When I first started attending Portman Road, almost exactly fifty-two years ago (April 6th1971, a goalless draw versus Everton), Cambridge United were putting the finishing touches to their first ever season in the Football League. I remember looking out for Cambridge’s results every week and hoping they’d do well; I think I must have been excited by the idea of a new club in the Football League and the fact that they were almost local, being in the next county. I continued to follow Cambridge’s results throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s and still recall players with memorable names and haircuts such as Brian Greenhalgh, Steve Spriggs, Steve Fallon, Brendon Batson, Alan Biley and Lindsay Smith. Twenty years later , I had lost my youthful joie de vivre and when Town met Cambridge for the first time in a League fixture, I was much less enthused by the Cambridge United team under the management of John Beck, a man who looked and sounded uncannily like Trigger in the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses. That Cambridge team had some talented players (Dublin, Claridge, Kimble, Fensome, Daish) but was horrible; in November they beat Town 2-1 at Portman Road and the following April held us to a draw at the Abbey Stadium; their main tactic as I recall was to keep the ball as far above the ground as possible at all times.
Today, Ipswich are playing Cambridge United in a Football League fixture at Portman Road for only the second time in fifty-two years. It’s a beautifully sunny, but desperately cold afternoon and cotton wool clouds festoon a pale blue sky, like in an imaginary art deco poster advertising day trips by rail to some chilly east coast resort. Having been delayed by cones surrounding non-existent roadworks on the A12 at Capel St Mary, I hurry across Gippeswyk Park after parking up my trusty Citroen C3. Two youths walk towards me across the grass. “Alright mate?” says one, perhaps trying to impress his much taller accomplice with his cheeky enquiry of a random adult. “Yes, I’m alright mate, are you?” I reply, returning his familiarity right back at him with an enquiring raised eyebrow.
The sound of football chants carries on the bitter north easterly wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel where Cambridge United supporters fortify themselves against the cold and their inevitable disappointment. In Portman Road, I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern, cashless way, but just like last week the technology is not working. Disappointed, but not entirely surprised, I fish for a five-pound note in my wallet and wait for my change. Five or so minutes later, as I reach the Arboretum pub (currently known, for reasons unknown, as the Arbor House), a large Honda car draws up and out steps Ray who is being dropped off by his wife Roz. After waving to Roz and having a brief conversation with Ray , which I politely curtail as I am already late, I head into the pub and Ray heads into town to complete undisclosed errands. Service is slow at the bar where one of the staff seems to struggle to remember which drinks he has poured and which he hasn’t; eventually I take a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) out into the beer garden where Mick is already some way through his own pint of something similar. We talk of solar power, dizzy spells, Mick’s son continuing to work whilst suffering from Covid, cycling and Germany’s admirable, open and honest attitude towards its past. With a little under half an hour until kick-off we leave for Portman Road after first taking our empty glasses back to the bar.
Bidding Mick farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Group West Stand, I walk to the Constantine Road entrance and then past the serried ranks of the players’ cars; mostly black or grey Mercedes and Audi SUVs; they look like hearses . I enter the ground through turnstile 61, which I choose in preference to turnstiles 59 and 60 because Ipswich were Football League Champions in the 1961-62 season. I hope for the day when they open turnstile 62. I thank the turnstile operator and he thanks me, but he doesn’t wish me ‘bon match’ or that I have a lovely time, and I can’t deny that I’m slightly disappointed by this.
My first port of call inside the stand is the lavatory where the sound of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown is echoing round the tiled walls, I think the two men standing either side of me at the urinal are singing along to it, which strikes me as a little odd, but nevertheless I join in. It’s only when the song gets to the chorus that I’m not sure if the two blokes actually were singing or if it wasn’t an aural ‘illusion’ created by lavatorial acoustics. With flies zipped up and hands washed, the teams are now on the pitch. With hellos said to Pat from Clacton and Mark, who is again in Fiona’s seat because she is on a cruise, and mental notes taken that ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood are both here, it is almost time for the game to begin. In the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand a banner reads “Something tells me I’m into something good”, revealing an unexpected enthusiasm amongst North Standers for the hits of Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits. I like to believe that they perhaps hope Herman of the Hermits and Hermann Hreidarsson are one and the same.
With knees taken and applauded it is a minute past three and Town kick off in their traditional blue and white kit, whilst our opponents display a regrettable lack of imagination by wearing all-black in the manner of antipodean rugby teams, old-style referees and the baddies in cowboy films. A cloud of smoke drifts across the pitch, evidence of some pyrotechnics, the smell of which makes me think of Apocalypse Now, it must be the smell of victory. “U’s, U’s” chant the Cambridge supporters between bouts of rhythmic clapping; ”Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, seemingly confused about the time of year and who we’re playing, although to be fair it is cold enough to be Christmas.
Two minutes in and Bersant Celina has a shot on goal, but it’s an easy catch for the Cambridge goalkeeper Dimitri Mitov. “He might of saved it” sniggers the bloke behind me making the all too common grammatical error of using the word ‘of’ instead of ‘have’. “Blue Army” bawls the bloke next to me, who is slumped back in his seat as if it’s part of a three-piece suite. “Ally, Ally, Ally-O, I-T-F-C, We’re the Blue Arm-y” continues my neighbour. “No Noise from the Ipswich Boys” chant the Cambridge fans re-purposing Village People’s ‘Go West’; they should be sat where I am. Five minutes later and a cross strikes Cambridge’s James Brophy on the arm; VAR might deem it a penalty if we were in the Evil Premier League, but we’re not, so we have the game’s first corner instead.
We’ve seen 14 minutes go by and Town aren’t yet into their stride, and as if to make the point Cambridge succeed in getting the ball into the Ipswich goal net. Mark and I have resolved ourselves to the crushing disappointment of going a goal behind so soon into the match when the linesman comes to our rescue; it was offside. Two minutes later and Tommy Carroll volleys a shot over the crossbar. Town are still not dominating in the manner which we have quickly come to expect, and Cambridge have the cheek to win a free-kick from which the ball is laid back to Adam May, whose shot is deflected away for a corner and then Christian Walton athletically tips a George Williams header over the crossbar.
It’s getting on for half-past three and James Norwood successfully chases a ball over the top, but his chipped cross is to no one in particular, and then a Town corner eludes the looming head of Cameron Burgess. As the promise of a goal subsides Pat from Clacton tells me how the Clacton supporters’ bus was pulled over by the police today near the Holiday Inn hotel, only for the policeman to board and say “Oh, you’re Ipswich”. I like to think that he probably also mistakenly stopped a couple of coach loads of pensioners on an afternoon excursion and several buses from the Copdock Park and Ride.
With time ticking down inexorably towards half-time, Conor Chaplin’s cross is headed firmly into the arms of Mitov by Bersant Celina and a Dominic Thompson cross is hit low towards the Cambridge goal by Sam Morsy, but not hard enough to get past the goalkeeper. At the other end of the pitch Luke Woolfenden saves possible embarrassment with a superbly timed tackle on Cambridge’s Joe Ironside as he threatens to break through on goal. Embarrassment soon follows however as Dominic Thompson is victim of some dubious play acting by George Williams, and inexplicably James Norwood steps into the fray like some sort of deranged avenging angel and along with Sam Smith gets a personal viewing of referee Mr Craig Hicks’ yellow card.
Symptomatic of it having been a frustrating half, Town have another penalty appeal for handball rejected and a woman with a voice like a wailing banshee a couple of rows behind me launches a blistering high pitched verbal assault on the linesman. It would be amusing if only it didn’t hurt my ears so much. Her justification for her outburst is apparently that when someone is paid to do a job she hates to see them not do it. Town are awarded a corner however, which is scant consolation to me, and a Conor Chaplin shot then squirms into Mitov’s arms before another Cambridge corner and three minutes of additional time.
Mark and I hope that half-time will elicit words of wisdom from Town manager Kieron McKenna, and the avalanche of goals into the Cambridge net that we were hoping for will eventually come to pass. In the stand half-time brings a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar for me along with a chat with Ray who says he can’t see the point of peanuts if not they’re not roasted and salted; I tell him that the magic ingredient is chocolate, but he doesn’t seem convinced.
The match resumes at eight minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon diving low to his right to stop a header from Joe Ironside. Conor Chaplin then shoots wide and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 26,515 with 2,009 from Cambridge; the referee Mr Hicks then makes a decent attempt at tackling Sam Morsy, although Sam seems far from impressed. Town win a corner and Wes Burns shoots wide of the right hand post and then Conor Chaplin shoots wide of the left. Two minutes later and Ironside is awarded a free-kick for a somewhat pointless and innocuous foul by Luke Woolfenden. The subsequent free-kick is whipped across the penalty area and rebounds off Dominic Thompson at the far post and into the goal.
Ten minutes later and things aren’t looking up until Pat from Clacton gets out her bag of sweets. They’ve been sitting around for a week or two she tells us. Mine is one of those chewy ones that look like an extruded strip of sugar cut into bits; I’m not good at identifying flavours, but I think it’s probably raspberry, and it cheers me up as much as much as anything else other than an Ipswich goal probably could right now. Tommy Carroll and Conor Chaplin are replaced by Sone Aluko and the oddly-named Macauley Bonne.
It’s gone half-past four and James Norwood gets Mitov to make a save and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne drops a header onto the roof of the Cambridge goal. Matt Penney replaces Dominic Thompson to whom fate has been rather mean today. Cambridge United win a free-kick with fifteen minutes of normal time remaining and their supporters chant “Cry in a minute, you’re gonna cry in a minute”, which may be a chant unique to them, although I think I might have heard it when a team is about to be relegated or lose a play-off tie. The free-kick is a waste of time and no one gets tearful as predicted, although ironically the only person who might have done so was the Cambridge number 26, the cutely named Harvey Knibbs , who rolled around like a big baby to win the free-kick. Janoi Doncaien is booked. Twelve minutes remain and Sam Morsy has a shot saved by Mitov but then a major diplomatic incident breaks out all around me as Pat from Clacton complains to the bloke behind me about his and his associates relentless swearing. Mark backs her up. The bloke behind me opines that this is an important end of season match and he’s just showing some emotion, but he doesn’t agree to stop swearing, believing it seems that the purchase of his ticket gives him certain rights to express himself by ‘effing and jeffing’ , as Pat calls it. The screechy woman a couple of rows behind then also becomes involved before stewards are called and the bloke behind me is accused by the man who is with the screechy woman of threatening to strangle him with his own scarf. Eventually the sweary blokes leave and peace is restored, although rather impressively I think, the bloke behind me later returns with a steward to apologise to Pat.
“Is there a fire drill, Is there a fire drill?” sing the Cambridge fans resorting to opera to serenade the departing Town supporters who have either given up on a Town goal or whose modes of transport will turn back into pumpkins if they’re not home on time. The game peters out over the five minutes of added on time and almost inevitably Town lose, perpetuating our record of never having beaten Cambridge United in a league match, something also true of mighty Cheltenham Town. I had expected a Town victory today, but it would not have been deserved; the team performed as if the players had all been given some disturbing news just before kick-off, as if someone had told them perhaps that large German SUVs aren’t cool and are much less environmentally friendly than smaller cars.