Ipswich Town 1 Cheltenham Town 1

In the final scenes of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If’, the central character Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and his nameless girlfriend launch a machine gun attack on the parents, teachers and governors at a school speech day.  The scene was filmed at Cheltenham College and it’s one of my favourite scenes in one of my favourite films; Wikipedia tells us that ‘If’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969 and in 1999 the British Film Institute ranked it as the 12th greatest British film of all time.  As if that association with such a great film is not enough kudos for Cheltenham, it also has a football team that has never lost to Ipswich Town. Today Ipswich Town and Cheltenham Town meet at Portman Road for only the second time in recorded history.  I don’t know it yet, but later today I’m going to feel like Mick Travis.

In north Essex it has been a stupendously dull morning, both still and depressingly grey, like November days should be. It’s only when I approach Ipswich that a diffuse yellow light begins to filter through the grimness and then bright sunshine bursts from a clear blue sky like a metaphor for the end of the working week and the arrival of Saturday, heralding a match at Portman Road.  Before the game I visit my mother and we reminisce about all manner of things from years ago and she tells me how her grandfather, Sam Scarff, an agricultural labourer from Needham Market, enrolled with a friend for evening classes, joined the police and rose to the rank of inspector in the Met’ before retiring to become a game-keeper in Shotley; his friend became a police commissioner, and I thought social mobility was a 1960’s thing.

Leaving my mother with her memories, I drive across town and park up on Chantry. The streets are busy with people in football-supporting attire. I walk across the wet grass of Gippeswyk Park and marvel at how lush and green the turf now is compared to how dried up, brown and withered it was on the first day of the football season three months ago.  In Sir Alf Ramsey way I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner, but the technology isn’t working today.  I laugh and hand over a five pound note to the somewhat miserable and overweight looking youth in the programme booth.  The Arbor House, formerly known as The Arboretum, is busy with pre-match drinkers, but I am served quite quickly and order a pint of Nethergate Complete Howler (£4.00). I head for the garden where Mick is already sat at a table with a pint of a dark beer from the Grain brewery which he’s not very keen on, I take a sip and agree that it’s not exactly moreish, but then the Grain brewery is located in Norfolk, albeit with an IP postcode.  Before long Roly joins us and proceeds to dominate the conversation, mainly because he seems to have the ability to talk without drawing breath, which means a polite person like me can’t get a word in edgeways, not that I have much to say.  We, by which I mean mostly Roly, talk of local council chief executives, Roly’s five-year-old daughter Lottie, primary schools on the Essex Suffolk border and the performances of Town player Dom Ball.  Between twenty-five and twenty to three we leave via the back gate of the beer garden and head for Portman Road.  I bid Mick and Roly farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Stand, formerly known as the West Stand.  We speak briefly of when we will next meet; it will be for the five o’clock kick off v Buxton in the FA Cup on Sunday 26th November.   I won’t be going to the mid-week game versus Portsmouth as I am boycotting the Papa John’s EFL Trophy, not because I have anything against oily, takeaway pizza, but because I think the competition has been debased by the inclusion of Evil Premier League under-21 teams.  I am particularly looking forward to not going to Wembley should Town make it to the final, when I will blow a metaphorical raspberry to all those people who believe that anyone boycotting the competition will automatically abandon their principles if Town get to the final.  Such beliefs help explain why we have a Tory government.

Most unusually, today there is a queue at the turnstiles for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand which are accessed from Constantine Road, but quite soon an extra turnstile opens up (No61) and a cheerful man presents bar codes to a screen and I pass through the portal to another world.  That pint of beer has already found its way to the exit and from the gents beneath the stand I hear stadium announcer Stephen Foster reading the team line-ups from the scoreboard in his best local radio DJ voice.  I arrive at my seat just as a minute’s silence begins for Armistice day, although that was actually yesterday.  Oddly, the Football Association have decided not to cancel the fixtures today as they did when they felt they couldn’t trust football crowds to observe a minute’s silence for the death of Queen Elizabeth back in September.  The minute’s silence is of course observed perfectly. Stephen Foster reads from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem ‘For the Fallen’ and the last post is played exquisitely, even if it does slightly spoil the solemnity and dignity of the moment to then be told by Stephen Foster that Jon Holden who played it is a member of the Co-op East of England Brass Band.  It’s probably just me, but I can’t help sniggering a little at any mention of the Co-op.

After a fly-past by a couple of Army helicopters, and a brief burst of ‘Hey Jude’, the game begins with Town getting first go with the ball and kicking towards me , Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  Town are thankfully back to wearing their blue shirts and white shorts after the all-black aberration against Derby, whilst Cheltenham Town are wearing red shirts and shorts with their ruddiness off-set by white socks and a white pin-stripe on their shirt fronts.  Quickly, Portman Road sounds in good voice as the altered version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ in which she eternally fights Norwich on Boxing Day rings around the ground.  On the touchline, Town manager Kieran McKenna is looking stylish, if a little drab in a black jacket and trousers with a plain jumper, which I at first think is beige but then think is grey; perhaps it’s taupe?

From the start Ipswich dominate and it feels as if everyone, from the supporters to the players really wants to win this match. We all remember the life-denying, spirit crushing goalless draw against Cheltenham from last season and that’s our inspiration to see Town give these upstarts, better known for their poncey Regency spa a sound thrashing.   Crosses rain into the Cheltenham penalty area and although one from Conor Chaplin goes a bit off course and strikes Wes Burns in the throat Sam Morsy soon has the first shot on goal and then from a corner Luke Woolfenden hooks the ball into the goal from close range and Town lead 1-0.  Woolfenden runs off sucking his thumb with the ball up his jumper and ever-present Phil mentions something about the birth of wolf cubs; I suggest he has simply discovered the joy of sucking his thumb. 

More corners and crosses follow and I chant “Come On You Blues” and so does Phil, but no one else does.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of you singing” announces Pat from Clacton, sort of singing herself, which is ironic.  Janoi Donacien strides forward into a rare bit of space and pulls the ball back to Marcus Harness; the Cheltenham defence is rent open like a tin of corned beef on which the key has broken half-way round and it’s been necessary to open both ends with a tin-opener to get the meat out. Harness must score, but somehow the ball strikes the under-side of the cross bar as if deflected away from the goal net by some invisible force…either that or Harness made a hash of it.

There are more corners to Ipswich, loads of them, and Phil and I keep chanting “Come On You Blues” vainly hoping someone will join in with us. We change to the simpler “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” but the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand aren’t moved.  I think to myself that I might as well be singing in French and so I do “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” I chant; Fiona says I’ve gone too far. On the pitch Janoi Donacien is hurt and is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young and the ball skims of the top of Cheltenham number six Lewis Freestone’s head as if he was a man who had applied too much brylcreem to his hair.  Another cross and Leif Davis precisely places a carefully controlled header over the Cheltenham cross bar.  Within a minute Cheltenham equalise as Ryan Broom sweeps forward and shoots at Christian Walton who somehow cannot stop the ball squirming around or under or through him onto the goal.  It might have been the brylcreem on the ball.  It will prove to be Cheltenham’s only real shot of the game and up in the Cobbold stand a knot of about twenty excited youths jump around and wave their arms about like bookies on a race course or idiots trying to fly.

Disappointing as that equaliser is, Town press on, although not quite as well as before.  When the Cheltenham goalkeeper parries a low Marcus Harness cross out to Cameron Humphreys, somehow the ball comes straight back to him.  Two minutes of added on time are announced very noisily by Stephen Foster, as if he’d turned the PA system up to eleven. “Speak Up” says Pat from Clacton.   I applaud Town off the field with the half-time whistle and go and talk with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.  I ask Harrison if he has got the new Robyn Hitchcock album ‘Shufflemania’ yet, he says he may get it for Christmas as he looks at his dad.

The match resumes at six minutes past four and a chorus of ‘Blue and White Army’ briefly rolls around the stands, not exactly like thunder. On the stroke of the 53rd minute the crowd rises for a minute’s applause in memory of Supporters’ Club Chairman Martin Swallow who died at the end of October.  A lone seagull floats above the pitch; no doubt someone would think it poignant. 

With Cheltenham confined to their half of the pitch due to constant Ipswich possession, this is the sort of game where every moment lost through a Cheltenham player sitting on the grass or receiving treatment is going to be attributed to time-wasting, and so it proves. Referee Mr Eltringham, a man with ‘ten to two’ feet, books the Cheltenham goalkeeper as a warning shot to his team-mates in this regard and in all fairness, they do not break the game up as much as they did in the goalless game last season, but it’s not enough to stop the bloke behind me from saying “He’s gotta be one of the worst fuckin’ refs we’ve ‘ad down here”.   When Cheltenham players do receive treatment their physio runs on with a huge bag and what looks like a small surf board; with a blonde wig and high cut one piece swim suit he could have doubled for Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. 

“Over and in” says Pat from Clacton in the time-honoured fashion, but it never happens. Marcus Harness heads carefully past the post in the same way Leif Davis headed over the bar in the first half, Wes Burns and Marcus Harness are replaced by Kayden Jackson and Kyle Edwards, but it makes little difference.  Chances come and inevitably go as if there is no possible way to get a ball across the line between the two goalposts.  The crowd is announced as 25,400 including 175 from Cheltenham; it’s the smallest away following at any Ipswich match this season; so more credit to those who did bother.  “Here for Cheltenham, you’re only here for the Cheltenham” they sing which I guess they are, and on the Clacton supporters coach Chris wins the prize with his guess of 25,444; Pat is disappointed that so few pet animals have been attributed guesses this week.

With time slipping away, the gloom of the late autumn evening descends along with a seasonal mist which softly shrouds the floodlights. “There’s nothing wrong with, there’s nothing wrong with you” chant the North Stand appropriating some Verdi opera as another Cheltenham player takes a breather by sitting on the turf.  The final minute arrives and Panutche Camara replaces Conor Chaplin. There will be at least seven minutes of additional time which is time enough for Camara to strike a shot against the inside of a goal post; again, the ball of course stays out of the goal rather than deflecting into it. All too soon the final whistle is blown and for a second time this year Cheltenham Town have clung on to a point at Portman Road with resolute defending and huge dollops of luck.  With defending like this and the ball having such an aversion to crossing their goal line, it seems odd that Cheltenham Town have ever lost a match.

“Frustrating” says the man from Stowmarket as he edges past me to the exit “Yes, but we’ve seen it all before, just a few weeks ago” I reply, re-living the pain of the match versus Lincoln.  But my comment hides my disappointment and beneath my reasonable exterior irrational thoughts and questions swirl in a maelstrom of post-match angst and anger; how can Ipswich Town be so much better than the opposition but still not beat them? Is Ipswich Town somehow cursed?  Where is there a high roof from which a sniper could shoot freely and indiscriminately?

Ipswich Town 3 Bristol Rovers 0

It’s the first Saturday in September and the weather has broken, although to be truthful it’s been looking a bit cracked for a while now.  Autumn approaches.  It rained overnight and whilst there are glimpses of sunshine it is straining to penetrate through the clouds and worst of all it feels cold.   But on the bright side, today sees the start of the football season and mighty Ipswich Town, the vessel in which the hopes and dreams of a good many of the people of Suffolk are invested will be playing Bristol Rovers in what I refer to as the League Cup, but the football club, media and those who don’t know any better call the Carabao Cup.  I didn’t used to know what Carabao was, I erroneously thought it was a wrongly spelt American name for a reindeer, but because of the League Cup, and thanks to Wikipedia,  I now know that it is a domestic water buffalo from the Philippines and also a drink; not a proper drink mind, like Adnams Broadside, tea, Noilly Prat, milk, red wine, Fuller’s 1845, espresso coffee, Crémant, pineapple juice, Champagne, lime cordial, Belgian Trappist beer , hot chocolate or malt whisky but something called an ‘energy drink’.   The sponsorship of football competitions is a curious thing and only adds to the feelings I have that I live as an outsider on the fringes of society, with the Milk Marketing Board being the only sponsor whose product I can honestly admit to ever having set out to purchase.

Kick-off is at three o’clock, but of course due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is not safe for a large crowd to gather and therefore no one is going to Portman Road today. Sadly, I shall be denied the joys of travelling on the trains of Greater Anglia, the pre-match pints, the quickening anticipation-filled walk down Portman Road and the click of the turnstile.  Today I will not hear the moans of the home supporters nor the witless abuse of the away supporters; I will not receive the suspicious glances of luminous stewards nor feel the soft artificial fur of Bluey and Crazee as they brush past me with their out-sized heads and weird hoof-hands; I will not become engrossed in conversation nor share see-sawing emotions with Mick, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, the old dears, Ray and his grandson Harrison, or Pat from Clacton with her bag of sweets and lucky charm, the masturbating monkey.

Not thinking of what I am missing, I enjoy a light lunch of home-made spicy carrot soup with my wife Paulene whilst resisting the temptation of a beer, despite a choice of Adnams Ghostship, Adnams Ease Up IPA, Fuller’s Bengal Lancer, Chimay, Chimay Brun, Orval, Westmalle and Faro Foudroyante from my ‘beer cupboard’.  We watch the Tour de France on the television, losing ourselves in the French countryside as an escape from the memory of lockdown. We talk and reminisce about holidays and trips to France.  It’s a quarter past three.  Flippin’ eck! The game has started and I hadn’t realised, this is what life is like without the discipline of the railway timetable to get me to the match.   I leave Paulene somewhere in the Haute Garonne and find my radio, which is already tuned to BBC Radio Suffolk, because I like a laugh.  I decided long ago that watching Town on the ifollow is not worth £10, particularly when I’ve already spent over £300 on a season ticket, so I settle down in an Ikea Poang chair in the back bedroom with Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills. Elvis Costello was right ” Radio is a sound salvation”.

Very quickly I learn that Aaron Drinan is pronounced Dry-nen and doesn’t rhyme with ‘linen’ as I previously thought it did, which I think is a useful start and then Mick Mills tells me that a half-chance for Bristol Rovers is the first time they have threatened Town’s goal so at least I can now be confident that we’re not losing.   Brenner and Mick witter on and Brenner tells me that Tomas Holy “puts his foot through the ball”; I wait for the referee to stop the game to extricate Holy’s foot, but rather confusingly the commentary carries on with Brenner describing the ball as being passed “along the deck “and I now wonder if the game has been moved from Portman Road to an oil tanker; it’s common after all for the size of such ships to be measured in terms of football pitches.   I’m still not sure of the up to date score but Brenner is hoping for a result in normal time, which implies the scores are still level and that he’s got better things to do after five o’clock than commentate on this.  The absence of any crowd noise then strikes me for the first time and I am conscious of the shouts of the players echoing through the stands left cavernous and empty.  Fittingly in all this blankness, Brenner at last reprises the score, it’s still nil-nil; I haven’t missed anything then. Phew.

Mick Mills is not a man to ever sound at all excited, but he feels moved to say that our left hand side has ‘come to life’ and produced two or three ‘moments’.  That’s what the game is all about I think to myself and am heartened to hear Mick provide balance by wishing that the right hand side of the team could do the same.  Brenner takes back control of the commentary and I learn that today Paul Lambert is wearing a big over coat, which is most unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in a black v-neck sweater; perhaps the added security of his five year contract has led him to invest in a more extensive wardrobe, but I do worry that it’s a bit early in the year for an overcoat and surely this can only provoke more abuse from his critics on social media. 

As I drift off into reverie about what is an appropriate coat for a football manager on a cool early September Saturday, Brenner announces that “Sears was not going to miss” and Town are 1-0 up.  It’s twenty-eight minutes past three, I clench my left fist and softly whisper a sibilant ‘Yes’ to myself. “It was easy to get the ball down the corridor to Sears” says Mick Mills and once again I’m a bit lost trying to imagine where I’d seen any corridors at Portman Road, except beneath the stands, and worrying that if the ball was in a corridor surely it should have been a throw-in.  I thank our lucky stars that our level of football is not subject to VAR.

With Town a goal up the game soon sounds like it has become a tad dull, or it could just be the commentary.  Mick Mills increasingly seems like a comfortably retired man in his seventies, but the I remember that he is.  Brenner meanwhile goes off piste and begins to talk about Town’s next game at home to the Arsenal Under-23 team in the now despicably compromised, credibility-lacking EFL Trophy, expressing his interest in seeing “…how good the latest crop of kids at the Emirates are”.  If he’s so interested in bleedin’ Arsenal perhaps he should clear off to BBC London.   Hopefully as annoyed as I am by Brenner’s concern about a club that isn’t Ipswich Town, Mick tries to break the mould by injecting a hint of excitement into the commentary and announces “That was a super pass from Dozzell” but he spoils it rather by pausing and then adding   “so that was good”, as if his use of the adjective “super” was in retrospect going a bit far.

I look at my watch and find that it’s approaching half time and I think I discern from the commentary that Town have a corner.  They do, and now it’s 2-0 courtesy of what Mick Mills dubs a ‘fabulous goal’ from Luke Chambers. “Luke Chambers is pretty deadly in the opposition box” says Mick leaving me to fill in the blanks that he can, on occasions, be quite deadly in his own box too.  Half-time arrives and unlike at Portman Road I don’t make an undignified dash to the khasi but stay in my seat. This is no doubt in part due to not having a bladder full of the remnants of two or more pints of beer and partly because at Portman Road I am not pleasantly paralysed through sitting on a comfortable chair.  For remaining seated I am rewarded by hearing Mick Mills refer to Aaron Drinan as Aaron Dry-nan although he instantly corrects himself to make Aaron’s surname rhyme with linen a la Brenner Woolley.  Mick goes on to tempt fate horribly by saying that he “…cannot see Bristol Rovers coming back in to this”.  I admire Mick’s forthrightness, but recent experience nevertheless leads me to offer a small prayer for him, and his opinion, despite my probable atheism.  I take a brief trip downstairs to France to bring the gospel to my Christian wife that Town are winning 2-0.  She asks if I am sure I have tuned into the right radio station.

The second half begins at the ridiculously late time of 4:06pm, and it’s not long before Mick Mills is telling me that the game has become a “…little but drab, a little bit boring”; if anyone should know about that it’s monotone Mick.  Personally, I am finding the experience of sitting in my back bedroom listening to the wireless quite exciting and probably more interesting than if I had had to fork out a tenner or so for a match ticket plus as much again for the train fare, beer and perhaps a pie, all requirements if I was to attend in person.  I am further enthralled when Brenner advises me as the ball is booted off the pitch that “…the ball is dipped in some sort of sterilizing solution when it goes in the seats over there”.  I can’t help wondering why this is necessary; who normally sits in that part of the ground? What sort of unpleasant residue have they left? Why hasn’t that corner of the ground be cleaned since last March?

Moving on, Mick Mills is providing the most enjoyable moments of the commentary and, as he did in the first half, he gives praise but then tempers it.  “That was a wonderful corner by Judge” he says before qualifying his statement by explaining “It was…………good”, once again suggesting that given time to think about it perhaps his initial assessment was a little too enthusiastic.   It’s either that or he just doesn’t know that many adjectives.  But there is no doubt that lurking beneath Mick’s inherent reticence and quietude there is a passion and he soon lets it out with the statement “There’s a lot of football in the team”.  As for Brenner he can’t help but betray a certain cynicism, no doubt borne of over fifteen years commentating on the mighty Blues; “Good play from the Blues” says Brenner, before adding with perfect timing “At the moment”.

The second half is clearly not totally thrilling, but the impression received is thankfully that Town are playing within themselves and have the measure of these “Pirates”.  The game plays on and I am guilty of paying more attention to Twitter than to Brenner and Mick as I seek to discover how the likes of Whitton United, Long Melford, Ipswich Wanderers, Stowmarket Town and Framlingham Town are getting on.  I admit I haven’t really been paying close attention to the commentary but am nevertheless surprised at four thirty-three to hear Brenner say that Town are now 3-0 up, and although I will admit to reading Twitter I wonder how I could have missed hearing the goal go in. I am left to suppose Mick’s less than excited general delivery and Brenner’s overriding interest in the Arsenal’s “kids” could explain why neither commentator had succeeded in grabbing my attention.   Fortunately, Twitter can also tell me that it was Freddie Sears who scored the third goal, in the 68th minute as well as actually showing me the first two goals and then the third as well.

Time moves on inexorably and it’s now four forty-nine, and Brenner confirms that it’s been “all over really” since Freddie Sears scored Town’s third goal, as he stifles a yawn.  Fittingly the commentary peters out a little with periods of silence punctuated with commentator clichés letting the eager listeners know that Bristol Rovers don’t have “enough left in the tank” to change the result and that Town have been “good value” for their lead.  “Three-nil, Ipswich Town” says Brenner, saving up his allocation of useful verbs and adjectives for another day, perhaps when Arsenal’s “kids” might be playing.  “Town, winding the clock down” says Mick.  “According to my watch we’re just about there” are Brenner’s final words, as if prompting the referee to blow his whistle, which miraculously he then does.

Pleased that Town have won and pleased that I can leave Brenner and Mick alone together and return downstairs to my wife, I turn off my radio.  I haven’t really had a clue what’s been going on all afternoon but I do know that Town have won a cup tie, scoring three times in the process and not conceding, even if I only noticed two of the goals and it feels as if it all happened in a far off universe, but being divorced from the proceedings the result is all that matters.  Back to reality, if not normality; a glass of beer and fish and chips for tea.  As Ray Davies of the Kinks told us in Autumn Almanac, “I like my football on a Saturday”.

“Radio, it’s a sound salvation”