from another forward pass and Pigbag’s only hit is heard for a third time; it’s getting boring now. But then Wes has more luck and Janoi Donacien heads one of his crosses narrowly wide before another cross sets up Leif Davis for a header which is blocked to give Town a corner. Both teams then win aimless corners and Town produce one of the finest moves of the half as Marcus Harness threads through a through ball for Wes Burns who then crosses to the far post for Leif Davis to strike the ball into the side netting.  Another corner follows and a minute of time is added on, but the score remains disappointingly blank which means that Cambridge are effectively winning.  The players leave the field to the opening bars of Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, another song from that wonderful year 1978.

With the half-time break I leave my seat to go and speak with Harrison and his dad; Ray isn’t here tonight because he is at the Ipswich Regent watching Steve Hackett, another of the community of literally immortal prog rockers from the 1970’s who just can’t stop playing.

The football resumes at seven minutes past nine and for the opening minutes the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier have renewed voice. “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant. “Fuck off Ipswich, Fuck Off Ipswich” respond the lads from the Cambridge Footlights Review satirically, before quickly remembering that they were meant to be criticising us for our poor support and switching to  “We forgot that you were here”.  We are no match for the untamed wit.

The second half is a repeat of the first,  but with more square passes from Ipswich and fewer successful through passes and crosses, but equally Cambridge hardly get forward at all. Something better change I think and with sixty-six minutes of the game gone forever Kyle Edwards replaces Wes Burns, Lee Evans usurps Dominic Ball and Tyreece John-Jules is the new Conor Chaplin.  Tonight’s attendance is announced as 26,414 with 1,745 being Cambridge fans and they sing “Football in a library, de-de-dur” as they continue to riff on the familiar theme for just a short while longer and sing another song in which at least half of the ‘words’ are really just noises made with their front teeth.

Everything is in place for the seventy-second minute, which arrives on time and sees Lee Evans play the ball out to Marcus Harness whose low cross is brilliantly but inadvertently flicked up in the air by a Cambridge defender. From where I’m sat it looks like the ball spins up and drops down under the cross bar, but in fact Tyreece John-Jules is the man to apply the coup de grace and Town lead 1-0.  What a relief, and once again the substitutions have worked almost instantly, as if some sort of magic wand has been waved.  Tonight, there is no fear that the magic will be undone with a sudden unwarranted equaliser and the reason for this is that within two minutes Town score again, this time Kyle Edwards possibly shaping up to cross the ball, but instead launching it into the far top corner from an improbable distance and bearing. It’s not luck, it’s the law of averages; if you cross the ball enough sooner or later a defender will deflect it favourably for you or a cross will go straight into the goal.

With fifteen minutes of normal time remaining Portman Road is filled with the noise of the home supporters emitting “lo-lo-los” and “Ei-Ei-Os” for all their worth. The transformation from the relative quiet of five minutes before is astonishing and the Cambridge chants of “Sing when you’re winning” don’t really begin to describe how fickle we are in our support for our team.

Kayden Jackson replaces Freddie Ladapo and Cambridge makes substitutions too, one of whom is former Town starlet Jack Lankester; the other is Fejiri Okenabirhie whose name is pronounced by PA man Stephen Foster with the verbal dexterity one would expect of a former BBC presenter, even if he was on Radio Suffolk.  The goals haven’t changed the game tonight, Town continue to plug away and Cambridge can only defend.  Sam Morsy hits a post with a shot which looked to be about to hit the net, and then with four minutes remaining of normal time a Tyreece John-Jules shot is blocked and spins across the penalty area, Kyle Edwards reacts with an alacrity that makes the Cambridge players around him look like they’ve been rolling joints for the past hour and steers the ball into the Cambridge goal with the outside of an outstretched foot.  

The ensuing joyful songs and chants are too much for the Cantabrigians, many of whom begin to head back to the sanctuary of the A14.  Four minutes of added on time are played and then it’s history, Ipswich Town have beaten Cambridge United 3-0, it’s the sound thrashing that we’ve been waiting to give them for thirty years.  It’s just as well revenge is a dish best served cold.

Quevilly-Rouen Metropole 1 Stade Lavallois 3

The Rouen metropolitan area is massive, with a population of over 700,000. It is a little surprising therefore that Rouen hasn’t had a first division football team since 1985.  FC Rouen was that team, but the previously less successful Quevilly-Rouen Metropole is now the more ‘senior’ club in the city, this being their third season in Ligue 2 since 2017, with FC Rouen being in the amateur fourth division (Ligue National 2). Both clubs play at the Stade Robert-Diochon, named after a former FC Rouen player and situated in the suburb of Le Petit-Quevilly.

Returning from holiday in Brittany on a Saturday, a stop in Rouen was planned having seen that Quevilly-Rouen would be at home that Saturday evening and I’d always wanted to tread in the footsteps of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Staying in a city centre hotel, it is too far to walk to Stade Robert-Diochon, and Google maps tells us that tram line T4 runs from Vieux Marche to Zenith-Parc Expo. Disappointingly, there is in fact no tram only an articulated bus, although the bus stop, which is actually on Boulevard des Belges, does look like a tram stop having an elevated platform.  The fare is 1 euro 70 and the journey takes about 15 minutes, crossing over the murky, swirling waters of the River Seine and on through the mostly rather dull looking suburbs.  The Parc-Zenith Expo bus stop is less than 50 metres from the stadium and the guichets from which match tickets are sold are at the back of the Tribune Lenoble, which is directly on Avenue des Canadiens.  Tickets in the two lateral stands are either 12 euros for the Tribune Lenoble, which faces west and therefore faces the setting sun, or 20 euros for the larger Tribune Horlaville where the posh people and ‘wags’ sit. Feeling flush, stretching for the hi-life and not wanting the sun in our eyes my wife Paulene and I opt for the 20 euro seats.

After the usual frisking by some very miserable looking stewards/bouncers I make my way to the club boutique, which is not so much a boutique as a bloke stood behind a lock-up counter with some shirts hanging up behind him.  There isn’t much in the way of desirable souvenirs to be had unfortunately, although the colour A5 programmes is free of charge, as is the custom in France.  To get to our seats we must have our tickets checked and walk behind the steel framed temporary stand behind the goal, we are about to head off when out of the corner of my eye I spot an emaciated looking furry, red shape sloping off towards the main stand.  “Monsieur, un photo s’il vous plait?” I call to him and sportingly the creature stops and poses for a couple of snaps with my wife before heading on his way.  He was very friendly and obliging, even if he was one of the most sickly-looking club mascots I have ever seen, with his mangy looking red fur flecked with yellow ‘spots’.

The main stand at the stadium is quite impressive; a tilted concrete deck with a row of red executive boxes seemingly suspended above it beneath a light and airy roof. There is a raised concourse where I find a buvette from which I buy 50cl of beer for 5 euros, a hot dog for 4 euros and a cup of Fanta for 3 euros. The man serving in the buvette speaks some English and we enter a reciprocal agreement in which he helps me with my French and I help him to add three, four and five and calculate the change from a twenty euro note.

Having found our seats and whilst consuming our drinks and my hot dog the teams are announced by the leather jacketed female stadium announcer ,who will watch the game leaning on the fence between the dug outs. The game begins, with Quevilly-Rouen or QRM as they are called, getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Laval supporters who are at the city end of the ground, the Tribune Erdre.  Presumably, QRM’s red and yellow home kit is in the wash because they are sporting a boring, immeasurably dull all-black kit, with Laval in its polar opposite, all-white.  As an opening gambit QRM simply boot the ball forward into touch as if playing rugby, a surprisingly direct, but aimless approach. Unfortunately, it is a precursor of what is to come, QRM are terrible and although they do manage a shot on goal it is blazed wide.  In the sixth minute Laval’s number nine, Geoffrey Durbant, a man whose mop of dyed blond hair looks like a small fleece, falls in the penalty area under a challenge from the stupendously lanky Till Cissokho; referee Monsieur Remi Landry does not hesitate to award Laval a penalty kick.  Durbant recovers from his fall to score from the spot as he shoots a little to the left of centre whilst World Cup winner Lilian Thuram’s cousin Yohann, the QRM goalkeeper, helpfully dives to the right.  The knot of fifty or so Laval fans at the other end of the ground and the bloke sitting behind me celebrate wildly.

Four minutes later and Laval produce some excellent play down the right with an interchange of passing ending with Durbant crossing the ball. The ball is flicked on by Zakaria Naidji as Thuram flaps for the ball and it arcs across to the far post where Julien Maggioti places it simply into the middle of the empty net with that most humbling of goals, the stooping header. Laval lead 2-0.

It seems a matter of how many more goals will Laval score.  QRM are abysmal, they have no apparent plan and some of them seem to lack basic skills; after just ten minutes Laval look likely to win, and win comfortably.  But strangely the expected goals do not happen and ten minutes later QRM have found their mojo and are competing.  Unfortunately, the first physical manifestation of this is not a goal but Garland Gbelle being the first player to be booked, as he fouls Maggioti.  The booking is a good one though with Monsieur Landry somewhat alarmingly brandishing his yellow card as if making a Nazi salute. 

In the Tribune Lenoble the bare-chested QRM ultras are likely to be feeling a little chilly as the sun sets behind the Tribune Horlaville, but they’re not letting on but they’re chants are at best repetitive.  To be honest the atmosphere inside the ground isn’t exactly fervid but the app on my mobile will later record that Paulene and I are two of three-thousand souls here tonight in the 12,000 capacity stadium, so body count-wise it’s similar to watching Colchester United on a slightly better than average day.  Suddenly a shrill, piercing shout from somewhere behind me to my left penetrates my ear drum. It happens again and again and sound like a small yapping dog.  In fact, the shrieks are emanating from a small boy, probably about eight or nine years-old, and he is screaming “Allez QRM”.  Sadly no one tries to throttle him, but  I do admire his passionate support for his team and can sense his frustration with them and that he is a lone voice in the Tribune Horlaville.  If there were any more voices like his however I might have to tear my ears off or beat my brains out on the concrete steps of the stand.

With twelve minute to go until half time Laval record their first booking of the evening as Djibril Diaw attempts to remove the legs of Mamadou Camara, but is spotted doing so by Monsieur Landry. The evening is now coming on and as the light fades and the warmth of the day subsides I can smell the lush turf, probably for the first time this season, although this is in part due to the pitch having seemingly been heavily watered, as evidenced by the spurt of spray flicked up from the grass as the ball travels across it.

A minute later Gbelle’s shot from a free-kick is saved by Alexis Sauvage in the Laval goal but he can’t keep hold of the ball and it is inelegantly bundled into the net by Christophe Diedhiou from embarrassingly close range.  Laval have a goal back and the nearby squealing child simply won’t shut up.  The half plays out in a series of cheap free-kicks and Laval take a two bookings to one lead to match the actual score line as Dembo Sylla’s attempts to steal Gustavo Sangare’s shirt provoke more dubious arm action from Monsieur Landry.

Half-time brings no particular delights, although out of a total of nine advertisements in the programme I count two for boulangeries and patisseries, two for restaurants and one for retirement flats with a restaurant on the ground floor.  

The second half begins at a minute past eight o’clock and continues as the first half ended with a succession of fouls and attempts to win free-kicks almost as if the players are challenging the referee to make wrong decisions.  Six minutes into the half and Laval’s Anthony Goncalves is the next player to see the yellow card after he clatters Sangare.  A minute later Bryan Goncalves dithers for Laval rather than booting it clear or seeing a pass and is robbed of the ball by Camara, but before Camara can shoot, Goncalves recovers brilliantly to hook the ball away from him, it’s an exciting piece of play but only serves as the prelude to a run of several consecutive fouls which see three Laval players booked in the space of seven minutes.  After  Bryan Goncalves’ booking, Naidji beats two players to get himself inside the penalty area before tumbling to the ground and being booked for ‘simulation’, a term that might refer both to the act of simulating diving from a high board and simulating being fouled.  The final booking for the time being, of Antony Goncalves for tugging a shirt, leads to a free-kick from which, after the ball is booted and headed back and forth for a bit, is eventually volleyed wide of the goal by Camara with a shot which is spectacularly disappointing in its accuracy.

Substitutions, including the appearance of the beautifully named Balthazar Pierret for QRM ensue for both teams as both conformation of the result and an equaliser are desperately sought by the respective coaches.  QRM are pressing and have two players up front now, a decision which if nothing else might help the half-naked ultras warm themselves with hope and expectation.  But QRM’s luck is out as the ball is pumped forward by Laval.   Till Cissokho looks to have it under control as he gets to it first and flicks it around Naidji and steps around him, but Naidji falls to the ground and Monsieur Landry adjudges this to be because Cissokho has pulled him back or tripped him; he promptly salutes Cissokho with his red card in the practised fashion and the towering centre-half trudges off.

From the resultant free-kick, Magiotti directs the ball over the cross-bar after another player first wastes his time and energy by running up as if to the kick the ball but then steps over it; no one was fooled, except perhaps Maggiotti.  Immediately, even more substitutions are made as both coaches seek to either exploit the imbalance in the number of players on each team or negate it.  Just four minutes after the sending off a decent passing moving by Laval is crowned by a smart overlapping run by Maggiotti who sweeps the ball into the corner of the QRM net to effectively seal the result. 3-1 to Laval.

Sixteen minutes remain of normal time, but QRM don’t look the sort of team capable of pulling back a two-goal lead when the opposition have one more player than they do, and this indeed proves to be the case.  Even the ultras have fallen quiet, although this is only temporary as either boredom, amphetamines or a sudden realisation that standing half naked beside a damp football pitch on a late September Saturday evening is all they have , and they burst back into life with some more repetitive chants of “Allez, Allez, Allez”.  Happily for me, the screeching child to my left has possibly lost his voice altogether and may require surgery to get it back.

The addition of just two minutes additional time is a sensible and pragmatic decision in the circumstances and once it has elapsed, without undue incident, Paulene and I depart the Stade Robert-Diochon as we entered it.  We head for the bus back to town, which we will be impressed to learn from the  bus driver as we try to tender our fares is completely ‘Gratuit’; this is the ultimate indication of being in a truly civilised country and therefore not something ever likely to happen in Liz Truss’s United Kingdom.  We reflect as we wait for the bus to depart the stop that oddly, given how ineffective QRM have been for much of the time, this has been a quite entertaining match and one which, with a few thousand more people in the stadium might have been even better still.  Neither QRM or Laval are going to make it into the not particularly select band of ‘French teams that I like’ but I will nevertheless always remember tonight fondly, for the mascot if nothing else.

FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was.   Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up.  To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name.  But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany.  Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.

Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website.  Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes.  Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us.  Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park.  The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.

It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened.  Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium.  I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much.  Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot.  Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it.  But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.

Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal.  Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out.  Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.

People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium.  Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves.  Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.

Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares.  I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.

As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On  Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout.  Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement.  Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence.  In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig.   Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”.  A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness. 

The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.  The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.

Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out.  The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.

Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.

The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match.  The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net.  It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.

The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago.  From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again.  With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.

With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England.  The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal.  When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.

A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net.  It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit.  The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait.  The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).

The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in.  The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure.  Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle

Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset.   A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand  hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header.  The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises.  All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.

With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match.  Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations.  We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people.  This has been a truly fantastic night.

Ipswich Town 3 MK Dons 0

The hot, late summer sun beats down on the parched grass of Gippeswyk Park as I amble towards Portman Road beneath a cloudless azure sky.  When not ambling, I stroll along, enjoying the brief shade beneath Ancaster Road bridge and making as little effort as possible to place one foot in front of the other. There is something about walking slowly on hot days that feels cool, my wide-brimmed hat and sandals no doubt help add to the impression I must give that I feel like a dude.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way an ice cream van looks a better proposition than the Butcher’s Grill, but I opt for a programme (£3.50), which I pay for in the modern cashless way. By the time I reach the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) sweat from my brow is stinging my eyes. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) preferring a lighter beer today to my usual Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride, it’s good to have the choice. In the beer garden Mick is texting me in French to tell me he is “dans le Jardin”.  It seems a long time since we were last here, but it’s just a fortnight ago.  The conversation seems to be all about me as I regale Mick with tales of my road trip to Forest Green last week and how after getting home from the match versus Bolton my wife and I booked a holiday in Brittany.  We go on to talk of the Nazi submarine docks of St Nazaire and Lorient, the giant mechanical elephants of Nantes and the neolithic stone alignments of Carnac.

It’s almost twenty to three when we leave for Portman Road and in the course of our walk Mick expresses despair at the state of the world and politics, and how the hope of the immediate post-war era and the desire for peace and co-operation forged by the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet, has all but evaporated.  Mick also regrets that he will probably not live to see how the climate crisis ends; not wanting to suffer a lingering death from de-hydration or starvation, or a sudden violent death due to a cataclysmic weather event, I think this may be a good thing, but then I can be a bit of a pessimist at times.

In sombre mood, it is almost five to three as I enter the ground through turnstile number 59 by way of a change from my usual turnstile 60. I thank the turnstile operator and he calls me ‘mate’.  By the time I take my seat the teams are on the pitch and limbering up. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here with his son Elwood and so is Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket, but Pat from Clacton is absent, she is visiting a friend she met on holiday who lives in Kent and is having a ninetieth birthday party.

The noise inside Portman Road today is fulsome, the heat and the sun seem to have invigorated the home supporters. Over the PA we get to hear just a few bars of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ before the game is ready to begin.  I don’t mind too much, as my favourite Beatles’ songs are probably Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever, but much as I want to, I can’t ever imagine the Sir Alf Ramsey stand singing “Let me take you down, cos I’m going to, Po-ortman Road, nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about, Po-ortman Road for ever”.  Knees are taken and applauded and Town kick-off towards me and Phil, Elwood and Fiona and the man who might be from Stowmarket.  The opposition today are wearing a frighteningly unimaginative kit of all red.

Town begin the game in an attacking frame of mind and within two minutes Freddie Ladapo shoots to the near post necessitating a save from the visiting goalkeeper Jamie Cumming, who unfortunately sounds like he could have a side line in pornographic films.  “Sit down if you’re standing up” is the bizarre but original Village People themed first chant from the visiting supporters. In the Sir Bobby Robson Stand Town supporters respond with an old religious number– “Care-free wherever we may be, We are the Ipswich Town FC, and we don’t give a fuck wherever we may be, cos we are the Ipswich Town FC”.  How pleased the nineteenth century American Shakers would have been to have heard that.

It’s the fifth minute and Janoi Donacien advances down the Town right, then advances a bit more, before sensibly stopping at the by-line to pull the ball back to Wes Burns, who sweeps it majestically into the visitors’ goal net. Town lead 1-0 and joy abounds, with chants of either Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez , Allez  spilling from the stands  depending on where you take your holidays.  Oh my, it’s so good to score an early goal.

Town are dominant; Sam Morsy wins a free-kick and his deflected shot is cleared off the goal line and a follow up shot saved.  In a moment of madness, the visitors win a corner but can only summon a rally of head tennis before losing possession entirely to a goal-kick.  About 12 minutes have elapsed and having gone behind, the visitors are having what we will look back on as their best spell of the game as their number 30 has the temerity to direct a header over the cross-bar after a good passing move down the Town right; alarmingly, he possibly should have scored. Normal service is soon resumed however, as Freddie Ladapo chases a punt forward and has his shot blocked to win a corner, which leads directly to another from which George Edmundson heads past the far post.

With the visitors’ goal kick I notice that their number 4 is called Tucker; I think of the characters in tv’s Citizen Smith and Grange Hill, and imagine his team mates saying “flippin’ eck Tucker” as he makes a catastrophic defensive error, sadly it doesn’t happen.

Town just attack and then attack again. Marcus Harness and Conor Chaplin play beautifully down the right and win another corner. Sam Morsy shoots wide.  The visitors’ number thirty collapses to the ground when challenged from behind as if suddenly and miraculously crippled by polio, admirably referee Mr Carl Brook just gestures to him to get up. The half is half over as stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads an obviously pre-prepared statement “The players and officials will now take the first drinks break of the afternoon”.  “How many are there going to be?” I ask Fiona a little incredulously.

The effect of the refreshment and re-hydration is almost immediate as Town win another corner and then Wes Burns runs down the right again and towards goal;  he shoots for the far corner  and his low shot is parried, but Marcus Harness is on hand to strike the rebound with just enough force and direction that it  dribbles over the  goal line and Town lead 2-0.  That was in the 27th minute and with a half an hour gone, Ipswich fans are singing “And it’s Ipswich Town, Ipswich Town FC, By far the greatest team the World has ever seen” and of course they’re not exaggerating. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me. “It is” says the bloke next to him. I don’t tell them that true Champagne football can only be played in Reims and Troyes.

The final fifteen minutes of the half sees Conor Chaplin shoot over the cross-bar and Sam Morsy’s shot steaming for the top right hand corner of the visitors’ goal before the goal keeper tips it away for yet another corner.   Christian Walton has to make a rare save with ten minutes to go until half time, but the visitors’ goalkeeper is soon working again as another Wes Burns break leads to a deep cross which is headed back for another Sam Morsy shot which is again saved.   With time ticking down to the half-time break the game quietens down a little, perhaps because the more depressive souls amongst the Sir Bobby Robson standers begin one of their funereally-paced versions of “Oh, when the Town go marching in”.  Yet another Town corner ensues however, and three minutes of time are added on,  presumably to compensate for that very formally announced drinks break.

Today there is no sign of Ray, or his son, or his grandson Harrison and so I merely stand to eat a Nature Valley Maple Syrup and Nuts Crunchy bar and flick though the programme.  Nothing really grabs my attention, although I do now know that Conor Chaplin prefers pens to pencils, Apple to both Orange and Samsung and, although I don’t know what it means or who they are, Phineas to Ferb.  It is not recorded whether he voted Remain or Leave, is in favour of the right to abortion or not, or favours nationalisation or privatisation.  Next week I shall perhaps ask if there is an alternative match programme for us grown-ups.

At 16:07 the game resumes.  The heat has been building and ever-present Phil drapes a white shirt over Elwood’s head beneath his cap.  The bloke behind me is talking about the half-time scores in the context of his fantasy football team; it sounds like his fantasy football team is Manchester City. It’s a while since I played Fantasy Football, but maybe nowadays you can opt to have your team taken over by a wealthy country with a poor human rights record which is keen to launder its global image.

On the pitch, Town produce a sweeping move that travels the length of the pitch and more corners are won before the visitors’ number eight sees Mr Brook’s yellow card for tugging desperately at Sam Morsy’s shorts.  “ We’re just too good for you, we’re just too good for you” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier channelling Guiseppe Verdi.  On the right Janoi Donacien proceeds down the wing, lays the ball back and Conor Chaplin sweeps it into the net in a majestic style reminiscent of Wes Burns, and Town lead 3-0. “Ee-I, ee-I, ee-I-o, Up the Football league we go” chant the home fans boldly predicting the situation next Spring, before reprising their version of “No nay never” which has Ipswich Town being the finest football team the world has ever seen.  As if to prove the point, another fine move follows, and whilst it ends with Freddie Lapado missing quite badly, at least he was offside, so it didn’t really matter.  “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me again, clearly not having read up on the rules surrounding protected designation of origin during the half-time break.

Evidently now in party mood,  the Sir Bobby Robson Stand lower tier break into a chorus of “Stand up if you ‘ate the scum” before Stephen Foster’s voice is heard again announcing “The players and officials are now taking the second half drinks break” just in case anyone was wondering why the players were all of sudden drinking at the side of the pitch instead of playing football.  The refreshment has apparently reached the people counting the attendance too and this is announced as 23, 045 with 532 of those being visiting supporters, although in truth we’re all just visiting , no stands at Portman Road having been demolished to make way for residential flats just yet.  News arrives that Town are now top of the league with both Peterborough United and Exeter City losing.

With twenty minutes left mass substitutions are made for Town, although these can’t excuse a sudden error by Luke Woolfenden which forces Christian Walton into diving at the feet of some opposing player or other to maintain his clean sheet and give the visitors the treat of a corner. The corner however merely leads to a Town breakaway from which we earn yet another corner kick of our own.

With the game entering its last ten minutes the sun has emerged from behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and its hot rays are playing across my bare knees. Town are camped in the visitors’ half of the pitch.  “Gonna make a move in a sec” says the bloke behind me, adding “Over innit” to justify his decision. A minute later he leaves. “See ya later mate” he says to his mate. “See ya mate” says his mate.   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Town fans celebrating the very probable result,  or may be it’s  “Allez, Allez, Allez”. The visiting supporters take note and begin to drift away.   Two minutes of normal time are left and an injury to a visiting player provides a convenient opportunity for a final, unannounced drinks break. The last action of note is when George Edmundson almost emulates Rakeem Harper’s goal assist for Col U in midweek as he sends a poorly advised square ball to the edge of the Town penalty area. “Bloody Hell!” I utter in a moment of sudden panic, but happily the ball is cleared.  Five minutes of added on time are safely negotiated and Town win what has been a most enjoyable match.

Whether Town were good or the visitors were poor I don’t care, I have decided to live in the moment and not think about it; in this way I hope to remain both happy and of balanced mind, but I am looking forward to my trip next week to Shrewsbury.  Up the Town  – Ipswich that is.

Postscript

In previous seasons I have not deigned to allow the name of the club Town played today to appear at the top of the page; I have instead referred to them simply as Visitors.  Today however, I have displayed their name because Ipswich have so thoroughly outclassed and humiliated them that I thought it was a good thing to ‘out’ them.  The reason for this, if you didn’t know is that the MK Dons have no right to be in the Football League, having stolen the identity of Wimbledon FC in 2004 and moved the club to Milton Keynes. As a city of over 150,000 people Milton Keynes should probably have a Football League team, but that team should achieve that status by gaining promotion through the league pyramid as other new town clubs such Crawley Town and Stevenage have done. 

The new town programme was a utopian vision for the future of post-war Britain, and the likes of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Abercrombie, who inspired and put it into practice, and were surely big footie fans themselves, are doubtless spinning in their graves because of the MK Dons.