Ipswich Town 1 Oldham Athletic 1

One of the many wonderful things about supporting a football team that is in the third division is that the FA Cup begins at the beginning of November.  None of this inexorable waiting about for Advent, Christmas and then New Year to come and go. No siree, the joy of knockout football comes early to the meek who do more than just inherit the Earth, they get to chase the glory that is knockout competition football.  Of course, we have already missed out on six rounds of extra-preliminary, preliminary, and qualifying rounds, but we can’t have everything and being meek we wouldn’t want it.

Today, the transparent plastic tub that serves as the 21st century’s replacement for the Football Association’s velvet bag has paired Ipswich Town with fourth division Oldham Athletic.  This is a pairing to rival some of the worst failures ever, like a race between a Ford Edsel and a Sinclair C5, or a competition between the Enron bank and ITV digital.   Ipswich Town and Oldham Athletic, I have been told, are the least successful clubs in English professional football in the past twenty years, being the only two who have either not been promoted or not made it to any sort of match at the new Wembley Stadium.  The good thing is that this has saved us supporters a considerable amount of money on grossly over-priced tickets, match day programmes and catering, for which we should be grateful.

It’s a blustery, cloudy day and fallen leaves scuttle along the footpath as I make my way through Gippeswyk Park; the autumnal scene reminds me of some of the opening sequences of the film The Exorcist. Portman Road is very quiet, stewards in huge fluorescent orange coats, and sniffer dogs easily out number supporters outside the away fans’ entrance.  The display on the windows at the back of the Cobbold Stand tell of former FA Cup glories and the day in March 1975 when a record crowd of 38,010 filled Portman Road to see the sixth-round tie versus Leeds United. I look at my watch, it’s a quarter to two; I had already been inside the ground nearly twenty minutes by now on that day forty-six and a half years ago. I buy a programme for a knockdown price (£2.00), and  confirm to myself that I prefer this 32 page programme to the usual 68 page one, even though it costs more per page; I live in hope of an eight or twelve page edition for less than a pound.

At the Arboretum pub (currently known as the Arbour House), I choose a pint of Nethergate Augustinian Amber Ale (£3.80).  The bar is unusually full, so my pint and I decant to the safety of the beer garden, which is reassuringly more like a backyard with tables and chairs. I text Mick to tell him “Je suis dans le jardin”.  It’s not long before he joins me with a pint of beer and a cup of dry roasted peanuts.  We talk of Ipswich Town, of property development and pension funds, catching the TGV to Marseille, the buildings of Le Corbusier, the colour theory of Wassily Kandinsky and the Bauhaus, and electric cars.  A little after twenty-five to three we leave for Portman Road, bidding the barmaid goodbye as Mick places our empty glasses and the cup that no longer contains peanuts on the bar.

Our tickets today (£10 for me, £5 for Mick plus £1.50 each unavoidable donation to some parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) are for Block Y of what is now known as the Magnus Group Stand, but used to be the plain old West Stand, named simply after the compass point rather than a commercial concern called West that had paid for the privilege.  Flight upon flight of stairs take us to the dimly lit upper tier of the stand where we edge past a line of sour-faced males of indeterminate age, but over fifty, to our seats.  My guess is there won’t be much banging of drums, lighting of flares or even vocal encouragement from these people, who look more like Jesuit priests than football supporters.

Although Remembrance Sunday isn’t until next week, and there will be a minute’s silence before the game versus Oxford United next Saturday, bizarrely we have another pre-match minute’s silence today.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us it is because we are in the ‘Remembrance period’ but it feels like football just likes minutes silences.  As ever the silence is strangely followed by applause, and then the game begins.  For the first forty-five minutes Town will be mostly trying to send the ball in the direction of the goal in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand (previously known as Churchman’s end) where in the lower tier I can make out ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton.  Later, Mick will ask me if “the lady from Essex” still comes to the games, and I will point her out to him, locating her using gangways and rows of seats like co-ordinates in a game of Battleships.   Mick spots her and Pat from Clacton is sunk. Oldham Athletic are wearing a fetching ensemble of orange shirts and black shorts with orange socks; it’s a kit that stirs memories of Town’s fifth round tie away at Bristol Rovers in the snow of February 1978; or it would if, as is the modern fashion, Oldham’s shirts didn’t look like they’d had something spilled down the front of them.

Town start the game well with Oldham’s interestingly named Dylan Fage conceding a corner within the first minute before the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a cross directly at goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler.  Within eight minutes Town lead as the oddly named Macauley Bonne’s cross sees Wes Burns do an impression of the shopkeeper in Mr Benn as suddenly, as if by magic he appears to score from very close range.  This is just the start we need; we will now surely go on to win by three or four goals to nil because Oldham Athletic are third from bottom of the fourth division and Town won 4-1 at Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday, what more convincing evidence predicting our inevitable victory could there be?  Indeed, Town continue to look the better team as the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Wes Burns both have shots blocked, but then the shots become fewer to be replaced by scores of passes back and forwards across the pitch.

Bersant Celina tries a little flick pass with the outside of his right foot, which doesn’t succeed. “You’ve got to earn the right to do that sort of thing” announces the joyless sounding man beside me to the World, presumably unaware that he is talking rubbish; you just need to get it right.  Oldham break forward and are a pass away from a shot on goal on a couple of occasions. “We’re leaving the door open” continues the joyless man, seemingly happy to be miserable.

Despite the 1-0 lead, the Portman Road crowd, which will later be announced as consisting of 437 Oldham supporters within a paltry total of 8,845, is quiet.  Where are the other 29,165 who were here in 1975?  A good number are probably no longer alive, I guess.  “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”  chant the Oldham supporters in the Cobbold stand with predictable coarseness.  I feel like telling them that’s because some of us are dead.  Despite high hopes the FA Cup seems to have lost a little of its sparkle and it’s only twenty -five past three.  I realise that over the Cobbold Stand and across the roof tops beyond I can see the top of the Buttermarket shopping centre.  It’s the twenty seventh minute and Oldham’s number nine, the optimistic sounding Hallam Hope heads the ball just wide of the Town goal. 

Seven more unremarkable minutes pass and the sometimes not very controlled Sam Morsy is booked by referee Mr Hair, who it is to be hoped will one day referee in the Bundesliga.  Stupidly, having dropped to the ground under a challenge, Morsy grabs hold of the ball as if to award himself a free-kick.  Rightfully, Herr Hair books him for hand ball and the pointlessness of the incident mirrors the drifting aimlessness of the Town performance and its quiet backdrop; this isn’t what Cup football is meant to be like. 

After a couple of further failed goal attempts from Oldham, with four minutes left until half-time they score. Latics’ number ten, Davis Keillor-Dunn, who sounds like he could have been friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, sends a fine shot into the corner of the Town goal from about 20 metres after Toto Nsiala initially fails to deal with a ball that had been booted forward.  “How shit must you be we’re drawing 1-1” sing the Oldham supporters to the tune of Sloop John B, coincidentally showing the majestic timelessness of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds.

With half-time fast approaching Kane Vincent-Young tugs an Oldham shirt to concede a free-kick. “Stupid boy” says a man who sounds even more joyless than the man next to me but nothing like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.  I suggest to Mick that players should have their hands bound with tape to prevent them from pulling each other’s shirts; ever reasonable and practical Mick suggests they simply wear mittens.  Following a corner to Oldham, the half ends and with the exception of one man, the occupants of Row J rise and then descend the stairs to use the toilets and the catering,  or to just stand about.

As Mick and I wait for the queue to the toilet to shorten we talk of exorcism, the disappointment of the first half, the architectural splendour of the Corporation tram shed and power station in Constantine Road, and how my wife Paulene has a degree in theology.  I decide I can wait until after the game for a pee and whilst Mick joins the queue and disappears into the toilet, I am impressed by the long hair of a man standing a few metres away from me,  but die a little inside when I read in the programme that when he grows up one of today’s mascots wants to be a policeman.  More happily, the other two mascots want to be a footballer and a superhero.

Back in our seats the second half begins with the unusual replacement of both Ipswich full-backs as Janoi Donacien and Steve Penney replace Kane Vincent-Young and Cameron Burgess.  It’s a change that brings almost immediate results as a mittenless Janoi Donacien tugs an orange shirt and Herr Hair awards a penalty to Oldham.  The otherwise impressive Dylan Bahamboula steps up for Oldham to see his penalty kick saved by Christian Walton and a sudden roar fills Portman Road which belies the small number of people present.  For a few minutes the home crowd is energised and it physically feels as if we care as much we think do.  Wes Burns dashes down the wing, urged on by the crowd, but the sudden excitement is evidently too much and he propels his cross way beyond the far post and away for a goal kick.   “How much more waking up do we need?” asks the joyless soul next to me.

To an extent Town’s performance in the second half is better than that of the first.  The full-backs now on the pitch are an improvement on those they replaced and Oldham produce fewer decent chances to score.   When Connor Chaplin replaces the ineffective Kyle Edwards the link between Morsy and the front players is strengthened and another dimension is added to our attacking play, but somehow it’s still not enough.  As I tell Mick, all our players look like they got home at four o’clock this morning.

As Town’s failure to score grows roots and blossoms, the Oldham supporters gain in confidence. “Come on Oldham, Come on Oldham” they chant, giving a clue to the home fans as to what they might be doing, but we don’t twig.  The upshot with ten minutes to go is a reprise of that old favourite “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit” and who can argue, it’s no longer 1975.  Despite Oldham encouraging Town with a misplaced pass out of defence, we are unable to capitalise and the Oldham supporters are the only ones singing as they ask “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” Predictably no one dares break our vow of silence to answer their question.

As the game enters its final minutes Sone Aluko replaces our best player, Wes Burns, and Rekeem Harper replaces Lee Evans.  Encouragingly Oldham replace their best player, Dylan Bahamboula with Harry Vaughan, but nothing works and five minutes of added on time only raises hopes, but does not fulfil them.

The final whistle is blown by Herr Hair and the crowd get up from their seats showing the same level of emotion that they might if they were all on a bus and it had just reached their stop, turning away from the pitch and averting their gaze like you would if trying to avoid eye contact with a drunk.  It has been a very disappointing afternoon of FA Cup football,  and has failed on every level to live up to what the competition is supposed to be about. 

On the bright side, at least we are still in the draw for the Second Round and until we lose, the promise of glory still remains.  It’s not every year we do as well as this.

Ipswich Town 1 West Bromwich Albion 2

It has been a grey November day, but this afternoon there have been glimpses of blue sky, small windows of hope amongst the otherwise perpetual gloom, proof perhaps that life is not all bad. Further proof, if further proof is needed lies in the existence of flexi-time. It is the end of the ‘flexi-month’ and I have worked so many hours these past four weeks that if I don’t leave at four o’clock today, I shall be working for free and that would be contrary to my strictly held religious beliefs. “Thou shalt not be a mug” is my credo.

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Tonight I’m a latter day Arthur Seaton and I’m out for a good  time so from work I head, with my accomplice Roly, for the Briarbank Brewery. The bar above the Briarbank Brewery is by far the best decorated bar I know, the walls festooned with black and white photos of closed Ipswich pubs, the sort Arthur Seaton would have drunk in had ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ been set in Ipswich, not Nottingham. I have a pint of Samuel Harvey VC (£3.50) a beer named after one of two men from Ipswich who were awarded the Victoria Cross medal. As well as a beer, Samuel (who was born in Nottingham) has a bus in the Ipswich Buses fleet that bears his name. My conversation with Roly covers a wide range of subjects including Noel Edmonds, Ciiff Richard and Sue Barker, Shake n’Vac and Billy Joel.
From the Briarbank Brewery, Roly and I make the short walk up Fore Street to TheOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Spread Eagle, a Grade 2 listed building that dates back to the 17th century, where I drink Grain Brewery Best Bitter (£3.50 a pint). The leather aprons of the bar staff remind me of Fred Gee, the pot-man at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, but I don’t suppose he’s still in it, particularly since Fred Feast, the actor who played him died in 1999. Roly and I continue not to talk about football, not from any previous agreement, but just because there doesn’t seem anything to say. From the Spread Eagle it is a bit more of a walk along Orwell Place and Tacket Street, up Brook Street and Buttermarket, over Giles Circus and Cornhill, along Westgate Street to St Jude’s Tavern in St Matthew’s Street. They may not all be looking at their best, but Ipswich’s medieval or even Saxon pattern of streets remains and is brim-full of fine buildings; if only the locals appreciated it.
St Jude’s Tavern is busy with Friday night drinkers and football supporters when we arrive a bit before six o’clock. After a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which tonight is St Jude’s Thaddeus (Thaddeus is another name for Jude in case you didn’t know), we have a beef and onion pie each, mine is accompanied by a pint of something the name of which I can’t recall (pie and a pint £5.00). I garnish my pie with red sauce, Roly prefers brown. After we’ve eaten, a drunk staggers into the pub and sits at a table of regulars; he tries to cadge a drink but the bar man is quickly wise to his presence and succeeds in throwing him out before apologising to his patrons; but we all re-assure him that we enjoyed the show, it beats open-mike night.
Beer glasses drained, Roly is keen to get to Portman Road because he is meeting his friend Andrew and because not satiated by a beef and onion pie, he has it in mind to eat a burger. Rolling down Portman Road the glow of the floodlights draws us like moths to a flame or in Roly’s case a glutton to a fast-food joint. The streets are unusually busy and due to the football club having made tickets being made available for the realistic price of ten pounds each a crowd of 22,995 will watch the game tonight. Roly meets Andrew, and I visit the club shop because at short notice I have been informed that ever -present Phil’s son Elwood is eight years old today! How I love the club shop and its fabulous array of blue and white toot. Today my eye is drawn to a gnome and the club’s ‘retro’ range which I imagine outsells everything else given that our best days are all in the past. Although at least we have won major trophies, something many of our rivals and other clubs from towns and cities bigger than Ipswich cannot claim with real conviction (League Cups pffft!).

 

 

It’s twenty-five past seven and a coach disgorges tardy West Bromwich supporters into Portman Road. An Ipswich fan points at a West Bromwichians yellow and green away shirt. “ You can’t wear that here mate”. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The visitor looks somewhat bemused and blurts some exasperated expletives in the direction of one of his fellow supporters; his thick Midland’s accent rendering them incomprehensible and unpleasantly nasal. I pass the grinning statue of Bobby Robson; his best playing days were arguably with the ‘Baggies’ of West Bromwich, but thankfully he never picked up the accent.
At the Alf Ramsey Stand (Churchmans) all the turnstiles are open but the queues are of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAunequal lengths.; with a self-satisfied air of streetwise, intellectual superiority I join one of shorter ones and am inside the ground whilst others still queue. On nights like this it’s fun to laugh and sneer at those people who aren’t regular supporters and are only here because the tickets are cheap. I head for the betting shop bit beneath the stand where the handy shelf gives me somewhere to write the greeting on Elwood’s birthday card. I stop to talk to a steward I know called Dave, but at the very moment I arrive at his side so does another acquaintance of his who begins a personal monologue. I wait for the other man to pause so that I might speak to Dave, but the other man breathes through his ears and doesn’t draw breath for a second; so I screw my eyes up at Dave and nod sympathetically; I imagine my face might look a bit like the one Gary Lineker pulled in the 1990 World Cup semi-final after Paul Gascoigne was booked and became tearful. But tonight I’m not indicating that Gazza is upset, I’m signalling to Dave that I’m going to bugger off, and that’s what I do.
Up in the stand Bluey is playing the part of ‘greeter’ and gives me the thumbs up, which is nice, even though I do know he’s not a real Suffolk Punch. Ever-present Phil who never OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmisses a game and son Elwood are already here and I settle down a couple of seats along before giving Elwood his birthday card and a few ITFC ‘goodies’. Phil tells me that earlier in the club shop Elwood had handed in an ITFC badge that he found on the floor to the staff serving behind the counter. One of the things I have given Elwood is such a badge; it seems like Elwood has been rewarded for his honesty and whilst we all know that’s not true, in an ideal world it would be.
Between each seat is a folded up piece of printed card which makes a clapping noise when hit against another surface; I saw that people were cynical about this on social media but I think it should be lauded; something needs to be done to shake Ipswich and Suffolk people out of their puritan misery and to “make some noise for the Tractor Boys”, as I believe the saying goes.

 


The teams appear; the match ball is plucked from its plinth and once multiple hands are shaken the game begins with Ipswich literally getting the ball rolling in the direction of me, Elwood, Phil and Pat from Clacton who has arrived a bit late due to the traffic. Town wear blue shirts and socks with white sleeves and shorts; West Bromwich cause offence to many by wearing yellow and green striped shirts with green shorts and socks. The Baggies win an early corner and Jay Rodriguez (that’s his ‘Equity’ name surely) heads the ball over the cross bar. There is noise in the ground tonight and it’s not all from the 1,000OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA odd West Bromwich Albion supporters cooped up in the corner of the Cobbold Stand. In the corner, in the bottom of the North Stand blue and white flags are being waved and drums drummed and voices voiced; for a little while anyway. But West Bromwich Albion are better at football than Town and as they start to dominate, some of the enthusiasm ebbs away, which is the opposite of what should happen of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcourse because it obvious that a struggling team needs most support. But then logic is not always a strong point in ‘Leave’ voting Ipswich. The West Bromwich fans soon sense our weakness and after first chanting something stupid about being a “…shit Norwich City”, which is a bit rich from people supporting a team wearing yellow and green, they go for the jugular with the reliable old “ Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”. Cut to the quick I try some chants of my own but the cowering reticence of the Suffolk public means I’m beaten before I begin, even with my cardboard clapper, which is a little too lightweight and disintegrates as I bash it relentlessly on the back of the seat in front of me. Only ten minutes have gone and Town’s Matthew Pennington is booked by referee Mr Keith Stroud who is possibly theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA smallest referee I have ever seen; he doesn’t even rival Paul Hurst in stature.
On the touchline Paul Lambert prowls like a black panther in his trademark black Marks & Spencer jumper and black slacks, kicking every ball and seemingly feeling the self-same emotions as the fans in the stands, but with added Celtic menace. It’s a chilly evening and he should really get himself a coat, even if that jumper is pure new lambs’ wool. Perhaps Marcus Evans should put his hand in his pocket for a coat for our Paul.
Sadly, Town are second best to West Bromwich, who despite having been ‘a bit rubbish’ in the context of the evil Premier League last season are evidently still too good for us tonight. But we are trying and what we’re watching is recognisable as football, which wasn’t always true last season. Perhaps we can hold on and then sneak a goal I think to myself. A paper plane engineered from a re-purposed cardboard clapper lands next to the West Bromwich goal keeper Sam Johnstone. The fact that it disappoints the home crowd by not hitting Johnstone is a portent for the evening. Within minutes Town’s defence watch the ball cross from one side of the pitch to the other and back into the middle where Jay Rodriguez scores from very close to the goal. Oh well. How I was hoping that wouldn’t happen, and now it has. The West Bromwichians are happy though, their high spirits expressed by making good use of Chicory Tip’s 1972 chart topping single “Son of my father” with a chorus of “Woah wanky-wanky, wanky-wanky, wank-wanky Wanderers”, in honour of their own version of Norwich City, the neatly alliterative Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The clock moves on and behind me a man explains to his child that there are another five minutes until half-time and then another forty-five minutes after that before they can go home. A minute of the half left and Ipswich win a corner from which West Brom’ come closer to scoring than the home team as they breakaway courtesy of a failed tackle from Jordan Spence. One minute’s added time passes and then it’s half-time. I wander down to the front row of seats to have a chat with Ray and generously he offers me one of his wife Roz’s sausage rolls, I accept the offer. Behind us dancing girls with Lycra bottoms, bare mid-riffs and sparkly tops gyrate; a human manifestation of the popular retro-range.

 

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The second Act begins amidst shouts of “Come On Ipswich”, but the man behind me feels compelled to admit that West Brom’ are stronger than us “…in every department”; I think of Debenhams and John Inman. But Town are playing better than in the first half; they have more possession of the ball and in more locations across the pitch and Matthew Pennington even has a decent looking shot on goal. But then West Brom’ also have a decent shot, which causes a sharp intake of breath as it hits a post; a lad called Harvey Barnes is the perpetrator, it’s a name that sounds like it was copied from a 1914-18 War Memorial.
Town must be doing alright though, people aren’t moaning but still most of them aren’t really supporting either, at least not vocally. The club should have said “We’ll let you in for a tenner, but you have to make a noise or we’ll chuck you out”. The ‘Blue Action’ group in the North Stand do their best, but there aren’t really enough of them, Ultra Culture hasn’t yet made its mark in Ipswich. I remain hopeful however that the Rodin exhibition in the gallery behind Christchurch Mansion, which opens this weekend, will stir people’s inner passions. Rodin is to sculpture what Arnold Muhren was to midfield artistry.
We’re only losing 1-0, a draw is still a possibility, a win even. But the seventy sixth minutes arrives and that Harvey Barnes is in the penalty area, he shuffles about a bit and shoots; he scores. The shot somehow avoids at least four legs and Bartosz Bialkowski’s left hand. It couldn’t hurt more if he’d missed and the ball had hit me in the ‘groin area’.
Substitutions ensue and the West Brom’ supporters sing “Lambert, Lambert, what’s the score?” seemingly labouring under the mis-apprehension that he is still manager of Aston Villa. They compound their mistake with a rendition of “Shit on the Villa, shit on the Villa tonight” to the tune of ‘Roll out the barrel’. Ipswich supporters may not sing much, but at least when they do the songs are relevant.
Both teams have shots on goal which are blocked as the game heads towards its finale, Ipswich are looking as likely to score as concede, which on balance with only ten minutes left is a good thing. With six minutes of normal time left to play substitute Kayden Jackson scores for Town and there is belief that may be, just may- be, Town could get a draw. Clearly West Brom’ think so too and they resort to foul or generally unsporting play with Matthew Phillips, Kieran Gibbs and Sam Johnstone all getting their own personal viewings of Mr Stroud’s yellow card. Town have no luck however and when Jack Lankester’s shot hits a post and deflects away rather than hitting a heel or a divot and deflecting in to the goal, we get confirmation that Portman Road will remain joyless for another week.
The skies today were grey and despite glimpses of blue, they remain so. But at least there have been glimpses. I retain the faith and like Arthur Seaton I won’t let the bastards grind me down.

 

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