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?