Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Ipswich Town ended a sequence of defeats and general under achievement with victory at Home Park, Plymouth on 6th December last year, just three months and a week ago.  It doesn’t seem a quarter of a year ago, let alone a third of a football season since that victory, but oddly it seems that time has simultaneously both speeded up and slowed down since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns.  The experience finds me in reflective mood this morning and I dull the pain by steam cleaning the shower, ‘hoovering’ the kitchen and filling a  five year old hole in the kitchen ceiling, which was created when a new light fitting was installed. 

Yesterday evening I signed up to witness the third game of the Paul Cook era at Portman Road on the ifollow, and without crossing the threshold of my semi-detached suburban home, my Saturday afternoon is consequently mapped out for me, as every Saturday afternoon has been since some time back in August.  Not being a particular fan of television since the demise of Quiz Ball in December of 1972, I was surprised to find that at first I quite enjoyed the novelty of seeing the Town courtesy of the cathode ray tube in the corner of the living room, or it’s flattened, somewhat swollen, wall-mounted, modern equivalent.  Town had never been regular performers on the telly, even back when we was fab in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, but now all of a sudden we are; it’s just a shame we are no longer worth watching as entertainment but only as an exercise in eternal optimism, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.    Today therefore it now feels like mere habit that makes me log on to my lap top as three o’clock approaches.

By way of a change today I shall be watching the match against Plymouth in the kitchen.  It has been agreed that the living room is the room in the house that is most like Wembley Stadium, and therefore best suited to my wife Paulene watching her team Portsmouth play Salford City in last season’s final of what used to be the Associate Members Cup, but is now merely an occasional playground for the youth of the Premier League clubs and a vehicle for the peddling of takeaway pizza.  By Paulene’s own admission it is a particularly pointless fixture because whoever wins the enormous slice of tin-plated pizza or whatever the trophy now is, will get to keep it for just twenty-four hours because this season’s final between Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers is to be played the very next day.

As the ifollow transports me to Portman Road, the quality of the transmission is at first poor and creates the impression that the sound engineer, if there is one, is a devotee of the late Norman Collier. Happily the technical fault is only temporary and the airwaves are crystal clear as I hear BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley ask Mick Mills how he assesses Ipswich Town’s play-off ambitions.  Reassuringly Mick presents the argument that it’s best to finish sixth in the league table.   “If you hit sixth spot anything can happen from that position” says Mick raising the possibility that sixth position in League One is some sort of portal to another world where Luke Chambers captains England to the third-place play-off in the World Cup, Paul Cook has a head of hair to rival that of Carlos Valderrama, Marcus Evans offers Lionel Messi whatever he wants to see out his playing career at Portman Road and the Football Association is run by a race of highly intelligent squirrels.

The game begins and in making a minor adjustment to the position of my lap top I accidentally press the off button.  Quickly turning the lap-top back on the picture returns sans commentary just as an Alan Judge free-kick whistles over the Plymouth cross bar.  The resultant corner kick is cleared and sound is restored just as Brenner speaks poetically of a throw-in being awarded against a Plymouth player as the “ ..ball skims over the laces of his right shoe”.   Brenner has many quirks which make his commentary satisfyingly unique and his insistence that the players are wearing shoes and not football boots is just one of them.   Down on the touchline meanwhile, we are told that Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe is “…barking out instructions”, although there is no word from Brenner about his footwear, but we can guess he’s not wearing Hush Puppies.

It is only the fourth minute of the game and Town score courtesy of an ill-advised back pass by Adam Lewis. “Troy Parrott couldn’t believe his good fortune” says Brenner, obviously not really having any idea what Mr Parrott does or doesn’t believe but making something up which he thinks sounds plausible. “That is a dream start” says Mick, giving us an insight into how retired professional footballers still think about the game even in their sleep.

Without warning ,the ifollow pictures stutter and I imagine living rooms and kitchens across Suffolk in which Tractor Boys and Girls point at their lap-tops and TV screens as one and chant “ You’re not very good, you’re not very good, you’re not very, you’re not very, you’re not very good”  to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown.  Back at Portman Road, Plymouth’s Panutche Camara does something to inspire Brenner to say “Camara, a bit of a live wire customer”.  Unusually for a player not from Britain, Brenner makes no reference to Camara’s nationality ; Camara  is from Guinea-Bissau; I can only guess that he can’t decide whether someone from Guinea-Bissau is a Guinean or a Guinea-Bissauan.

Plymouth Argyle are poor, their play consisting mostly of mistakes and passing to Ipswich players.  Sympathetically, Myles Kenlock makes a couple of mistakes of his own, which is thoughtful of him. Andre Dozzell is “…trying to pull the strings in midfield” Brenner tells us just as Dozzell turns attack into defence with an incisive 20 yard pass back across the half-way line to  centre-half James Wilson .  It’s the tenth minute and Kayden Jackson is clean through on goal, he must score!  He doesn’t.  “That was a real chance for Kayden Jackson” says Brenner “Was it” says Mick using a little heard affirming intonation   “Totally dominant, Ipswich Town – can’t remember the last time I said that in a game” says Brenner, and no one else can remember either, although if they can they should send their answer on a postcard to BBC Radio Suffolk or text 81333 and as Brenner would tell you, start the message with the letters SFK.

In an idle moment Brenner tells us of when Plymouth last won at Portman Road; it was eleven years ago and Paul Mariner was their manager and he gave his coat to someone in the crowd as a memento but left his glasses in the pocket and had to contact the club to get them back.  Remembering the story too, Mick tells it again but with more words and added superfluous detail.  When Mick has finished the story Brenner tells us that he remembers it too, almost as if he wasn’t the one to tell us about it in the first place and that we wouldn’t remember that.    A short while later Brenner once again tells us again that Andre Dozzell is trying to pull the strings in midfield.

The match is unusually enjoyable and Town’s attacking play gives Brenner the opportunity to try out some football-speak seldom heard in his recent commentaries.  “Trying to get Jackson on his bike” says Brenner as a long ball up the wing drops off the end of the pitch.  Another similar attempted pass on the opposite side of the pitch has little Alan Judge not getting to the ball either , “ …his legs weren’t going to get him there” says Brenner, perhaps implying that he should have borrowed Kayden Jackson’s bike.

A quarter of the way through the game and with Town still “…by far the better side, completely on top” Brenner looks ahead to the forthcoming Town games at Portsmouth and Wigan, which he rather weirdly refers to as “Paul Cook derbies” on the basis that Paul Cook previously managed both clubs; it’s a disturbing insight into how the mind of a football commentator works.  Mick Mills meanwhile keeps his commentating firmly based in reality and rather than indulging in such nonsense he tells us how twice Myles Kenlock has saved Town by dealing with crosses in central positions that a mysteriously absent   James Wilson should really have cleared.  “Myles Kenlock has dealt with them really, really well” says Mick delivering praise which would smack of nothing more than solidarity amongst left-backs if spoken by any lesser man.

Almost a third of the game has passed and Plymouth win their first corner, which is played deep to what Brenner rather indelicately and peculiarly describes as “the backside of the box” .  The sun comes out in Ipswich and it sounds like Brenner refers to Troy Parrott as Troy Carrot, but it might be my hearing or the poor quality speakers on my Sharp Aquos television set,  which is connected to my Lenovo lap-top by an HDMI lead – or so I’m told.

After a flowing Ipswich move almost results in a second goal, Flynn Downes goes down injured. In the ensuing hiatus in play Brenner asks Mick what are his thoughts on Ipswich Town’s season.  “Ipswich?  This season?  Says Mick,  sounding somewhat incredulous.  Mick is about to take us on a footballing journey back to last August, but it quickly It transpires that Brenner hadn’t meant to ask about the whole season, only about this game.  “Oh goodness” says Brenner with a note of panic in his voice “Don’t start re-capping this season”.  It’s a moment that perhaps reveals that Brenner thinks Mick could have talked for England as well as playing football for them.  Flynn Downes goes off to be replaced by Teddy Bishop. “Downes looks really down” says Brenner  possibly but probably not making a mildly tasteless pun.

Three minutes of added on time are to be played, Brenner tells us that Plymouth are in white; it seems a bit late to be  telling his BBC Radio listeners that; without Brenner’s guidance they have probably all been imagining Plymouth in a range of materials, colours and designs from puce-coloured chintz to flesh-toned gingham taffeta.  It seems that Plymouth have also worked out which colour shirts they  are wearing and according to Brenner “ You wouldn’t rule out an equaliser”.  But they’ve left it too late and Mick’s half-time verdict is that “Yes” Town deserve their lead because of the length of time that they dominated the game.

Half-time tea and ginger Christmas tree biscuits follow.  Paulene appears looking sad and dejected; the Portsmouth versus Salford game is absolutely awful and she has had to turn the sound down to avoid the terrible commentary with its constant hackneyed, fawning references to the former Manchester United players who are bankrolling Salford City. For Paulene the weekend will only get worse with Pompey destined to lose a penalty shoot-out and their hamster-like manager Kenny Jackett resigning in a fit of self-loathing.

After scrutinising the half-time match statistics and enduring an advertisement for the ifollow which, if it were true, would make you wonder why anyone ever went to a real game because watching football on a lap-top or tv screen is clearly far, far superior, the game begins anew.  Kayden Jackson is soon hurt and is according to Brenner, “ on all fours”, it’s a pose that he seems to like to report whenever he can.  Mick then embarks on an extremely lengthy description of a cross-cum-shot from Myles Kenlock; Mick’s eventual conclusion is that Myles didn’t know what he was trying to do.

After seven minutes of the second half Town should be 2-0 up, but Kayden Jackson’s pass from the by-line is met with a simply awful attempt at a shot from little Alan Judge who is about 10 metres from the goal.  Six minutes later and completely out of character Brenner refers to a Plymouth player (Conor Grant) as wearing a boot, not a shoe.  Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is replaced by Luke Jephcott . “ Strong boy,  he knows where the back of the net is” says Brenner, now heavily into  ‘Ron Manager’ mode.

Amazingly, neither Mick, nor Brenner says it but the match gives every impression of being a game of two halves.  “Plymouth….are in charge of this game” says Mick.  Substitutions are made.  Hardie for Lewis for Plymouth; Skuse and Drinan for Parrott and Jackson for Ipswich.  “ Positive move by Plymouth, sensible move by Ipswich” is Mick’s well considered opinion.  Brenner asks Mick what he thinks of Cole Skuse.  “ I like Cole Skuse, I like Cole Skuse” says Mick repeating himself for emphasis and possibly because all he could think of to say was the same thing twice; but no one will notice, he’s on BBC Radio Suffolk, not Radio 4’s Today programme.  Mick speaks of the criticism that Cole Skuse receives from some sections of Suffolk’s football watching public.  “ I don’t understand; I do understand it”  he says, succinctly summing up the mind boggling complexities of the situation.

As Mick takes a rest Brenner tells us what Paul Cook is wearing, “ a hooded coat zipped up to just below his chin”, he’s also wearing a beanie hat . I feel reassured to know that our new manager is suitably dressed for a windy March afternoon  in which there have been occasional heavy showers.

Plymouth are dominating possession. “ Watts along the deck” says Brenner describing a pass along the ground in a manner appropriate to a team from the city that contains Western Europe’s largest naval dockyard.  Plymouth’s McCloud hits a half volley from 20 odd metres having received a pass form Town’s Luke Chambers; it’s an easy catch for Tomas Holy.  “ Wind and hail” says Brenner as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Town win a corner after a passing move started by Cole Skuse.  “ Skuse read it lovely” says Mick like a true footballer as he describes Cole’s interception which pre-empted the passing move.  “ I do worry about Plymouth getting themselves level in this game” says Brenner showing uncharacteristic bias to the home team.  Plymouth still dominate possession but Ipswich are winning corners on the break.  Camara is unmarked and heads wide of the far post for Plymouth.  “That was a let off for Ipswich Town” says Brenner ,not telling a word of a lie.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge and Jack Lankester replaces Gwion Edwards.  Reeves and Lowe replace McCloud and grant for Plymouth. Twelve minutes of normal time remain.

Town win a further corner which is played short. “Strange corner” says Mick as the ball is passed around the box and crossed in from the opposite side.   Town continue to play ‘on the break’. “It’s a strange way for a home team to play “ says Mick, sounding a little baffled.   The game enters the four minutes of time added on for assorted stoppages and the substitution of nine of the twenty out field players. The oddly named Keanan Bennetts gets the chance to run at the Plymouth defence but concludes what is not much more than a gentle trot with a limp cross to no one in particular.  “ He just completely wasted it for me” says Mick sounding a little hurt.  “ Town in the top six as things stand” says Brenner triumphantly, before revealing a previously unknown interest in and implied knowledge of the larynx  “Paul Cook shouting, not doing his voice any good at whatsoever”.

With Town in possession of the ball the game ends and victory is confirmed. “It’s been a fabulous day for Ipswich “ says Brenner getting a completely carried away.  A more cautious Mick Mills is “Happy with the result, but not the performance” and questions why Teddy Bishop “doesn’t do things in the game”.    It’s a good question and one which might be asked of nearly all Town’s midfield players and forwards.   We haven’t finished sixth yet.

Ipswich Town 2 Rochdale 0

It’s a grey, blustery Saturday in late September and despite the miserable nature of the weather there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Obviously, the normal, “traditional” Saturday of dossing about a bit, catching the train, sinking a couple of pints of fine ale and strolling on down to Portman Road is not going to happen today because of the continuing pandemic, but a fresh, new reality has taken root and after a morning of tidying my garage, involving putting up hooks and brackets on which to hang my garden furniture and my bicycle, there is now the prospect of logging onto the ifollow to watch the mighty Ipswich Town.  Today there is added excitement too as today is the first ever appearance at Portman Road of one of the Football League’s most resilient, remarkable and in most people’s eyes unsuccessful clubs, Rochdale AFC.  Rochdale’s survival as a professional football club for almost a century is simultaneously a great achievement and a story of fantastic under-achievement. No other club can boast thirty-six consecutive seasons in the fourth division or a home crowd for a league game of just 450.   That Rochdale have spent eight of the past ten seasons in the third division nevertheless makes them one of Britain’s most successful clubs, relatively speaking. As if that is not enough, Rochdale has a marvellous Victorian town hall, something it has in common with Ipswich, but it was also the birthplace of the Co-op, and Gracie Fields.

After a somewhat peculiar ‘lunch’ consisting of the remains of a bag of Gujerati Mix and leftover home-made chips that my wife Paulene didn’t want, I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually 500 millilitres) of Adnams Ease-Up IPA (two for £3 from Waitrose) whilst logging-on to the i-follow.   Amazingly, I find the ifollow very easy to set up, connecting my laptop to the television with what I can only describe as aplomb.  The only thing I have difficulty with is getting the picture to fill the whole screen because the ‘expand’ icon is hidden beneath an icon that asks me if I want to chat about the EFL;  I can think of few things I  would want to do less.  I eventually discover that by scrolling down the page the ‘expand’ icon can be uncovered. Ready for the match I take up residence in an Ikea Poang chair, with my beer carefully positioned on an occasional table next to me, just an arm’s length away.

As an experiment, today I am not wearing the blue, Ipswich Town branded ‘button neck t-shirt’ that I wore when listening to last week’s win at Bristol Rovers, when watching the game versus Wigan Athletic the week before and when listening to the game versus Bristol Rovers in the League Cup the week before that.  Today I am wearing a grey Euro 2016 t-shirt that I bought at a Carrefour hypermarket in Tinqueux just outside Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’).  I need to know if Town can win on their own, or whether my ‘button neck t-shirt’ has special powers. 

The game has not yet started and I and my fellow viewers of the ifollow are treated to a Radio Suffolk preview of Needham Market’s match versus Stratford, the reporter Nick Garnham delivers his report in the style of a 10 year old who has been asked to read out loud in class; he’s very good.  The radio broadcast returns to Portman Road and resident Radio Suffolk commentator Brenner Woolley provides a precis of Town’s season so far before his side-kick and appointed expert Mick Mills magnanimously announces that “Most of what you’ve said I totally agree with”.  Undeterred, Brenner goes on to describe the two teams’ kits; I agree totally with most of what he says but disagree with his description of Rochdale’s shirts as ‘bottle green’, they’re a shade too light for that.  The Dulux colour chart has a shade called ‘Seaweed’ which is a much better match.

On the ifollow a caption appears that shows today’s teams and I am impressed with the use of the correct diacritical marks above the a, s and y of Tomas Holy’s name, something that our own match programme doesn’t even bother to do,  and nor do I because I can’t find them on my keyboard.   Returning from the caption to the pictures of Portman Road I feel a bit seasick due to some wobbly camera work but I am soon settled by the calming voice of Mick Mills, although he does then proceed to conjure some disturbing images when, talking about the advantages of a settled team, he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson would only ever “…mess about with three or four players”.   It’s not an accusation I’d heard levelled at Sir Alex before.

The match begins with the shrill whistle of today’s referee Mr John Busby and Rochdale kick off towards the North Stand in their seaweed green shirts with black stripes, black shorts and socks.  I am peering at my tv screen looking for a fat bloke with a Teddy Boy haircut after Brenner tells us that Paul McShane is playing at the back for Rochdale, but I then remember Rochdale’s penchant for players with famous names; well, Paul Weller played five games for them back in 2004 anyway. 

Town are very quickly looking good and only Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan deny them an early lead as they contrive to balls-up a two versus two breakaway in the seventh minute.  Mick Mills is almost as quick to tell us how Town are much the better team and are dominating, before Rochdale naturally enough then begin to pass the ball around with nonchalance and Chambers and Nsiala create a complete mess at the back just two minutes later. It’s Rochdale’s Aaron Morley who then has the first shot on goal, if it can be described as such.

Brenner tells us more than once than the rain is hammering down at Portman Road but we don’t need him to tell us that actually this isn’t a bad match at all.  Oliver Hawkins has a header saved, hits a post with a shot on the turn and then has another header cleared off the goal line.  Brenner tells us again that the rain is hammering on the roof of the stand and this time I’m glad he does because it sounds like applause, as well it might.   Brenner and Mick are almost purring over some the play but at the same time talking pretty sensibly in plain English. “Dozzell, using his quick feet there” says Brenner raising the question in my mind at least of whether a player’s feet can be quicker than his legs, and how, if they could, this would genuinely bamboozle the opposition.  “They’re decent; decent footballers, Rochdale” says Mick with a third of the match gone and sounding rather surprised. 

The match continues to be worth the entrance money, if not a tenner to watch it on the ifollow, and Brenner’s detailed radio commentary is adding to my enjoyment , especially when he introduces the use of compass-points into his description pinpointing possession in one instance to “…just North of the centre circle”.  I can only think the lashing of rain and wind has stirred up some memory of the shipping forecast in his BBC radio presenter consciousness.   Speaking of the wind and rain I’m quite pleased to see that my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is being kept dry by having a George Cross endorsed with the name of someone called Aaron draped over it.  It leads me to muse on whether I’d be so happy to have my seat sub-let to a cardboard cut-out of a complete stranger, I’m not sure I would.

Half-time is approaching and still the game flows like proper football should;  and even though a number of simple looking passes are going astray the emphasis is on attacking football. “We had bodies in the box, we had Luke Chambers in there” explains Mick, as if to say “even Luke Chambers”.  The Rochdale goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a 20 yard shot from Jon Nolan, Luke Chambers “…lumps the ball into touch” and a Freddie Sears cross is cleared off the goal line before notice of a minute of added on time is given and then half-time arrives.

With peripheral vision I glimpse an endorsement of the EFL by Screwfix as I leave the room and head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and seek out a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and endeavour to create an authentic half-time experience in my own home.  I return in time to see the match stats paraded before me on the screen at least three times along with a request to report the fact to the piracy@efl.com e-mail address if I am watching this in “commercial premises”.  I wait for another caption inviting me to report the charging of a tenner to watch EFL football on the telly to the daylightrobbery@efl.com e-mail address; oddly it doesn’t appear.

Fifteen minutes pass in the blink of an eye and the football returns, but not before I enjoy the avant garde views of wanderings of the camera man and lingering shots of Paul Lambert returning to the dugout in his large, rather shapeless, black Adidas coat, yet another addition to his burgeoning match day wardrobe since last season.  I can only think that in PL’s five year contract wily Marcus Evans included an ‘all you can wear from Planet Blue’ clause in lieu of hard cash.

Addressing the important issues of the day Brenner pumps Mick for his views on football without crowds and Mick is forthright, telling us in no uncertain terms that “This is not a proper game of football”; I can’t disagree, as much as I try to pretend that it is by creating my own ‘going to the match’ fantasy world by buying a programme on-line, drinking a pre-match beer and a half-time cuppa and singing to my wife that she’s a “dirty northern bastard” (she’s actually from Portsmouth).

Mick continues in honest vein suggesting that “Freddie might be losing his job soon” as another of Freddie’s free-kicks fails to make the opposition goalkeeper do anything more than raise his eyebrows.  Freddie’s free-kick shortcomings are soon forgotten however as just a few minutes later a good passing move down the left hand side of the pitch ends with Teddy Bishop scoring at the far post.  “Yay” I shout, not standing up and sending my Poang chair skittering backwards on the tiled floor as I look for someone northern looking to make obscene hand gestures towards.   “One-nil to the Tractor Boys” I don’t sing to the tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West.’

With the game re-started after the hiatus of the goal Brenner lapses in to a momentary bout of  footballese as he tells us that Gavin Bazunu “…puts his foot through the ball”, before more helpfully adding to the mental picture of the afternoon by sketching in Paul Lambert stood in his black coat with his hands in his pockets. The Town then make another decent passing move down the left hand side of the pitch and this time Gwion Edwards scores and Town lead 2-0.  “We’ve got hold of the three points” says Mick, causing Town fans everywhere to gasp at his most blatant, brazen tempting of fate.  Here is me thinking that a two-nil lead is the worst thing to have in football, should we go for a third goal and risk conceding or sit-back and risk conceding, letting the opposition back into the game either way.   Is it such confidence that separates Mick as a former captain of Ipswich and England from us punters? 

Twenty-five minutes of normal time remain and Jon Nolan is booked for a pointless trip of an opponent, but somehow Brenner hasn’t noticed it and seeing Mr Busby with his arm raised thinks it’s Hawkins who has been shown the yellow card by BT’s misspelt mascot’s namesake.  What could he have been doing to have missed that I wonder, checking his compass; practising putting his foot through a ball? 

The remaining minutes are illuminated by a wonderful pirouette with the ball at his feet by Gwion Edwards (it can only be a matter of time before someone says he’s a Welsh wizard), a full card of substitutions and more rain “hammering” on the roof.   Substitute Flynn Downes seems to want to pick a fight with Rochdale’s Matty Lund just seconds after entering the field of play and Mick is quick to call him out.  Downes is showing himself to be the idiot that we saw before when he was sent off in a pre-season friendly at Cambridge.  Fifteen minutes now remain and Brenner tells us that it is “…good Jack Lankester is involved again, and playing football”. It would have been a tragedy if he’d returned from injury only to play water polo.  With his predilection for short vowels Brenner can’t help not mispronouncing Lankester as Lancaster; I shall be writing to the radio equivalent of Points of View. Bloody northerners.

As full-time approaches Town become more and more sluggish and sit back, it’s not something I enjoy watching. As if echoing the drop in performance on the pitch, the sound quality of the broadcast suddenly drops too, with Brenner occasionally taking on the accent of a Dalek, as happened towards the end of the Wigan Athletic game.   My mood is lightened however when in the 90th minute Rochdale’s Rathbone (sadly Oliver not Basil), volleys a shot against one of his own players; you can’t beat a bit of slapstick. 

A good 2-0 win is imminent and taking Mick’s counsel I am not worrying that the last flickering embers of the game see Town continuing to do the bare minimum.   But Brenner has to try and make the commentary interesting, although whilst trying to suggest the prospect of a Rochdale consolation, he shows that he’s mentally in the car on the way home too as he says “A little bit sloppy from Ipswich, what can Rotherham do?”  A little bit sloppy indeed Brenner. 

With five minutes of added-on time played the games ends and I reflect upon an afternoon in which I have learned that Ipswich can win without the help of my blue, button-neck ITFC branded t-shirt, although it doesn’t prove that the t-shirt doesn’t have special powers and could mean that my Euro 2016 t-shirt might also be capable of influencing results.  Oh ‘eck, as Gracie Fields might have said.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.

Cornard United 2 Norwich CBS 2

When Accrington Stanley’s name came out in the FA Cup draw I immediately had a premonition that the next name out would be that of my team, Ipswich Town; it was and I had every intention of travelling to The Crown Ground or ‘Wham Stadium’ as I believe the estate of the late George Michael now pays for it to be called, to witness the match. I still believe in the magic of the FA Cup, like my step-grandson still believes in Father Christmas; stupidly of course because the Premier League has ensured that in England only the same small group of ‘big’ teams will ever win anything ever again. Sadly, I never quite reconciled myself to forking out £37 for a ticket for an 800 kilometre round bus trip that would leave Ipswich at a quarter to seven in the morning, meaning I would have to get up no later than half past five, almost an hour earlier than I do when going to work. To misquote the lyrics of the marvellous Only Ones’ song Another Girl, Another Planet, long journeys wear me out and I can live without it. As a result, today I got up at a little after eight o’clock and am travelling a mere 20 kilometres from my home to Great Cornard to see Cornard United versus Norwich CBS in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division North, an eight-word title worthy of the tenth level of the football league pyramid.
Cornard, which is largely Great Cornard is just outside Sudbury on the north bank of the River Stour, which marks the boundary between Suffolk and Essex. Great Cornard grew massively in the 1960’s with unflatteringly named ‘overspill’ from London, this will account for most of the accents I hear this afternoon being more “Gor blimey guvnor” than “Cor blaaast buh”. I only hear one Suffolk accent this afternoon, my own and I’m only putting it on. My journey today is mostly along the river valley, through Bures and up and down and along the twisting B1508, a rural ride if ever there was one. If I hadn’t felt the cold hand of death at my shoulder I might have taken the time to catch a train and then a No 754 bus followed by a ten or fifteen minute walk, but time is precious at my age so I rely on Andre Citroen’s latest C3 model to deliver me to Blackhouse Lane. Forgetting how close to Sudbury Blackhouse Lane is, I turn right too soon and take a detour in to Little Cornard, but I soon get back on to the B1508, make the correct right turn, and arrive at Cornard United’s Blackhouse Lane ground having allowed a number 754 bus that I first saw in my rear view mirror, to ‘overtake’ me due to my detour.

entrance/turnstile

It is a cold, still, grey, January day. There are plenty of parking spaces in the car park from where it is a short walk along a gated concrete roadway to the ‘turnstile,’ except there is no turnstile just a gap in the conifer hedge marked by a large white sign with red letters that reads ‘Entrance’. The clubhouse is visible across a sports pitch that sits between the car park and the ground, the words Cornard United are painted in large letters on the side of the building to prove I am in the right place. A man in a shapeless blue sports coat stands in the gap in the hedge and retreats into a small wooden garden shed as I approach. I hand a clean, new ten pound note through a window in the shed to cover the entrance money (£6) and a programme. “We don’t do a programme” I am told and am given an explanation about costs and how the League has said they no longer need to produce a programme. I tell him I understand, and I do, but it’s disappointing; there is a programme on-line, but it’s not the same, it doesn’t even feature a league table let alone a half-time quiz. A printed programme, like a stand, a rail around the pitch or a turnstile marks the difference between a proper football club and just teams kicking around on the local rec’. Having discussed the programme, the man in the coat asks me hesitantly if I’m ‘normal’. Fortunately, I instinctively know what he means and tell him I am. Disappointingly, he seems a little surprised, possibly because the blokes who turn up to watch this level of football are mostly pensioners, but he goes on to explain how some folk will pay the concessionary price (£4) when he doesn’t really think they are as old as they are making out. Privately and controversially I put this down to Suffolk people being stingy and Londoners being dishonest, but I don’t say so.
As we part the man in the shapeless coat tells me that the tea hut and bar are open and I head off towards the club house; it is thinly populated, just three blokes and the bar man, and noting that there is no real ale, I return outside where through a hatch in the front wall I buy a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup. I stand and watch the two teams warming up, there is hardly anyone else here. As the Norwich CBS players and coaches then return to the dressing room prior to kick-off I ask one of them what the CBS stands for; he has no idea.

It’s soon approaching 3 o’clock and the referee is to be heard banging on the dressing room doors like a parent trying to rouse a teenage son from his bed; they evidently don’t have the luxury of bells in the dressing rooms here at Cornard. By and by the two teams line up at the double doors, which are just a few feet from the pitch, and Mr Darling leads them out. Unusually, there is no lining up on the pitch and shaking of everyone’s hands and instead the two teams sprint off to their respective halves of the pitch, with Cornard forming a team-building huddle. Eventually it is Norwich who get first go with the ball, kicking off in the direction of Little Cornard and wearing an unusual ensemble of lime green shirts and socks with grey shorts. Cornard, or the ‘nard as they are known, aim in the direction of the neighbouring Thomas Gainsborough School and Sudbury beyond, when they get the ball; they wear blue shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and blue socks, it’s a more tasteful version of the current Ipswich Town kit and doesn’t advertise on-line gambling; which is nice.
The opening couple of minutes of the match are fast, furious and very messy. Norwich immediately look more assured when in possession but not so when not; Cornard look a bit shaky whether they’ve got the ball or not. At four minutes past three a long through ball is chased by Norwich number ten Jordan Rocastle (nephew of the late Arsenal and England player David Rocastle); he catches up with it and places a low shot past joint manager and goalkeeper Matt Groves to put Cornard a goal behind. Suddenly, near to the Cornard dugout is not a good place to be for people likely to be offended by expletives, profanity and generally naughty words. “Fuckin’ shit, get you’re fuckin’ heads outta your fuckin’ arses” is the coaching advice from the technical area. These are not Suffolk dialect words.
Surprisingly, the coaching seems to work as within two minutes large ‘on-loan’ striker Ben Parkin, formerly known as ‘Omelette’ to his fans when at Wivenhoe Town wins a corner from a deflected shot. The corner kick is headed towards goal but is going well wide before Cornard number six Dave Dowding appears on the far side of the goal and heads the ball firmly across and into the other corner. The scores are level and compared to that of his counterpart, the advice of the Norwich coach is more considered, if less entertaining; “Start again”. Having paid out six quid to watch I hope they do start again, or with the game just six minutes old I shall feel somewhat short-changed.
With both teams having had the satisfaction of scoring a goal, the game settles down. Norwich still look the more accomplished side, but Cornard have improved hugely from the opening two minutes and their heads are now where they should be in relation to their bottoms. When Cornard have the ball they pass it well, when they don’t they defend well; it’s an entertaining match.
I watch from behind the dugouts where a covered pergola type structure shields the tea bar from stray footballs but also helps keep the cold out, a bit anyway. Off to the right, over the fence, beyond the Thomas Gainsborough School I can see the spire of Grade 1 listed St Andrew’s Church.

lone man in the stand

I decide to take a wander round and watch the game from different perspectives. The main stand is empty but for a lone man in an Ipswich Town beanie hat who seems to be making notes. I doubt he’s a scout, possibly just writing a match report. Further down the valley behind the stand is Sudbury rugby club; every now and then I hear what sounds like a hunting horn as if all the local Hooray-Henry types are now all watching the rugby since it’s illegal to chase foxes. There are nevertheless far more people watching the game there than there are here, I doubt the crowd watching this game exceeds thirty in number. AFC Sudbury are also at home today just a mile or two away and playing in a league two levels above Cornard are probably a bigger attraction to most, as is the Nethergate ale they serve in their clubhouse.
At twenty-five past three the floodlights flicker into life and then in an unrelated incident Cornard’s number four, Ryan McGibbon becomes the first player to be shown the glow of Mr Darling’s yellow card. Matt Grove makes a very impressive flying save from a volleyed shot following a corner. Norwich’s number three Kieran Rose, a bald man with a colourfully tattooed right arm shares Ryan McGibbon’s experience five minutes before half-time and then entertains everyone by slipping over as he goes to control the ball and then slicing it away, high between the dugouts; it’s an impressive feat of maximum technical difficulty and draws generous laughter from his own team mates and coaches.
Half-time arrives and I quickly get to the tea bar to warm my hands around another polystyrene cupped, pound’s worth of tea. Another man in a ‘sports coat’ who is taking away three cups of tea on a tray (presumably for the referee and his chums) fails to fool me into believing there are no more hot drinks, although it is a plausible ruse. I go inside the clubhouse to check the half-time scores; Ipswich aren’t losing, yet, brilliant! The clubhouse bar has an impressive parquet floor but the tables and chairs look like they might have had a previous life in a school dining room and there is perhaps a faint smell of school dinner, or it could just be floor polish.
At three minutes past four the second half begins and at four minutes past four Cornard’s number ten Jack Graham lobs the ball from a good 20 metres from goal over the advancing pink-clad Norwich goalkeeper who rather fabulously is called Asa Swatman; a name to grace any novel. There is a moment when time stops and nothing seems certain and then everyone sees the ball bounce up into the goal net. People cheer long and loud to make up for the lack of numbers in the crowd.
On the Norwich bench, or rather outside it because he is standing up, the Norwich coach is having a breakdown. “How does that happen?” he asks after clutching his head in his hands. “I can’t believe it”. It’s as if he’s never seen a football match in his life before. Perhaps his previous experience of football was coaching a team of robots. But as theatre he’s worth the entrance money and continues to do so as he queries the portly linesman’s decision that goalkeeper Matt Groves had caught the ball inside his penalty area as opposed to outside it. It’s as if sensing the futility of life he feels he might as well argue about anything, even though he can’t really be certain of the truth and it won’t make any difference anyway. I see one of the Norwich substitutes smiling to himself.

The linesmen by the way are called Mr Bigg and Mr Copsey; I’m guessing which one is which.
Norwich are dominating the game now with Cornard restricted to defending stoutly and engineering the occasional breakaway; but they’re doing a good job of it with Jack Graham running at and around the Norwich defenders like the proverbial pain in the arse. Norwich win a corner and the ball is swung in close to the goal but Cornard clear; the Norwich coach is allowing his frustration to run away with him and resorts to bizarre and previously unknown allegories. “We should start a fuckin’ perfume stand behind the goal” he moans surreally. “They should be fuckin’ throwing themselves in there” he adds, perhaps trying, but failing to make sense of his own words.
It’s not much after four fifteen and Norwich are somewhat fortuitously awarded a free-kick by Mr Darling just outside the Cornard penalty area. Their number ten Tim Hewery steps up to arc the ball over the defensive wall and in to the top left hand corner of the Cornard goal. The scores are once again level and Norwich seem to expect to go on and win; their general play indicates that they might but they don’t and striving to be more ‘direct’ they bring on a large, lumpy target man who they call Cookie, he’s a nuisance but the game is less beautiful for it. Cornard keep breaking away through Jack Graham and from one break a header hits the cross bar and they also hit a post. Matt Groves tips a Norwich shot acrobatically over his cross bar but it’s hard to say which team came closest to scoring.
The referee proves not to be the darling of either side as he makes decisions to frustrate and annoy both, although Norwich are definitely the most upset, no doubt because they expect to win and they aren’t doing so, whilst Cornard are just happy to be here, and not losing. At ten to five Mr Darling uses his whistle for the final time this afternoon and sets the Norwich number ten, Tim Hewery off on a mad rant both at him and possibly the whole Norwich team. He storms off to the dressing room alone, leaving an embarrassed silence amongst everyone else in the ground, which is quite an achievement.
It’s an entertaining end to what has been a very entertaining game. I take a final trip in to the clubhouse to syphon off some of that two pounds worth of tea and on the way out of the ground I speak to the other Cornard co-manager Mike Schofield, who like me, his brother Andy, Matt Groves, Ben Parkin and Ryan McGibbon is one of the many people to have left Wivenhoe Town in recent years. Mike is very pleased with the result, with the game having gone just as planned. Sadly Ipswich have lost at Accrington and are once again out of the FA Cup without making any impression whatsoever, but heck I’m alright I’ll be home in time for tea and although I don’t know it yet will witness Norwich City lose at home to Portsmouth on Serbian TV.

Postscript: An internet search reveals that CBS might stand for Carpentry and Building Services, but then again it might not.

Coggeshall Town 0 Witham Town 0

It’s a Friday evening in late August and in Coggeshall history is being made as the local football club, established in October 1878, will play its first ever FA Cup tie after almost 140 years of non-involvement in what used to be, until the Premier League ruined everything, England’s most thrilling and most-loved football competition.
It’s been a blustery day, but the afternoon has been quite warm. My wife Paulene and I have had our tea early (bangers and mash) and are making the short drive to Coggeshall; a large crowd is predicted tonight for what is a local ‘derby’ against Witham Town, so we thought we would get in early, park up and have a drink before the rush. Driving along West Street towards ‘The Crops’ we follow a large Audi car with the registration M1 LTS, the personalised number plate of former Ipswich Town player Simon Milton; I wonder to myself if footballers are more likely to have personalised number plates than ‘normal’ people. I think perhaps they are. As we follow I tell Paulene about how hack sportswriter Dave Allard would nearly always refer to Simon Milton in the back pages of the Ipswich Evening Star as “… the former paint sprayer and van driver from Thetford”. Paulene thinks this was rather rude of him. The Audi brakes suddenly as it reaches the turning into the Coggeshall Town car park; “Milts” is evidently not a regular at the Crops. We turn in after him and wait whilst he backs his transport into a space close to the entrance.
There are a good number of cars here already but there is no queue at the turnstile and we soon pay our entrance money (£9 each) and buy a programme (£1.50). At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Ghostship (sadly keg and not real ale) for me and a Campari and soda for Paulene. “A what?” says the young woman behind the bar .
“Campari and soda” I reply.
“What’s that?” She asks.
“It’s Campari topped up with soda”
“What, like lime and soda?”
“Yes, but with Campari instead of the lime, but still with the soda”
“I don’t know if we’ve got that”
“Yes, you have, the Campari is on the top shelf”. The barmaid turns to look at the shelves behind the bar. “Which one is it?”
“The bottle in the middle with the word ‘Campari’ on it”. Paulene is served her Campari and soda (£7.70 with the pint of Ghostship) and explains to the woman stood next to her (who had asked) how she cannot have grain-based drinks due to a food intolerance and so has to stick to wine-based ones like Campari, Martini and Noilly Prat. The woman’s husband tells me how he has a bottle of Campari in a cupboard at home, but has never opened it. Plastic cups of drink in hand we stand outside on the deck and watch what’s occurring whilst playing “Spot the Groundhopper”. We speak with ‘Migz’ who we know from his having played at Wivenhoe Town; he has just joined Witham, his younger brother Tristan plays for Ipswich Town. It’s rather lovely sat out here, with the neat, well-tended pitch before us and the grey leaves of the riverside trees beyond the fields behind the ground blowing in the breeze. But it’s getting a bit chilly and I put my coat on. On the pitch the Coggeshall coach is interviewed in front of a video camera, apparently BT will be showing the match in a highlights programme. Good luck with finding it on BT’s poorly advertised schedules.


Drinks drunk we move to the low seated stand at the side of the pitch and pick a spot at the back, in the middle, saving a seat for Paul who normally videos the match but has given over his gantry to BT tonight.

The BT people said they will let him have a copy of their recording, which is nice of them and much better than the service you get as one of their paying subscribers. The ground is filling up; a large man in front of says to his wife “The barbecue is up and burning, do you want anyfink?” He leaves and returns with burgers and paper napkins; the burgers don’t look burnt despite what he said. The referee and his assistants warm up in front of us, the referee who has scrupulously short hair setting out a series of flattened cones to run between, although he begins by running with his chums to the goal line and back. I thought I saw one of his assistant smirk as the cones were laid out, but it might have been me. They don’t really need these flattened cone things, perhaps they were a Christmas present and he feels obliged to use them or may be just setting them all out and picking them up again is part of the warm up.


The light is fading as cloud builds and the floodlights come on before kick-off. Barbecuedsc00074_30406466408_o smoke drifts in to the air and teases our nostrils as Witham Town in yellow shirts and blue shorts have first kick at the ball playing towards the town, with its fabulous medieval tithe barn and Tudor, double jettied, Paycocke’s house. Coggeshall sport their usual black and red striped shirts with black shorts and socks.
An early free-kick to Coggeshall and their number six and captain Luke Wilson heads the ball over the goal. The game is fast and frantic. “Well in son” shouts a shiny headed man standing near to us and then “Well up son” to another player, showing a touching fatherliness towards the Coggeshall team. At the open end of the ground a lone voice bellows “You’re supposed to be at home” single-handedly trying to create the big match, local derby, cup-tie atmosphere that I hope for at every game.
After just six minutes the Coggeshall captain is substituted due to injury and then there is a flash. I thought the floodlights flickered, but the rumble of thunder that follows

confirms that it was lightning. If the crowd isn’t creating much of a ‘cup-tie’ atmosphere the weather seems to be making an effort and soon it begins to rain. Coggeshall win the first corner of the match as a swarm of raindrops swirl within the beam of the floodlights above. The referee speaks with Witham’s number eleven and two grumpy looking men in suits and ties enter the stand to shelter from the rain, they are wearing dsc00089_30406410328_ohuge black coats plastered with the logos of Mitre and Bostik, they must be League or FA officials. It’s another thing I love about non-league football; officials all dressed up and made to sit in a tin shack. Perhaps that’s why they look so grumpy, but at least they’ll get free sandwiches at half-time.
It’s not quite a quarter past eight and Witham’s number three claims the first booking of the evening for acting the playground bully as he unsubtly shoves a Coggeshall player in the back. I’d like to say that he stares wild-eyed up through the rain at the yellow card as it is illuminated by a flash of lightning, but it didn’t really happen like that. The rain gets harder and a dark bank of cloud forms the back drop to the floodlit pitch, which sparkles with rain drops. The thunder and lightning passes over, it’s nearly twenty past eight and Witham win their first corner with what could be their first attempt on goal. Coggeshall have been dominating this game but without troubling the Witham goalkeeper who has a stockade of four big blokes in front of him who block every way through to goal. Coggeshall are nimble and quick but small and Witham are big and solid. A hoofed clearance disappears above the roof line of the stand and I wait for it to fall like someone in 1944 who has just heard a doodlebug engine cut out. After a silent pause the ball noisily clatters the corrugated iron above us. There’s time for Coggeshall to win another corner, which is cleared and then it’s half time.
It’s still raining so we stay where we are, a cup of tea might be in order usually, but there are over 300 people here tonight (309 to be precise) and I don’t want to queue in the rain. I flick through the programme and Paul leaves and returns with a burger. The large man at the front of the stand goes to get a burger, but returns empty-handed, put off by the queue.
The second half brings the football back and Witham’s number ten is soon cautioned for a tackle which the shiny headed man says was two-footed. From the resultant free-kick, Coggeshall’s number ten Ross Wall (a moniker which I randomly notice combines the names of two frozen food manufacturers) sends a flying header goal-wards, but the Witham goalkeeper is equally air worthy and hurls himself to his right to push the ball onto the post and away, drawing excited but frustrated “Ooooohs” from the crowd, including me.
It’s still raining as Coggeshall’s number ten is booked, seemingly because several Witham players surrounded the referee appealing for his censure. But Coggeshall remain the better team, or at least the more attack-minded and entertaining team and soon a throw on the right reaches number seven who turns smartly to send in a rising shot, which the Witham ‘keeper again touches on to the cross bar in spectacular fashion. An hour of the game has passed and another Coggeshall player, number fourteen is booked for sliding into an opponent across the wet turf.
dsc00069_43555980904_oThe game remains physical and frantic and wet. A free-kick for Coggeshall almost sneaks under the cross bar and a corner is won after number eleven Nnamdi Nwachuk produces some nifty footwork and tries several times to tee up a shot on his right foot. Coggeshall’s number fifteen replaces number seven and Witham’s number four joins those already booked by the very neat Mr Michael Robertson – Tant the referee. It’s been a game of several free-kicks and much falling over and a special prize should go to Witham number nine, a huge man who several times falls to the ground heavily and lies perfectly still as if mortally wounded. He has clearly learned from watching the World Cup that rolling over and over and over is not convincing; he is the anti-Neymar and amusing with it.
Nnamdi Nwachuk stays down on the turf “Get up , we need you” bawls a team mate. A Witham player goes down and seeks attention “Come on ref, he’s a pansy” shouts the shiny headed man. Coggeshall win more corners, the ball is cleared, is headed over and Nwachuk’s shot is deflected away as everyone struggles to control it on the greasy, wet grass. Nwachuk cannot carry on and is replaced by number eighteen. Witham’s number four is replaced by number fourteen, a curly haired, bearded man who looks like a history teacher who taught me back in 1976. Frustration grows but the pattern of the game doesn’t , Coggeshall press and Witham hold out. The shiny headed man develops a rising, piercing falsetto voice as Witham’s nine fails to get booked “Why doesn’t he book him? He’s taking the piss. It’s ridiculous”. Moments later nine is booked for childishly withholding the ball before a Coggeshall free-kick. The shiny-headed man is apoplectic and with the game ebbing away he turns to religion. “Jesus Christ!” he spits as a searching through ball is played much too long and rolls harmlessly off the pitch. The good word spreads to the woman next to me who on being told there wouldn’t be extra-time if the game is drawn says “Thank God, I don’t think I could take it”.
Entering time added on, the Witham players have taken to complaining heavily when fouled; they earn a free kick which is cleared to the edge of the penalty area where the history teacher clubs it on the volley just past the Coggeshall ‘keeper’s right hand post. It’s the last notable action of the game. The rain has stopped and the smell of cooking meat returns as a pall of barbecue smoke hangs over the pitch. After four minutes of added time it’s all over and we emerge from our shelter into the damp night to say our goodbyes. It’s disappointing not to have seen any goals and ultimately effort and strength have beaten skill but the thunder, lightning and lashing rain beneath the floodlights have made it a memorable evening.

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