Swindon Town 1 Ipswich Town 2

 Swindon is by far the largest town in Wiltshire and is also home to the only Football League team in the county.  I like Swindon.  Despite being a long way from the coast, there is something a bit like Ipswich about it, particularly with its relationship to the county in which it is situated. Salisbury and Bury St Edmunds have their cathedrals, but whilst historically the locals there were poncing about singing psalms and reciting canticles Ipswich and Swindon folk were getting their hands dirty making stuff, or at least they were until the forces of international capitalism did for them.  Like Ipswich, Swindon is one of those rare, unpretentiously provincial towns that’s a decent size, is a respectable distance from London but isn’t ‘Up North’;  it’s like Northampton, Shrewsbury, Newport and, if you don’t count Staffordshire as ‘Up North’, Burton On Trent.    Added to that it’s got a Magic Roundabout, is only 20 kilometres or so from groovy places like Avebury stone circle (bigger and therefore better than Stone Henge) , Silbury Hill  and the Uffington white horse hill figure, and is home of the hard to pigeon-hole band XTC, although sadly they split up about fifteen years ago.  More recently, Swindon Town is the team supported by Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe in the wonderful BBC comedy series “This Country”.  Swindon also still has its own local brewery, Arkell’s, which has been fulfilling the town’s beer needs since 1843.

I first saw Ipswich Town play at the County Ground, Swindon in December 1987.  Fresh from having failed to return to the First Division at the first attempt the previous season, Town played newly promoted Swindon Town and lost 4-2 after initially coming back to equalise from 2-0 down at half-time.  Mark Brennan and David Lowe scored for Town and Ian Cranson also scored, but for Swindon, with a spectacular header.   I didn’t remember any of that, I had to look it up, but having had my memory jogged I do recall that the game also saw the debut for Town of the least successful of our Dutch imports, the less than  legendary Ulrich Wilson, on loan from FC Twente.  Since then Swindon has mostly been a lovely day out, with four wins in our last four visits, although we’ve not been round theirs now since the turn of the century, which is another reason why I would have been looking forward to today’s fixture.

Spared a 3 hour, 275 kilometre trip along the motorways of southern England I nevertheless still rock-up late at the on-switch of my retro-style Bush radio, which is already primed in a state of preparedness being perpetually tuned-in to BBC Radio Suffolk.   It’s as if I’ve only just pushed through the turnstile after hurriedly finishing my last pre-match pint of Arkell’s 3B, as at almost 3 o’clock I am greeted with the news that alongside Brenner Woolley today is former Town player Ian Atkins. Despite his having played over ninety games for Town, some as captain, I always think of Atkins as one of the most inelegant players I’ve ever seen play for Town; he’d get in today’s team mind.  As Brenner Woolley sets the scene and tells us that Swindon are wearing red shirts, white shorts and red socks I can hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s  rip-off of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ blaring out from the County Ground’s public address system.  With the common man still absent from its stands and concourses I wonder to myself to whom Swindon Town are playing this little burst of populist Prog-Rock.  I’m as partial to a bit of Prog-Rock as the next grammar school boy born in the 1950’s or early 60’s, but as grand entry music for the players at a football match I would place ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ somewhere up close to “The boys are back in Town” in the league table of all-time naffness.  Give me “Entry of the Gladiators” or the Toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen every time.

How embarrassing

“It’s Teddy Bishop, going to be kicking off” announces Brenner and the game begins.  Somewhat inevitably Brenner’s commentary for now is obsessed with Town’s having failed to score a goal in over ten hours.  “Goals change games” says Ian revealing his  Birmingham accent. Well duh.  The game begins well for Town as you would hope against a team who have already been relegated after only forty-four games and have conceded eighty-four goals.  “Dozzell’s had a very good start at the moment” says Ian cautiously.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner with the same note of caution borne from bitter experience as Town win the game’s first corner.  “Swindon….they’re letting Northampton play”  adds Ian, already confused about which game he’s watching.

Inevitably, there is something of an end of season feel to the game, what with it being the end of the season and Brenner is soon indulging in playful commentator-speak. “ …bit of a school-boy error, Dobra” says the BBC man triumphantly.  Ian meanwhile soon reveals the contents of his own locker of sayings to fall-back on when your vocabulary has otherwise been exhausted.  Ian’s stock phrase is “to be fair”, which, to be fair, seems innocuous enough but it’s also largely unnecessary. “…leaving the space to attack, to be fair” is Ian’s first use of the phrase and he follows this up with “… this is where they had a little bit of a problem against Northampton, to be fair”.

Meanwhile, Brenner entertains us as he always does. “Payne, who’s sprung to life in the last few moments” says Brenner summoning, in my mind at least, a vision of some sort of resurrection,  before he then says “It’s Norwood with his pink boots who’s been penalised” leading me to wonder if the referee has awarded a free-kick against Norwood because of the colour of his boots; I wouldn’t be wholly against the  idea.  The game moves on and Brenner is soon tempting fate as he loves to do, telling us that “Swindon have never doubled Ipswich in a league season”.  It’s the sixteenth minutes and fate is nearly tempted; “Pitman inside the area” says Brenner with rising excitement “…puts it past the post”.  Brenner confides that he was convinced Brett Pitman was going to score and having heard his agitated commentary of the incident, it’s hard not to believe him.

Ipswich win a second corner; it comes to nothing.  “Dobra up on all fours, now ready to continue” says Brenner making it sound as if Town’s number 36 does actually scamper about the pitch as if he were a quadruped.  Nearly a quarter of the game has passed; “Town under pressure” is the latest assessment from Brenner.  Ian’s view is that Town are giving the ball away because they’re not strong enough to hold off challenges from Swindon players.

With the game into its second quarter Brenner starts feeling oddly compelled to say things:  “Jaiyesimi actually did very little against Ipswich a few weeks ago, it has to be said.” “Swindon the better side at the moment in this game, it has to be said”.  “Still Camp not had a save to make, it has to be said”.  It’s as if we’ve now reached a point in the game where Brenner can no longer carry on unless he gets these things off  his chest. It’s either that or he now feels that his audience has been listening long enough to be able to stand these harsh truths without bursting into tears.  I feel myself welling -up a little but pull through.

Five minutes later and things look up.  “Saved by Camp; are Ipswich Town ever going to score another goal?” asks Brenner after an “Almighty chance for Town” sees Camp divert a shot from Teddy Bishop, who is through with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.   As Brenner has told us in previous games “Paul Cook, screaming his heart out”, which as any cardiologist will tell you is not advisable. Shaken perhaps by hearing a grown man scream, Brenner seems to panic and when Swindon’s Christopher Missilou under hits a ball he tells us that “The Frenchman didn’t have enough air on that pass”.  It’s an odd description of what you’d normally expect a commentator of Brenner ‘s experience to call a ‘hospital pass’, added to which Missilou is Congolese, not French.

Armando Dobra shoots wide. “Dobra’s head is in his hands” says Brenner with such conviction that I half expect him to confirm that yes, Dobra’s head has actually come off and is in his hands.  A James Norwood shot is saved by Lee camp and Mark McGuinness heads the ensuing corner kick over the cross-bar.  It’s evident that Town are continuing to attack and Brenner is in positive mood. “Kane Vincent-Young over-hits that cross, but quite a lot” says Brenner trying to play down the full-back’s error. The same player then has a header saved by Camp “ I thought he was going to score there, Young” says Brenner, deceiving himself once again.  Ian assesses Vincent Young’s forays forward, “…like a wing-back, to be fair”.

With Town sounding like they are creating chances, the mystery remains why they have not scored and Ian enlightens us by telling us that what Town are missing is “someone of real presence in the box who can upset defenders”.  It’s an analysis that suggests to me that over the summer we should sign either a sort of Joan Rivers character capable of reducing defenders to tears or just put a ‘big bloke up front’.

“It’s now eleven hours without a goal” announces Brenner polishing the glass on his stop watch, but his words soon lose their meaning as “ Bishop goes down inside the box, the referee says penalty” and I somehow imagine the referee Mr Johnson turning in the direction of Brenner up in the stand and mouthing the word “penalty” to him .   “Please James, do not miss this opportunity” implores Brenner.  Norwood scores, “…the goal-drought is over” confirms Brenner.  “He deserves his goal at the moment” adds Ian introducing the slightly tantalising possibility that he might not deserve his goal later on and suggesting possibly that Ian believes undeserving players should have their goals taken away from them.  There then follows some blokey banter about Paul Cook having said he would do a lap of honour if Town scored. “Typical scally” says Ian “saying they’re going to do something and not doing it”.  I will admit to being a little surprised by Ian’s comments and can only think he is unaware of the risk of becoming the subject of a Liverpudlian version of a fatwa.

The first half ends with a chance for Gwion Edwards to double Town’s goal tally. “ Edwards shoots!” says Brenner excitedly “ …and the flag’s up” he continues with well-practised resignation.  Brenner asks Ian what he made of the first half. “A bit like a practice game” says Ian honestly.  “They’ve had chances that the players have missed” he adds un-controversially.  Ian’s advice for the second half, which sounds a bit like an extract from an instruction manual for something purchased in an Ann Summers shop is  “Rather than just sit on it, go and enjoy it”

Half-time is the familiar blur of kettle, tea and Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  For the second-half I am joined by my wife Paulene who, as I listen to the wireless through my earpiece will be watching the Ligue 1 game between Paris St Germain and Racing Club de Lens on the telly.  As I re-join the broadcast from BBC Radio Suffolk Brenner ‘advertises’ his forthcoming commentaries and explains that he will once again be with Ian for Tuesday’s match at Shrewsbury. “ Is that basically because Mills’ car doesn’t go to the other side of Colchester?” asks Ian, evidently still in banter mode and also daring to take Mick Mills’ name in vain.

As far as I can make out from the commentary the second half is much like the first. “Comes to Downes” calls out Brenner with rising excitement “…who skies it”.  Ian begins to add “ at this level” to the end of most of his explanations of what Town need to be doing. Nearly an hour has passed since kick-off.  “…gives it back to Norwood, Norwood prods it in, Ipswich now lead Swindon 2-0” exclaims Brenner. “He’s tucked that ball away well” adds Ian, whose analysis has otherwise increasingly come to depend on the phrase “bodies in the box”.

Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop. “He looks like a nice little footballer” says Ian of Teddy, when asked for his opinion of the departing player’s contribution.  But it quickly transpires that Ian doesn’t really think there is a place for nice little footballers “at this level.” Brenner meanwhile advises us that it’s a case of “Town getting the job done, for what it’s worth”.  More substitutions follow. “Harrop and Bennetts both coming on to play a bit more football” is Brenner’s reassuring statement before they replace Edwards and Dobra.  As a rule it’s best when the substitutes come on to play football rather than just paint over the white lines or do a  bit of weeding.  Ian’s assessment of Edwards and Dobra is that they have “Been lively, without ever having any end product”; I believe it’s what seasoned commentators and sports hacks call ‘flattering to deceive’.

Less than twenty minutes of the basic ninety minutes remain. “Goodness me” says Brenner channelling Peter Sellers, almost. “Terrible goal-keeping from David Cornell” exclaims Brenner and Brett Pitman scores.  I had sort of hoped Pitman would score, I liked him as a player at Town; my impression is that managers don’t think he runs about enough; perhaps he doesn’t , but he still scores goals, which is what forwards are supposed to do.  “A Sunday league howler – no disrespect to the Sunday league by the way” says Ian of Cornell’s error and for some reason affording a respect to the Sunday league that he previously hadn’t afforded Scousers or Mick Mills.

A couple more minutes pass. “Surely a penalty, it’s a penalty” cries Brenner unable to contain his excitement as Troy Parrott is fouled.    James Norwood steps up to claim his hat-trick.  “Forward he comes, he’s missed it, unbelievable” says Brenner of a situation which in reality is all too believable.   The only good thing to come of the incident is Ian’s lugubrious West Midland’s pronunciation of Parrott.

“Kenlock’s had a decent game” says Ian generously. “Town holding on for a win” says Brenner and meanwhile Neymar puts Paris St Germain one-nil up at the Parc des Princes.  News arrives on BBC Radio Suffolk of scores in other matches; Peterborough United have pulled back to trail two-three having been three-nil down. “Well, some excitement there in that game” says Brenner with a hint of jealousy.   Perhaps losing his enthusiasm Brenner mis-pronounces the surname of Swindon’s Tom Broadbent, so it sounds like Broadband. Flynn Downes is booked for a foul. “That’s like a booking for the team” explains Ian, but strangely he doesn’t say “to be fair”.

The final minutes of the game drift away. “Typical end of season game” says Ian. There is still occasional excitement. “Fabulous defending from Woolfenden” says Brenner one minute, and then “lovely little ball to Parrott in the area!” says Brenner expectantly the next.  “ …ball up in the air, Parrott goes after it” continues Brenner and I imagine a blur of brightly coloured feathers taking flight.  The first half ends in Paris.  “You’d like to think they can see this one out, you’d like to think” says Brenner half-repeating himself for no apparent reason.  Time added on runs out. “There is the full-time whistle, at the ninth time of asking Paul Cook get his first away win” concludes Brenner.

Mentally exhausted, I switch off the radio and prepare to turn my attention to the game in Paris.  Later, I will journey down to the south of France courtesy of FFF tv to watch FC Sete, who have scored just twenty-eight goals in thirty-one games (a goals per game record even worse than  Ipswich’s)  beat  Orleans 1-0 and secure their place in the French third division.  Finally, this evening, to complete my  virtual tour of some of my favourite places I will tune in to watch Lille versus Nice in French Ligue 1, it’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do driving back along the M4.

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.