Ipswich Town had never played Crewe Alexandra in Crewe or anywhere else before 21st October 1997, and I am proud to boast that I was there that very day to witness the stultifying goalless draw that ensued. Crewe were new to the second division back then, although they had enjoyed a brief dalliance with that most joyful of divisions where the teams are generally good, but not that good, back between 1892 and 1896. But whilst the 1890’s were synonymous with La Belle Epoque in Paris and evidently Crewe in the middle years of the decade, these were nevertheless the days before Crewe Alexandra’s natural habitat of the Third Division North and its offspring the Third and Fourth Divisions of the Football League first saw light of day. All this is mere pointless preamble however, because I first went to Gresty Road to see Crewe Alexandra play Halifax Town in April of 1988. Ipswich were away at Oldham Athletic on the Saturday and my friend Steve and I travelled up the previous day in my trusty Toyota Corolla, which actually didn’t prove that trusty because the exhaust blew somewhere on the A500, requiring a pre-match visit to Kwik-Fit; to add further excitement to the occasion neither Crewe nor Halifax managed a goal that Spring Friday night. The following day Ipswich Town lost 3-1 at Boundary Park to crown a successful weekend.
Almost thirty-three years later and today of course the Ipswich Town players and their entourage are the only people travelling to Crewe and I am sat at home listening to the unfolding story of the afternoon on BBC Radio Suffolk in the company of Brenner Woolley and his sidekick Stuart Ainsley. I decide to listen to the game with my wife Paulene rather than sit alone in the back bedroom and this means that courtesy of the magic of an earphone and the Amazon Firestick I can also watch a French Ligue 2 game; either Troyes v Auxerre, which BT Sport would doubtless bill as the Champagne derby if it deigned to show it, or Toulouse versus Clermont.
We plump for the game in Toulouse because we like Clermont Ferrand and once took a very long tram ride on a very, very hot day to visit the city’s Stade Gabriel Montpied ground, how we laugh as we fondly recall that Paulene came out in a nasty rash because of the extreme heat. I tune into BBC Radio Suffolk in time to hear some irrelevant tosh about something called the Premier League and the good news that Norwich City have not won today, although sadly they didn’t lose either. Some commentary follows from when Town last played a league game in Crewe, which was in 2006 in the years before Marcus Evans, and Alan Lee and Dean McDonald scored to give Town a 2-1 victory.
Brenner Woolley’s soothing voice arrives through the ether to bring news of the inevitable changes to the Town line-up after the latest ignominious defeat. Brenner reveals that Freddie Sears will be playing “up top” today and that Miles Kenlock replaces Stephen Ward at left-back; he asks Stuart Ainsley what he makes of this. “Obviously positive for Kenlock” says Stuart, stating the obvious but also reminding us of the importance of the word ‘positive’. In modern football the ‘positives’ are something which managers look for in every losing performance. In Ipswich’s case Paul Lambert finds so many positives in every defeat, there is no longer any need to win.
I’m not sure if my concentration doesn’t divide very well between tv and radio, but I seem to miss the actual kick off in Crewe although Brenner is quick to allay my fears that I might have missed much by quickly telling us that it’s still ‘early doors’. In Toulouse the game began an hour ago because it’s now four o’clock there and the second-half kicks off with the score at one-all. Brenner continues to ask Stuart about changes to the Town team and what he thinks of Alan Judge’s return to the starting line-up. “I think it’s positive” says Stuart. As he’s not being a football manager right now he either simply can’t think of anything else to say or he is trying to develop his radio persona by means of a catch phrase.
“Playing with gloves on, the blond-haired number ten” says Brenner of Crewe’s Kirk before Stuart postulates his theory that Luke Chambers should play in the middle alongside Woolfenden or McGuinness in order to create a blend of youth and experience at the centre of the defence. “It may work better; it may not, obviously” adds Stuart, almost admitting it’s a crap idea before he’s finished telling us about it. On the tv meanwhile, Toulouse take the lead, scoring direct from a free-kick hit so hard by Branco Van den Boomen, who is Dutch, that it scares the defensive wall into evasive action.
“A rare involvement for the Czech” says Brenner, presumably as Tomas Holy receives the ball, but possibly as he fills out and posts off his annual subscription to the Royal Society of British Football Commentators. Quickly back from the post box Brenner updates us on Paul Lambert’s attire today; “Only the eyes of the town manager visible on the far side, with the beanie hat and the hoody pulled over his face”. Getting into his groove Brenner tells us that Tomas Holy is in all black and appears “very nonchalant but very accurate” as he plays the ball out of his penalty area.
Confirming the venue for today’s match Brenner refers to somewhere called the Alexandra Stadium, which is a name that sounds very salubrious and I wonder what happened to plain old Gresty Road where Crewe used to play. After 15 minutes Gwion Edwards has a shot which the Crewe goalkeeper has to prevent from going into the goal. “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner. It sounds like Town are doing okay. “Not a million miles away from being a good ball” says Brenner as Town almost mount an attack. It still sounds like Town are doing okay, but then Brenner raises his voice “Blasted over the top by Mandron…..when almost certain to be 1-0 to Crewe”. It transpires that Miles Kenlock has saved the day with a last ditch block, or a tackle, or perhaps a block and tackle. Town “…definitely weren’t playing the way they were trying to play” explains Stuart confusingly, but somehow logically too.
From what I can make out, Town soon recover from almost conceding and are still the better team. “No one’s in the middle but in it goes anyway” says Brenner of the ball as the nine Town outfield players turn finding their lone striker into a game of Where’s Wally. Brenner then proceeds to show off his knowledge of football terminology as he describes the Crewe goalkeeper catching the ball “…on his back stick”, an odd expression, which only makes sense if there isn’t a cross bar, which interestingly, back in the 1860’s when the game was first codified there didn’t used to be.
Twenty minutes pass. Brenner makes reference to the “pony-tailed Woolfenden” as he does most games and Stuart tells us that “The game’s gone a bit untidy”, not unlike his use of the English language in that sentence. On tv it’s the sixty-seventh minute of the match in Toulouse and the home team score again, this time a penalty from Stijn Spierings whom Brenner would call “the other Dutchman”. “Terrible from Beckles, not much better from Gwion Edwards” says Brenner succinctly describing third division football and he does it again as he says “Crewe’s turn for some harmless possession”. It sounds like the game has become rather uneventful, Brenner describes it as “A little bit cat and mouse”, in which case I hope Ipswich are the cat because in my experience of play between cats and mice it usually ends with the mouse being disembowelled or having its head left on the back doorstep. “Ipswich have sort of sat off” is Stuart’s more nuanced assessment of the state of play.
The lack of excitement in the commentary leads me to notice the geographical nature of the Crewe back four with Lancashire, Pickering and Beccles (Beckles) creating some lengthy potential passes. Meanwhile Brenner reflects on his liking for Crewe’s Charlie Kirk “I like Kirk when he gets the ball, very easy on the eye” purrs Brenner, adding an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism to his commentary.
With half an hour gone Crewe score, but happily the ‘goal’ is disallowed because the beautiful Kirk is offside. Soon afterwards Miles Kenlock is booked for a lunge at Luke Murphy and Stuart speculates as to whether the wind is playing a part in the game. “Obviously you can’t tell from here” says Stuart, which is hard to contradict given that he’s 323 kilometres away in a radio studio. His theory seems to be based on the fact that the corner flags are “blowing rapidly”.
Beckles is booked for a foul on Sears. “Goodness, that was awful from McGuinness” reveals Brenner of a separate incident, before back on the tv Clermont pull a goal back with a header from Jonathan Iglesias, who Brenner would probably describe as “the Uruguayan” if he was commentating on the French game . Half-time is just a couple of minutes away and Freddie Sears shoots from some 25 metres from goal, which Brenner describes as “ambitious”. Two minutes of additional time are announced at Crewe and four in Toulouse. The first half ends for Crewe and Ipswich and Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. “Are they playing without a number nine?” asks Stuart rhetorically “Quite possibly” is his not very conclusive answer too himself; perhaps he hasn’t noticed that Kayden Jackson isn’t even on the bench today, or perhaps he has.
Half-time is illuminated by an espresso, a cup of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar. With the game in Toulouse over, the Firestick is switched to Serbian television where two of my favourite French clubs, Montpellier HSC and RC Lens are playing in Ligue 1; it’s a colourful spectacle with Montpellier in navy blue shirts and orange shorts and Lens in red and yellow shirts with black shorts. So engrossed in the French game am I that I miss the first three minutes of the second half at Crewe. Lens score with a fine shot from outside the penalty area from Cheick Doucoure who Brenner would refer to as “the Malian”.
Almost an hour of the game has been played when Crewe score through Brenner’s favourite Charlie Kirk. Stuart contends that Crewe do not deserve their lead but that Ipswich “Need more players up the pitch”, although one on the goal line might have been handy a minute ago. Freddie Sears, who Stuart considers is playing well, is replaced by James Norwood and Teddy Bishop replaces Luke Thomas. Brenner cracks a joke; “Town look to be legally obliged to play just one up front this season” he jests. For a few minutes Town’s or rather Paul Lambert’s refusal to play two players in a forward position is the main topic of the commentary. Teddy Bishop is then booked for cheating by referee Mr Joyce who is one of the few officials whose surname is also a woman’s first name; I bet he had a tough time at school, always being called Joyce by everyone. “A good foul by Bishop” is Stuart’s assessment, although he might not have thought so if he had had the ‘gift’ of clairvoyance.
Aaron Drinan replaces Gwion Edwards. Paul Lambert has broken the legal agreement and within a minute Drinan scores his first goal for Town. The scores are level and Brenner and Stuart ‘riff’ for a moment on the apparently instant impact of having two strikers on the pitch. Stuart suggests it is obvious and Brenner tells him “Don’t worry about saying the obvious on BBC Radio Suffolk”, which is astonishingly honest of him and all of a sudden I think I feel the same way about Brenner as he does about Charlie Kirk. Charlie Kirk may be easy on the eye, but Brenner is equally easy on the ear.
The game resumes and according to Stuart, Crewe miss a “big chance” to re-take the lead when three players all go for the ball at once, just four yards from goal. “It’s 1-1, if you’re just re-joining us again having given up at 1-0” says Brenner revealing more of his refreshing honesty. Meanwhile “Norwood tried to Cruyff it” says Stuart, trying to invent a new verb, but simultaneously inventing a game in which you turn your favourite or least favourite players/managers/owners into verbs. With eight minutes of normal time remaining Teddy Bishop becomes the new Kayden Jackson and bishops things or may be jacksons them by committing another foul and Joyce sends him off. Town have eight minutes to hang on, whereas a moment ago they had eight minutes in which to score the winner.
On the tv in Montpellier it’s half time, but back through the airwaves in Cheshire via St Matthews Street in Ipswich, Brenner tells of pointless and possibly dangerous bodily contortions as “Woolfenden wraps his foot around the ball”. There will be five minutes of added on time and according to Brenner, who seems set on unnecessarily raising the tension, it’s “All hands on deck, everyone back”. Happily from the remainder of the commentary it doesn’t sound as if the Town defence is overly stretched by Crewe and the five minutes pass quite quickly and comfortably. With Joyce blowing her whistle for the final time Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. Stuart sighs and says “Ugh, neither team deserved to win it”. Perhaps feeling that what he has said lacked the dressing room credibility which BBC Radio Suffolk is paying him for, Stuart repeats himself but incorrectly uses the past participle of do instead of the past tense, saying “Neither team done a lot to win the game”. That’s better Stu mouths Brenner inaudibly, I imagine.
Happy that Town have not lost, but with a nagging sense that we should have done better I detach myself from my earpiece and turn off the radio. I’m getting a little bored of listening to these games on the radio now, although at least there were two goals today, unlike the first two occasions when actually I went to Gresty Road; and it’s nice not to have not pay for a new exhaust too.