Ipswich Town 0 Barrow 0

When I first became interested in football at the tender age of ten, Barrow were in Division Four and had been in the Football League since 1921, when they were elected as original members of Division Three North.  In my Observer’s Book of Football, the one that has a picture of Bobby Charlton on the dust jacket, it states “Honours have always been elusive for Barrow” and it goes on to say that Barrow had just “one season of triumph”, in 1967 when they finished third in Division Four. Sadly for Barrow, by the time I first saw them play, at Layer Road, Colchester in 1990, they had been replaced in the Football League by Hereford United and were not yet half way through a forty-eight year stint in non-league football.  Thirty years on and today, through the wonder of the 2nd round of the FA Cup, Ipswich Town and Barrow meet for the first time ever. I’ve been looking forward to today’s game to some extent since 1971, but more tangibly since the Cup draw was made, and in reality since Idris El Mizouni’s cracking goal ensured Oldham Athletic wouldn’t be making an unexpected run to Wembley.

As befits an FA Cup Day, the sun is shining gloriously, although with little impact on the outdoor temperature as I stroll across Gippeswyk Park and up Portman Road beneath clear azure skies.     Portman Road is notable this afternoon for the atypical absence from the car park behind Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue of some of the usual vendors of chips and other grease-based foods sold inside spongy ‘bread’ products.  There is also a corresponding shortage of human beings in Portman Road today compared to other match days, and whilst you might infer from this that people only come for the grease-based foods, the sadder truth is that the FA Cup simply doesn’t attract football fans like it once did.  I can recall paying full-price to watch Town play fourth division Halifax Town and Hartlepool United in the company of about 24,000 other souls back in the late 1970’s, and now find it hard to understand why with reduced ticket prices the lure of Cup glory against such Northern exotics is no longer an attraction.  In this age of instant gratification and tv reality game shows, Cup football should be more popular than ever with its promise of advancement to the next round and the jeopardy of defeat and expulsion from the competition after just ninety minutes; Death or Glory as The Clash sang just a year after Town lifted the FA Cup. The tyranny of Sky tv and the Premier League is clearly to blame.

Having purchased a match day programme (£2), I head on to what was The Arboretum pub back in the days when 24,000 turned up to see Hartlepool United and Halifax Town at Portman Road,  but is now The Arbor House.  With a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) in my cold right hand I sit and wait for Mick in the garden.  Mick soon arrives with a pint of Mauldon’s Molecatcher, a packet of Fairfields Farm cheese and onion crisps and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.  Mick explains that Molecatcher is brewed to the same recipe as Suffolk Pride but is less alcoholic; I can’t really see the advantage of that at the moment, but our conversation explores various avenues from last night’s Have I Got News For You tv programme to nuns before it is time to walk down the hill past Ipswich Museum to Portman Road.

Today, taking advantage of the reduced flat rate ticket price (£10 for adults and £5 for concessions plus £1.50 each for the pleasure of buying them, which goes to a parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) we are in the top tier of what was the West Stand, but is now the Magnus Group Stand. We are in Block Y where the seats are brown in colour, not because of any sort of unpleasant staining but merely because I imagine brown looked ‘classy’ in 1982 when the top tier was opened; the seats are also padded.  I bought our tickets soon after they went on sale and we benefit from being close to the stairway or vomitorium, and just two seats in from the gangway, so only two old men must rise from their seats for us to access ours.  With everyone in their winter coats it’s a tight squeeze nevertheless.

The teams appear to an introduction from stadium announcer Stephen Foster worthy of the occasion and with knees taken and duly applauded the game begins;  a strong Town team getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, formerly plain old Churchman’s.  Town are wearing their traditional blue shirts and socks and white shorts whilst Barrow are in an unexpectedly stylish pale pink shirt and socks with black shorts, vaguely reminiscent of Sicily’s Palermo or the now defunct Evian Thonon Gaillard, briefly of French Ligue 1.   The largely empty stadium is filled with a sense of expectation as the game starts and the murmur of a nascent chant can be detected from the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Within a minute of kick-off however silence reigns.

From the start Town look as hesitant and short of ideas as their supporters are of rousing supportive chants. It is Barrow who show the first serious attacking intent as several players in pink break forward “They’re all offside, nine of ‘em; except him” says a man with a loud and annoying voice a couple of rows behind me as Barrow’s number eleven Josh Kay bears down on goal beneath the shade of the Magnus Group Stand.  The same voice is all too audible a short while later as Barrow break forward again. “Toto, Toto, leave him alone Toto” he calls as Toto Nsiala tracks a Barrow player into the Town penalty area and makes a tackle before he can fashion a shot on goal.  Had Toto Nsiala followed the spectator’s advice it is likely Barrow would have scored or at least had a shot on target. It’s not a good start by Town or their supporters.  But as a consolation the low winter sun is reflecting a sparkling yellow light back off the windows of the Guardian Royal Exchange office block on Civic Drive, so although the football isn’t, the backdrop is gently inspiring.

Over twenty minutes pass and Barrow earn two free-kicks in quick succession in the Town half and then win the game’s first corner.  Barrow come close to scoring twice as one free header hits a post and then one from Mark Ellis is saved by Christian Walton.  Barrow’s Josh Kay shoots and his shot is tipped over the bar by Christian Walton. “Come on Lambert, sort it out” bawls the ruddy-faced old boy sat in the seat next but one from mine.   Nobody reacts in the seats around me; I fear some of my fellow supporters might have died. I turn to Mick and dare him to shout “Robson Out”.

 It takes Town over half an hour to have a shot on goal worthy of the name as Scott Fraser eventually launches a shot over the cross-bar from outside the penalty box.  I remark to Mick that with the number eleven on the back of his shirt and his short brown hair, from this distance Fraser sometimes makes me think of Mick Lambert.  “I can’t think what Mick Lambert looks like” says Mick. “Well I expect he looks a bit different now” I respond.   Idris El-Mizouni is booked for a foul, a little harshly in my opinion and I wonder to myself whether referee Mr Sam Purkiss is a closet French nationalist in the thrall of Marine Le Pen.  As half-time approaches a rare moment of hope sees Conor Chaplin break away and from a low cross earn a second corner for Town, and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne strides forward to unleash an appallingly bad shot which results in a throw-in to Barrow. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuckin’ ‘ell was that?” sing the Barrovians up in the Cobbold stand in the time honoured fashion. “Good question” mutters the old boy next to me to himself.

Half-time comes as a welcome relief and whilst Mick gains further relief using the facilities, I remain in the stand alongside the two old boys. The match resumes at three minutes past four as dusk descends to shroud Suffolk’s County town in chilly December darkness.

Half-time has brought change and Joe Pigott has replaced Idris El-Mizouni who hadn’t looked sure where he was meant to be playing, with Sam Morsy seemingly competing with him for the ball in midfield.  Within three minutes Joe Pigott has found space and strikes a post with a firm shot.  Pigott’s presence continues to make a difference as he seeks space behind the Barrow defence and controls and lays the ball off in a manner which the oddly named Macauley Bonne has so far appeared incapable of doing.  Things are looking up and the Sir Bobby Robson stand feels moved to sing a song which has quite a lot of words, few of which I am able to decipher, but then Kay scoops a shot over the bar for Barrow when it was certainly no more difficult to get his shot on target.

This is a much better half for Town and I sense a glimmer of optimism amongst the Town followers in the meagre crowd of 6,425, of whom a respectable 205 are from Barrow.  The mood hasn’t affected the loud man behind me however, who continues to provide a mainly sarcastic commentary, which sounds both smug and moronic in its delivery.  He clearly doesn’t like Toto Nsiala and bewilderingly urges him to chip the ball over Christian Walton as Toto turns it back towards goal, before saying “He was tempted”.  This man has the sort of voice that would make a more violent person than myself want to punch him in the throat.

Town now dominate possession and whilst still a little slow on the ball they are getting players down both flanks to put in crosses, an approach that is helped by bringing on the exciting Sone Aluko.  The Town  support has corresponding moments of enthusiasm and sing another song with plenty of hard to fathom words, but a simple chorus of “Addy, Addy, Addy – O”, which is the sort of thing heard sung by children in one of those black and white films from the early 1960’s such as A Taste Of Honey, and I half want to see Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan warming up on the touchline.

As the match winds down into its final fifteen minutes the support wanes, and as we enter six minutes of normal time the ground is once again silent.  As ever, there is a late flurry of goal attempts as the realisation dawns on the players that their failure to score a goal can only result in an evening in Barrow-In-Furness.   Corners are won but no booming chants of “Come of You Blues” or  intimidatingly repetitive calls of “ Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” materialise from the stands;  even the score board seems apathetic as each corner kick is met, not with an entreaty to shout support for the team, but instead a message about how the Ipswich Mortgage Centre “corners all your home improvement and mortgage needs”.    The old boys beside me leave with a couple of minutes to go.  Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from close range and substitute Cameron Humphreys heads against it , but Town don’t score and the breath saved by not shouting in support of the Town is expended in a chorus of sadly predictable boos and jeers.

Later this evening I will learn that the Town manager has been sacked and briefly I wonder to myself if the old boy sat next but one to me had been right; Paul Lambert had never actually left the club he’d just shaved the top of his head and swopped his Scottish accent for a Scouse one, but after nearly a season’s worth of games he’d finally been found out.   It’s certainly never dull being a Town fan, well except for the actual games that is. Try stopping me going through it all again in a fortnight’s time though. No, please, try.

Colchester United 2 Mansfield Town 0

As I stepped off the train at Colchester station the voice over the public address system was announcing the imminent departure of a train to Harwich Town. Something about the way he said “Harwich Town” made him sound like Michael Caine.  I tried to peer in through the window of the Customer Service office as I drifted past, hoping to pick him out, but I couldn’t.  In any case, it’s 2017 and everyone wears glasses like Harry Palmer nowadays, except me.

Leaving the station, it was still light as I walked to the Bricklayers Arms where a barrel of Adnams Old Ale was waiting for me to request the drawing of a pint, and in time another (£3.65 each). My thirst quenched by the dark liquid and my mind entertained by a book, the evening had closed in by the time I caught the bus to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium (£2.50 return).  Tonight the opposition would be Mansfield Town, close rivals of Colchester in the Division Four league table, with 52 points, one more than the U’s.

I sat with a former work colleague on the bus, we met at the bus stop. “Hello Martin” he said. “Hello Martin” I said. It sounded silly, but what can you do, we are both called Martin. Martin (that’s him, not me, I don’t like to refer to myself in the third person, only weirdos do that) has a season ticket and had one back at Layer Road. I ask how long he’d been a season ticket holder but he couldn’t say, so too long probably. Alighting from the bus I said goodbye because I wanted to stop and queue for a programme. Outside the ground there is a sense of anticipation created by this short queue and the cheery bonhomie of the programme seller. Programme (£3.00) in hand,I now pause for a moment and take in the beauty that is the glare of the floodlights huddling over the tops of the stands 33478017515_e15e34aa2f_zand the warm glow of spitting hot fat and cones of chips that emanates from a shiny white burger van.

It’s 7.30 now and the tannoy gets us in the mood by playing Love Will Tear Us Apart and I have a few minutes to look at the programme before kick-off. Admirably, Col U’s programme IMG_20170317_0002always features local non-league teams and tonight there is a piece on Halstead Town; IMG_20170317_0001it is hilarious. Halstead goalkeeper Luke Banner has swallowed a lexicon of footballspeak and cliché “…you never know” he is quoted as saying “If we take one game at a time and keep picking up wins and points then who knows what can happen”. Wise words Luke. Whatever you do you don’t want to be one of those clubs that plays several games at once and loses them all; that’s a recipe for disaster if you ask me. I don’t blame Luke for the banality of his comments though, I blame the reporter on the Gazette who he was apparently talking to.

The game begins and Mansfield Town are kicking towards the goal right in front of me. “Mansfield, they’re non-league” shouts a familiar voice from the back of the stand whose understanding of promotion and relegation is clearly still strained. He says the same thing another four times before half-time. The game carries on. Briggs the Colchester left back carelessly scythes a clearance onto the roof of his own goal. The empty north stand looks on sullenly, 32634760104_740916ac06_oa blue void at one end of the sparsely populated stadium barely creating echoes; it must miss that joyous throng of Portsmouth fans that occupied it at the weekend.

The game is end to end, although probably more Colchester end than Mansfield. Mansfield’s number 10 shoots over the bar from all of 7 yards but atones, in my eyes anyway, by dancing around and over the ball a bit later in the manner of John Travolta, I bet he looks good on the dancefloor I think to myself getting Mansfield and Sheffield muddled up. Meanwhile the Mansfield supporters are a stoic bunch. We’ve not heard a peep out of them. I imagine a collection of dour characters drawn from the pen of DH Lawrence. Meanwhile again, the Colchester ‘lads’ (I can’t imagine them being lasses) break into a chorus of “Oh Colchester is won-der-ful, Oh Colchester is wonderful, It’s full of tits, fanny and United, Oh Colchester is won-der-ful.” So, once we’ve kicked racism out of football we should probably get right on to sexism. No wonder you don’t see many black women at football.

Twenty minutes pass and Colchester score, a low shot from Brennan Dickenson cutting in from the left. Soon after, Mansfield’s No 2 misses the ball completely about five yards from goal; but yes, it was a difficult angle. Still not a murmur from the Mansfieldians in the stands. Eight more minutes pass and Dickenson passes the ball into the box and after a neat turn the ball is sent into the corner of the Mansfield net by Sammy Szmodics, a man whose name is somewhat notable for its S’s and M’s; his goal make us smile.

Colchester are cock-a-hoop, Mansfield are mithered and losing 0-2. The scoreboard advertises a tribute to Robbie Williams; he’s not dead too is he? Half-time comes and I buy a tea for a pound; “Tetley, it begins with the tea”33321899142_18a137fb0c_o it says on the paper cup, but that sort of play on words doesn’t impress me; I should hope it bloody does begin with the tea, although we all know it really began with the motivation of profit. That’s why a few crushed up dried leaves and some hot water costs a quid. I am going to smash capitalism one day you know; it’ll probably be between May and August when there’s no football.

Mansfield’s number 10 continued to please once the game re-started as he shot hopelessly wide of the far post when practically stood in the Colchester penalty area on his own. The the U’s support howled with derision as well they might. The second half became a bit dull after that with Mansfield hogging the ball without really looking like scoring. In a particularly dull period of play I blew on my tea and enjoyed watching the game through a fog as the condensation very slowly cleared from my glasses. Then I did the same again. “Stand up if you love the U’s” sang the sexist Colchester fans in a moment when they weren’t thinking about lady-parts.

Then a Colchester player stayed down on the pitch after a challenge, apparently hurt; only now did the Mansfield supporters stir as they subjected the injured U to a tirade of abuse. I could see fists being shaken and fancied I heard the sort of incomprehensible angry ramblings uttered by Tom Bell in the early 1980’s BBC adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers. The sudden burst of life from Mansfield didn’t go un-noticed by the U’s fans “keep the noise down over there would you please” quipped one.

The ball and players moved about as if governed by Brownian motion and it was inevitable that someone would get booked. Mansfield’s number 2 was the referee’s first choice and having been shown the yellow card he hung his head and swung his right leg stiffly as if miming “Aw shucks” and in the realisation that he would get a clip round the ear from his Ma when he got home. The score board advertised Comedy Nights the first Thursday of every month and right on queue a free-kick ended with the Mansfield No 10, who amusingly is called Matt Green, like the paint, missing the goal hopelessly once again.

Mansfield were getting nowhere fast despite restricting Colchester to breakaway attacks. Change was needed thought their manager the un-loved Steve Evans and up went the number board to withdraw Number 18. But ever the prankster it was our old friend Matt Green who started to walk off; may be it was his eyesight that had been letting him down all evening. With his dancing skills and comic timing he would have been a star in Variety, but we’ll probably need a new Bruce Forsyth before too long.

Another injury to a U’s players provoked the Mansfield support again, “Cheat, cheat, cheat” they howled. Injured opposition players seemed to be the only thing that really floated their boat. To be fair to them though, what with their rough mining heritage they probably have a fixation about soft southern jessies and if they see someone go down with all four limbs still attached to his torso they just see red.

The game was now petering out; Eddie the Eagle looked on, arms folded and Colchester just had to see out the last few minutes. When Sammy Szmodics got word he was to be substituted he made his way to the far side of the pitch first, so he had farther to walk and then stopped to shake the referee by the hand as he went off. That use of precious goal scoring time was practically enough to win the U’s the game and in the moment it took referee Mr Kinesley to blow his whistle for the last time, it was possible for most of the 2,526 in attendance to be up and on their way home.

Colchester United 0 Portsmouth 4

It’s the 11th of March and today there is a hint that Spring is springing into life. Frogs are clambering over one another in an orgiastic frenzy of amphibious, reptile love in my garden pond and standing outside I can actually feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms. It’s Saturday morning and life is sweet. A car ride, a train ride , a few glasses of Adnams Old Ale in the Bricklayers Arms (£3.65 a pint) and a bus ride (£2.50 return) later and I, along with my Pompey supporting wife and Jon, a Leeds United supporting neighbour who wants to know what it’s like to be amongst Pompey fans, am at the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium.
On this March afternoon being in the north stand with the Pompey supporters OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas a joyous celebration of their club, city and football. This was the first time I had ever been in a full stand at a Colchester game in their ‘new’ stadium and it was a slightly odd experience. The gate of 6,504 is Colchester’s second largest crowd of the season ( although the 7,003 v Leyton Orient was made up of loads of flippin’ kids) and easily double the number that usually attend this stadium which could readily be converted into an A12 service station should its current occupant’s ever leave. Despite having a majestic away following of some 2,200 or more, Pompeyites did not make up the majority in the stadium but it felt like they did. It seemed that Colchester supporters were in awe, struck dumb, incapable of getting behind their team. But then, they were spread about three stands when Pompey’s supporters were mostly all in just one.
Every Pompey away game in Division Four must to an extent feel like a home game because there are so many tiddly little clubs in the division, so tiddly you wonder how they manage to maintain professional football. With clubs such as Barnet, Accrington and Morecambe in the division Pompey can’t help but outnumber the supporters of a lot of them and where that isn’t the case they will almost inevitably make more noise than the home support. Going to away games is one of the great joys of being a football supporter; it’s a day out loaded with a morning full of anticipation, the excitement of arrival, followed by the shared experience of the pre-match drink with other supporters and finally getting into the stadium; and that’s all before the match even begins. Sometimes, the match beginning is where it all goes wrong if your team let you down, but it didn’t feel like there was any risk of that today. Despite a miserable performance at home last Saturday, Pompey had won away in midweek at Crawley Town (another tiddler of a club) and had at last moved into an automatic promotion position in the league table.

It’s a good view from all the stands at the new ‘Layer Road’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwith the steep rake of the seating giving a clear line of vision all over the pitch, so there is no real reason to have to stand. But a big following of away fans are often too excited or excitable to even consider sitting down and although club stewards are charged with ensuring everyone is safely sat on their bottom, two dozen stewards are outnumbered a hundred to one and they quickly realise there is no point. A large away support is a draw for the home fans too, because even if they don’t participate themselves they can enjoy the atmosphere created by the noise and exuberance at the other end of the ground.
In terms of attracting spectators Colchester are currently on the crest of a slump with barely 3,000 turning out for the supposed ‘derby’ match against Wycombe a couple of weeks before. The sense of unfamiliarity with their surroundings must have transferred itself from those extra Colcestrians to the Colchester team because they were rubbish. Either that, or they weren’t rubbish and Pompey were absolutely brilliant; the truth surely lies somewhere in between, as it so often does.
Portsmouth scored after about twenty minutes at the Colchester end of the ground; a ‘stooping header’ of the kind favoured by very tall players one would imagine. The scorer Eoin Doyle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA is probably only average height for a footballer though. You’ve got to love a ‘stooping header’, of all headers they are my favourite, although a towering header is more beautiful and for rarity value a crouching or squatting header would be worth seeing.
Once ahead, and with their oh so happy fans behind them like a fair wind, nothing could go wrong for Pompey, if the navigators amongst us had employed our sextants we would have seen that it was written in the stars. Once John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, probably Europe’s best known football fan arrived with his drumming entourage, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the noise and encouragement for Pompey was ceaseless. Half- time was as a blessed relief for Colchester as it was for those in the stands with full bladders. ‘Down below’ the bars and the bogs were thronged and a poster on the breeze block wall of a vomitorium (look it up) thanked Pompey fans for travelling 288 miles to make their visit to day; I felt a bit of a fraud, I would only travel about 15 miles and be home before six.
Refreshed, re-focussed and re-vitalised after the half time-break, Colchester United went 2-0 down within 90 seconds of the re-start as Kyle Bennet, who had sensibly abandoned his ‘little fish’ style haircut of last week by removing its tail, completed a move which left the U’s defence in ruins. That set the pattern for the second half with waves of Portsmouth attacks crashing on the beach in front of the Pompey fans that was the Colchester goal. This was like a glorious day at the football seaside for Pompey’s fans; if the pitch had been sanded they would have made metaphorical castles of celebration and stuck little flags with the Pompey crest in the top of them.
Two more goals followed as Pompey steamed on to leave Col U in their wake. Four-nil up with twenty minutes left it looked like Pompey would score five or six. Pompey fans filled the area in front of the seats and the stewards lined the edge of the pitch and looked nervous. Mr Westwood occupied a platform at the back of the stand in the manner of Ralph Reader back in the days when FA Cup finals were wonderful, before the Premier league had him killed. In his crooked blue and white top hat and blue and white dreads Westwood blew his trumpet and waved his arms deliriously. One fan ran on the pitch when the fourth goal went in. Later the stewards somehow allowed another very large man to get over the perimeter wall and walk amongst them; as they led him away holding tightly on to his arms, he lifted his legs off the ground so they had to carry him, you could see he felt like he was king for a day; his team were 4-0 up he could do anything he wanted.
Full-time was almost a disappointment, it confirmed the result but stopped the fun; the party was over, but when I drove past the stadium the next day I could still hear the cheering… though today it was actually my wife in the passenger seat.