Ipswich Town 1 Wigan Athletic 0

In 1978 when Ipswich Town were winning the FA Cup, Wigan Athletic finished second in the Northern Premier League behind Boston United and were elected to the Football League in place of Southport. Today, as ever-present Phil who never misses a game will later joke, Wigan are Town’s peers and today we meet. That’s a good joke Phil, you are wasted teaching IT to the youth of Northampton. Wigan bobbed about in the ‘lower divisions’ for several years, I remember seeing them lose frequently at Layer Road in the 1990’s, but eventually the club had the good fortune to be adopted by millionaire Dave Whelan who built them a stadium and paid their way in to the Premier League (spit). I met Dave Whelan once in a professional capacity; he flew down to Ipswich by helicopter just to meet me, and my colleague (boss). As we talked informally to break the ice my colleague, let’s call him Steve because that is his name, offered him a million pounds for Titus Bramble (then a Wigan Athletic player) and he accepted. I’m still not sure what we would have done with Titus Bramble in our office.

Today is a gloriously grey mid-December day. The sky is dull, the wind is gusty and the cold is very cold; so cold it cuts against my skin like a knife as I walk to the railway station. There are plenty of people waiting for the 12:57 train; Christmas shoppers mostly, heading for the bright, twinkling lights of Colchester. The train is late. A freight train seems to be to blame; it crawls through the station belching thick, dark diesel fumes. “Bloody hell” says a youth out to his impress his mates before he breaks into a bout of ostentatious coughing. More mature people cover their noses with their scarves or hold their breath. I wander down the platform and wait near a man who has hair like a young Sid James. The train is nine minutes late, but arrives in due course. As it draws into the platform two men in their late sixties manoeuvre themselves towards the sliding doors. “Ooh, it’s one of the refurbished ones, have you been on one of these?” says one of the men who has an unfortunate squint to one eye. The other man doesn’t answer. I imagine he’s thinking “Twat”.

The Christmas shoppers and Sid James desert the train at Colchester and I  am left to contemplate a sign inviting me to recharge my lap-top, tablet or phone, but only my lap-top, tablet or phone, from a sealed up power point. It’s as if Greater Anglia railways had considered being generous, but then thought better of it.

Ipswich is as grey and cloudy as the station where I began my journey and the streets are cold and quiet. I stride over the Princes Street bridge purposefully in my overcoat and blue and white scarf, probably smiling slightly to myself because I’m looking forward to the match; surely we can win today, I’m thinking. A woman in a car waiting at the traffic lights catches my eye and gives me the thumbs up. Yes, we will surely win today. I see the banners on the lamp posts advertising the Rodin exhibition at the gallery in Christchurch Park and am further inspired; I really must go and see ‘The Kiss’. We’ve got it all in Ipswich. Seriously.

Portman Road is quiet for a match day but perhaps that is because the turnstiles are already open and the people usually here at 1.30 are all inside doing whatever people who arrive an hour and a half before kick-off do. I head for the Fanzone to deliver a bag of groceries to the FIND foodbank charity; I’m not going into the Fanzone but a steward tries to stop me nevertheless because I haven’t shown that I have a match ticket, I tell them not to fret, I’m only going ‘over here’. Hopefully FIND will have had a successful day and will make further collections on future match days.

I head on to St Jude’s Tavern past a steward walking a car along Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I call to him that he needs a red flag. St Jude’s is very busy but I quickly avail myself of a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is St Jude’s Thaddeus. I perch on a bar stool in a dark corner; it’s the only vacant seat left. I’m not quite half way through my pint when Mick appears at the door, the large fur-trimmed hood of his coat casts a deep shadow over his face and beard making him look a little like a slightly sinister polar explorer. Mick quickly acquires a pint of the Thaddeus too and we talk of car insurance, my recent weekend in Amiens, of Trappist beers (Orval and Chimay), Jules Verne, ethical candles, gilets jaunes and Emmanuel Macron. Finishing my first pint, I buy a pint of Mr Bee’s Black Bee (£3.40) and Mick has a half of the Match Day Special. Time flies by and it’s almost ten to three, I have to dash.

 I seem to be the last person to be making his way down Portman Road towards the glowing floodlights, in the nearing distance supporters scurry across from the car park and hurry through the turnstiles like people getting in, out of the rain. At the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand I greet the turnstile operator with cheery smile and proceed to the seats where as ever I will find ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and Pat from Clacton.

Phil hands me a Christmas card, which is nice  and after the referee Mr Scott Duncan poses for photos with the team captains and mascots the match is soon underway. Town get first go with the ball and are trying to send it in the direction of me, Phil and Pat. Town as ever wear blue and white shirts despoiled by the ugly advert for on-line betting whilst Wigan are obviously the away team because they are all in yellow.

The game is a bit of a mess. Town start slightly better than Wigan and mill around their goal for a bit, but without threatening to score. Not really making the best of the Latin rhythms of Guantanamera, the 310 Wigan supporters in the Cobbold Stand sing “Down with the Wanderers, You’re going down with the Wanderers”. Presumably they are addressing their song to Ipswich and not to their own team, but you never know. At the North Stand end of the ground the ambience is less Cuban and South American and more Spanish, although the chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” are swept away on the icy wind above the muffled sound of drums. Wigan begin to have more of the ball, but are as ineffective close to Ipswich’s goal as we are to theirs.
The game settles down into scruffy mediocrity but the hope that everyone is drawing from the realisation that Wigan are as bad as we are is palpable; at times that hope congeals into belief and the vestiges of long lost vocal support ripple through the stands. “We’re going to see Tina Turner the musical on Friday, in London” I hear Pat say. “I’m not” says Phil.

There are several free-kicks and the Wigan players seem keen to hold proceedings up whenever they can by feigning mortal injury and clutching various limbs before skipping off to kick or shove someone in blue and white. Frustrated by another delay the old dear behind shouts “Keep it goin’, we gotta get home tonight. It’s obviously not cold enough for ‘em.”

With a half an hour gone a tuneless, droning chant of “Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan” makes a succinct commentary on the type of game it is and makes me think of the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” and I mourn the death of Pete Shelley quietly to myself whilst waiting for something good to happen. A page from a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times dances its way across the pitch, blown and buffeted by the wind. Then another page floats by and another. “ It’s coming across a page at a time” says the elderly voice behind me and she chuckles ,enjoying the sight of paper blowing about more than the match it seems. A serious looking steward with a head wrapped in earphones steps forward to grab a piece of the newspaper and dispose of it. “Underground, overground, Wombling free” I sing. It’s twenty-five to four and Freddie Sears breaks free of the Wigan defence, he bears down on goal, he shoots over the cross bar. Five minutes later Wigan’s, or more accurately Everton’s Callum Connolly misses the goal too after a corner, “Crikey, you’re worse than us” is the verdict from behind me.
Half-time is a blessed opportunity to thaw my hands beneath the warm air blowers in the gents’ toilet; it’s a cold day and I’ve drunk two pints of beer so I take the chance to use the other facilities too. Outside on the concourse I eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and then, back in the stand chat with Ray, who also hands me a Christmas card. It is starting to rain and it’s getting dark.
The second half of the match begins and the break has made me more conscious of the cold easterly wind; even Paul Lambert has a coat on this afternoon, even if he has left it not done up. For now, despite slowly numbing fingers due to fingerless gloves, I feel warm. My woolly socks, cosily fitting boxer shorts bought in an Amiens supermarket (Auchan), a T-shirt bearing the words “Allez-les bleus”, long-sleeve cotton 1950’s Ipswich football shirt, chunky woolly jumper, beneath a heavy overcoat, and a woolly ITFC badged hat and scarf seem to be doing the trick. I was worried about the boxer shorts because they have the word ‘Athletic’ all around the waist band, but have decided that like sticking pins in a wax effigy having a part of the name of our opponents printed on my pants will put a hex on them.

The standard of football doesn’t improve. “It’s probably better on the radio” says the old girl behind me. The cold intensifies with the rain and my feet start to feel like blocks of ice. Dean Gerken the Ipswich goalkeeper draws disapproving moans and groans from the crowd as he hurries a clearance, which screws away into touch. He glowers back at the crowd. Perhaps he senses and even resents the loyalty in the crowd to Bartosz Bialkowski. The wind and rain are making it difficult for players who like to hoof the ball, but I think we are right to expect better on this occasion. I begin to wonder if this game might not become the win we are waiting for, but despite that minor ‘altercation’ with “Gerks” there is still a prevailing atmosphere of hope and support. We know we aren’t here to be entertained, we are here to see a win and people are sensing that they have some part in making that happen because perhaps the team might not be able to do it alone. Every now and then a string of on-field events will cause an eruption of supportive sounds from the stands and belief is restored. Even when a shot from Wigan’s Reece James strikes the Ipswich cross bar it seems to galvanise the support, not make them depressed and scornful as would have happened last season. It’s gone twenty past four and an Ipswich ‘attack’ takes ‘shape’ in a random manner on the right. The ball is hit hither and thither and into the box where there is more bagatelle until Freddie Sears half volleys the ball into the ground and towards the goal, it strikes Everton’s Callum Connolly and, as Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton looks over his shoulder, the back of the goal net. Ipswich Town are winning.
The remaining twenty four minutes are both awful and utterly enjoyable. The referee Mr Scott Duncan, despite having the name of a former Town manager whom the supporters respect, unlike the last four managers, makes a catalogue of dubious decisions many involving granting Wigan free-kicks around the edge of the penalty area. But this only draws everyone together, if we have to beat both Wigan Athletic and the referee so be it. Town manager Paul Lambert is equally gung-ho and has now discarded his coat like some sort of footballing King Lear challenging the wind and freezing rain to do its worst.  Wigan’s last chance is the ludicrous addition of seven minutes of time added on, it’s as if Wigan have benefitted from their own time wasting earlier in the match. But thankfully Wigan are not good enough to make anything of it. If it was a Friday in the 1960’s it would be time for Crackerjack by now, but at last Mr Duncan’s whistle draws its last and Town have won at home for the first time in just over six months and for just the third time this year.
This has  been the worst brilliant match I have ever seen and certainly the best terrible one too. The foul, freezing weather has just made it more marvellous, more memorable. This is what being a football supporter is all about, days like this. I have learned again the joy of a single win. The wait has been worth it. I feel sorry for those supporters of clubs who have never been bottom of the league in mid-December without a home win, they don’t know what they’ve missed. Today our souls have been enriched.
Tonight my wife and I shall drink champagne.

Ipswich Town 0 Cardiff City 1

 

Tonight I am looking forward to going to the football at Portman Road despite the pall of gloom that hangs over the place; a gloom which deepened on Sunday when a Norwich City goal in the last seven seconds of added on time fooled many Ipswich fans into thinking a decent result was a terrible one.   There’s a lot of blame and a lot of disinterest weighing the place down.  But what do I care, it’s five o’clock and one of the best things in life is to leave work and go directly to the pub and that’s exactly what I am doing, along with my accomplice for the first part of the evening Roly.

Darkness is imperceptibly surrounding us as we head along Constantine Road, Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Portman Road towards St Jude’s Tavern.  It’s cold and through the eerieOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA half-light a few tiny specks of very light sleet drift and fall and sparkle in a car headlight beam.  There is activity in the football ground as stewards arrive and are detailed off for their evening duties; Zero the sniffer dog arrives at the Constantine Road gate to the ground with his handler; Zero is sans-lead, which I guess for a working dog like him is like being in civvies.  I like to think of him having his own dressing room where he changes into collar and lead and perhaps prepares for the evening with a few exercises to clear his sinuses. In Portman Road the hot food stands set up a while ago and early diners stand nearby in ones and twos, basking in the beautiful, enticing fluorescent light, which falls out into the street and as ever make me think of the paintings of Edward Hopper.

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It’s not yet 5:20 when we rock up at Jude’s and there aren’t many drinkers here yet, just the few who are seemingly always here and think they are characters in Cheers.  Roly gets me a pint of Bearstown Best Bitter (£3.20) and has a pint of Priory Mild (£3.20) himself.  We sit in a corner near the door, a location Roly chooses, perhaps because of the tilting leather-bound chair which allows him to lean back and pose questions in the manner of a TV chat show host.  Roly has a show on Ipswich Community Radio and is used to audiences of less than ten. We talk a variety of nonsense, although Roly does most of the talking because he’s nothing if not loquacious, which is perhaps why he is on the wireless.  As we finish our pints and are about to get more beer and a pie each, who should walk in to the pub but ever-present Phil who never misses a match.  Attracted by tales of the Match Day Special (£2.50) in this very blog, Phil has decided to eschew the delights of the fanzone tonight and sample cheap beer in a proper pub where none of the beer, rather than all of it, bears the name Greene King.

After introductions and an explanation of Phil’s claim to fame, I eventually fetch a pie and a pint (£5.00) each for Roly and me. I have a pint of Nethergate Suffolk Bitter and a mince and onion pie, Roly has more Priory Mild and a steak and kidney pie; I tear open a sachet of red sauce, Roly has no sauce.  I return to our table to find Roly talking at length to Phil about the 1993/94 season, which could be the last time Phil missed a game, I don’t really know.  Time passes and I have a further pint, this time the Match Day Special (£2.50), which is St Jude’s Gainsborough.  Phil leaves for the ground before Roly and I, but by and by we also head to Portman Road; Roly is meeting a friend called Andrew, a public sector worker who lives in Bury St Edmunds.

Outside, the night time now surrounds us, but it’s very cold and the chill night air feels damp.  A fine mist shrouds the Portman Road floodlights creating a scene and an atmosphere far too spectacular and evocative for this mundane second division fixture, for which only 13,205 people will bother to leave their homes.  Roly, Andrew and I meet close to the statue of Sir Alf and try hard to be humourous.  I say that if we see a game half as good as the goalless draw against Burton Albion last Saturday week, I will be happy; how we laugh.  Roly and Andrew depart for the expensive seats in the East of England Co-operative stand leaving me to saunter down Portman Road and bask in the variety of light that shines from street lamps and windows, from over doorways and from the little white programme kiosks.

 

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There are two orange plastic cones behind the statue of Sir Bobby Robson, which in the shadows deceive the eye and look like there is cloth hanging off the back of his plinth.  Why are they there? Does Sir Bobby get down off his plinth in the middle of the night and dance around joyously with one on his head as he remembers victories under floodlights over St Etienne, FC Koln, Real Madrid and Norwich?

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I am not searched as I enter the ground, although I carry a bag displaying the yellow stars of the European Union, perhaps I have diplomatic immunity.  Near the turnstiles just inside the ground a notice warns of high voltage electricity, seemingly just behind a locked door, and the sign advises that one should contact the stadium manger to gain access; I make a mental note just in case I’m feeling suicidal at half-time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I use the toilet facilities and advance through the undercroft of the stand where there are now very few people at all; there aren’t many more in the stand and swathes of empty blue seats  greet the teams, cheering and singing just like regular Ipswich fans.  The teams are ready to kick-off as I select a seat just along from Phil.   Ipswich are playing towards me, Phil and the empty seats of ‘Churchmans’, now known as the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Cardiff kick-off and are wearing the most garish, unpleasant kit I have ever seen in my entire football watching life.   Cardiff’s shirts are day-glo green and their shorts are blue; it’s a kit inspired by the heads and hands of Edward Lear’s Jumblies and “Happen what may it’s extremely wrong”.

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It takes the Cardiff City supporters of whom there are 371, just eight minutes to enquire as to whether Portman Road is a library;

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their question is met with the characteristic stony silence as if no one heard them; just once I would like 13,000 odd Ipswich supporters to put their fingers to their lips and go  SShhhh!   The first half is not surprisingly a quiet affair; Cardiff dominate in the first ten or fifteen minutes without really looking like they know what they’re doing, but then Ipswich get back at them and create openings that almost lead to something that might result in a goal; corners, crosses, shots and the like.  The most notable feature of the game however, apart from Cardiff’s hideously coloured shirts, is the size of the Cardiff players, they are to a man enormous; it’s like a team of Neanderthals against a team of Australopithicus.  Who knew Neanderthals had such poor taste in shirts?  Any way, it’s not too bad a game and Ipswich seem every bit as good as Cardiff, just shorter and better dressed.  Surely there’s more to Cardiff City’s being second in the league table than this?

Half-time brings a visit to the toilet and a then a chat with a couple of women who used to travel to away games, as I did, on a coach hired by the Clacton branch of the supporters club. I also talk to Dee and Pete with whom I used to work and then Ray, another public sector employee and former colleague, who once appeared in an Anglian Water advertisement.  Ray went to see Ipswich play at Norwich; I ask him if he has come into some money; tickets for that game cost £40. £40! I’d expect to see a World Cup final for that.  We chat and are surprised to hear America’s 1971 recording ‘Horse With No Name’ playing over the PA system, but on reflection it is an appropriately dreary  and pessimistic song for Portman Road and its passionless supporters.

The second half begins and Cardiff City are still wearing those repulsive green shirts with blue shorts; why hasn’t the little bald referee Mr Davies told them? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But then, why would the Football League let a man called Davies referee a Cardiff City match?   I have heard talk of the Welsh Mafia, or Tafia and tonight we are seeing it in action.  There is no way Ipswich will win this game.

Ipswich aren’t quite as ‘good’ as they were at the end of the first half and get a bit fed up.  When a disputed throw-in is awarded to Cardiff, Ipswich captain Luke Chambers gives a frustrated little skip and beats his arms against his sides like a petulant school girl.  Behind the thrower an advert reads ‘Ginster’s Pasties, Fill your boots’, which would make a good alternative to the half-time penalty shoot-out; how many pasties can you stuff into your shoe?  Above my head a buddleia still grows on the roof of the stand.

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When the attendance figure is announced, the Cardiff fans sing “ You’re only here for the Cardiff” , which given that it’s the lowest gate of the season isn’t saying much; if only they knew, but perhaps it was just the next song on their playlist.   But the Welsh clearly caught the late 60s early 70’s vibe of ‘Horse With No Name’ at half-time and reprise it with a blast of the Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance, singing “ All we are saying is give us a goal” .  Three minutes later, a Cardiff free-kick drops in the Ipswich penalty area, a bloke in a nasty green shirt seems to fall on top of it, possibly handling it, before standing up and kicking it in an ungainly manner into the corner of the Ipswich goal; his name is Kenneth.  It’s a crappy goal, one of the crappiest, but we know something of Mr Davies’ taste in music.

The Ipswich supporters react as usual to their team going behind with a deafening wall of silence as they contemplate how they might become any less passionate and supportive of their team. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the game enters its final fifteen minutes however, some voices briefly stir in the North Stand as the drum up the corner is occasionally heard and that old favourite “Sloop John B” is employed to celebrate that Luke Hyam is the only player in the team to have emerged from the Ipswich Town ‘Academy’: “He’s one of our own, He’s one of our own, Luke Hyam, He’s one of our own”.    Phil satirically sings “We’ve got him on loan, we’ve got him on loan, perm any one from Carter-Vickers, Callum Connolly or Bersant Celina, we’ve got him on loan”.

Having scored just twice in their last six home matches, Ipswich inevitably go one better to make it two goals in seven matches.  Equally inevitably, I hear the fading sound of boos as I skip out of the ground and run to the railway station to catch the ‘early’ train to Colchester, which I succeed in doing only to find my connecting train is cancelled.

It’s not been a terrible night’s football, some small parts of it were even quite good.  But overall it was what I believe in modern parlance is described as ‘meh’.  But I enjoyed going to the pub and seeing the pretty lights and speaking to lots of people and hearing the occasional Welsh accent, so there’s lots to be thankful for. I’ll probably come again.