Ipswich Town 4 Rotherham United 1

The year of our Lord 2023 has not started well. I have been suffering with diarrhoea all week and on Friday evening the teams I was rooting for in their respective ties in the ‘round of thirty-two’ in the Coupe de France (Montpellier HSC, Nimes Olympique, RC Strasbourg and LB de Chateauroux) all lost.  Today began as dull and grey and has progressed to become both wet and miserable, but my gloom and despondency have lifted as today is also the third round of the FA Cup and mighty Ipswich Town have a home tie against mighty Rotherham United. 

When I saw my first FA Cup third round tie back on 5th January 1974 (Town v Sheffield United) it would have been inconceivable to think of first division Town beating fourth division Rotherham as ever being a giant killing, but forty-nine years on the tables have turned a bit.  With Rotherham now in the second division and Town in the third, if Town win today I shall be claiming this as a ‘giant killing’, albeit one akin to a school child who is rather big for their age thumping one who is small for theirs but in the year above.

Ipswich is grey, Gippeswyk Park is wet underfoot and traffic is queuing to get over the bridge opposite the railway station, but Portman Road is quiet as I step up to the first booth I come to to purchase a copy of today’s programme. “Let me guess, £2.00 today” I say to the young woman in the booth.  She smiles perhaps through pity but I like to think she almost appears impressed as I hand her a single coin and tell her it wasn’t that big a deal, I’ve been to Cup matches before. 

By and by I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ and at the bar tell the barman that I ought to have something non-alcoholic; he directs me to the third shelf from the bottom of a tall fridge with a glass door which is packed with cans of ‘craft’ beer.  I pick a can of Big Drop Galactic Milk Stout and returning to the bar the I hear the voice of Mick saying “I’ll get that” which is characteristically good of him.  Mick has a glass of an anonymous amber bitter and packet of Fairfield’s Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps.  We repair to the garden where we meet Gary coming in the opposite direction who texted me early this morning, but I didn’t reply because I hadn’t noticed.  Gary is on his way to buy himself a beer and returns with a pint of unidentified lager; Gary is from Essex.

The three of us talk a little of football, the tv series ‘detectorists’, but also of death, as ever.  Mick’s daughter’s neighbour died this week from cardiac arrest and Gary tells of a man whose birthday coincided with his wife being admitted to hospital and her father dying. Aside from the big things like wars, famine and climate change life can be pretty miserable on a micro-level, which puts football into perfect perspective, so we really should try and enjoy it whatever the result.

Not much after twenty-five to three we head for Portman Road, returning our glasses to the bar on the way and noting that ‘The Arb’ now has a menu for dogs; I make a silly comment about restaurants in Malaysia. Sir Alf Ramsey Way is thick with people queuing to get into Sir Alf’s eponymous stand and the Magnus west stand, but we carry on towards the Corporation bus depot and find no queue at all at the end turnstile, where for the first time in my life I gain entry by my wife having downloaded my ticket on my mobile phone and having it scanned.  Mick and I were both nervous that this would work but it did.  I find myself marvelling at the wonder of modern technology in the manner of uncle Bryn in tv’s ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

Having syphoned off some beer, Mick and I find our way to the ‘posh’ padded seats in Block Y from where will be watching this afternoon’s game.  Gary only bought his ticket last night and so is away in the humbler surroundings of F Block.  Courtesy of his season ticket, Gary normally sits in J Block which Mick tells me is also the name of an Ipswich drugs gang from the mean streets between Bramford Road and London Road.  In the oppressive dim light of the upper tier of the Magnus west stand, we edge ourselves past an unsmiling man and his unsmiling wife, although she could be his floozie, and we find our seats.  A little weirdly to my cold, unfeeling mind, today’s game is, according to page 23 of the programme, the Club’s annual Memorial Matchday in which members of the Blue Army who died in 2022, or ‘passed away’ as the programme calls it, can be remembered.   Before the game can begin the names of the deceased appear on the scoreboard and they receive a minute’s applause. “There are an awful lot of names” says Mick, who for a moment thinks these are all former players.  I’m not sentimental and find this Memorial Match idea a bit odd, but I am reminded nevertheless of former manager John Duncan and the excellent, original David Johnson,  John Jackson and, although I saw none of his thirty-four games for Town, Aled Owen. I recall seeing Jackson’s only game for Town, a 2-1 win over Manchester United and that Aled Owen played a single league game in the Championship winning season of 1961/62.  I think of fellow fan Andi Button with whom I saw many an away game in the 1980’s and 1990’s and even travelled with him by car to see Doncaster Rovers v Colchester United for what was the last game at Belle Vue before Doncaster were relegated from the Football League in 1998.

With applauses clapped and knees taken the game begins, Rotherham having first go with the ball, hoping to kick mostly towards the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and looking like Derby County or Germany in white shirts with black shorts, despite their proper kit of red shirts with white sleeves and white shorts not clashing at all with Town’s blue and white ensemble.  Perhaps the absence of the red kit is a sign that Rotherham haven’t turned up as themselves today and aren’t much interested in the Cup, but in fact their team shows just one change from that which lost in the league at Millwall last weekend.

The crowd is loud with a good noise from the Sir Bobby Robson stand where the most vocal support, Blue Action, has re-located itself from stuck up the corner to the central section. Despite the impressive support, the game starts slowly, very slowly, with Richard Keogh and George Edmundson frequently standing still with the ball at their feet before merely passing the ball between one another. As I remark to Mick, it’s not exactly a ‘blood and thunder’ cup tie. I spend my time getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings of Block Y with its tight legroom and padded seats and the man behind me with a loud voice who likes to explain things to his children, although to be fair they are asking questions, as children do.  Slowly, Town venture forward and a couple of forays on the flanks nearly produce moves worth applauding and some people do. Both Conor Chaplin and Kayden Jackson have shots on goal, but both are poor efforts.  Then twice the ball is given away cheaply in the Town half and luckily Rotherham fail to take full advantage, Jamie Lindsay trying and failing to pass when he should have shot and then most luckily of all the ball is sent from close range into the Town net only for the ‘scorer’ to be flagged offside.  The home crowd is in good voice with the lower tiers of both the Sir Alf and Sir Bobby stands looking full.

Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball. “Way offside” calls a bloke behind me in a tone of voice that implies that Ladapo being offside is a given.  “Way offside” he says again scornfully and then once more for luck when the assistant referee finally raises his flag.  This bloke behind me would seem to have turned up simply to let the world, or at least an unfortunate part of Block Y know that he doesn’t rate Freddie Ladapo.  The larger part of the first half is marred by such carping “Here we go, what are you gonna do with it? Do something with it” says another know-it-all as the opportunity for a match winning pass once again fails to materialise.   Much more enjoyably, when Kayden Jackson is fouled but gets no free-kick, a high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice from behind calls “Get your bloody glasses out”.

A half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich have dominated, they have not been incisive, and shooting has been snatched at and inaccurate.  The children behind are eating savoury snacks that smell like a dog has farted.  In the corner between the Cobbold Stand and the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I can see a patch of blue sky above what must be Holywells Park.  A fine rain has started to fall and it’s nearly half-time. Kayden Jackson breaks down the right wing, as the Rotherham defence back pedal, Jackson sends a low cross towards the back of the penalty area, Conor Chaplin can’t reach it, but Cameron Humphreys is running in and strikes the ball smoothly inside the left hand post beyond the diving Viktor Johansson, and Town lead 1-0, it’s a fine, fine  goal.

Half-time follows on quickly and the crowd seems happy, a goal always works wonders. Mick had departed early to siphon more used beer and I meet him in the bar where we watch the half-time results on the tv and play spot the ‘giant-killing’ which leads to a discussion about which league clubs are in and how it was easier when it was divisions one to four. I admit to Mick that I still refer to divisions one to four bloody-mindedly to show my dislike of ‘modern ways’ in the same way that I call the internet the interweb.  Mick says he does the same when he still calls Ipswich’s ‘waterfront’ the docks.

The game resumes at five past four and it’s still raining, just a bit harder.  We’ve barely got comfortable again before Keogh and Leif Davis get in a muddle and allow Conor Washington to slip between them and get beyond Keogh who stretches out a leg or two giving Washington the opportunity to fall over him and win a penalty, which being unfamiliar with the Corinthian Spirit he naturally takes. Washington recovers sufficiently from his ordeal to score the penalty and the hard work of the first half is laid to waste.  Keogh hasn’t had a great match today, he could be the new Luke Chambers although happily he’s no Mark Fish or Ivar Ingimarsson.

The match resumes again and despite no doubt the worst fears of the crowd, Town continue to be the better team and Rotherham don’t look like scoring again.  The rain continues, swirling and drifting through the beams of the floodlights as natural daylight fades from the streets around the ground. Over an hour has passed and Marcus Harness replaces Sone Aluko, Rotherham bring on the only player from their last league match who didn’t begin the game today, Dan Barlaser, who sounds like a character from a sci-fi novel.

Town play a patient game, which is just as well because there are twenty-six minutes to wait until Freddie Ladapo, with his back to goal is wrestled to the ground by Rotherham’s Wes Harding.  Conor Chaplin scores the resulting penalty and the Sir Bobby Robson stand channel the spirit of Doris Day with an essential but tentative chorus of “Que Sera, Que Sera”.  “It wasn’t even a great penalty” says the know-it-all behind me.  Four minutes later Town make mass substitutions, which as often seems to happen bring quick relief to our pain and Freddie Ladapo gets a free run at goal; he rounds the goalkeeper and shoots low and hard to put Town 3-1 up, much to the chagrin no doubt of the know-it-all.

Today’s attendance is announced by the dangerously up-beat Stephen Foster as being 15,728 with 215 of that number being Rotherhamites. It has to be the biggest crowd for an FA Cup match at Portman Road in at least ten years, probably more.  Rotherham continue to flounder.  “Ha-ha” says the child behind me sounding like Nelson Munce from the Simpsons as a rare Rotherham foray forward squirms away over the line for a goal-kick.  All around, except up in the Cobbold stand there is a sense of joy.  Cup fever has broken out at Portman Road and is spreading fast through a crowd previously thought to have been vaccinated against it. The until now totally reserved man beside me begins to mutter “Ole, Ole, Ole” to himself following the lead of the Sir Bobby Robson stand, only they’re not muttering.

Eight minutes of normal time remain and a Kyle Edwards shot hits a post. Gassan Yahyi replaces Freddie Ladapo and then Kane Vincent-Young takes advantage of a shove by Hakeem Odoffin and Wes Burns adds a fourth goal from the penalty spot as a result.  “Championship you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers safe in the knowledge that we can’t possibly lose now, and after three minutes of added on time Town’s ball books its place in the velvet bag for the fourth-round draw.

As we descend the stairs and head out into the drizzly darkness Mick and I reflect on our afternoon of FA Cup giant-killing .  I venture that it was pretty good. “After a very slow start” says Mick, tempering my enthusiasm, but I’m sure he’s only trying to keep my feet on the ground.   Wemberlee!

Ipswich Town 4 Buxton 0

Once upon a time, five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in November in suburban England would have been the time to be thinking about sitting down to eat toasted teacakes or buttered crumpets with a pot of tea and perhaps a slice of Battenburg or Dundee cake.  In our modern times of course, anything goes, and we are free from the strictures of Sunday tea and can now watch football whenever we want, or whenever someone in China, Canada, Bolivia, Cuba, Cyprus, Guadeloupe, Israel, Latvia, Nicaragua, St Kitts and Nevis, Switzerland, Thailand, US Virgin Islands, Uruguay or Vietnam, to name just a few, wants to show it on the telly in their far-off Ipswich Town supporting country.  Today therefore, for the benefit of viewers of TV channels such as Star+, ESPN Play Caribbean, Nova Sport 1, Bilibili and Astro SuperSport, I am pleased to attend my first ever 5 o’clock kick-off football match and  forego my usual relaxing Sunday evening at home in which I try and savour the final few hours of the weekend before the drudgery of another working week. 

The TV viewers of Brunei and Ecuador etcetera are as discerning as you or I and naturally would not watch any old rubbish, which is why today’s match is special; today Ipswich Town play Buxton in the second round of the FA Cup.  Buxton F.C. are in the National League North, the sixth tier of the league pyramid, although oddly the game is not being shown in Egypt.   Sixth ‘tierness’ is a status Buxton share with the likes of Banbury United, Blyth Spartans, Bradford Park Avenue and other clubs many of which don’t begin with the letter ‘B’, like Spennymoor Town.  I recall visiting Buxton on a family holiday to the Peak District in 1976, and then again in 1986 when I was best man at a friend’s wedding there; I spent the night in a caravan that looked like it had travelled forward in time from the 1950’s; of course it had done, but just a day at a time. 

Today might be a special match day in some ways, what with the impending thrill of knock-out cup football and the kick-off time being moved for the benefit of unknown Venezuelan and Costa Rican couch potatoes, but mostly it’s not, and after parking up my trusty Citroen C3, I am soon crossing the threshold of the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) like I do before every match. Today, I purchase a pint of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog (£4.10) which makes me feel slightly traitorous, but I soon recover before joining Mick in the pub garden.  Being a damp, dreary day there is just one other drinker in the garden and he soon departs leaving us to talk about our beers, (Mick is drinking Mauldon’s Moletrap) buying an electric car, the world from a Marxist perspective, this year’s local government pay deal and the reality of cities like Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton away from the colleges and the candy floss. After a further single malt whisky for Mick and a half of Woodforde’s Hiberno (£6.80) for me, which leads to a discussion about whether Hibernia was the Roman name for Scotland or Ireland (it was Ireland), we head off into the quiet of a Sunday evening in Ipswich.  I remark how it’s so quiet that it doesn’t feel like we’re going to a football match;  more like we’re going to evensong, which leads Mick to confess to having been an altar boy at Orford church in the far off days before he hit the hippie trail to Morocco. It’s not until we get to Civic Drive that we see anyone else who is obviously heading for the match. If LS Lowry had been from Ipswich and gone out with his easel on a night like this he’d have had to have painted something else.  But behind the Sir Bobby Robson stand, a long queue snakes along the back of the stand towards the turnstiles beyond.  Mick and I are wise however to the propensity some people have for joining the first queue they see,  and we walk on further towards the corporation bus depot.  At the last turnstile (No58), we attach ourselves to a queue of about five other people and are soon stepping out across the artificial grass towards the entrance to the palatial Block Y of the Magnus west stand.

We take our seats just as the teams are walking onto the pitch past Crazee the mascot and a mysterious reindeer; we stand to applaud and stay on our feet as there is a minute’s applause for the recently deceased David Johnson, arguably Town’s third best-ever centre-forward after Paul Mariner and Ray Crawford.   We will later learn that there are fewer than 10,000 of us in Portman Road this evening, but there is nevertheless a frisson of excitement around the ground as a fine drizzle starts to fall and the game begins with Town kicking off towards what was Churchman’s when David Johnson last played here. Buxton are wearing a kit of white shirts and dark blue shorts giving them the air of a poor man’s Tottenham Hotspur, and oddly they have no players of colour.

The opening minutes are dull as Town accelerate slowly through several gears like a very large articulated lorry before finding their desired passing rhythm.  The fragile enthusiasm of the home crowd quickly dissipates and it’s open season for the Buxton fans to begin singing “We’ve got more fans than you” before gaining in confidence with a chorus of “Your support is fucking shit” and then asking the ultimate, damning question “Is this a library?”.   Naively perhaps, I didn’t expect the followers of non-league Buxton to sing the same tired, unimaginative old songs as followers of Football League teams and it sets me to wondering if the folk that occupy the end of the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand aren’t actually just the same people every fortnight but wearing different colour replica shirts. Thoughts like this can make you question the very nature of reality.

Although Buxton might be dominating the singing with their off the shelf wit, on the pitch their team are barely getting sight of the ball, let alone a touch.  Such is Town’s superiority in keeping the ball that the Buxton fans are reduced to cheering enthusiastically when they win a throw-in.  When Buxton do win the ball Ipswich invariably win it straight back.  But nevertheless, the first fifteen minutes or so are a bit dull.  Mick yawns.  The bloke behind me starts to pray audibly that something will happen. “Here we go” he says optimistically whenever a Town player takes the ball forward more than a couple of paces.   Patient passing football to draw the opposition onto you and create spaces to move into is all very well, but this is the FA Cup for which the watch words are surely “Up and at ’em”.

“Shall we sing, shall we sing , shall we sing a song for you?” ask the Buxtonians through the medium of Cwm Rhondda, which seems appropriate if this is evensong. Sufficiently goaded by the Buxtonians up in the Cobbold stand, a few of the occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand summon a limp rendition of “Come On You Blues” before a more lively burst of rhythmic clapping  emerges and even a few extroverts around me in the Magnus west stand  join in .  The first half is half over, but Town are now into their passing stride and are putting in crosses and looking likely to score.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” chants what used to be the North Stand.  “Come on ref” moans the woolly-hatted geriatric next to me for some reason I haven’t spotted. Beyond the dark sloping roof of the Magnus Stand the fine steady drizzle looks like steam.  The first Buxton player is booked and then referee Mr Ross Joyce gets into his stride too and records the name of Town’s first Welsh Scandinavian Geordie, Leif Davis in his little notebook too.   It looks like a second Buxton player has got away with a foul on Kyle Edwards but it’s as if Mr Joyce is thinking to himself, “No, I think I will book him after all” and shows a slightly belated yellow card.

The last third of the half begins and the game has blossomed into something quite enjoyable as Town dominate and create chances but still haven’t scored. But then Wes Burns speeds off down the right , crosses the ball low to Conor Chaplin who skips to one side and sends a darting angled shot into the bottom right hand corner of the Buxton goal from about 12 metres out; it’s a trademark Conor Chaplin goal. Four minutes later Kyle Edwards races into the penalty area, ball at his feet and Buxton players flailing around him before releasing a low cross, which Gassan Ahadme turns into a goal from very close range.

This is how things should be and I can only wonder why 9,000 voices aren’t singing “Wemb-er-ley, Wemb-er-ley, we’re the famous Ipswich town and we’re going to Wemb-er-ley”, but they’re not. With the half-time whistle I descend into the bowels of the stand to drain off some Woodforde’s beer whist Mick queues for a vegan pie which he is impressed to find comes with a wooden spork.

The second half is a breeze. Sam Morsy earns his customary booking to help keep the third division title race alive for Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday and a pair of young players get their opportunity to play as Leif Davis and Cameron Humphreys are substituted for Tawanda Chirewa and Albie Armin. The drizzle persists.  Buxton bring on a substitute with the memorable name of Harry Bunn and Town add two more goals, another typical, but more spectacular strike from Conor Chaplin and a less characteristic one-on-one shot into the corner from Kayden Jackson, but a fine goal nonetheless.  Four-nil is the perfect score for this match, reflecting Town’s complete domination and superiority but not causing unwarranted and undeserved humiliation for Buxton.

With the final whistle Mick and I stay briefly to applaud before making the long way down to the ground and out into the damp, drizzly night.  “Well worth a fiver wasn’t it”, I tell Mick who agrees, but feels guilty that his seat was half the price of mine.  I tell him it’s not his fault I’m so young and he asks me when I will get my pension. “Four more years” I tell him, stupidly channelling Richard Nixon. But at least Town are into the third round of the Cup and TV viewers all over the planet know it. “Wemb-er-ley! Wemb-er-ley!” they must be singing.

Ipswich Town 0 Cheltenham Town 0

It’s been a while since I’ve been to watch the Town at Portman Road, having forgone the last six matches thanks to the pandemic.  But it’s been a lot longer since I last saw Cheltenham Town play (7th September 2002 at Layer Road, Colchester to be precise), and it’s a lot longer still since Cheltenham Town played at Portman Road (19th March 1938 in the Southern League).  Add to the weight of history the fact that because I am not in my nineties, I have never seen Ipswich Town play Cheltenham Town at Portman Road, and you have the recipe for an evening of excitement to rival that of the last match I saw live, Town versus Barrow in the FA Cup, a truly awful goalless draw as I recall.  On days like this I don’t miss the Championship one little bit.  What’s being in the third division for if it’s not for playing the likes of Cheltenham Town?  Live for the moment and breathe as deep as you dare.

Rocking up on Anglesea Road at twenty-seven minutes to seven, I park my trusty Citroen C3 on a single yellow line and head for what I call the Arboretum pub, but the current occupiers label the Arbor House.  Eight minutes later I have hurried as quickly as I could through the bar, pausing only to mumble a request for a pint of Lacon’s ‘Jack Valentine’ (£3.80) through my face mask, and now I sit in the peace, solitude and creeping cold of the softly lit beer garden.  Amusing myself with the wonders accessible on my mobile phone I sip my beer and get into the funky groove of the righteous soul music climbing out of the plastic speaker in the corner of the garden shelter in which I’m sat. If I didn’t know I was in Ipswich I’d think I was in 1970’s Harlem as the sounds of Sir Joe Quatermain and Free Soul ((I got) so much trouble in my mind (1973)); Smokey Robinson (Baby that’s backatcha (1975)) and the Bobby “Blue” Band (Ain’t no love in the heart of the city (1974)) move my feet and my boogie body.  Beginning to feel like I’ve stepped back in time and looking forward to seeing the likes of Ian Collard, David Johnson and Colin Harper at Portman Road tonight I suddenly return to the now with the realisation that for £3.80 I could probably have bought everyone in the pub a drink or may be two in 1973, although I would have been a tad underage to have done so.

Leaving my reverie in the pub garden I head for Portman Road, my heart leaping a little as I catch a first glimpse of the glare of the floodlights in the night sky.  I approach the ground along Alderman Road to manufacture that ‘going to the match’ down terraced streets feel.  In the back of the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand supporters already in the ground appears as silhouettes on the stairs and through the plate glass windows of the concourse.  Having purchased nothing with coins of the realm for over a month I recklessly buy both a programme (£3.50) and a Turnstile Blue fanzine (£1). I walk between the rows of fumy supporters’ buses lined up opposite the old tram depot and approach the Sir Alf Ramsey stand from the Constantine Road gate, eventually returning to Portman Road through turnstile number 60. I’m back.

In the stand I reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never missed a game until he caught Covid; they’ve missed me, or at least that’s what they tell me; they’re nice like that. With seconds to go before kick-off Fiona arrives too and I say hello to the man who sits to my right, who I always imagine is older than me, but possibly isn’t.  The game begins; Town getting first go with the ball, but I am quickly struck by how disappointed I am by Cheltenham’s kit. In my mind’s eye, a phrase that reminds me of my favourite Small Faces song, I see Cheltenham Town in red and white stripes, but tonight they sport a sort of knock-off Arsenal shirt with pinstripes and a Raglan sleeve.  The Raglan sleeve incidentally is the least desirable of all the sleeves for use on a football shirt.

Aside from the shirts, the football is fast and frantic, with Wes Burns uncontrollably shooting over the cross bar from close range after five minutes, and Bersant Celina making a weaving run before dipping the ball over the cross bar not five minutes later as Town confidently dominate their sartorial inferiors. The ostentatiously bald-headed referee, Mr Andy Davies, unexpectedly makes me think of the similarly hairless, on-loan St Etienne goalkeeper Paul Bernadoni, before a man behind me with a slightly Northern or Midlands accent annoys with a laugh that sounds like Disney’s Goofy.  “Unlucky, unlucky, unlucky; keep going, keep going, keep going” says an oddly repetitive woman from behind as another Town attack comes to nought and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand show signs of life, breaking into Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, to sing as ever of ceaseless fighting despite Norwich having run away, and all apparently and mysteriously because of Boxing Day.   High up in the Cobbold Stand the Cheltenham followers reveal a lack of originality matched only by their lack of memory as they chant “We forgot, we forgot we forgot that you were here” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. With my attention back on the pitch, I can’t help but guffaw as Cheltenham’s  Reece Hutchinson hurls himself headlong to the ground in a wonderfully unconvincing attempt to cheat his way to a free-kick.  What was I thinking, staying away to avoid Covid when I could have been a part of this rich tapestry?

Ipswich’s dominance is total and is such that two of our three defenders, Janoi Donacien and Luke Woolfenden are seen exchanging forward passes within twenty-five metres of the Cheltenham goal.  Then a deep, angled Tommy Carroll cross is met with a diving header from Conor Chaplin, only for Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans to palm the ball away in front of Bersant Celina, who is taken too much by surprise to attempt to kick the ball back at the goal.  I’m just thinking how we haven’t been able to exploit Kayden Jackson’s ability to run very fast, when he suddenly breaks down the left, but when he comes to cross the ball he seems to have become over excited and at the far post the ball skids off the forehead of Conor Chaplin at such speed that it must have caused a friction burn.  It somehow feels as if everyone is just a bit too eager,  but out of the blue at the North Stand end Christian Walton fails to clear the ball successfully and his scuffed effort falls to a Cheltenham’s theatrically named Elliott Bonds, but fortunately Bonds’ left footed shot sails hopelessly high above the goal.

Town’s onslaught resumes and Cheltenham show the first sign of resorting to non-footballing tactics to relieve the pressure. “Oh, get up you wanker” says a polite sounding woman behind me as a red-shirted defender lays prostrate on the turf following a gentle collision with another bloke in a football shirt.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Cheltonians predictably in a quiet moment, and equally predictably no one responds.  Kayden Jackson delivers a slightly limp shot into the arms of Owen Evans and with the first half half-over, Town win their first corner, from which Tommy Carroll shoots impressively wide to the extent that the ball arcs away from the goal and stays on the pitch; Bersant Celina spots the unlikely trajectory and crosses the ball back into the ‘mixer’ but there’s no happy end to the incident.

 The second half of the first half plays out in a succession of Town corners and missed goal attempts.  Much of the first half football has been as exciting as it’s ever been at Portman Road in the past twenty years, but the plain truth is there has been no one to put the ball in the net.  As the half draws to a close Wes Burns turns to lash the ball back into the area in front of the goal from the by-line, but the ball strikes Hutchinson’s outstretched arm or possibly arms; VAR would doubtless have recorded the crime but instead Town are awarded another corner from which Luke Woolfenden deftly diverts a graceful header very precisely over the cross bar.

With the half-time whistle the Cheltenham players jog hastily and as one from the pitch, as if someone had just said “last one back in the changing room’s a sissy”.   By contrast Town’s players seem either less enthused, or just less sensitive to childish name calling.  It seems more likely they are lost in thought, grappling to understand how they are not two or three goals up. Forgetting about football for a bit I pop down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad.  Behind us stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster hands over his microphone to comedian and TV personality Omid Djalili, but sadly his words are completely scrambled by the hopeless public address system. Meanwhile Harrison’s dad offers me what the Tim Horton’s website enticingly describes as a ‘mini donut style cake ball’.  I am warned that it will probably taste of maple syrup; but contrarily it tastes of cinnamon. Whilst not ungrateful, and happy to ingest either cinnamon or maple syrup flavoured foodstuffs I am happy not to be offered another.

Cheltenham Town kick-off the second half by lumping the ball down field in the traditional manner.  Town soon get back to winning corners, but with much less frequency than before and somehow the speed and excitement of the first half has departed, leaving in its place mis-directed passes and an unsporting belief amongst the Cheltenham team that they could break away and score a goal of their own.   I remain full of hope, but either Town have lost their mojo or Cheltenham have worked us out.  The game descends into more of a battle with half an hour to go as Cheltenham’s Charlie Colcutt becomes the first player to enter Mr Davies’ address book for a heinous foul on Wes Burns and then the substitutions begin with Kane Vincent-Young replacing Dominic Thompson and the oddly named Macauley Bonne appearing in lieu of Kayden Jackson.  Cheltenham stopper Lewis Freestone is next to have his name etched in copper plate in baldy-Davies’s book as ten minutes later the Cheltenham number six ruthlessly chops down Conor Chaplin.

One bright spot in the second half is the announcement of the night’s attendance of 21,318, of whom 251 are supporting Cheltenham.  Pat from Clacton announces to Fiona and I that the winner of the Clacton supporters’ coach guess the crowd competition is the squirrel that steals the food from the bird table in her garden. I explain to Fiona that squirrels are very clever animals, but I didn’t know they enjoyed coach travel.

Following speed, excitement and accurate passing, enjoyment now leaves the game as Callum Wright of Cheltenham hangs about too long in a prone position on the turf and draws the vitriol of the Sir Bobby Robson stand for his trouble.  “Wanker, Wanker!” roar the lower tier to Wright’s bemusement as he is soon substituted with Aaron Ramsey.  “How could they tell?” he must be wondering to himself as he looks for hairs on the palms of his hands.  Time is running out and in desperation a chant of “Come On You Blues!” is sent out into the ever more chilly night air.  But the chant is only repeated twice more, almost as if everybody feels a bit self-conscious about shouting for any longer than that.  

The final ten minutes are miserable as Cheltenham players spend an unusual amount of time apparently suffering from cramp, something that I thought only happened in extra time in Wembley Cup finals.  Sadly, the ever-unresourceful Town fans can only think of chanting “Boring Boring, Cheltenham” rather than urging on their own team to victory by turning Portman Road into a frightening cauldron of noise.  Cheltenham do waste time, but what professional football team doesn’t when they are close to claiming a hoped for but not necessarily expected away point?  

“Come on Ipswich, score in the final second” I say to creation as the sixth minute of added on time ebbs away. But the final whistle blows, and it feels a bit like we’ve lost.  That’s the trouble with expectation, especially when you’ve not had any for a while.  Not to worry, I think I’ll still be back again next time.

Ipswich Town 5 ABBA 5

The football season is over save for the silly play-offs, and now it’s the height of Spring,  and with little else to occupy him a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Eurovision Song Contest;  or maybe not.  But last week’s transmission of the bizarre, annual , musical  television ritual extravaganza was inevitably accompanied by the airing of a clip show on BBC4 of past performances by the competition’s only notable success, Abba.  I have never bought, stolen, borrowed or owned an Abba record, tape, download or CD, but I will admit to being unable to suppress a smile when I hear one played.    Equally, I couldn’t resist watching that clip show and felt rewarded when it brought back memories of a road trip I made in the summer of 1995, which took me and my then girlfriend via Parkeston Quay, DFDS Seaways ferry, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Uppsala and Sundsvall to Pitea in northern Sweden, where we stayed with my girlfriend’s pen friend and her husband.  It was a very long drive for which the soundtrack for several stages of the journey came courtesy of a CD of Abba Gold belonging to my girlfriend.

The experience of listening to Abba on that road trip has stayed with me and it led to an article in the erstwhile Ipswich Town fanzine A Load of Cobbolds.  Now, in the spirit of nostalgia inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Ipswich Town’s UEFA Cup win and  in the absence of anything better to do I have reproduced that article below, updating it to modern times where necessary:

When you’re an eleven or twelve year-old football and pop music loom large as pre-pubescent priorities.   I bought my first record (Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono) in 1971,  the same year that I started watching Ipswich Town, and I  soon began to feel that footie and pop music were somehow inextricably linked. The late Sixties and early Seventies was a time when it was easy to confuse footballers with pop stars and my two worlds satisfyingly collided.  The fashion for any bloke who aspired to being hip and trendy was an enormous thatch of hair coupled with equally vast sideburns.  Squeezed into a pair of bollock-hugging, crushed-velvet flairs and sporting a deafeningly loud shirt,  Ian Collard or Rod Belfitt might have been members of The Hollies, or Kevin Beattie a member of Nazareth.

The similarities in the appearance of pop stars and footballers subsided a bit as the Seventies wore on and sadly, sartorially Punk Rock never seemed to catch on with any footballers at all.  There were however still some startling lookalikes within the ranks of the PFA, I thought.  It could have just been my addled perception, but I always felt that Arsenal’s Frank Stapleton and Shakin’ Stevens were the same bloke.  Moving on into the 1980’s the separation at birth of Oldham Athletic’s Andy Ritchie and Jimmy Somerville was ‘well documented’ at the time, but less well-known is the fact that Roy Keane and Sinead O’Connor were also twins.

More amazing than these superficial similarities, which admittedly are largely the invention of my fevered imagination, is the very precise correlation between the success of one particular football club during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and a particular pop group.  Both were at their peak between 1973 and 1982. The football club of course was Ipswich Town and the pop group was Abba.

If you take time to trawl through the collected works of the famous Swedish songsters, as Dave Allard might have called them, you will not only enjoy a richly rewarding aural experience, but you will soon reach the conclusion that the fact that Town and Abba were both at the peak of their powers over precisely the same period of time is no coincidence.   Listen carefully to the lyrics and you will be able to trace the history of the Town’s success through that glorious era.  You will find that listening to Abba Gold (Greatest Hits) is as close to a religious experience as you can hope to get;  something akin to an Ipswich Town Dreamtime, harking back to an epoch when Portman Road was inhabited by ancestral figures of heroic proportions who possessed supernatural powers.   In the film Muriel’s Wedding the eponymous Muriel says that Abba’s songs are better than real life.  Now, as we sit in the murky depths of the third division and look back at Town’s glorious past you too will believe this is true.

As you might expect from Europe’s foremost supergroup many of the songs make reference to Town’s European campaigns of that era in the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ cups.  It is likely that it was through Town’s exploits on the continent that the talented Swedes first became Town supporters, although we were actually only drawn against Swedish opposition  once when in 1977 we met Landskrona Bois and most inconveniently The Stranglers played the Ipswich Gaumont on the very same night as the home leg.  Naturally, I missed The Stranglers concert and sadly never got a second opportunity to see them.    There is clearly a reference to Town’s UEFA Cup triumph over Lazio in the title of the number one hit ‘Mamma Mia!’, a song which also contains a lyric that suggests one of Abba had perhaps had a brief flirtation with a Town player or supporter and may explain the uncanny connection between Abba and the mighty Blues;

“Yes, I’ve been broken hearted, Blue since the day we parted.”

The moving ballad ‘Fernando’ is sung to an imaginary Spanish fan and recalls those sultry September and cooler autumn evenings when we entertained Iberian opposition from Real Madrid, Las Palmas and Barcelona.

“There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando….

Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regrets. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”

That last line referred to the fact that Town were twice drawn to play Barcelona, whilst the line  before that refers to our having lost both ties despite being confident after winning the first leg.  Another song, ‘Super Trouper’, whilst still referencing games played under floodlight, perhaps because of the lack of daylight hours in Sweden during the English football season, refers to an individual player and employs little-known Swedish rhyming slang in a thinly disguised paean to goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me shining like the sun, Smiling having fun feeling like a number one”

In the 1978 Abba hit “Take a chance on me”   the subtle Swedish Blues fans reveal the little known story of how Frans Thijssen successfully pleaded with Bobby Robson to let him join his compatriot Arnold Muhren at Portman Road and to try his luck in English football. 

Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me. If you need me let me know and I’ll be around. Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie, if you put me to the test, if you let me try”.

Although those days were such wonderful times for Town, not every song described a happy or uplifting event.  There were sad days too at Portman Road back in the Seventies and hard decisions had to be made for the good of the team.  The 1977 ‘Number One’ hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ was about the departure of former Portman Road favourite David Johnson, the one-time ‘King of Portman Road’, who left Town to join rivals Liverpool.  In the song, the reflective Scouser looks back on the good times he has had at Portman Road since his move to Town from Everton four years earlier.

  “Memories, good days, bad days, they’ll be with me, always”

David appreciates however that his recent form has not been good and in the circumstances a move is the best thing for everyone.

  “Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do, we just have to face it this time we’re through; Breaking up is never easy I know but I had to go, Knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I could do”.

Back in the Seventies, money wasn’t the driving force in football that it is today.  Nevertheless, the spending power of clubs such as Manchester United, who were able to make expensive signings virtually every season despite being rubbish, rankled with Bobby Robson and he longed to be able to make big signings for Town.  Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” was a song about his frustration. 

“In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man…  “

”All the things I could do if I had a little money…”

“Money, money, money, always sunny in a rich man’s world”

Both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’ showed something of the downside of those glory years and as we look back on those days from the fag-end of the first quarter of the miserable twenty-first century a melancholy aura pervades our memories, in part because ultimately Town failed to win the League Championship that we deserved, but perhaps also because even at the time we knew it all had to end one day, and when Bobby Robson left to manage England in 1982 we secretly knew it had.  Abba knew it too and two of their hits put these feelings in to sharp perspective.  The haunting melody of ‘Winner takes it all’ explores the pain that looking back on the good times would bring; it begins:

 “I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me now it’s history”

Abba’s last big hit ‘Thank you for the music’ is sung from the perspective of our legendary club captain Mick Mills who reminisces, having regretfully left Town for Southampton, about the joy and beauty of those days between 1973 and 1982.  If you’ve listened to the slightly dull monotone of Mick’s summaries as he sits alongside commentator Brenner Woolley on BBC Radio Suffolk, you will appreciate the opening lines to this song; 

“I’m nothing special in fact I’m a bit of a bore, If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before…”

But Mick’s talent was as full-back and captain of the greatest Ipswich Town side ever and this was the ‘music’ referred to in the title of this most moving of Abba songs.  This was a song from the heart of ‘Mr Ipswich Town’, Mick Mills, and it is truly uncanny how Mick with his blond locks and luxurious facial hair even looks like a bit like a composite of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the song’s composers.  This song is the ultimate celebration of those ten seasons at the top in which Mick thanks fate for the glorious hand he was dealt.

“I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair

I want to sing it out to everybody

What a joy, what a life, what a chance

So I say Thank You for the music

The songs I’m singing

Thank you for the joy they’re bringing…”

The songs of Abba define and encapsulate a golden period in the story of the twentieth century and the time before Thatcherism and neo-liberalism destroyed your innocence.  Abba’s songs, their success and the glory of Ipswich Town, the nicest professional football club the world had ever known did not happen together by coincidence.  The proof is in the lyrics of the songs, and shows that cosmic forces were at work.  Those of us who lived through the 1970’s were truly blessed to have experienced the music of Abba as it happened, but we are doubly blessed to have been Ipswich Town supporters too.

Thank you for the music Bobby Robson and Mick and all the lads who played for us between 1973 and 1982 , and thank you for the music Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.