I’m not sure I have ever been to Cheltenham before. If I did ever rock up here, most likely during a family holiday in the 1960’s or 1970’s, I don’t remember it, although for what it’s worth I know I have been to nearby Gloucester. Today however, I am definitely in Cheltenham after a roughly ninety-minute, 120-kilometre drive from Chineham near Basingstoke, where I have craftily engineered a weekend stay with step-son number three and his family in order to both make my wife happy and to ensure I don’t have so far to travel in Bank Holiday Monday traffic.
It’s been a pleasant enough drive in my planet-saving Citroen e-C4, despite Hampshire being wet and grey when I set off passing signs for Aldermaston and Greenham Common, locations that loom large in the history of British people bothering to protest about things. But by the time I was skirting Swindon, the sun was successfully dodging the clouds and as I descended Leckhampton Hill and the appallingly pitted, broken surface of the Old Bath Road, Cheltenham lay stretched out invitingly below. It’s only about a quarter past twelve, so having parked up in a street that could easily double for somewhere on Ipswich’s Gainsborough or Racecourse estates I visit the Cheltenham Town club shop to check out the essential club-branded pencils, rulers, teddy bears and fridge magnets. After not entirely unexpectedly bumping into ever-present Phil who never misses a game, his young son Elwood and a man called ‘Cookie’, who gives me the news that he had to have his gall bladder removed, I leave the lounge-diner sized ‘boutique’ with its artexed ceiling, clutching a match programme (£3.00), and a pennant (£7.99) to add to the collection that hangs above the cistern in my upstairs toilet.
‘Cookie’ is heading off in search of a local chip shop, but having placed my purchases in the Citroen I make for the town centre in search of the elegant Regency architecture for which Cheltenham is known. Although Ipswich and Cheltenham are of a similar size, they mostly look very different. Whilst Cheltenham became fashionable in the late eighteenth century, after the visit of King George III to its spa, the ensuing years before the construction of the wet dock seemed to pass Ipswich by, and Lord Nelson even shipped his wife off to the town, probably because Ipswich was the sort of place where he and Lady Emma Hamilton and everyone else could forget about her. So, Ipswich stayed mostly medieval, whilst Cheltenham went all John Nash and Jane Austen, and so they remain. But whilst Cheltenham looks and sounds a bit ‘poncey’ on the surface, with its ladies’ College, tasteful terraces, and various festivals firmly aimed at a middle-class audience, like everywhere else it has its underside because someone has to clean the well-off people’s toilets, fix their Audis and deal their cocaine.
I discover that there are indeed plenty of Regency buildings in Cheltenham, but they’re not really to my taste, a bit too pretty and neat. I prefer the stained concrete of the 1970’s Post Office building to the warm Cotswold stone. I also prefer Marks & Spencer chicken and bacon sandwiches (£3.75) and a bottle of orange juice (£2.00) to chip shop fare. Having eaten the sandwiches and drunk half the juice, whilst sat on a bench under the plane trees on The Promenade, I wander idly about finding statues of Gustav Holst (born in Cheltenham) and a hare sat next to the Minotaur, (no idea why). After a while I decide it’s time to re-trace some of my steps and head back towards what is currently known as the Completely-Suzuki Stadium, but in simpler times was just the Victory Stadium or Whaddon Road.
Whaddon Road is a suburban street with a recreation ground, bowling green, a groovy 1960’s Evangelical Presbyterian church, a small parade of shops and a football ground sat amongst twentieth century houses. The football ground sits beyond a large car park and betrays its non-league roots with a cluster of modest, ugly, cheap-looking buildings set about what looks like a pre-World War Two main stand, although my copy of ‘Football Grounds from the Air, Then and Now’ tells us it was built as recently as 1963. Red painted signs and sponsors’ logos abound. I queue at Gate 2 and the QR code of my ticket is read by a friendly man with a mobile phone; I click through an aged red turnstile that must pre-date the swinging sixties. Inside the ground, bright sunlight streams through the skylight in the four-urinal gents toilet, which smells surprisingly sweet and better than many after shaves. I ascend a flight of stairs and find myself at the front of the stand looking down on a terrace. A walkway passes through the directors’ box; if any directors had been sat in the front row with legs outstretched I might have tripped over their feet.
I carry on to the middle of the stand past rows of original, wooden, tip-up seats. “Are you Row C seat 34?” I say to a large coated, bearded man in the seat next to mine. “I am” he says. “Well, I’m seat 35” I tell him, “Pleased to meet you”. When I sit down, I find the leg room so tiny that I am wedged into the seat. “It’s a bit tight, isn’t it” I say to my neighbour. “It is if you’re tall” he says, being generous to the 1960’s architect, “But very good for your posture”. He’s right, there is no option but to sit bolt upright. In a sort of window box on the front of the stand sit a row of half a dozen blokes with lap-tops and earphones. The seats in front of us fill up. A man shows the QR code on his phone to the man sat next to him. “When he scanned this, it said the ticket had already been used” says the man, shrugging his shoulders. “I says I don’t know why. So he let me in anyway, said he couldn’t be arsed to query it”.
Eventually, the teams appear from beneath us somewhere off to our left. The ska classic ‘The Liquidator’ by The Harry J All Stars plays over the PA system and singularly fails to provoke any response from the crowd, except for a bloke behind me who occasionally claps in time to the beat. The referee breaks up the Ipswich team huddle, which had been going on for a while, and the game begins. In the corner of the ground the electronic scoreboard reads “1st half”, just in case anyone is experiencing déjà vu or is any doubt that the game has only just begun. Ipswich get first go with the ball and are kicking roughly in the direction of the town; the Cheltenham racecourse is somewhere off behind Christian Walton’s goal. Both teams wear their ‘proper’ first choice ‘home’ kits as they should do when there is no clash of colours. My raincoat, which I’m glad to say I haven’t really needed, is trapped under the tip up seat of a balding man in seat 36, I ask him if he’d mind getting up for a moment to free my coat; smilingly he obliges.
“Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Town fans off to my right, whilst opposite in the corner of the brilliantly named Colin Farmer Stand, a Cheltenham fan beats a drum. Six-minutes pass and Town win a corner after a Wes Burns cross is met by George Hirst and deflected away. George Hirst is involved in an ongoing battle with his marker Tom Bradbury who has hold of Hirst’s shirt and won’t let it go. Hirst has to try and beat him off as he runs across the pitch. This is taking man to man marking to extremes and Bradbury seems obsessed with his task beyond all reason and is rightfully booked by referee Mr Stocksbridge, who because he has a fine head of grey hair, makes me think of Alan Woodward of 1970’s Sheffield United, and by association the wonderfully monikered Len Badger. Sam Morsy takes a shot which is comfortably saved. It might be Easter Monday, but the Town fans won’t give up on Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child” as they imagine a far-off time when Town still played Norwich on Boxing Day. Easter, Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, it’s all the same to some people.
The afternoon is bright, but a strong wind is blowing from the direction of the town holding up any high kicks from Christian Walton. Town are happy to pass the ball about between Morsy, Woolfenden, Burgess and Clarke and draw Cheltenham on to them. When a pass is intercepted Cheltenham win a corner and Walton has to make a sharp save from a header. White cloud populates the blue skies above the Cotswold Hills that form a dramatic back drop to the low stands opposite. It’s a blustery afternoon of coarse shouts, harsh voices and jeers which are carried on the wind whenever a pass goes astray or a player goes to ground. Wes Burns runs at the Cheltenham defence and shoots, but straight at the goalkeeper. Eighteen minutes have gone and a decent passing move around the Cheltenham penalty area releases Marcus Harness, he has just the goalkeeper in front of him but shoots wide; he could and probably should have scored. Conor Chaplin then shoots high over the bar from another low Wes Burns cross. “Come On Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” chant the Town fans as frustration and nerves bite. “Come On Norwich” calls someone off to my right sounding like he thinks he is being witty; perhaps just saying ‘Norwich’ is enough to get a laugh in these parts, although I can’t hear much evidence of it.
The half is half over and after several failed attempts at tackles and clearing the ball by Town players, Cheltenham’s Alfie May gets free on the left and sends the ball across the face of the Town goal; only nifty footwork from Leif Davis averts embarrassment. Town aren’t playing badly but they’re not playing that well either, despite having most of the possession. Perhaps the wind and condition of the pitch are having an impact, or perhaps Cheltenham’s harrying is working. On the touchline, the Cheltenham manager is at times like an irritable toddler, in contrast to Kieran McKenna who, in his black roll neck jumper and slacks looks like he could be about to sit back and listen to some mellow jazz. But occasionally his frustration shows itself and at one point a bit of white shirt breaks loose between his jumper and waistband. Thirty-six minutes gone and Sam Morsy is booked for a trip. Four minutes later there is more mayhem in the Town penalty area as for a second time the ball escapes Town control and crosses the face of the goal before Luke Woolfenden lashes it away for a corner. The half expires, but two minutes of time are added on and the screen in the corner reads ‘2 Added Time,’ just so anyone who suddenly woke up and looked at the screen would know it would soon be time for a half-time cuppa.
With half-time there is a mass exodus from the stand down a flight of stairs between me and the director’s box. I finish off my orange juice, taking care to dispose of the plastic bottle in a large bin at the side of the press box, then take a wander down the stairs; I find myself out in the car park. Unimpressed, and curious, but not that curious to see where everyone went, I return to my seat and await the second half.
Kyle Edwards has replaced Marcus Harness and Cheltenham swap one anonymous midfielder for another so as not to feel left out. The attendance is announced as 5,445, which means the ground is only three quarters full. In the corner, the electronic scoreboard reads “2nd Half”, presumably as proof that football is a always a game of two halves.
Unsportingly, Cheltenham soon win a corner, and then another, and five minutes later another. Conor Chaplin shoots wide as Town restore order and behind me a single person claps. “Come On Ipswich” roar the Town supporters sensing that the early Cheltenham pressure has been weathered and when on fifty-five minutes Town win their own corner it is met with an enthusiastic cheer and a chorus of “Come On You Blues”, which is repeated almost five times, which in the modern age is probably a record. By the time the kick comes to be taken however, the stadium is a tin box of silent anticipation.
Ipswich are now on top, but not so much that I haven’t noticed that there are Leylandii peaking over the roof of the home terrace, known as the Prestbury Road end. Another corner to Town and more chants of “Come On You Blues”, then George Hirst makes space and launches an angled, rising shot against the cross bar when the goal beneath it was gaping. An hour of football has gone forever, but in the corner of the ground the scoreboard no longer says “2nd half”. Momentarily, I worry about space and time, but am quickly reassured by the wide range of modular sofas and comfortable chairs that appear on the screen in a lengthy advertisement for the local branch of FABB Furniture. Kyle Edwards makes a run towards goal and produces a bending shot that doesn’t have enough bend not to miss the goal. Cheltenham make a double substitution with blokes called Caleb and Aiden replacing Lewis and Will.
With Ipswich on top the home fans seem to be getting their kicks where they can, and seem to to be easily pleased by a tackle here and a throw-in there. We reach the sixty-fifth minute and a long throw on the right finds a way across the penalty area and Conor Chaplin almost unexpectedly just taps it into the corner of the Cheltenham goal, and Ipswich lead 1-0.
A chorus of “E-i, E-i, E-i-o, Up the Football League we go” rolls down the ground from the Ipswich supporters’ end, followed by every known boastful, celebratory football song; it’s like listening to an imaginary LP of K-tel’s 50 greatest promotion chants. When eventually it’s the turn of “The Town are going up, The Town are going up, and they int gonna believe us, and they int gonna believe us” the handful of singing Cheltenham fans in the corner of the Colin Farmer Stand, clearly still fearful of relegation, join in, but sing “The Town are staying up”, which I think my wife would think was rather sweet.
Twenty minutes to go, another substitution for Cheltenham as a second Will replaces Ben. The man who likes to say ‘Norwich’ continues to sing his own predictable version of any songs he hears that have the name of Ipswich in them. I can’t decide if this is borne of bitterness or stupidity, or both. Town make the usual swap of George Hirst and Freddie Ladapo, and Wes Burns and Kayden Jackson. Thirteen minutes to go, Town are top of the league and Harry Clarke surges forward and gives Kyle Edwards the chance to shoot over the cross bar, which he takes. Eleven minutes to go and Town win a corner. “Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues”. The chant stops dead after four ‘verses’. Eight minutes to go and Freddie Ladapo shoots, but it’s a weak effort and too close to the goalkeeper.
I dare to think of a ninth consecutive win, a tenth consecutive game without conceding a goal. Ipswich repel a crude, up in the air attack, but the ball comes back, hoofed hopefully. Confident Christian Walton thinks he can claim this and get possession, he strides out from his goal and jumps, but the ball bounces out of the bowl he has made of his arms as he collides with two players who were ready to head the falling ball. The ball makes a break for it and runs to Alfie May and he half-volleys it into the Ipswich goal. It’s one-all. Bugger.
“You’re not top of the league” is the shout from ‘Norwich man,’ and now for the first time this afternoon the home crowd is noisy. “You’re not singing anymore” they chant, to a tune that the Evangelical Presbyterians down the road might know, even if the gloating sentiment isn’t exactly a Christian one. Janoi Donacien replaces Leif Davis just for something to do, and five minutes of added time offers five minutes of hope, but that’s all. Oh well, it was fun whilst it lasted.
Extracting myself from my seat without the use of shoe horns, spanners or tyre spoon levers I applaud briefly, out of politeness, and then make my way to the exit. I had got used to winning every game and never conceding a goal, it was nice. But it’s probably best that the run has ended, because life’s not like that, is it? Football definitely isn’t. At least I’ve now been to Cheltenham.