I hadn’t realised that Ipswich Town were playing Forest Green Rovers today until perhaps Tuesday evening of this week, when after casually noting Town’s goalless draw with Bristol Rovers, I idly wondered whom the football team I claim to follow were playing this Saturday. Since then, I have been looking forward to the fixture with an increasing sense of anticipation. I have often seen people state on social media that they are eager for Ipswich to get out of what they refer to as this ‘damned’ or ‘shitty’ or ’terrible’ league, but personally I rather like the third division and if we weren’t in it we wouldn’t be meeting interesting clubs like Forest Green Rovers.
It’s been a grey morning, with the occasional unfulfilled threat of Spring sunshine. Parking up my planet saving Citroen e-C4, I step out across Gippeswyk Park for Portman Road. The beer garden of the Station Hotel is conspicuously free of Forest Green Rovers supporters, but in Portman Road their team’s white liveried coach is backing up behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. On the bus windscreen, in fancy white lettering it reads ‘KB Coaches’, I wonder what KB stands for and quickly decide that Kate Bush has moved into luxury coach travel in the face of dwindling album sales. I then wonder why Forest Green Rovers don’t travel by train to reduce their carbon footprint. Forty-three years and three weeks ago I recall travelling up by train from Brighton and alighting at Ipswich station along with Alan Mullery and Mark Lawrenson and the rest of the Brighton & Hove Albion first team squad. As we left the platfrom and handed in our tickets I wished them luck in the next day’s game, though I later wished I hadn’t as Gary Stevens equalised for the Seagulls in the final minute of the match. Some things never change, others go backwards.
I buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and spot an FGR fan wearing what I can only describe as a magnificent psychedelic cardigan. If I were some sort of deity responsible for creation, I would make all FGR supporters look a bit like him. The sniffer dog outside the Cobbold Stand is likely sniffing for dope today, not pyrotechnics. Arriving at the ‘Arb’ I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.51 with 10% Camra discount) and head for the beer garden where to my surprise and pleasure I find my friend Gary sat at a table with a pint of an unidentified lager, although I suspect it’s something created in a vast factory and given an improbably exotic foreign name. Our conversation begins with death; Gary had returned this morning from Slough where he had attended a funeral, and carries on through the whereabouts of Mick, TV comedy, pensions, the dissolution of the ’Postman Higher Grade’ within Royal Mail, Colchester pubs and how enjoyable it has been watching Ipswich Town this season. So good is the conversation that Gary kindly buys me another pint of Suffolk Pride and a half of lager for himself. A bit after twenty-five to three we depart for Portman Road.
Gary and I part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where he enters a turnstile for the Magnus West Stand whilst I dodge between the supporters’ buses from out of town as I make for the Constantine Road entrance and am pleased to find turnstile number 62 open. “My favourite turnstile” I tell the lady operator “The year we won the League”, and she says “Yes, we’re going to win today” and I believe her. In the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand I edge past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to sit next but one to the man from Stowmarket and a couple of rows behind ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood. As Stephen Foster reads out the Town team I join in, shouting out their surnames like football crowds in France do.
When the game begins Town, in blue and white get first go with the ball and are aiming it mostly in the direction of Pat, Fiona, me, Phil and Elwood. FGR are in an unnecessary change kit of pink with black tiger stripes; it is probably one of the most bizarre football kits I have ever seen, but it contrasts nicely with the leaden grey cloud above us and as I will remark to prog rock fan Ray at half-time it makes me think of the 1971 album by Caravan ”In the land of grey and pink”.
Within 40 seconds of the game starting Town almost score as Wes Burns’ run and cross ends with Conor Chaplin’s shot being saved. Despite the early excitement, the crowd is largely silent but for a drum in the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Two minutes later and despite the lack of support from the fans, Town lead as Conor Chaplin scores from close range after a move which cuts through the FGR defence like a hot knife through butter or any sharp implement through the soft substance of your choice. Joy abounds for several minutes, but people soon recover.
“Warm isn’t it?” says Pat from Clacton explaining that she’s not wearing an excessive number of layers of clothing. I agree and Pat raises the possibility that I might be going through ‘the change’. “Addy, addy, addy-O” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier briefly and the bloke behind me says “There’s a team that always finishes strong at the end of the season and we need to be that team”. Three seagulls are sitting on the girder from which the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand is suspended, they appear to be watching the match. FGR win a corner. “Rovers! Rovers!” chant their supporters up in the Cobbold Stand, but without results. “Ipswich Town v Accrington Stanley, Buy Tickets” announce the digital advert displays around the edge of the pitch boldly in glowing blue and white, lending the fixture an allure I normally only associate with cheap global brands like Coca-cola and McDonald’s .
Town win a corner and Pat, Fiona and I talk about veganism as ever-present Phil chants “Meat pie, Sausage roll, Come on Ipswich score a goal!” . Fearful of offending any vegans I provide an alternative lyric of “Thomas Wolsey, Peggy Cole, Come on Ipswich score a goal”, the impact of which is lost a little I feel because I have to explain to Pat from Clacton who Thomas Wolsey and Peggy Cole were. The crowd is still quiet despite ever-present Phil’s best efforts and I introduce a few quiet “Come on You Blues” which are meant rise to a crescendo but the impact is almost instant and another decent passing move ends with George Hirst striking a shot against the angle of goal post and cross-bar. “Burns is always off the pace” says the bloke behind me as a pass runs ahead of Burns and into touch.
The first half is half over and Nathan Broadhead produces a superb turn followed by a shot which isn’t as good and is directed straight into the arms of FGR goalkeeper Ross Doohan. “Come On Rovers!” chant the FGR fans probably sensing that their team isn’t doing much that is likely to change the current scoreline in their favour. The lovely smell of damp turf caresses my senses – but mostly my sense of smell. It’s nearly half past three and it’s time for a break as an FGR player goes down and every one else congregates by the dugouts for drinks and a chat. With the game underway again it’s Wes Burns’ turn to shoot at the FGR goalkeeper. A slightly half-arsed chant of “Ole, Ole, Ole” rolls down the pitch from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but is beaten back by nothing in particular and Town win another corner and then another and I smell damp turf again . Corners gone, Harry Clarke and Luke Woolfenden pass the ball between them six times just outside the Town penalty area. It’s just gone twenty to four and Town win another corner and after a low cross to the near post Nathan Broadhead emerges from the mass of other players into space where he receives the ball and passes it beyond Doohan to put Town 2-0 up. It looks so simple you wonder why we hadn’t done it several times before.
For the few minutes until half-time it seems like the crowd might be enthused as they suddenly and unexpectedly roar on Sam Morsy as he dawdles on the ball. Stephen Foster tells us there will be four more minutes of play at least, which is enough time for another corner, but then it’s time for applause and a rest. It’s been a decent half, but FGR aren’t putting up much resistance.
I speak to Ray and his grandson Harrison, and hand Ray a piece of paper; we joke in the voice of Neville Chamberlain about peace in our time, but in fact the paper has printed on it the details of the solar panels on my house and how much electricity they have produced in the past year. How appropriate that Town should be playing FGR, the EFL’s greenest team today, even if they have chosen to play in pink. I tell Ray about how I thought of “In the land of grey and pink”, and he tells me that Caravan are still touring, although perhaps only one of the original members is still alive; Ray’s favourite track on the album is the 7 minute 46 second long “Winter Wine”.
At six minutes past four the football resumes and within two minutes Town have a shot cleared off the goal line. I look up at the stands and think of the quiet surrounding streets of the town and how great it is being here with 20,000-odd others on a winter Saturday afternoon. I am shaken from my reverie by Conor Chaplin jinking and making a marvellous pass to Wes Burns, whose cross is blocked to give Town yet another corner. There are more seagulls watching the game from on top of that girder and the cloud that hangs over the pitch is still fashionably grey; if only the render, horizontal boarding and grey window frames that people like to stick on their houses looked half as interesting. Pat from Clacton shows Fiona and me the entries in today’s guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus. There are guesses from both the squirrel and the blue tit who frequent Pat’s back garden, although the squirrel’s guess is over 27,000 so he seems unlikely to win. I tell Fiona and Pat that I hadn’t realised squirrels were so optimistic. Fiona says any squirrels in her garden have to contend with two dogs, so I guess they’d need to be optimistic if they were going to hang around for long, or very quick, which of course squirrels generally are.
Despite thoughts of squirrels and blue tits, time hasn’t stopped draining away, unsurprisingly, and with nearly an hour played FGR win a rare corner and then another and I think of the hope kindled amongst their supporters by these brief interludes. Soon after, the substitutions begin as Massimo Luongo replaces Cameron Humphreys. Weirdly, Harry Clarke takes a pace or two towards the touchline as the fourth offical raises the substitute board, as if he half expects he might be substituted. Then Town score for a third time, Conor Chaplin shooting crisply and accurately as ever, after a low cross from Leif Davis; it’s no more than Town deserve and FGR are definitively beaten. The goal inspires a burst of high-pitched noise from the family enclosure up in the West Stand. Pre-pubescent voices en masse somehow always sound so well spoken, it’s like they all still watch Valerie Singleton era Blue Peter .
The main batch of mass substitutions takes place for Town to much applause and then Stephen Foster announces that there are 24,804 of us are here today with 225 of that number supporting FGR. Many in the crowd seemingly applaud themselves whilst others raise their clapping hands towards the visitors from rural Gloucestershire who deserve something for following the team that is bottom of the third division to the far side of the country, although I happen to know at least two of them actually live in Ipswich. “I’m Rovers til’ I die” they sing. What happens then I wonder?
The game is won and it’s just a matter of whether Town will score more goals or will they give away a consolation to FGR? As it happens Town score a fourth, Freddie Ladapo heading in a headed pass from Cameron Burgess after Kyle Edwards is fouled whilst the crowd applaud the seventy-ninth minute to commemorate Bobby Robson leading Town to FA Cup glory in 1978. It’s a fittingly inaccurate celebration to mark the birthday of a man who would have been 90 years old yesterday if he hadn’t gone and died in 2009. A fifth goal would be nice and it almost happens as a Leif Davis shot hits a post in the eighty-second minute as the crowd now applauds Town’s UEFA Cup win under Sir Bob back in 1981. In France, supporters of Montpellier HSC applaud the 73rd minute of every match to mark the age at which their forner chairman Louis Nicollin died. In future it might be more meaningful if Town fans did the same in the 76th minute of every match, although we should also do the same for Sir Alf Ramsey who is always ignored, probably because he committed the terrible sin of trying to ‘talk posh’.
The FGR consolation goal never looks likely but in the 87th minute Cameron Burgess stretches for, but can’t quite reach a through ball from Charlie McCann; Tyrese Omotye chases the pass, he’s one on one against Christian Walton, he shoots, he misses and is offside in any case. The attacking prowess of FGR summed up in one incident too late in the game to have had any impact on the result even if he had scored.
With the final whistle the crowd is appreciative; recent failures to win seemingly instilling gratitude in the home fans for a victory that has been everything it needed to be. Town are back on the road to salvation and an exit from the third division, at least until the next time they don’t win.