Ipswich Town 2 Swindon Town 3

I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was in an Ipswich which had a similar layout to the real place but all the buildings were different and weirdly the buses were like those from the 1970’s; I got on one in a shopping-centre painted chocolate brown and it unexpectedly took me up a fast road to what might have been Chantry; I got off and wandered back towards Portman Road because there was a match on.  I walked through streets of medieval, half-timbered buildings and past a pub I had never been in before where they were calling last orders, it was only two o’clock; I knew I had had a pint already but I couldn’t remember where.  That’s when I woke up.

After a welcome mid-season break which has made me feel even greater kinship with the people of France, and Germany that Brexit has tried to divorce me from, I have spent the last few days in keen anticipation of today and the match versus Swindon Town, even though it’s only on the telly, but this is the new reality to which I have become accustomed.  I even ordered a match programme yesterday (£3.50 including postage and packing), but the waking day gets off to a bad start because when I check my post it hasn’t arrived.  Kick-off today is at 5.30 so after a morning of dull, domestic normalcy and a light lunch of chorizo sausage and salad I take an afternoon walk, slipping, trudging and sliding across frosty, muddy fields, squinting into the low January sunlight and avoiding human contact.

Mud & trees

Back home, with the help of tea and biscuits I watch the FA Cup scores develop on BBC 1 where a man who looks like a bigger version of Pep Guardiola fills the air time once occupied by Grandstand and the seat left vacant by Frank Bough.  Gradually, 5.30 draws near.  I log onto the ifollow in time to catch the last three names of today’s virtual mascots, Georgia, Rory and Albi; I am reminded of Albi the racist dragon, who Bret and Jermaine sang about in episode seven of Flight of the Conchords.  There follows a compilation of the best bits from the commentary the last time Town played Swindon, which was back in January 2000, even before Flight of the Conchords was first on television. In goal for Swindon that day was Frank Talia and I amuse myself by wondering if he had a sister called Jenny.  There’s time to get a pre-match ‘pint’, if not to drink it, before kick-off and I pour a glass of Fuller’s 1845 (on offer before Christmas at £3.00 for two from Waitrose) for me, and a glass of ‘mother’s ruin’ for my wife Paulene, which she takes topped up with fizzy water.

As the players take the knee we are informed that today’s fixture is a ‘memorial match’ for everyone who has died in the last year.  Paulene chuckles and we both roll our eyes.  “What the heck is a memorial match?” asks Paulene.  It’s as if people have never died before.  What a sentimental, maudlin lot we have become.  As the handover is made from the Radio Suffolk studio to the commentary team we learn that today’s commentary will not be from Brenner Woolley, who sadly is unwell, instead Radio Suffolk have enlisted the services of former Northgate school boy Stuart Jarrold, who should by rights be enjoying his retirement; I can remember him on Anglia TV forty years ago; he must be well over seventy.  Happily Stuart’s co-commentator is still the dependable Mick Mills who will hopefully add to his record of 741 games played for Town by co-commentating on a similar number.  It was Mick’s birthday this week; he was seventy-three. With two septuagenarians at the microphone there is an undeniable hint of Last of the Summer Wine pervading the airwaves.

Stuart begins his introduction to the game assuredly and authoritatively, he’s an old pro. But then the game begins; Swindon kick off, play the ball back and Dion Conroy lumps it up field.  It is immediately clear that Stuart doesn’t recognise any of the players; he doesn’t even seem to be familiar with their names. His assuredness has departed quicker than a season ticket holder in the top tier of the Cobbold stand when we’ve just conceded a third goal with twenty minutes to go.  Just to make it clear to anyone who hadn’t picked it up from his commentary, Stuart now admits he hasn’t watched Town at all this season.  Stuart can’t tell Luke Chambers from Luke Woolfenden.  He struggles on.  Usually it’s Brenner that interrupts Mick, but today Mick has to interrupt Stuart to clarify what’s just happened.  “Was that Brett Pitman firing in a shot there?” asks Stuart sounding reasonably confident “No, it was Matt Smith” replies Mick.

The camera lingers on a man in glasses and a black hat with a dark scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face.  I can’t tell who it is.  It could be Marcus Evans, it could be Paul Lambert.  Either one of them could be forgiven for not wanting to be recognised at Portman Road.  “I can’t see Paul Lambert here” says Stuart, quite coincidentally and no doubt unaware of the picture on the tv screen.  Would Stuart even recognise Paul Lambert if he saw him?

Stuart tells us that three minutes have been played, but the figures in the corner of the tv screen suggest he is living some three minutes in the past. “Can’t see who’s taking the corner from here, can you Mick?” Mick is having to work hard today.  “Cleared by one of the Lukes” says Stuart.  Armando Dobra is fouled by Paul Caddis. “Did Caddis get a yellow card for that?” asks Stuart in the latest in a series of questions “I think he did”.   Mick resorts to saying things which Stuart can re-use in his commentary.   “Luke Chambers knocks it back to err…err… err… Luke Woolfenden” says Stuart. 

I don’t know if it’s wheeziness due to his age or just anxiety, but Stuart’s breathing is audible over the microphone.   Paulene cringes, but she’s feeling sorry for Stuart.  I am too, but I don’t let it stop me from laughing, this is what makes local radio so great. “It’s a bit aimless in the middle there Mick” says Stuart, sounding slightly incredulous that the game is as bad as it is.  Further proof, if proof were needed, that he hasn’t seen Town play previously this season.  Stuart mentions that Swindon’s Diallang Jaiyesimi had been at Norwich City.  Mick asks if he ‘came through the ranks’ there.  Unsurprisingly, Stuart doesn’t know.

It’s the 16th minute, Swindon score.  “Err, yes, it’s a goal, it’s a goal” says Stuart, sounding as unprepared as the Town defence was and as if, like them, he wasn’t really watching when it happened.  Paulene cheers, I think because Brett Pitman played for Pompey, although he didn’t score the goal,  that was our friend from Norwich City.   I look at Paulene coldly.

The game resumes. “I haven’t mentioned Judge yet, I’ve rarely seen him touch the ball” says Stuart optimistically suggesting he would recognise Judge if he did see him touch the ball.  “I’ve got to get used to these players, haven’t I” he adds, more realistically.  He is improving, a little.  “This is Emyr Huws now, tussling with the ball” says Stuart in a moment of clear vision, but also a weird use of language worthy of Brenner Woolley.  “We are beginning to sit back and watch them play” says Mick of the Ipswich players. “That’s not what we should be doing is it Mick?” says Stuart asking a question so stupid it would sound sarcastic if he hadn’t grown so childishly reliant upon Mick’s every word.

A half an hour passes. Andre Dozzell sends a brilliant pass over the top of the Swindon defence, little Alan Judge runs through but incredibly fails to score with just the Swindon ‘keeper Mark Travers to beat.  It’s a unique moment of inspiration coupled to the usual failure and frustration in an otherwise featureless first half. 

Half-time begins to loom like an oasis.  “Luke Chambers…left foots it forward” says Stuart making up a new verb.  “The last six or seven minutes seem to have dragged a bit, without a lot happening” Stuart then adds, clearly beginning to get into the feel and rhythm of Portman Road on match day.  At the end of two minutes of added time Mick provides a concise summary of the half before being cut-off by advertisements which, not being a fan of the consumer-society, I ignore, “You’ve got to say Swindon have been the better side”.

Half-time is a delicious blur of more Fuller’s 1845 and gin.

The second-half arrives all too soon and James Norwood and Flynn Downes replace Aaron Drinan, who Stuart didn’t even mention not having mentioned, and Emyr Huws.  Swindon’s Scott Twine has an early chance to double his team’s lead but doesn’t and Stuart carries on not knowing which Ipswich player is which “…..putting Jackson away, no, that’s not Jackson”.  But Town do look a bit better now, with Norwood seeing more of the ball within a few seconds than Aaron Drinan did in the whole of the first half.  It’s the 51st minute and Stuart and Mick are now honing their double act to perfection.  Little Alan Judge shoots on goal, “I thought it was going to hit the post” exclaims Stuart. “It did hit the post” explains Mick, demonstrating the value of having an expert co-commentator who has played the game at the highest level and is therefore capable of spotting the difference between the ball hitting the post and not hitting the post.

Two minutes later and Flynn Downes shows that he has settled back in to the team and receives his customary booking.  Town continue to look like they have now been given a rough outline of the aim of the game and with just over an hour of our lives wasted Kayden Jackson unexpectedly plays in an early cross which James Norwood reaches just a few metres from goal.  Showing an unimaginable level of skill Norwood slices an attempt to shoot onto a Swindon defender standing the statutory two metres away, the ball rebounds back to him and he strokes it into the goal. “We’ve scored” I utter cautiously, scarcely able to believe my eyes.  Victory must now be ours, surely; how can we not go on to win against the team second from bottom in the league who have lost five of their last six matches conceding fifteen goals in the process?

Confident, I sit back, but unfortunately so does the Town defence and together we watch Scott Twine score from about 35yards.  “It was a stupendous goal” says Stuart almost shouting with excitement and clearly scarcely able to believe that such a goal could be scored amongst what otherwise seems a pretty lamentable standard of football.  Mick is appreciative of the finish, but generally less enthusiastic than wide-eyed Stuart, citing Ipswich’s contribution by virtually “inviting” Twine to shoot.  Mick sensibly adds that it was a somewhat freakish goal too, although I would add not freakish enough to have actually been scored by Ipswich.

James Norwood harvests another booking for a pointless tug at a Swindon player before Brett Pitman appears to score a third goal for Swindon, but sadly it’s not Brett who scored it’s that bloke who played for Norwich instead.   Had it been Pitman’s goal it would have been a good goal, a deft flick no less, but instead it’s a cross that has sneaked in at the far post because everyone else misread it, a bit like the weirdly named Keanen Bennett’s goal against Shrewsbury a few weeks ago.  “It’s almost an embarrassment isn’t it?” says Stuart really getting to grips with the reality of commentating on Ipswich Town in the 21st century.

We’ve watched seventy-eight minutes now, Town trail 3-1 and Jack Lankester replaces Armando Dobra. “Will that make much difference Mick?” asks Stuart , probably having worked out by now that it won’t. But with four minutes remaining of normal time a punt forward is controlled by James Norwood who lays the ball off for little Alan Judge to score simply and unexpectedly for Town. “That came out of nothing” says Stuart,  not having yet realised that this is true of nearly every goal scored in the third division.

In the remaining minutes Mark McGuinness has a shot which might have been an equaliser if hit harder and wider of Travers in the Swindon goal and Swindon make a final substitution to eke out the dying seconds before another home defeat is confirmed.  To misquote Elton John, I guess that’s why they call us the Blues. The players must be so pleased that the supporters are once again safely locked down at home and not in Portman Road, but if any has particularly good hearing they can probably discern the boos emanating from sofas and easy chairs all across the town  as they leave the pitch.

What a disappointing afternoon it has been, but one in which Stuart Jarrold can at least feel reasonably happy that his inability to recognise Town players was matched by the Town players themselves, and that at least he had a really good excuse; unless they have all been in isolation for the past fortnight they didn’t.  For myself, I at least now understand that dream, because I can no longer recognise the Ipswich Town I knew either, but I shall be back again next week to try again.

Ipswich Town 2 Shrewsbury Town 1

I first saw Shrewsbury Town back in February 1982.  I was an unemployed, fresh-faced graduate, Ipswich Town were sitting pretty somewhere near the top of what is now called the Premier League and Margaret Thatcher was vigorously laying the foundations for today’s unpleasant climate of self-centred, “I’m alright Jack” nationalist politics.  With that Shrewsbury match at Gay Meadow I witnessed an Ipswich Town performance over thirty years ahead of its time as Town dropped out of the of the FA Cup to lower league opposition, although to be fair we had made it to the fifth round.  I returned to Gay Meadow two years later for another FA Cup defeat and then in August of 1987 for a goalless League match.  Disillusioned with the poor returns from long trips to Shropshire I didn’t bother to travel the following season and consequently missed our 5-1 victory under the obviously inspirational captaincy of the World’s greatest living Canadian, Frank Yallop.

As I mull over those dark days of the 1980’s I log in to the i-follow on my lap-top and breathe a sigh of relief that it works.  I am just in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots being read out on Radio Suffolk; they are older people today, it’s something to do with highlighting or counter acting loneliness during lockdown. What I take from it is that a lot of the mascots seem to be called John.

The pictures from Portman Road appear on my screen and the dulcet, gently north-eastern tones of Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley tell me that Shrewsbury Town, who are visible doing pre-match warm-ups, are today wearing all-white, although he omits to mention the purple flashes on their shoulders which for me give the kit a much needed je ne sais quoi.  Ipswich are soon taking the field and Brenner refers to captain Luke Chambers “Bursting out from the pack” as the players run from the tunnel, and to Tomas Holy’s all lime green kit.  My mind’s eye momentarily conjures an image of Luke Chambers bursting.

As the on-screen caption advises that today’s referee is Tim Robinson I start to beat out the intro’ to ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ on the arm of my Ikea Poang chair and the game begins.   Shrewsbury are kicking from right to left towards what was called Churchman’s back in the days when Mr Robinson  was on Top of the Pops before everything was converted into money.  I am just beginning to wonder if Brenner has his trusty co-commentator with him today when I hear a stifled chuckle in the back ground and Mick Mills joins in describing with much merriment how Town’s Mark McGuinness has been pole-axed by what Brenner later refers to as a “winding challenge”, (that’s winding as in forcing air from the body rather than turning something).

Mick’s presence is a blessing and he soon adds value to the commentary suggesting that Paul Lambert not only prefers Nsiala and McGuinness as centre-backs but as ‘individuals’.  This immediately makes me wonder what this might mean and whether Nsiala and McGuinness offer not only strength at the back but  also more interesting conversation than Woolfenden and Wilson; do they have better dress sense, better personal hygiene, give better presents at birthdays and Christmas, have broader musical tastes; are they better read and have more cohesive political views?  Which central-defensive partneship would you invite to dinner?

My reverie is cut short as Mark McGuinness betrays a lack of manners and clumsily trips Shaun Whalley to give Shrewsbury a penalty.   As  Oliver Norburn runs up to take the spot-kick Brenner tells me that Shrewsbury haven’t scored at Portman Road in 53 years; presumably Brenner says this just to make sure that Shrewsbury do score now. Brenner’s tempting of fate is successful, although had Tomas Holy not dived before Norburn kicked the ball he might have saved it; Brenner says as much in a roundabout way, asking if Tomas might not be “self-critical there”.

Depressed by Shrewsbury taking the lead and Brenner’s silly commentary (this is only the fifth time in 53 years that Shrewsbury have even played at Portman Road), I console myself with the thought that there is plenty of time to equalise, score a winning goal and apply icing to a metaphorical cake.  As if to celebrate Shrewsbury’s goal Brenner unleashes some of his familiar commentator-speak, referring to little Alan Judge “running-into traffic” as he brings the ball out of defence and Tomas Holy “putting his foot through the ball” as he  boots it up field.  Not satisfied with this, Brenner proceeds to wilfully muddle up his footballs suggesting that Brett McGavin is playing in a “quarter-back” position.

Despite their goal deficit Town show only occasional urgency along with a very limited ability to equalise; they don’t exactly play badly, they just don’t do enough to make Shrewsbury worry that that they might not win despite being a goal ahead.  In the sixteenth minute Shrewsbury make claims for a second penalty as someone in a white shirt with purple trim “goes” in the words of Brenner “to ground”, which makes him sound like a small animal retreating into a burrow instead of a footballer falling over.

Time passes and Jon Nolan is hurt and replaced by Jack Lankester, and Shrewsbury’s Marc Pugh becomes another “Shrew” to fall over in the penalty area, and he gets short shrift from Brenner for doing so. “Crawling along the deck in rather embarrassing fashion” says Brenner of Pugh sounding every bit as witty and cutting as Oscar Wilde might have if he’d been a sports commentator for BBC local radio.

Town earn their first corner.  “A little opportunity for us with the big boys coming up” says Mick.  The opportunity is spurned by the ‘big boys’ and the small ones too.  Little Alan Judge is not having a good game, every time he has the ball he passes to a Shrewsbury player or just loses it.  I notice that the Shrewsbury goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne, who is a vision from head to toe in pink, is also sporting a moustache that any mid-twentieth century European dictator would have been proud of.

There are about seven minutes until half-time;  Kayden Jackson successfully chases a pass into the penalty area, pulls the ball back to set up Jack Lankester for a shot that is blocked and thereby sets up Freddie Sears for a shot that is deflected away for a corner; it’s the most excitement I’ve had all half.  Four minutes of time are added on and pass without incident worthy of mention.  Half-time arrives, the pitch is vacated and I wonder to myself why it is that referees and their assistants always walk off the field together, it surely makes them an easier target for a well-aimed grenade.

Half-time passes in a flurry of tea, half-time scores, stats and an advertisement for the ifollow in which a threatening Scouse voice claims that there is no better way to show your love than the ifollow; by the end of the advert I feel that  if I don’t subscribe I should start avoiding dark alleys .  The players appear for the second half and Brenner tells me that Town are now “attacking the Sir Bobby Robson end”, which seems a little disrespectful.   

The standard of play does not improve, nor does the commentary; a pass is under hit and Brenner tells me “the ball doesn’t have enough steam on it”.   Teddy Bishop is substituted for Emyr Huws, who I have decided to make my favourite player because he sounds like an extra from ‘Ivor the Engine’ and unlike a lot of modern players doesn’t have a haircut that makes him look like a First World War conscript.  

Not very much happens, or at least not enough to result in Town scoring a goal.  Brenner airs his obsession with Tomas Holy’s nationality “The Czech was dependable” he says as Tomas catches a cross.  Mick Mills embarks on a long explanation about something, but is interrupted without apology by Brenner as something happens on the pitch that looks like it could result in one those “goals” that I’ve heard about, perhaps predictably however it doesn’t.  It’s a pattern that is repeated and I can’t quite decide if Brenner is rude to interrupt or if Mick just tends to witter on a bit too long and needs to learn how to be more concise.  It also worries me that Mick doesn’t notice what is happening on the pitch and doesn’t interrupt himself.  Either way, it adds to the fun.

Town’s patient approach isn’t producing very much in the way of excitement although a shimmy and a cross from Freddie Sears almost results in little Alan Judge forcing the ball over the goal line, but his legs were just that bit too short.  The game enters its final 20 minutes; I haven’t fallen asleep yet because in truth it isn’t exactly boring and oddly I’m feeling quite relaxed and not frustrated at all by the absence of an equaliser.  Suddenly, the weirdly named Keanen Bennetts sends a low, not particularly good cross in to the penalty area and without another Town player touching the ball it runs just inside the far post and Town have equalised.   Not quite believing what I’ve seen I cheer, quietly in case it’s a false alarm, but happily it’s not.

The remainder of normal time runs out, much as the other 75 minutes did with nothing overly exciting happening and Town patiently and at times monotonously passing the ball.  Shrewsbury are provoked into trying to regain their lead and more of them fall over in the penalty area when in close proximity to Toto Nsiala, but unusually the tactic fails to influence Mr Robinson.  Substitution follows substitution follows substitution and there is so much added on time that new layers of geology are formed. It is the 97th minute, little Alan Judge pops up on the left , he cuts in , he shoots, the man all in pink with the moustache parries the shot and Jack Lankester hurls himself headlong to propel the ball into the Shrewsbury goal, “… Town have won it,” says Brenner. I cheer in the same manner as before.

Despite a valiant attempt to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, Luke Chambers clearing a Shrewsbury shot off the goal line in the tiny amount of time left, Town hang on to win as Brenner predicted. “What a huge victory this could be for Ipswich Town” says Brenner excitedly and without explanation.  Town haven’t really deserved to win this game “says Mick more soberly when asked to sum up.

The ifollow broadcast quickly ceases as the players leave the field, disappointingly cutting off Mick and Brenner in their prime.  Despite Brenner’s entreaties to phone in and talk to Mick, I don’t.  Having turned off my lap-top I head for the back garden where I light the fire-pit and celebrate with a bottle of Adnams Old Ale and my wife Paulene. “A win is a win is a win” we chant as we dance around the flickering flames and think of the unfortunate Shrewsbury Town players “truckin on through the night” back to Shropshire, as Tom and possibly Tim Robinson might sing.