Today is the last day of the season in the English third division, and in common with every last day of the season for about the past twenty years it doesn’t matter much if Ipswich Town play today’s game or not. In 2019 Town had already been relegated by the time what is often thought of as this auspicious day arrived, but usually, like today, Town are becalmed in mid-table mediocrity with no fear of relegation and no hope of promotion. Ours is the club that would confound Rudyard Kipling and his poem ‘If’; we neither meet with triumph nor disaster, so what else can we do but treat them both the same. According to Kipling they are both imposters so perhaps what we encounter is reality and may be therefore we’d better get used to it. But of course, next season is going to be different, Keiran McKenna is the messiah and so we approach today not with dull resignation, but with hope and new found belief, even though it’s a pesky 12.30 kick-off.
The one saving grace of the early start for today’s game is that my walk down through Gippeswyk Park is enchanting, serenaded as I am with sweet birdsong and bathed with soft spring morning sunlight. The tide is high as I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge on which a banner reads “Champions of England, back in ‘62”. The heavy stench of body sprays and perfumes falls from the open windows of the Pentahotel. In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and a Turnstile Blue fanzine with an ‘old-fashioned’ pound coin. Reaching the Arbor House pub (formerly The Arboretum) the front door is invitingly open and having stepped inside I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) before going out back into the garden where Mick is already nursing a pint of the same fine beer along with a cup of dry-roasted peanuts. We talk of planning permissions, Mick’s discovery that he has vertigo and what has and hasn’t happened since we last met, which seems long ago, before the Cambridge game back on 2nd April. We are interrupted by a telephone call from Mick’s son who it transpires will be attending a four day, all expenses paid conference in Paris; it’s alright for some, although he does have to make a presentation. Checking our watches at five past twelve we decide it’s time to leave for the match; I return our glasses and the empty cup that once contained peanuts to the bar, which is also now empty.
In Sir Alf Ramsey Way Mick and I part ways as he secures his bike and heads for the posh seats of the West Stand and I make for the cheap seats near the front of what used to be ‘Churchmans’. Entering the hallowed halls of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand through turnstile number 60 I thank the overweight turnstile operator and am soon stood in a row with other men before a stainless-steel trough. The man next to me is gushing forcefully against the steel and I shuffle as far away as I can for fear of unpleasant splashback. Washing my hands, I am greeted by Kevin who I know from our previous mutual involvement with Wivenhoe Town; he tells me how much he enjoys this blog, which is kind of him.
Up in the stand, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood are all here as I take my place between Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket. We enjoy a few bars of Hey Jude and a red smoke bomb from the Charlton fans before at 12:31 the game begins; Ipswich having first go with the ball and facing the direction of Phil and Elwood, Pat, Fiona and me. Bizarrely I think I hear the Charlton fans chanting “We’re the Millwall boys, making all the noise, everywhere we go”, that can’t be right, can it? A woman sat in front of me devours an obscene looking foot long hot dog. It’s the third minute of the match, the smell of the smoke bomb lingers and Town break; Bersant Celina to Conor Chaplin and out to Wes Burns, who shoots inaccurately and a little wildly from outside the penalty area. With the smell of the smoke still lingering it currently seems more like Guy Fawkes night than the last match of the season, but no fireworks yet.
It’s the fifth minute and another clever pass from Conor Chaplin is meant to put Wes Burns through but he hasn’t reacted, it’s the third time already that Mr Burns has not been his usual self. A minute later and Bersant Celina does a few step overs before passing square to Tyreeq Bakinson who allows the ball to run across in front of him, looks up and then strikes it firmly into the top right- hand corner of the Charlton goal and Town lead 1-0. As I remark to Pat from Clacton, Bakinson has been unlucky with a few shots from outside the penalty area in previous games, so it was a goal that had been coming for a while, although happily today we’ve only had to wait six minutes.
It always feels good to score early in a game, it’s almost as if the first goal is the hardest one to get. But good things, possibly including goals, are like buses, someone probably once said and so it will prove. The twelfth minute and a through ball from the excellent Conor Chaplin sends Wes Burns clear of the Charlton defence and he hits the ball past the on-rushing Charlton goal-keeper, whose sprawling arms and legs aren’t sufficient to counter the deft use of the outside of Mr Burns’ right foot – “Excellent” as his cartoon namesake might say. How we cheer, although it’s not enough to stop the Charlton supporters from chanting “Two-nil and you still don’t sing” as they trawl their back catalogue of late 1970’s disco hits.
Four minutes later and we think we’ve scored again as yet another through pass from Conor Chaplin, who must be carrying a slide-rule with him today allows the oddly named Macauley Bonne to ‘score,’ only for his and Conor’s work to be annulled by the raised flag of the brutal, heartless linesman. It’s days like this when there’s nothing at stake that the attitude of ‘disgraced’ French referee Tony Chapron is required; Chapron has admitted having allowed some disallowable goals during his career because they were good goals. La Beaute 1 Actualite 0.
This is just what the last match of the season should be like and to add to the fun lots of players are slipping over on the watered wet turf, eliciting the inevitable jeers from a crowd that just loves slapstick. A slow clapping accompanies that song that includes the words Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez, Allez, I cant decide which. The joy is so infectious even people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand put their hands together and chant, albeit a little bashfully. Above the Cobbold Stand the three flags hang limply and Charlton get a little more into the game, winning two corners, but to no effect. I am struck by the thought that Wes Burns’ hair is looking much neater today than usual and he seems to have discarded his usual head band. Wes is pictured on the front of today’s programme all dressed up with a black tie, which incidentally needs straightening, to receive his Players’ Player award at last Wednesday’s awards night and it looks like he may not have been home since.
More than a quarter of the match is over and as Town win a corner Pat from Clacton produces a polythene bag of sweets. “We always score when I get the sweets out” she says “Or we always used to” she adds, harking back to the ‘good old days’. I tell her that I think the difference is we simply always used to score in the ‘good old days’. This time the sweets don’t work, despite ever-present Phil also going all Cuban with a chorus of “Score from a corner, We’re gonna score from a corner” to the tune of ‘Guantanamera’. At the other end, a long throw for Charlton ends with a low bouncing shot bouncing harmlessly past Christian Walton’s right hand post.
“Is this a library?” chant the Charlton supporters in the time honoured operatic fashion, thereby creating an odd impression of the benefits of public education in South East London. A half an hour has passed since the game began and Town’s attacking vigour has subsided somewhat, giving way to plenty of square passing. In a rare moment of real excitement Sam Morsy shoots past a post and then, perhaps in an attempt at what passes as satire for south-east Londoners, the Charlton fans embark on a long passage of chanting in which they call either “We’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball” or “We’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball” according to whether or not their team has the ball. As an exercise in observation it’s not very taxing for our visitors, but it is very, very boring and after a while a little annoying.
On the pitch meanwhile, Charlton are probably having as much if not more possession than Town as half-time approaches and they almost score when Jayden Stockley heads across goal and Christian Walton has to make a fine diving save, palming the ball away for a corner. It’s a very good save indeed, but the best thing about it is that it interrupts the Charlton fans incessant, boring chanting about whether or not their team has the ball. Sadly, after the corner comes to nought the chanting resumes. Only four minutes to half-time and Town win another corner, “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Charlton choir employing Welsh religious music and seemingly becoming angrier, or at least more‘potty-mouthed’ in the process. The last action of the half sees Conor Chaplin drop a looping header just the wrong side of the cross bar and a long passage of passing play leads to yet another aimless corner.
At half-time I speak briefly with Ray who has his wife Ros with him today; they have been enjoying pre-match hospitality in the form of a late breakfast in honour of their grandson Harrison’s 18th birthday earlier this week. I speak with Harrison’s dad Michael and also give Harrison his birthday present, a copy of the CD ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ by the excellent Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who has provided the soundtrack to most of my adult life. Happily, Harrison will later let me know that he thinks the CD is “Brilliant”. Meanwhile, behind us, public address compere Stephen Foster talks to true Town legend, 84 year old Ray Crawford, who was top scorer in Town’s Championship winning team of 1962 and even turned out for Charlton Athletic too a few years later. If any other Town player ever deserves a statue it has to be Ray, Town’s all-time top scorer with 228 goals in just 354 games, no one will ever beat that. Returning to my seat, I speak to ever-present Phil and let him know that I have e-mailed the club to suggest they paint or paper the walls inside the away supporters section to look like book shelves. I am disappointed that I have not yet received any response other than that they will forward my e-mail to the ‘relevant department’. I e-mailed again to ask who the ‘relevant department’ might be, but have not received a reply; they no doubt think I’m a looney.
The second half is still fresh when Charlton’s George Dobson becomes the first player to see the yellow card of the distinguished sounding referee Mr Charles Breakspear, after he fouls Conor Chaplin. A minute later as if in an act of calculated revenge Conor provides yet another precise through ball which releases the oddly named Macauley Bonne, who then delivers a low cross for Wes Burns to despatch in to the Charlton goal net for a third Town goal. Pat from Clacton records mine and Fiona’s celebrations for posterity in the form of a digital photograph which will later appear on Facebook, as is the fashion.
“3-0 on your big day out” chant the taunting, mocking occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the south-east Londoners. Pat looks to see what she has drawn in the Clacton Supporters’ coach ‘predict the result’ draw; it’s four home goals and any number of away goals, so Pat could be in the money! “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand as if they know that Pat may yet be a winner. The thrill of expectation is broken by Janoi Doncien tactically heading over his own cross bar before the North Stand launch a chorus of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” as they pretend it’s Christmas and Charlton make their first substitution, with Alex Gilbey who, like both the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Kane Vincent-Young once played for Colchester United, but unlike them shares his surname with a brand of gin, being replaced by Chukwuemeka Aneke. Janoi Donacien appears to have been injured in heading over his own cross-bar and is also replaced, by the aforementioned Kane Vincent-Young.
Less than half an hour of the season remains but Conor Chaplin continues to make incisive passes and this time Luke Woolfenden almost puts in a low cross before sending the ball high and wide from what was possibly a shot. “3-0 and you still don’t sing” chant the Charlton fans sounding increasingly frustrated at the Town fans’ insouciance, but still enjoying a cheery late 1970’s disco vibe. The attendance is announced as being 26,002 with 1,972 of that number being Charlton supporters. Weirdly, some people applaud themselves for turning up, but to my right there is a sudden exclamation. “I don’t believe it” says Pat from Clacton, “The bloody dog has won it”. The ‘it’ in this case is the Clacton Supporters’ bus guess the crowd competition, and the dog is her brother Kevin’s dog Alfie, who Pat will later worryingly refer to as her nephew. “Does he win a lot?” asks the man with the crew cut who sits in the row between Pat and ever-present Phil.
Cameron Humphreys replaces Conor Chaplin who receives well-deserved rapturous applause and Charlton replace Conor Washington with Elliott Lee to reduce the number of Conors on the pitch from two to zero within the space of seconds. “Is this a library?” and “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Charltonites again, ploughing an all too familiar furrow, but perhaps not realising that as football stands go the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is a sort of retirement home in which many of the occupants are constantly singing “Bobby Robson’s Blue and White Army”, but in our heads.
Thirteen minutes to go and Jayden Stockley heads against the Town cross bar. Three minutes later and a shout of “Handball! ” goes up from the Charlton fans. Nobody not in a red shirt knows why but there follows thirty seconds of every touch of the ball being greeted with a call of “ Handball” from the ever sarcastic people of Ipswich. Charlton win a corner. “Charlton, Charlton!” shout the Charlton fans, showing how supporting your team is done, but it doesn’t bring a goal so it’s not worth it, although a prone Christian Walton does have to claw the ball down to stop it entering the net. Six minutes to go and James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne to rich applause for both players. James Norwood has announced that this is his last game for Town; if this were a US TV Cop show he’d get shot just before the final whistle, but happily it’s not. Returning my attention to the actual football, “We want four” I think to myself half- imagining what Portman Road crowds of old would have chanted, and as I do so Cameron Humphreys threads a Conor Chaplin-style through-ball into the path of James Norwood who, from a very oblique angle steers it into the net, possibly off the goalkeeper, for his last ever Town goal. It’s only the third time Town have scored more than three goals at home this season and the it’s the biggest end of season win I’ve witnessed since Town beat Crewe Alexandra 5-1 in April 2005. As Town fans cheer, Charlton fans sing “We forgot you were here” and three minutes of time added on melt away into forgotten history.
As last days of the season go, this has been a really good one, despite the 12.30 kick off, but it feels like it comes with the rider that Town have to do well next season. Personally, I’m not too bothered either way, I just like to see Town play well; if we do that and we finish eleventh again I won’t be suicidal, although may be the club’s American investors will be. But I can afford to be complacent, I’m old enough to have seen Town win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, but the likes of Harrison and Elwood haven’t, so come on Town, do it for them.