Lakenheath 2 Mulbarton Wanderers 0


The village of Lakenheath, in the top left hand corner of Suffolk beyond Mildenhall is some 69 kilometres from the County Town of Ipswich, about an hour’s drive along the A14, the A1101 and then the B1112.  Lakenheath has a railway station but hardly any trains stop there.    If you want to watch Lakenheath FC play on a Saturday afternoon and you really, really want to travel by train two journeys are possible; leaving Ipswich at 8am and 8.08am these take you via Ely and Thetford or via Norwich and Thetford arriving at twenty four minutes past ten, giving you ample time to walk or even crawl the near 4.5 kilometres to Lakenheath village; no buses pass the station.  You’ll need to take a sleeping bag because there is no train back from Lakenheath until the next day.  If however, you like a lie-in on a Saturday morning but are still committed to saving the planet by using public transport then from Ipswich it is easier and quicker to catch the 11:20 train to Bury St Edmunds from where Mulley’s Motorways service 955 to Mildenhall connects with Coach Services service 201, which arrives ‘outside the post box’ (as opposed to inside it) at Lakenheath at 13.33.  Getting back is difficult however because the last bus out of Lakenheath arrives in Mildenhall at 18.18, eight minutes after the last bus departed for Bury.  The only way to return from Lakenheath therefore is to catch the 18.58 number 200 bus to Thetford, which is perfectly timed to arrive one minute after the train to Ely for the onward connection to Ipswich left at 19:24.  The next train from Thetford is the 19:54 to Norwich from where a connection arrives back in Ipswich at 21:41.   The on-line timetables tell us that the bus ‘services’ are supported by Suffolk County Council, but it’s as if they are trying to make them unusable, perhaps so a lack of passengers will justify not supporting them in the future.

With the best part of seven hours being a lot of time to spend on travelling to a ‘local’ football match, my wife Paulene and I reluctantly dodge the pleas of Greta Thurnberg and climb in to our trusty Citroen C3.  Sadly, it’s not such a fine day to go travelling either, with low grey clouds, a strong blustery wind and the threat of rain casting foreboding over the Suffolk landscape.  The countryside is bleak on a day such as this, although the open fields of Breckland with their rows of contorted Scots Pine trees (pine lines) leaning with the prevailing wind give this corner of Suffolk a distinctive character. 

Lakenheath has a long broad main street; we pass the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin on our right and at the instruction of our French speaking satnav turn a droite into Wing Street and then a gauche into a rough car park and the gateway to ‘The Pit’ or ‘The Nest’ as Lakenheath’s football ground is known.  Access is down a rough slope and round a sharp corner into another small rough car park; the site is an old chalk pit or quarry.  We’ve definitely come to the right place as the Mulbarton Wanderers team bus is parked opposite and they are today’s opponents. 

Tall trees surround us on three sides and as I lock up the Citroen Paulene takes crunchy footsteps across the car park to the small wooden turnstile hut without a turnstile.   Paulene asks the man in the wooden hut how old you have to be to be considered a pensioner but he doesn’t answer and charges us full price (£5 each), we buy a programme too (£1).  The  players are out on the pitch warming up as we head for the clubhouse; Paulene remarks on the dugouts being on the far side of the pitch and admits to having hated having to trudge across the pitch from the changing room to the dugout in her time as  physio with Wivenhoe Town.  It looks like Lakenheath have recently moved theirs to the other side of the pitch, perhaps to improve the view from the stand.

The clubhouse is spacious, if a little dark as a result, but the bar and barmaid are bright and welcoming and I order a glass of rose for Paulene; sadly there is no real ale so I take a deep breath and order a half of Greene King IPA ‘Smooth’, although I would prefer almost any other beer, even if it’s rough; the two drinks cost £5.30.  We sit at a table by a window.  The TV is on but a caption says there is no signal, perhaps because we are in the bottom of a quarry.  Without TV to dull people’s minds the room is filled with the sound of conversation but also the thumping rhythm of loud music from the changing rooms next door; I like to imagine it’s the referees not the players making the noise and that they are stood in their pants singing into hairbrushes and playing air-guitar .  At the table behind us three middle-aged men talk very loudly as if trying to be heard above the sound of jet engines at the nearby air force base. They discuss retired footballers, most of whom are now dead.  Although this is a far flung corner of Suffolk, the twang of London accents is evident.  A man in a yellow and black jacket sells us a strip of yellow draw tickets, Nos 481 to 485.  As usual I am destined not to win; the seller has got to me four strips too early.

Time passes quickly and it’s almost five to three. The loud men behind us have already left and we follow suit, downing what’s left of our drinks before braving the breezy outdoors; we both have our woolly hats on today.   The two teams line up behind the referee Mr Cameron Saunders and his two assistants Messrs Andrew Hardy and Lewis Lofts, who sounds like he might offer to board over your attic.  The group marches on to the pitch but quickly break formation, not hanging round for any ritual handshaking as happens at higher levels of the game.

Lakenheath get first go with the ball kicking towards Wing Street and wearing green shirts with white shorts and socks, they look a bit like French Ligue 2 club Red Star.  Mulbarton Wanderers are in all pale blue with shirts sponsored by ‘Pip’s Skips’ and they play in the direction of the railway line far off to the north.  The early pace of the game is fast with a clear desire to get the ball forward quickly.  Mulbarton soon settle but look lightweight up front.  Despite the blustery wind and a hard and uneven looking pitch some of the football is neat and good to watch.  For both these clubs it’s their first ever season in the Eastern Counties League First Division,  step-six of non-league football, and both have done well, with Mulbarton guaranteed a third place finish and Lakenheath set to finish fifth in the nineteen team league if they win today.

Weirdly Lakenheath don’t seem to have a team captain, with no one wearing an armband and no one annotated as such on the team sheet.  As much as a sort of football-collective seems a good idea, their goal keeper Frank Gammon, which incidentally I think is a great name, seems to be taking on the mantle however, with his constant encouragement and advice from the penalty area.  “Win your battles”, “Left Shoulder”, “No foul” he shouts, continuously.   But he’s doing a good job and Mulbarton are kept at bay without much difficulty.  Lakenheath seem to have just one striker, number nine Shaun Avis who the programme tells me has scored 15 goals in just seven games this season, which is rather impressive.  He looks lively but misses the two chances he has, taking the ball around the Mulbarton keeper Tom Wright by the corner of the penalty area, but then going for the spectacular and achieving it with a spectacularly high and wide shot before also glancing a free header wide of the goal.

Paulene and I take a stroll around to take in the ambiance of ‘The Pit’, which we both agree is a much better name than ‘The Nest’ not just because it is devoid of unfortunate associations with Norwich City, which is very important in Suffolk.  It’s a name that makes me think of Clive King’s children’s novel ‘Stig of the Dump’  and I imagine a variation of the story in which a boy makes friends with a team of Neolithic footballers and helps them erect a goal, which looks uncannily like Stonehenge.   This is a lovely football ground, the steep sides of the former quarry and the tall trees acting like natural substitutes for tall stands and creating a sense of enclosure which few non-league grounds even at much higher levels can rival.  Sadly it’s a grey day today but it must be beautiful in the sunshine; even today there is birdsong and  the tall trees sway eerily in the wind; wild flowers grow behind the goal lines and one corner of the pitch is covered in daisies, albeit closed up ones.  Sadly, it’s not yet possible to walk all around the pitch but a concrete path behind the dug-outs and right hand goal form the man stand is due to be completed in the close season.

Back on the pitch, Mulbarton appeal for a penalty. “Handball!” shouts someone, “Rubbish” shouts someone else in response from the stand.  Either way no one seems to much like referee Mr Saunders and someone else shouts “Referee, you’re getting worse”.  I am slightly suspicious of Mr Saunders myself, his hair is just a bit too neat; he could be a Jehovah’s witness or a Mormon. Meanwhile on the near touchline to the stand the grey-haired, be-spectacled referee’s assistant reminds me of a conductor on the Eastern Counties buses I used catch to school.

Half-time arrives and I depart for the clubhouse where there is a short queue at the bar for teas and coffees.  As I queue the half-time draw is made; ticket number 501 wins first prize and the man behind me in the queue discovers he is the winner, but at least I get my tea before him.   The tea (£1 per ‘cup’) is poured from a large pot into china mugs, this is sadly something that happens almost nowhere else in senior football any more but it should.  If a football club is happy to get the china out it makes you feel like a human being, not as if any old plastic or polystyrene receptacle will do just to get another quid out of you; it feels like they want people to enjoy this tea, as if they care; and a very good cup of tea it is too.  We drink our tea in the small brick stand, a homely and utilitarian structure with wooden benches, it’s beautifully dilapidated and I hope it’s never demolished to make way for one of the boring modern, ‘meccano’ stands.

Paulene and I are refreshed and the game begins again at precisely three minutes past four. Within six minutes Lakenheath are ahead.  No one seems quite sure why, although importantly Mulbarton players do not seem to be complaining, but Mr Saunders awards a penalty to Lakenheath and  top scorer Kelvin Enaro scores his twenty eighth goal of the season,  booting the ball to Tom Wright’s right as he collapses to his knees.   With a goal lead Lakenheath are more relaxed; the pace of the game is a little slower and the passing more accurate and more controlled, there’s less anxiety.   Mulbarton look even less likely to score than they did in the first half, but do claim the first booking of the match as their number seven, the splendidly named Dom Doggett,  incurs Mr Saunders’ wrath for a foul.  It’s not long before Doggett is substituted for number fourteen, Charlie Norman. 

For a while the game drifts and I listen to the birdsong and enjoy the lush greenery of the quarry banks.   A tall, grey-haired man walks up into the stand carrying a match ball. “Man of the match Dave? What did you do, score a hat-trick?” asks a voice at the back.   Eventually Lakenheath win a corner and the action steps up a gear. “Come on Heath” shouts a man in the stand; it’s not a very imaginative nickname for the club but it follows the pattern set at nearby Mildenhall who are known as ‘The Hall’.  Personally, I reckon they should be known as ‘The Quarrymen’ .   After one corner, follows another as a shot flashes past the post, deflected away by the Mulbarton defence.   It’s twenty-five past four and Frank Gammon sends a kick deep into the Mulbarton half, the bounce fools the Mulbarton defence and number eleven James McCabe runs on to poke the ball over Tom Wright’s head and puts  ‘The Heath’ (‘The Quarrymen’) two-nil up. 

With the second goal the game changes and seems to lose the reserve it showed earlier. Lakenheath miss open-goals and hit the cross-bar whilst Mr Saunders the referee becomes rather officious and begins to wave his yellow card about with gay-abandon, booking players on both teams, mostly it appears for whinging and whining rather than anything particularly serious.  I think it’s his way of adding to the entertainment, everyone loves a good moan about the referee.   But happily if there is any ill-feeling it doesn’t last and with the final whistle Mr Saunders and his assistants stand together to receive the handshakes of both teams.

As the stand empties out after the game we stop and talk for several minutes with three people in orange hi-viz jackets, who are temporarily working on the air base, it’s almost as if we don’t want to leave.   Driving back home along the B1112 Paulene and I reflect on our afternoon at ‘The Pit’ and both agree that we’ve had a most enjoyable time and importantly have witnessed a Suffolk team beating a Norfolk one which in my mind at least helps redress the recent imbalance between Ipswich Town and Norwich City.   We look forward to returning on a sunny day.

Newmarket Town 1 Thetford Town 1

The train journey from Ipswich to Newmarket (£10.50 return with a Goldcard) takes 58 minutes to cover a distance of about 65 kilometres.  That may seem a little slow, but the train does stop at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell, Thurston , Bury St Edmunds and Kennet before arriving in the town that is the centre of the British horse racing industry, home to about 21,000 people and 3,500 horses.

Despite a little mist it’s a bright February day beneath a cloudless blue sky, the unseasonal warmth has resulted in blossom appearing on some trees.   I am in good time for the 13.20 train to Cambridge which is already waiting on platform 4B; I board through the sliding doors. I immediately feel as though I have inadvertently stepped into someone’s dining room.  At the table to my right a family of four has their picnic lunch spread out before them; sandwiches and baking foil everywhere.  They look up at me as if to say “Don’t you knock before you enter a room?”, but they can’t say it because their mouths are full of sandwich; their jaws churning like tumble driers.  I pause to decide if I want to sit at the table opposite them; I don’t think I do, they’ve stared me out; I turn left.  There are plenty of empty seats and I find another vacant table.

Behind me I hear a sound like a vacuum cleaner; it is a vacuum cleaner and it is strapped to the back of a man in a blue tabard; he looks like a one man tribute to Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd (Ghostbusters).  I am impressed that the train is being cleaned between journeys; on his back above the vacuum cleaner it says “Presentation Team”, which sounds much nicer than plain old ‘cleaner’.

I sit and enjoy the architecture of the Victorian station platform briefly before the train departs, on time. Soon out of Ipswich the train speeds through the rolling Suffolk countryside of isolated farmhouses and medieval church towers.  A warm but slightly condescending female voice announces the station stops. The floodlights of Bloomfields the home of Needham Market FC can be seen if you know where to look and the track passes next to Stowmarket Town’s Green Meadow.   Munton’s of Stowmarket announce on a large sign that they are “passionate about malt”.  There are misty silhouettes of church and cathedral towers in Bury St Edmunds and a black cat crosses the Ipswich bound track; at Thurston there are chimneys like candy twists and at Kennet a metal silo that looks like a painting by Charles Sheeler.  The landscape changes towards Newmarket;  rows of pine trees and broader, flatter downland; the chalk beneath pokes through where the soil is tilled and forms white cliffs in railway cuttings.  Surprisingly, the final approach to Newmarket is through a long tunnel.

The train is still on-time as it arrives in Newmarket, this is as far west as it’s possible to go without not being in Suffolk anymore, but Newmarket station is a massive disappointment.  There is no sense of arrival here, it’s no more than a platform and a couple of metal bus shelters.  It is hard to believe that such a wealthy, internationally known town as Newmarket should have a railway station which is, to be blunt, so crap. Apparently the original Victorian station was demolished in 1981 despite being a listed building.

Putting the squalor of British public transport behind me I make the short walk down Green Road over The Avenue and up Granary Road where I turn right through a kissing gate and across the railway line into Cricket Field Lane, the home of Newmarket Town.  I am somewhat amazed that it is still possible to walk across the railway track as increasingly the population is treated like idiots incapable of working out how not to suffer grievous injury or death from stepping out in front of moving trains.  However, a poll conducted in 2016 did reveal that 52% of people who voted were stupid.

There is no queue to get into what I imagine Bloorie.com pay to have called the Bloorie.com Stadium.  Two men have squeezed themselves into the blue metal-clad turnstile booth; I ask for “one and a programme” and hold out a twenty pound note.  The smaller and older of the two men pauses, I wonder if perhaps he hasn’t got enough change, but no, he has; he eventually asks for £8 (£7 entrance +£1 programme); he was just adding up.  His mind had “gone blank for a moment” he tells me. As the smaller man hands me my change the larger man invites me to buy two strips of tickets for the club 50/50 draw, which he explains will see half the money collected becoming prize money and the other half going to the club.  I tell him I understand and buy two strips (£2); there didn’t seem to be an option to buy just one.  My investment will come to nothing; I’ll have to write it off as a charitable contribution.

Inside the ‘stadium’ I head for the tea bar where I purchase a bacon roll (£2.50) and a cup of tea (£1.00).  As I wait for my bacon roll I watch the teams and referees warm up on the sun-lit synthetic pitch, which looks extremely neat even if it is accompanied by a rash of prohibiting signage; this is its first season.  My bacon roll is ready and I sit in the stand to eat it and to avoid having to juggle a paper plate, napkin, bacon roll and cup of tea.  The bacon is crispy.  Bland, forgettable, 21st century pop music plays over the public address system.  Today, Newmarket Town who are ninth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier league with thirty-seven points from twenty six games played face Thetford Town who are fifteenth with eight fewer points from the same number of matches played.

In time everyone disappears back inside the dressing rooms only to re-emerge as the three o’clock kick-off approaches.  The referee’s assistants are first to appear, posing in the doorway, before the away team and then the Newmarket team each form a queue and at the referee’s signal march onto the pitch to line up in front of the main stand as if for inspection and to greet one another with multiple handshakes.  Meanwhile, a short man in a blue cap uses a radio mike to introduce the match and announce the teams, and in a possible homage to John Motson he adds all sorts of extraneous detail, such as the fact that Newmarket’s Jacob Partridge is expecting his first child later this year; he’s not showing.

Thetford Town begin the game kicking towards the miserable little railway station whilst Newmarket Town play in the direction of a row of pollarded trees and the Gallops which are visible far off in the distance. 

Thetford wear all claret with odd looking sky blue rings round their shoulders, whilst Newmarket sport yellow shirts with blue shorts and blue and yellow hooped socks. I particularly like Newmarket’s socks and it is no wonder that there is an advertisement for a supplier of sock tape on the fence at the side if the pitch.  Electrical tape is good enough for most, but hooped socks deserve something special.

The game begins with the ball being played back to Thetford’s number five Jonathan Carver who hoofs it forward unceremoniously. The Newmarket goalkeeper Will Viner boots it back and it’s Carver who heads it back again, fifteen love.  The most difficult thing in football sometimes is knowing what to do with the ball from the kick-off.  Happily the game settles down into a more entertaining series of passes and moves.  Newmarket are the first to ‘get the ball down’ but soon Thetford get the idea too; it would be a shame not to make use of the flat, true surface of the synthetic pitch over which the ball almost seems to whisper as it rolls.  Newmarket earn the game’s first corner but Thetford claim the first booking as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting is clattered to the floor.  “Ref, he’s fucking injured” cries Newmarket’s goalkeeper Alex Archer helpfully as the game at first carries on.  When referee Mr Brian O’Sullivan (not a relative of deceased racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan) awards a free-kick to Thetford’s number nine Volter Rocha, Archer who is very ‘gobby’ for a man dressed from head to toe in salmon pink calls out “ He fuckin’ slipped” . 

At the other end the more soberly dressed (all grey) Thetford ‘keeper is equally vocal but restricts his advice to his own team.  “Win it, win it” he shouts and “Left shoulder Steedy;  Elliott, left shoulder” .  Meanwhile from the touchline the advice is a more positive sounding “In the hole”.  Just before twenty past three Thetford hit a post and five minutes later the impressive Volter Rocha hits a shot onto the cross-bar and the equally impressive number two Sam Bond heads in the re-bound to give Thetford the lead to cheers from the main stand.

In front of me a group of lads watch keenly. “Go on boy wonder” says one as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting pushes forward. “ That number nine rolled his ankle” says another “ Well he looks okay” is the reply.  “Yeah, but he has rolled his ankle”.  Half-time is approaching and the bespectacled linesman whose glasses make him look a little like Kevin Costner’s character in the film JFK stifles a yawn.

With the referee’s whistle I head for the bar.  I check on the half-time scores; Ipswich are winning away from home; excellent!  I order a half of Lacon’s Pale Ale (£1.70) to cautiously celebrate a job half done.  The beer is much too cold and fizzy but it has that fashionable, light, hoppy flavour. Once the rush has died down I ask the barman what has happened at Newmarket that the place now looks so much better than it did when I was last here, probably in 2014 or 2015.  Back then it looked like the National Trust might want to preserve it as an example of a slightly shabby Step Five football ground from the 1980’s.  He tells me that they sold the land behind the clubhouse for housing, which funded the synthetic pitch which is now hired out every night; this week Cambridge United have used it every day for their soccer school.  Meanwhile the club’s guests and visiting officials enjoy plates of sandwiches and fancy-cakes in a room to the side of the bar.  I look at the programme, a  glossy publication full of adverts, but with potted club histories, league tables, results and fixtures too, so a useful programme all the same; and it’s good to see which local companies help support the club.  I very much like that Tattersalls advertise their sales calendar and wonder how many of the crowd here today will be looking to buy a filly or may be a two year old at the next sale.

The second half begins promptly at four o’clock, which is good because I don’t want to miss my train at eight minutes past five.  “Come on Jockeys” shouts a large man from close to the smoking area “Come on Jocks” echoes another man.  The first action of the half sees the Newmarket goalkeeper slice the ball high over the clubhouse and out of the ground. “There goes another thirty quid” says someone.  I wander round to watch from between the dugouts. 

The two Newmarket coaches kitted out in matching blue tracksuits stand conspiratorially together.  “Come and fuckin’ get it” shouts one of them at the ‘keeper after Thetford put in a cross. “ He was behind him” shouts the ‘keeper in his own defence. “Fuck off” replies the coach.

Thetford look like they might score again and their good play belies their relatively low position in the league table; perhaps they need to play on a synthetic surface every week.  The afternoon wears on and the sun sinks lower in the sky casting long shadows of the trees behind the Thetford goal down the length of the pitch.  Spectators enjoying the warmth of the sunshine have to shield their eyes, but it’s very cool in the shade.  Substitutions are made and the man in the blue cap announces them as best he can.  “Number 17 is coming on” he tells us “… but I haven’t got a number seventeen on my teamsheet”.  Whoever number 17 is he’s got a powerful shot and he soon elicits a spectacular save from Newmarket’s Archer who because of his pink kit really does ‘leap like a salmon’.

Up in the stand Thetford supporters are encouraging their team. “On your bike ‘arry, skin ‘im son” is the advice to the alliteratively named number eleven Harry Hutt.  But Thetford fail to score again and as the game enters its last ten minutes Newmarket begin to keep the ball a bit more to themselves.   At five thirty-six an angled free-kick into the Thetford penalty area is met with a deft, flicked header from substitute and player manager, Michael Shinn.  The ball enters the top left hand corner of the goal as great goals often do.  Shinn may have one of fuller figures on the pitch today but his is a fine goal and Shinn is a fine name for a footballer, although not quite as good as that of the Newmarket number two Blake Kicks, whose surname is worthy of the Happy Families card game; up alongside Mr Bun the baker, Mr Bones the butcher and Mr Pots the painter, meet Mr Kicks the footballer.

Thetford make a final substitution, but don’t hold up the numbers to show who it is and the man in the blue cap announces “Looks like we’ve given up on the boards, so I haven’t a clue who’s come on”.  A little while later as the final whistle blows and the man in the blue cap goes to remind us all of the final score, his microphone stops working .  The final score is one-all, perhaps my least favourite score line, especially when the opposition equalises in injury time as I learn Wigan Athletic have done in their game against Ipswich.

With the sun now setting behind me I head back towards the turnstile and Cricket Field Road and reflect on what has been an entertaining match.  I like the synthetic pitch and that it doesn’t smell weirdly of rubber like others I’ve seen, in fact I don’t think it smelt at all.  This has to be the way forward for clubs like Newmarket Town, along with hooped socks.  Upwards and onwards, as I said to the barman.

Ipswich Town 1 Rotherham United 0

January is reputedly the most miserable and depressing of months and the closer to the middle of January it gets the more miserable and depressing it becomes. The third Monday in January has been designated ‘Blue Monday’; nothing to do with The Blues of Ipswich Town but rather something to do with the pleasure and happiness of Christmas having worn off completely and the realisation for people that they are now deep in debt; the weather has something to do with it too. Today is only 12th January however, I have no debt and my Christmas was not noticeably any more happy or pleasurable than any other couple of days off work, and although the weather is grey and overcast today, I have an afternoon at Portman Road to look forward to.
My erstwhile colleague and still current friend Roly is waiting for me at the railway station, he is drinking a cup of coffee which I imagine he imagines lends him an air of sophistication. Ignoring this, I tell him how I long for the weekends when I see Town play and how I feel a curious kinship with the many species of Mayfly that live for but a few short hours. It’s a twelve carriage train so we wander down the platform away from everyone else knowing that we won’t have so far to walk to the bridge over the tracks when the train arrive at Ipswich station; every second counts in the all too brief joy of a pre-match drink and then the match. Roly fritters away some of our precious time getting a fresh twenty pound note from a cash machine, but we are soon heading for St Jude’s Tavern where we are going to meet Mick. Portman Road is busy, the ticket enquiry office bleeds out into the road with a queue of late comers taking advantage of the special offer of tickets in any part of the ground for just £12. People with nothing better to do queue for the turnstiles to open. I buy a programme (£3) from one of the portable kiosks, which always make me think of a Tardis piloted by a Dr Who played by Mick Mills, transporting us back to the 1970’s. The programme seller is unsmiling and I wonder if he and his colleagues have been instructed to no longer invite customers to “Enjoy the match”; if programme buyers are anything like many of the nasty, ignorant and rude people who seem to inhabit social media I imagine such words of goodwill are generally met with verbal abuse. How I long to live in a civilised country like France where it is impossible to even make eye contact with club employees on a match day without them wishing you “bon match”.
In St Jude’s Tavern a group of three very young looking lads with Yorkshire accents buy two Coca-Colas and a pint of lager whilst I wait to purchase two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50 a pint), which today is Cliff Quay Brewery Neptune’s Nip; Mick appears, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to bump my order up to three pints and the barman for some reason makes an un-necessary association between Neptune’s Nip and Poseidon’s penis. Roly, Mick and I sit at a table next to the young Yorkshiremen. We talk of Ipswich’s new signings and Mick is impressed at Roly’s knowledge, which he imparts with a weightiness of tone as if to say “…these are the facts, think otherwise if you wish, but I will not be held responsible.” I sit and listen and hope he gets to the bar soon because I need to drink as much as possible before the match to dull the pain. Roly buys the next round of Match Day Specials which is now Cliff Quay Brewery’s Tolly Roger (still £2.50 each). Whilst Roly is at the bar I get Mick to show me how he has so neatly tied his blue and white scarf around his neck. “It’s like a cravat” he tells me. I follow his instruction and achieve the desired look of Michael Palin in the episode of Ripping Yarns entitled ‘Golden Gordon’. The Yorkshire lads have left leaving two half glasses of Coca Cola and most of a pint of lager, very strange. I imagine they’ve gone to see if there is a rain gauge at the town hall. Before we leave I feel the solitary need to sink a further half pint of Cliff Quay Brewery Sir Roger’s Porter (£1.70), and then one of the retired gentlemen I drank with before the Millwall game on New Year’s Day comes over to say hello and remarks that I have some friends with me today. I tell him yes and that I therefore don’t need his company.
Glasses drained and returned to the bar, we negotiate the door and descend Portman Road, crossing Handford Road and joining the expanding throng of match-goers. At the turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way we walk past the end of the queues of the first block of gates to reach the second turnstile block where there are no queues; I smile to myself about how stupid people are who join the first queue they come to and surmise that they probably voted ‘leave’ too. The lady turnstile operator and I smile broadly to one another as I pass through and Mick reveals that she smiled at him too when Roly complains that his turnstile operator was miserable. He cannot understand it he tells us, explaining that he is so much younger and therefore more attractive than Mick and me.
Once inside the East of England Co-op stand bladders are emptied and we head for our seats. Because the tickets are a mere £12 each today I have traded up my usual seat with the groundlings of the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and have taken up a place with Mick in the upper tier of the East of England Co-op Stand. The view of the game is better here, but it is also somehow a little too far removed from it, as if we are watching on TV and I sense that some of the people around me will be just waiting for a convenient break in play to go and put the kettle on. It wouldn’t occur to them to shout or chant in support of the team, they truly are just spectators and nothing more.

Phil and Pat

After group photos for the family album are posed in the centre circle, the game begins with Town kicking-off with their backs towards ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton, who I can see in their usual seats in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, or Churchman’s as us people who remember the ’good old days’ call it. Town sport their usual blue and white kit despoiled by an ugly advertisement for an organisation of on-line scammers. The usual team colours of today’s opponents Rotherham United are red and white, but eschewing the opportunity to recreate the classic blue and white versus red and white Subbuteo encounter, they wear an un-necessary change kit of yellow shirts with pale blue sleeves, and pale blue shorts and socks.

insipid kit and a yellow card

Sadly Rotherham’s kit is insipid and somewhat effete; it detracts from the spectacle and speaks nothing to me of Yorkshire grit and scrap reclamation for which Rotherham is rightly famed.
The match is fast and furious and lacks finesse but unusually Ipswich have the upper hand. There is an air of expectation as a bevy of debutants (or debutantes if you prefer to see this match as a sort of ‘coming out’ ball) before the home crowd. The transfer window is open and a wind of change is blowing through Portman Road as Paul Lambert gets to choose his own players rather than just make do entirely with what he has inherited from that false Messiah, Paul Hurst.

James Collins

Outstanding in the Ipswich defence is an enormous bald-headed man by the name of James Collins; he is thirty-five years old but looks fifty, he is a colossus and carries the Ipswich rear guard on his back like Atlas, though not literally of course. If for some bizarre reason I were to make a TV adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I would cast James Collins as Jean Valjean, not Dominic West.
With only twelve minutes gone referee Mr James Linington brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Rotherham’s Zak Vyner, a man whose name is distinguished by having more than its fair share of letters from the back end of the alphabet and is worth a decent score in the brand of imaginary Scrabble in which only footballers names and not proper words are currency. It’s one of the few popular actions Mr Linington makes all afternoon, although I do approve of his choice of all-black kit; it’s what referees should wear.
A half an hour passes and Freddie Sears scampers down the left; he gets beyond the Rotherham defence and crosses the ball low to the near post. No one has control and the ball looks like it is trying to escape, but it only runs as far as new signing Will Keane, who despite the unpleasant associations of his surname and a hairstyle more becoming of the Eastern Counties League strikes a low shot into the goal. The crowd rises as one and all but the 729 Rotherham United fans in the corner of the Cobbold Stand enter a state of joyful delirium. Town lead 1-0.
It’s half-time and the toilet beckons; as I enter the ‘smallest room’ in the stadium I hear Roly giving his friend Andrew from Bury St Edmunds the benefit of his analysis of the first half; he sounds very earnest, like a bearded, Caucasian Garth Crooks; I stand next to him at the urinal and open-zippered tell him I disagree with his analysis, although in truth I hadn’t heard what he had said. I wash my hands and am amused by the words ‘Danger Electricity’ which appear on the top of the hand dryer “ Ah, the old enemy , electricity” says Roly convincingly.
The game begins again and the two blokes behind me discuss refurbishing a kitchen; “ Seriously, if you do it, I can get you a 10% discount at B&Q.” says one “ Does that include stuff already on offer?” says the other, looking a gift horse in the mouth. But I shouldn’t be surprised, these two haven’t a clue who any of the Town players are and are clearly here because the tickets are cheap. Out of the kitchen and back on the pitch the match has changed. Ipswich no longer dominate, quite the opposite in fact. They are incapable of retaining the ball for more than a few seconds and have seemingly abandoned all attempts to pass it to one another. Rotherham produce wave after wave of ineffectual attacks which are repelled by a mighty rear guard action from the Blues. This is good on one level but immensely frustrating, worrying and disappointing on another. We are making Rotherham look like Paris St Germain; lose this and they’ll be wanting to take the Eiffel Tower down for scrap.
Despite Town’s apparent ineptness, brought on in my opinion by a shortage of proper midfield players, the crowd of 20,893 remain firmly behind the team. The lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, galvanised by the Blue Action supporters group and some welcome support from a bunch of fans of Fortuna Dusseldorf, Town’s unofficial ‘twinned club’ are proving inspiring, and every now and then even people in the East of England Co-op Stand are moved to clap their hands rhythmically. The floodlights are on as darkness envelopes the town and we benefit from the atmosphere of a night match, but Town still struggle to do anything but defend. On the touchline Paul Lambert the Town manager is very active, prowling up and down the technical area and swinging his arms directorially. I suggest to Mick that he’s probably just trying to keep warm because as ever he is in black slacks and a v-necked Marks & Spencer jumper and not wearing a coat, but Mick tells me in an authentic sounding Scottish accent that this is T-shirt weather.

Mr Lambert and his 'Marks and Spencer' jumper

Mr Limington the referee awards a catalogue of free-kicks to Rotherham, most, seemingly because a Town player has simply stood too close to one from Rotherham or has given him a funny look. The crowd tell Mr Limington he doesn’t know what he’s doing although I would prefer that they had asked “Who’s the bastard in the black?” Flynn Downes replaces German debutant Collin Quaner for Town as Paul Lambert reacts to that need for a stronger midfield and the bloke behind me with the kitchen asks “Who’s that?” “ Number twenty-one” says the bloke with connections at B&Q.
Finally, after five minutes of added time and a couple of narrow escapes for Town, Mr Limington gets something right and blows the full-time whistle unleashing rapturous scenes. The Sir Bobby Robson Stand finds a bigger voice than at any time during the match and hails the winners. It is a famous victory, as any victory is in this season mostly of defeats. But whilst the win is much needed and keeps hope alive, what this match has really shown is that people still care enough to come to a game, discounted prices or not, and Suffolk is still behind its team. Whether Town escape relegation or not, if managed properly this could be the start of a renaissance for Town and a re-connection with its fan base; I bloody well hope so.

Walsham-le-Willows 3 Brantham Athletic 0

Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has31437733648_4ca963f0c7_o presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I parkover the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I31437744428_77524097c4_o cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.


Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I 30372602607_cb6e1eae9b_oguess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.

Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are44399647925_a9d1413cd4_o silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.

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Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.