Ipswich Town 1 Cheltenham Town 1

In the final scenes of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If’, the central character Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and his nameless girlfriend launch a machine gun attack on the parents, teachers and governors at a school speech day.  The scene was filmed at Cheltenham College and it’s one of my favourite scenes in one of my favourite films; Wikipedia tells us that ‘If’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969 and in 1999 the British Film Institute ranked it as the 12th greatest British film of all time.  As if that association with such a great film is not enough kudos for Cheltenham, it also has a football team that has never lost to Ipswich Town. Today Ipswich Town and Cheltenham Town meet at Portman Road for only the second time in recorded history.  I don’t know it yet, but later today I’m going to feel like Mick Travis.

In north Essex it has been a stupendously dull morning, both still and depressingly grey, like November days should be. It’s only when I approach Ipswich that a diffuse yellow light begins to filter through the grimness and then bright sunshine bursts from a clear blue sky like a metaphor for the end of the working week and the arrival of Saturday, heralding a match at Portman Road.  Before the game I visit my mother and we reminisce about all manner of things from years ago and she tells me how her grandfather, Sam Scarff, an agricultural labourer from Needham Market, enrolled with a friend for evening classes, joined the police and rose to the rank of inspector in the Met’ before retiring to become a game-keeper in Shotley; his friend became a police commissioner, and I thought social mobility was a 1960’s thing.

Leaving my mother with her memories, I drive across town and park up on Chantry. The streets are busy with people in football-supporting attire. I walk across the wet grass of Gippeswyk Park and marvel at how lush and green the turf now is compared to how dried up, brown and withered it was on the first day of the football season three months ago.  In Sir Alf Ramsey way I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner, but the technology isn’t working today.  I laugh and hand over a five pound note to the somewhat miserable and overweight looking youth in the programme booth.  The Arbor House, formerly known as The Arboretum, is busy with pre-match drinkers, but I am served quite quickly and order a pint of Nethergate Complete Howler (£4.00). I head for the garden where Mick is already sat at a table with a pint of a dark beer from the Grain brewery which he’s not very keen on, I take a sip and agree that it’s not exactly moreish, but then the Grain brewery is located in Norfolk, albeit with an IP postcode.  Before long Roly joins us and proceeds to dominate the conversation, mainly because he seems to have the ability to talk without drawing breath, which means a polite person like me can’t get a word in edgeways, not that I have much to say.  We, by which I mean mostly Roly, talk of local council chief executives, Roly’s five-year-old daughter Lottie, primary schools on the Essex Suffolk border and the performances of Town player Dom Ball.  Between twenty-five and twenty to three we leave via the back gate of the beer garden and head for Portman Road.  I bid Mick and Roly farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Stand, formerly known as the West Stand.  We speak briefly of when we will next meet; it will be for the five o’clock kick off v Buxton in the FA Cup on Sunday 26th November.   I won’t be going to the mid-week game versus Portsmouth as I am boycotting the Papa John’s EFL Trophy, not because I have anything against oily, takeaway pizza, but because I think the competition has been debased by the inclusion of Evil Premier League under-21 teams.  I am particularly looking forward to not going to Wembley should Town make it to the final, when I will blow a metaphorical raspberry to all those people who believe that anyone boycotting the competition will automatically abandon their principles if Town get to the final.  Such beliefs help explain why we have a Tory government.

Most unusually, today there is a queue at the turnstiles for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand which are accessed from Constantine Road, but quite soon an extra turnstile opens up (No61) and a cheerful man presents bar codes to a screen and I pass through the portal to another world.  That pint of beer has already found its way to the exit and from the gents beneath the stand I hear stadium announcer Stephen Foster reading the team line-ups from the scoreboard in his best local radio DJ voice.  I arrive at my seat just as a minute’s silence begins for Armistice day, although that was actually yesterday.  Oddly, the Football Association have decided not to cancel the fixtures today as they did when they felt they couldn’t trust football crowds to observe a minute’s silence for the death of Queen Elizabeth back in September.  The minute’s silence is of course observed perfectly. Stephen Foster reads from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem ‘For the Fallen’ and the last post is played exquisitely, even if it does slightly spoil the solemnity and dignity of the moment to then be told by Stephen Foster that Jon Holden who played it is a member of the Co-op East of England Brass Band.  It’s probably just me, but I can’t help sniggering a little at any mention of the Co-op.

After a fly-past by a couple of Army helicopters, and a brief burst of ‘Hey Jude’, the game begins with Town getting first go with the ball and kicking towards me , Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  Town are thankfully back to wearing their blue shirts and white shorts after the all-black aberration against Derby, whilst Cheltenham Town are wearing red shirts and shorts with their ruddiness off-set by white socks and a white pin-stripe on their shirt fronts.  Quickly, Portman Road sounds in good voice as the altered version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ in which she eternally fights Norwich on Boxing Day rings around the ground.  On the touchline, Town manager Kieran McKenna is looking stylish, if a little drab in a black jacket and trousers with a plain jumper, which I at first think is beige but then think is grey; perhaps it’s taupe?

From the start Ipswich dominate and it feels as if everyone, from the supporters to the players really wants to win this match. We all remember the life-denying, spirit crushing goalless draw against Cheltenham from last season and that’s our inspiration to see Town give these upstarts, better known for their poncey Regency spa a sound thrashing.   Crosses rain into the Cheltenham penalty area and although one from Conor Chaplin goes a bit off course and strikes Wes Burns in the throat Sam Morsy soon has the first shot on goal and then from a corner Luke Woolfenden hooks the ball into the goal from close range and Town lead 1-0.  Woolfenden runs off sucking his thumb with the ball up his jumper and ever-present Phil mentions something about the birth of wolf cubs; I suggest he has simply discovered the joy of sucking his thumb. 

More corners and crosses follow and I chant “Come On You Blues” and so does Phil, but no one else does.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of you singing” announces Pat from Clacton, sort of singing herself, which is ironic.  Janoi Donacien strides forward into a rare bit of space and pulls the ball back to Marcus Harness; the Cheltenham defence is rent open like a tin of corned beef on which the key has broken half-way round and it’s been necessary to open both ends with a tin-opener to get the meat out. Harness must score, but somehow the ball strikes the under-side of the cross bar as if deflected away from the goal net by some invisible force…either that or Harness made a hash of it.

There are more corners to Ipswich, loads of them, and Phil and I keep chanting “Come On You Blues” vainly hoping someone will join in with us. We change to the simpler “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” but the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand aren’t moved.  I think to myself that I might as well be singing in French and so I do “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” I chant; Fiona says I’ve gone too far. On the pitch Janoi Donacien is hurt and is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young and the ball skims of the top of Cheltenham number six Lewis Freestone’s head as if he was a man who had applied too much brylcreem to his hair.  Another cross and Leif Davis precisely places a carefully controlled header over the Cheltenham cross bar.  Within a minute Cheltenham equalise as Ryan Broom sweeps forward and shoots at Christian Walton who somehow cannot stop the ball squirming around or under or through him onto the goal.  It might have been the brylcreem on the ball.  It will prove to be Cheltenham’s only real shot of the game and up in the Cobbold stand a knot of about twenty excited youths jump around and wave their arms about like bookies on a race course or idiots trying to fly.

Disappointing as that equaliser is, Town press on, although not quite as well as before.  When the Cheltenham goalkeeper parries a low Marcus Harness cross out to Cameron Humphreys, somehow the ball comes straight back to him.  Two minutes of added on time are announced very noisily by Stephen Foster, as if he’d turned the PA system up to eleven. “Speak Up” says Pat from Clacton.   I applaud Town off the field with the half-time whistle and go and talk with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.  I ask Harrison if he has got the new Robyn Hitchcock album ‘Shufflemania’ yet, he says he may get it for Christmas as he looks at his dad.

The match resumes at six minutes past four and a chorus of ‘Blue and White Army’ briefly rolls around the stands, not exactly like thunder. On the stroke of the 53rd minute the crowd rises for a minute’s applause in memory of Supporters’ Club Chairman Martin Swallow who died at the end of October.  A lone seagull floats above the pitch; no doubt someone would think it poignant. 

With Cheltenham confined to their half of the pitch due to constant Ipswich possession, this is the sort of game where every moment lost through a Cheltenham player sitting on the grass or receiving treatment is going to be attributed to time-wasting, and so it proves. Referee Mr Eltringham, a man with ‘ten to two’ feet, books the Cheltenham goalkeeper as a warning shot to his team-mates in this regard and in all fairness, they do not break the game up as much as they did in the goalless game last season, but it’s not enough to stop the bloke behind me from saying “He’s gotta be one of the worst fuckin’ refs we’ve ‘ad down here”.   When Cheltenham players do receive treatment their physio runs on with a huge bag and what looks like a small surf board; with a blonde wig and high cut one piece swim suit he could have doubled for Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. 

“Over and in” says Pat from Clacton in the time-honoured fashion, but it never happens. Marcus Harness heads carefully past the post in the same way Leif Davis headed over the bar in the first half, Wes Burns and Marcus Harness are replaced by Kayden Jackson and Kyle Edwards, but it makes little difference.  Chances come and inevitably go as if there is no possible way to get a ball across the line between the two goalposts.  The crowd is announced as 25,400 including 175 from Cheltenham; it’s the smallest away following at any Ipswich match this season; so more credit to those who did bother.  “Here for Cheltenham, you’re only here for the Cheltenham” they sing which I guess they are, and on the Clacton supporters coach Chris wins the prize with his guess of 25,444; Pat is disappointed that so few pet animals have been attributed guesses this week.

With time slipping away, the gloom of the late autumn evening descends along with a seasonal mist which softly shrouds the floodlights. “There’s nothing wrong with, there’s nothing wrong with you” chant the North Stand appropriating some Verdi opera as another Cheltenham player takes a breather by sitting on the turf.  The final minute arrives and Panutche Camara replaces Conor Chaplin. There will be at least seven minutes of additional time which is time enough for Camara to strike a shot against the inside of a goal post; again, the ball of course stays out of the goal rather than deflecting into it. All too soon the final whistle is blown and for a second time this year Cheltenham Town have clung on to a point at Portman Road with resolute defending and huge dollops of luck.  With defending like this and the ball having such an aversion to crossing their goal line, it seems odd that Cheltenham Town have ever lost a match.

“Frustrating” says the man from Stowmarket as he edges past me to the exit “Yes, but we’ve seen it all before, just a few weeks ago” I reply, re-living the pain of the match versus Lincoln.  But my comment hides my disappointment and beneath my reasonable exterior irrational thoughts and questions swirl in a maelstrom of post-match angst and anger; how can Ipswich Town be so much better than the opposition but still not beat them? Is Ipswich Town somehow cursed?  Where is there a high roof from which a sniper could shoot freely and indiscriminately?

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.

Ipswich Town 0 Barrow 0

When I first became interested in football at the tender age of ten, Barrow were in Division Four and had been in the Football League since 1921, when they were elected as original members of Division Three North.  In my Observer’s Book of Football, the one that has a picture of Bobby Charlton on the dust jacket, it states “Honours have always been elusive for Barrow” and it goes on to say that Barrow had just “one season of triumph”, in 1967 when they finished third in Division Four. Sadly for Barrow, by the time I first saw them play, at Layer Road, Colchester in 1990, they had been replaced in the Football League by Hereford United and were not yet half way through a forty-eight year stint in non-league football.  Thirty years on and today, through the wonder of the 2nd round of the FA Cup, Ipswich Town and Barrow meet for the first time ever. I’ve been looking forward to today’s game to some extent since 1971, but more tangibly since the Cup draw was made, and in reality since Idris El Mizouni’s cracking goal ensured Oldham Athletic wouldn’t be making an unexpected run to Wembley.

As befits an FA Cup Day, the sun is shining gloriously, although with little impact on the outdoor temperature as I stroll across Gippeswyk Park and up Portman Road beneath clear azure skies.     Portman Road is notable this afternoon for the atypical absence from the car park behind Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue of some of the usual vendors of chips and other grease-based foods sold inside spongy ‘bread’ products.  There is also a corresponding shortage of human beings in Portman Road today compared to other match days, and whilst you might infer from this that people only come for the grease-based foods, the sadder truth is that the FA Cup simply doesn’t attract football fans like it once did.  I can recall paying full-price to watch Town play fourth division Halifax Town and Hartlepool United in the company of about 24,000 other souls back in the late 1970’s, and now find it hard to understand why with reduced ticket prices the lure of Cup glory against such Northern exotics is no longer an attraction.  In this age of instant gratification and tv reality game shows, Cup football should be more popular than ever with its promise of advancement to the next round and the jeopardy of defeat and expulsion from the competition after just ninety minutes; Death or Glory as The Clash sang just a year after Town lifted the FA Cup. The tyranny of Sky tv and the Premier League is clearly to blame.

Having purchased a match day programme (£2), I head on to what was The Arboretum pub back in the days when 24,000 turned up to see Hartlepool United and Halifax Town at Portman Road,  but is now The Arbor House.  With a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) in my cold right hand I sit and wait for Mick in the garden.  Mick soon arrives with a pint of Mauldon’s Molecatcher, a packet of Fairfields Farm cheese and onion crisps and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.  Mick explains that Molecatcher is brewed to the same recipe as Suffolk Pride but is less alcoholic; I can’t really see the advantage of that at the moment, but our conversation explores various avenues from last night’s Have I Got News For You tv programme to nuns before it is time to walk down the hill past Ipswich Museum to Portman Road.

Today, taking advantage of the reduced flat rate ticket price (£10 for adults and £5 for concessions plus £1.50 each for the pleasure of buying them, which goes to a parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) we are in the top tier of what was the West Stand, but is now the Magnus Group Stand. We are in Block Y where the seats are brown in colour, not because of any sort of unpleasant staining but merely because I imagine brown looked ‘classy’ in 1982 when the top tier was opened; the seats are also padded.  I bought our tickets soon after they went on sale and we benefit from being close to the stairway or vomitorium, and just two seats in from the gangway, so only two old men must rise from their seats for us to access ours.  With everyone in their winter coats it’s a tight squeeze nevertheless.

The teams appear to an introduction from stadium announcer Stephen Foster worthy of the occasion and with knees taken and duly applauded the game begins;  a strong Town team getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, formerly plain old Churchman’s.  Town are wearing their traditional blue shirts and socks and white shorts whilst Barrow are in an unexpectedly stylish pale pink shirt and socks with black shorts, vaguely reminiscent of Sicily’s Palermo or the now defunct Evian Thonon Gaillard, briefly of French Ligue 1.   The largely empty stadium is filled with a sense of expectation as the game starts and the murmur of a nascent chant can be detected from the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Within a minute of kick-off however silence reigns.

From the start Town look as hesitant and short of ideas as their supporters are of rousing supportive chants. It is Barrow who show the first serious attacking intent as several players in pink break forward “They’re all offside, nine of ‘em; except him” says a man with a loud and annoying voice a couple of rows behind me as Barrow’s number eleven Josh Kay bears down on goal beneath the shade of the Magnus Group Stand.  The same voice is all too audible a short while later as Barrow break forward again. “Toto, Toto, leave him alone Toto” he calls as Toto Nsiala tracks a Barrow player into the Town penalty area and makes a tackle before he can fashion a shot on goal.  Had Toto Nsiala followed the spectator’s advice it is likely Barrow would have scored or at least had a shot on target. It’s not a good start by Town or their supporters.  But as a consolation the low winter sun is reflecting a sparkling yellow light back off the windows of the Guardian Royal Exchange office block on Civic Drive, so although the football isn’t, the backdrop is gently inspiring.

Over twenty minutes pass and Barrow earn two free-kicks in quick succession in the Town half and then win the game’s first corner.  Barrow come close to scoring twice as one free header hits a post and then one from Mark Ellis is saved by Christian Walton.  Barrow’s Josh Kay shoots and his shot is tipped over the bar by Christian Walton. “Come on Lambert, sort it out” bawls the ruddy-faced old boy sat in the seat next but one from mine.   Nobody reacts in the seats around me; I fear some of my fellow supporters might have died. I turn to Mick and dare him to shout “Robson Out”.

 It takes Town over half an hour to have a shot on goal worthy of the name as Scott Fraser eventually launches a shot over the cross-bar from outside the penalty box.  I remark to Mick that with the number eleven on the back of his shirt and his short brown hair, from this distance Fraser sometimes makes me think of Mick Lambert.  “I can’t think what Mick Lambert looks like” says Mick. “Well I expect he looks a bit different now” I respond.   Idris El-Mizouni is booked for a foul, a little harshly in my opinion and I wonder to myself whether referee Mr Sam Purkiss is a closet French nationalist in the thrall of Marine Le Pen.  As half-time approaches a rare moment of hope sees Conor Chaplin break away and from a low cross earn a second corner for Town, and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne strides forward to unleash an appallingly bad shot which results in a throw-in to Barrow. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuckin’ ‘ell was that?” sing the Barrovians up in the Cobbold stand in the time honoured fashion. “Good question” mutters the old boy next to me to himself.

Half-time comes as a welcome relief and whilst Mick gains further relief using the facilities, I remain in the stand alongside the two old boys. The match resumes at three minutes past four as dusk descends to shroud Suffolk’s County town in chilly December darkness.

Half-time has brought change and Joe Pigott has replaced Idris El-Mizouni who hadn’t looked sure where he was meant to be playing, with Sam Morsy seemingly competing with him for the ball in midfield.  Within three minutes Joe Pigott has found space and strikes a post with a firm shot.  Pigott’s presence continues to make a difference as he seeks space behind the Barrow defence and controls and lays the ball off in a manner which the oddly named Macauley Bonne has so far appeared incapable of doing.  Things are looking up and the Sir Bobby Robson stand feels moved to sing a song which has quite a lot of words, few of which I am able to decipher, but then Kay scoops a shot over the bar for Barrow when it was certainly no more difficult to get his shot on target.

This is a much better half for Town and I sense a glimmer of optimism amongst the Town followers in the meagre crowd of 6,425, of whom a respectable 205 are from Barrow.  The mood hasn’t affected the loud man behind me however, who continues to provide a mainly sarcastic commentary, which sounds both smug and moronic in its delivery.  He clearly doesn’t like Toto Nsiala and bewilderingly urges him to chip the ball over Christian Walton as Toto turns it back towards goal, before saying “He was tempted”.  This man has the sort of voice that would make a more violent person than myself want to punch him in the throat.

Town now dominate possession and whilst still a little slow on the ball they are getting players down both flanks to put in crosses, an approach that is helped by bringing on the exciting Sone Aluko.  The Town  support has corresponding moments of enthusiasm and sing another song with plenty of hard to fathom words, but a simple chorus of “Addy, Addy, Addy – O”, which is the sort of thing heard sung by children in one of those black and white films from the early 1960’s such as A Taste Of Honey, and I half want to see Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan warming up on the touchline.

As the match winds down into its final fifteen minutes the support wanes, and as we enter six minutes of normal time the ground is once again silent.  As ever, there is a late flurry of goal attempts as the realisation dawns on the players that their failure to score a goal can only result in an evening in Barrow-In-Furness.   Corners are won but no booming chants of “Come of You Blues” or  intimidatingly repetitive calls of “ Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” materialise from the stands;  even the score board seems apathetic as each corner kick is met, not with an entreaty to shout support for the team, but instead a message about how the Ipswich Mortgage Centre “corners all your home improvement and mortgage needs”.    The old boys beside me leave with a couple of minutes to go.  Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from close range and substitute Cameron Humphreys heads against it , but Town don’t score and the breath saved by not shouting in support of the Town is expended in a chorus of sadly predictable boos and jeers.

Later this evening I will learn that the Town manager has been sacked and briefly I wonder to myself if the old boy sat next but one to me had been right; Paul Lambert had never actually left the club he’d just shaved the top of his head and swopped his Scottish accent for a Scouse one, but after nearly a season’s worth of games he’d finally been found out.   It’s certainly never dull being a Town fan, well except for the actual games that is. Try stopping me going through it all again in a fortnight’s time though. No, please, try.

Ipswich Town 0 Fleetwood Town 1

In spite of my enigmatic mix of eternal optimism and a passion for existential misery, and never having seen Fleetwood Town before, I am not overly looking forward to tonight.  It’s a bit cold and damp and there is a sad inevitability that a good number of the Portman Road crowd will be quick to moan now that Ipswich Town have embarked on a solid run of defeats made more impressive by how easily the winning goals could have been prevented.  It is without any sense of excitement or anticipation therefore that I leave work and step out into the late afternoon and its quickening rain drops.

In an effort to make a clean break from the past weeks and stop myself looking like a slimmer but greying version of Brian Wilson circa 1965, I am going to get my haircut.  As usual I take my custom to Francesco’s of St Matthew’s St, an establishment which was formerly by appointment to Sir Bobby Robson. The pleasant woman who cuts my hair tells me of a current Town player who always wore his Town tracksuit top when he came to get his haircut, but is seemingly no longer so keen to be recognised and now turns up in ‘mufti’, not that she uses that expression.  Lighter of wallet (£15.50) and head, but enlivened by a very welcome complimentary espresso coffee, I leave Francesco’s and step into a Beatles song as I start to roam, and then I’m in town.  The damp streets of down town Ipswich are largely deserted, there’s nothing doing, everything is closing, it’s like a ruin.  I’m killing time until, by way of another change to the usual pre-match ritual, I will meet Mick at the Arbor House, where we will both drink a pint of Young’s London Special (£3.80), Mick will eat Chicken Risotto whilst I eat a Scotch Egg, Halloumi Chips and Sweet Potato Fries (£10), and we will conclude our meal with a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.60) for me and a half of Shipyard American Pale Ale (£2.50) for Mick.

At about 7:15 Mick and I leave the convivial surroundings of the Arbor House and head down the hill towards Portman Road, where I stop off at one of the blue booths to buy a programme (£3.50).  I’m not sure if I get disorientated by the thought of paying £3.50 for a programme, or whether it’s just the dim, evening light but it takes me two goes to work out which window I need to go to, but at least it makes the programme seller laugh, and I laugh too ,just to make sure that he’s laughing with me and not at me.

Wishing the operator of turnstile number four a cheery thanks for letting me into the ground I make for the facilities with Mick before we take up our positions in the cheap seats between the goal and the players’ tunnel.  In front of us a crew of sailors in their ‘number ones’ hang about waiting to form an unexpected and unexplained guard of honour as the two teams enter the field.  If we were playing Portsmouth it might make some sense but Fleetwood’s seafarers are more likely to wear sou’westers, waders and thick jumpers smelling of fish than naval uniforms.

Tonight’s crowd is a bit sparse compared to recent weeks; ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, obviously, and so is Pat from Clacton, but the old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me are absent , as is the bloke with the brylcreemed hair.   Ray walks past with a pie, and when I ask what sort of pie it is he points to what  appears to be a  letter ‘C’ written on top in pastry; my guess and Ray’s is ‘C’ for chicken or perhaps, as tonight’s game is against Fleetwood, Cod,  but Pat from Clacton says she thought the ‘C’ was for something else; she doesn’t say what.  Ray looks aghast and tells me he’s glad he doesn’t have to sit next to her, I know what he means.

The match begins, Ipswich in classic blue and white trying to get the ball inside the white, wooden frame just in front of us to our right.  It is Fleetwood Town who get first go with the ball however, although visually they are disappointing wearing an insipid all pale yellow kit rather than their first kit which is red with white sleeves ,like Arsenal’s. Ipswich’s sartorial superiority sadly doesn’t seem to count for much however, and they struggle to do the things that usually help us to distinguish football from other sports such as Eton Fives, Discus and Dominoes.  The likes of Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt, Andre Dozzell and Janoi Donacien all try to cross the ball to a centre forward who I can only guess we haven’t actually signed yet, but Fleetwood’s gigantic number six Harry Souttar simply bats everything away with his head or an extended leg; if Harry Souttar was a fish he’d be a whale shark, which in case you didn’t know is the world’s largest cartilaginous fish.

There is some excitement after a quarter of an hour when Fleetwood have to make an early substitution with Ched Evans, whose name makes me think of Shed Seven, replacing Callum Connolly.  Meanwhile Mick is staring into the Cobbold stand trying to count the Fleetwood supporters, but the back of the stand is too shadowy to make it possible to tell the difference between people and seats and people who look like seats. We console ourselves with the knowledge that the attendance, including the size of the ‘Cod Army’, as Fleetwood supporters are known, will be announced later.   Soon the Sir Bobby Robson stand are chanting “ Evans, Evans, you’re a cunt” but Pat from Clacton and I can’t decide if they are singing to Ched or Marcus; we eventually settle on it being a catch all for anyone called Evans, tough as this is on choirmaster Evan Evans (known as Evans the Song) in ‘Ivor The Engine’.

Twenty eight minutes pass and Fleetwood win a corner.  It’s about now that I notice that the Fleetwood Town players bear the message ‘BES Utilities’ on the fronts of their shirts and I allow myself to ignore the difference in spelling and wonder if the former ‘Happy Monday’ has diversified into gas, water and sewerage.  Neither team has really had a shot on goal worthy of the name and whilst Ipswich are playing pretty atrociously, Fleetwood are doing their bit too  to ensure that value for money is kept to a minimum; credit where credit is due.  Whereas in many football matches what is usually described as ‘the deadlock’ is ‘broken’ by a flamboyant, audacious, cheeky, or simply consummate piece of skill ,  Ipswich have now almost perfected the complete opposite.  With forty minutes gone Ched Evans plays a one-two with someone or other not far from the half way line, which allows the spritely 31 year old to trundle past Luke Chambers, take the ball a bit too wide for a shot and then surprise us all by kicking the ball against and over the out-stretched leg of Tomas Holy and into the Ipswich goal.  As Town fans shake their heads the ecstatic Cod Army joyously leap about like salmon in the Cobbold Stand.  “You’re not famous anymore” they chant, as if that goal was responsible, whilst also challenging the song’s validity by the very fact that they’re singing it.  All fame is everlasting – discuss.

As often happens, half time soon follows an opponent’s goal to allow us to reflect, seethe or just spend a penny depending on our individual needs.  I begin my well-earned break with a look at the programme, which leads me to regret the absence from the Fleetwood team tonight of Harrison Biggins and Barry Baggley, although Billy Crellin is on the bench and though I don’t know it yet, we are destined to see him and hear his name.  I also enjoy two photos of Fleetwood manager Joey Barton, one in which he looks as if he may have just lobbed a brick at someone and another in which his chin juts out menacingly from beneath a baseball cap as he gives the evil eye to a person or persons safely out of shot. 

Having spoken again with Ray as we passed one another heading from and to the toilet, the digital clock display on the Sir Bobby Robson stand strikes 2049 and the second half begins.  Town’s losing position gives rise to the usual unwelcome commentary and advice from assorted coaches in the stands;“Look at all that fuckin’space”, “ We’ve got no one at the back”, “Second ball!”.  When Janoi Donacien misses the ball a legion of half-wits jeer because I assume they all have World Cup winning medals or at least play for Brazil and are perfect in every way and always have been.  Pat from Clacton is rightfully annoyed, “You shouldn’t boo your own players” she tells me and I agree and tell her that’s what the opposition are for.

Town are better this half, although they still can’t get past Harry Souttar and when they do Ched Evans clears off the line, or goalkeeper Alex Cairns makes a fine save; I try to think of another player whose surname is the same as the name of an Australian city, but I can’t; Derek Darwin sounds plausible but is pure fiction.  The crowd is announced as 15,678 of whom 88 are from Fleetwood and many of the home crowd turn and applaud them for their effort including me, Mick looks on slightly bemused. He has a point, such applause is a bit patronising; plucky little Fleetwood etcetera, but it might just be people trying to be nice in a world tainted by Donald Trump and Priti Patel .

Nearly half an hour remains and a chorus of “Come of You Blues” rings around the ground and then dwindles away.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Fleetwood eighty-eight and I am impressed by their volume, which I can only attribute to a diet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges for coughs and sore throats, which are manufactured by Lofthouse of Fleetwood and taste disgusting.  My father was seemingly addicted to the things, although regrettably they couldn’t stop him spending the last ten years of his life mostly hitched up to an oxygen machine.

As the game descends into its final twenty minutes, Pat from Clacton shows me her purse full of ‘lucky’ charms, which she has collected from around the world, but it seems none of them works anymore although apparently some of them used to. She’s particularly fond of one from Vietnam , which is in the form of a masturbating monkey.  Pat seemed surprised she hadn’t shown me him before, but I tell her I think I would have remembered.

I am more or less resigned to another defeat now and Pat from Clacton is too, but unlike on a Saturday she doesn’t even have a jacket potato to look forward to when she gets home, but, she tells me, she will have a Nespresso latte.  The unhappiness of sections of the crowd is growing, chants of “We want Evans Out” can be heard and this time I think it is Marcus they mean and not Ched or ‘Evans the Song’. In the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand five banners appear all bearing a word beginning with the letter U and then N.  At first I wonder if Antonio Guterres is in the house but the banners read “Unambitious”, “Underfunded”, “Underpants”, “Underachieving” and “Unacceptable” although the middle one is a bit twisted so I might have got that wrong. 

Somewhat inevitably, Ipswich do not score an equaliser and the game ends amongst much rancour and general displeasure.  The atmosphere will later be described rather predictably as ‘toxic’, a word which used to be reserved for clouds of gas, but is now applied almost exclusively to the air we breathe at Portman Road.   Mick and I stay to applaud the teams off, because, although I can’t speak for Mick , I didn’t not enjoy the game any more than I usually do when we lose, and I also have some time to kill before the next train home.