One of the many potentially good things about the FA Cup for supporters of third division clubs, is that if your team gets to the third round or beyond, then Saturday fixtures get postponed and are magically transformed into midweek games under floodlight. This is a good thing if your re-arranged games are at home, not so good if you feel the need to travel to every away game. Those good people of Morecambe for whom supporting their football team is a kind of religious devotion must wonder what they have done wrong. Not only is it a particularly cold and damp month, but they live in an out of season seaside resort somewhere up North and now the Football League are telling them that to support their team they must travel the best part of five hours on English motorways to the far end of the country on a grey Tuesday afternoon in January. At lunchtime today I was told that the Morecambe FC coach was already in the West End Road car park. When I walked past later I took a look, it had a parking ticket on the windscreen.
I have suffered too today, I have been to work in the office instead of staying in the comfort of my own home. But now, at a quarter past four, after almost eight hours of ceaseless toil I am meeting Roly and we are heading for the pub. By way of a change we are in the Three Wise Monkeys where we drink coffee like the sophisticated metrosexuals that we are, I have an Americano and Roly has some frothy milky looking thing. We settle in two large arm chairs beneath the stairs and discuss the late Cyril Fletcher, the ridiculousness of BBC tv’s That’s Life, and football. I detect a level of pessimism in Roly that I attribute to his long Suffolk heritage. Coffee can only take a man so far along the path to enlightenment however, and we eventually move on to The Arb to drink beer and eat: a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.90?) and Cajun Chicken Burger (£13) for Roly and a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride(£4?) and a Scotch Egg with thick cut chips (£9) for me. Unusually, we sit inside the pub and not outside, probably because we have arrived early enough for there to be a vacant table. After a while Mick arrives, walks through the bar and out towards the garden, returns, presumably because we aren’t there, and finally buys us both very low alcohol beers brewed by the Big Drop Brewing Company and has a pint of Suffolk Pride for himself. The conversation continues mostly courtesy of Roly who occasionally interrupts if someone else speaks, apologises for interrupting and then carries on, before apologising for interrupting again. It sounds worse than it is because I don’t have much to say anyway, which is just as well.
When Roly finally draws breath, I take the opportunity to suggest it’s time to leave for Portman Road and that’s what we do. We part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, Roly strangely and quickly joining a queue for a turnstile into the West stand, whilst Mick walks further on to a turnstile where there is no queue; I make my way to turnstile 60 and the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, which perhaps ought to be in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, but isn’t. Inside the ground, Fiona is here and so is ever present Phil who never misses a game and the man from Stowmarket, but Elwood and Pat from Clacton are not. Pat had sent me a message at twelve minutes past three to say she wouldn’t be coming tonight on account of her not fancying sitting in the cold with her arthritic pains; I guess sitting in the cold without her arthritic pains was not an option; like a faithful dog, wherever she goes they go too.
I’ve missed the start of Stephen Foster reading out the Town team, which is a shame, but I join in just as soon as I can, shouting out the surnames of the players as he announces them. No one has started joining in with me yet, but I live in hope. The game begins, Town get first go with the ball, we win a corner and the ball drops kindly; Freddie Ladapo is more alert than anyone else and scores from close range. We’re winning and I’ve not really had time yet to notice that Morecambe are in red shirts and shorts with white socks, which I am a little surprised to find is a pretty good combination, and shows just how important socks are.
Of course we scored in the first minute against Fleetwood a few weeks back and that didn’t end as well as we’d hoped, so no one’s getting too excited and after a brief bit of shouting and cheering and even a brief chant, which fades out like no one knows the words after the first line, the crowd becomes quiet. “ I missed the first goal didn’t I?” says a voice from somewhere behind me.
Leif Davis breaks down the left flank at high speed and weirdly the referee, Mr Rock, appears to be chasing him. Mr Rock , what an example he is to all football officials, cut him in half and you’ll find the word ‘referee’ is written all the way through him. Lee Evans steps forward and from nothing unleashes a shot against the Morecambe goalkeeper’s righthand goalpost. I probably say “Phwoarr!” or something similar. Meanwhile, the bloke behind me sounds impressed with new signing Harry Clarke. “That Clarke likes to take the ball forward” he says, before adding “He likes travelling with the ball” making me imagine him on the bus with a ball on the seat next to him. Harry Clarke will go on to have one of the best home debuts I’ve seen since Finidi George dazzled us over twenty years ago.
It really is very quiet in Portman Road tonight. There aren’t many Morecambe supporters here but I can hear them singing “Oh when the reds going marching in” . A Morecambe player, Jensen Weir, is down injured after a foul by Wes Burns and silence reigns as if everyone is holding their breath to see if he’s going to be alright; he is. Within seconds of the game resuming another new Town signing, Nathan Broadhead, plays the ball forward, Freddie Ladapo runs around his marker, gets sight of goal and shoots against the foot of the far post. Normally the ball would defy the laws of physics and bounce out to be cleared by a fortuitously placed defender, but the alignment of the planets and stars must be on the huh tonight and the ball spins across behind the goal line and against the net on the far side as if it’s doing a little celebratory dance, and Town lead 2-0.
Town win another corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand sing “We’ve got Super Kieran McKenna he knows exactly what we need…” and the floodlights seem to be producing a lot of glare in the lenses of my glasses tonight, it could be because it’s a damp evening or may be my glasses are just a bit grubby. Town treat us to some quick and attractive passing, running and movement; the working man’s ballet as Alf Garnett called it. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me to his neighbour, as you would if you were watching Stade de Reims versus Troyes in Ligue 1. The crowd is very quiet again, almost as if they are in awe of what they’re seeing on the pitch, or are concentrating very hard to understand it. In the Sir Bobby Robson stand the lights keep turning off and on as if someone is leaning on the switch. “Ladapo’s got the touch of Messi tonight” says the bloke behind me in an unrelated incident.
In their defence tonight Morecambe have the exotically named Farrend Rawson, a tall player made more conspicuous by his totally bald head and goatee beard. It makes me think how different Flash Gordon could have been if Emperor Ming had also turned out for a third division football team. “Come On You Blues” is an unexpected if faint chant from the bottom tier of the Cobbold Stand. Another corner to Town, a header from Richard Keogh and a flying save from the talented Conor Ripley in the Morecambe goal , who is probably the chunkiest goal keeper at Portman Road so far this season.
Thirty-seven minutes are up and Wes Burns escapes down the right wing, crosses the ball and Conor Chaplin shoots low inside the far post to make the score 3-0 to Town. “Ole, Ole, Ole” sings the crowd for all of five seconds before returning to quiet contemplation. There are six minutes of additional time to be played and it’s enough for Chaplin to score again, this time with a typical snap shot inside the near post and the score is 4-0.
As ever I take a half-time stroll to the front of the stand to say hello to Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison. Michael and Harrison have a new van, Harrison has tickets to see Noel Gallagher and The Zutons and has discovered that ‘psychedelic folk’ artist Robyn Hitchcock is some thirty years older than his wife Emma Swift. Otherwise, talk is of how many more goals can Town get in the second half.
The game resumes at six minutes to nine and Morecambe bring on three substitutes in one fell swoop, which includes the replacement of Curly Watts with Aleister Crowley, something which the writers of Coronation Street were never brave enough to do. Also entering the fray is Michael Mellon, one of the few players in league football whose surname is a mis-spelt fruit.
Four minutes in to the half and Mr Rock displays his yellow card for the first time after the sophisticated sounding Jacob Bedeau assaults Nathan Broadhead. Morecambe’s Crowley is a tiny man who one might think was a child if it wasn’t for his five o’clock shadow. Nathan Broadhead produces a superb shot which is heading for the inside of the goal net until the huge flying frame of Ripley hoves into view and a Ripley arm extends and pushes it away beyond the post. Ripley is having a fine game and five minutes later performs a sort of break dance after he slips when making a hasty clearance from in front of the looming Freddie Ladapo. A little while later he does it again after taking a goal kick.
Almost an hour of the game has receded into history and Morecambe have their first attempt on the Town goal, a speculative near post header than arcs slowly beyond the far post. Two minutes later and after some fabulous skill from Conor Chaplin, Kayden Jackson sprints away down the right and lays the ball back for Nathan Broadhead to place a firm shot in Ripley’s midriff. It’s now Town’s turn to get in on the multiple substitution act as the unlikely firm of solicitors Morsy, Broadhead and Ladapo leave to be replaced by Cameron Humphreys, Kyle Edwards and George Hirst. Fiona reveals that she once had a cat called George.
Just under twenty minutes of normal time remain and Morecambe earn their first corner and appreciation of their travelling supporters who get their kicks where they can and celebrate disproportionately. Marcus Harness replaces the excellent Conor Chaplin and Stephen Foster tells us that tonight’s attendance is 21,948 with one-hundred and two from Morcambe, although I have a quick count and can only spot sixty-four.
After such a goal laden first half, the second half has been less thrilling, but it has nevertheless passed quickly. Apart from already being four-nil up, the crowd has had not very much to sing about in the second half, but the quiet at Portman Road has at times been almost oppressive, as if some people had turned up for a bit of a moan after Saturday’s defeat at Oxford and are now sulking. As the final minutes roll by and just three more are added, the Sir Bobby Robson stand at last break into song with some celebratory Ole, Ole Oles and a drum can be heard too. Perhaps the Rio de Janeiro branch of the supporters club were late getting here tonight.
With the final whistle I swiftly depart, erroneously thinking that I will quickly be able to get out of the Portman Road car park and away into the night. It seems that far too many people had already left and have clogged up the streets. But I didn’t turn up tonight just so I could get away early, that would be daft. I came for the football and that’s been excellent, it’s been a night to remember for Town and I doubt Morecambe will forget it either.