Ipswich Town 1 Oldham Athletic 1

One of the many wonderful things about supporting a football team that is in the third division is that the FA Cup begins at the beginning of November.  None of this inexorable waiting about for Advent, Christmas and then New Year to come and go. No siree, the joy of knockout football comes early to the meek who do more than just inherit the Earth, they get to chase the glory that is knockout competition football.  Of course, we have already missed out on six rounds of extra-preliminary, preliminary, and qualifying rounds, but we can’t have everything and being meek we wouldn’t want it.

Today, the transparent plastic tub that serves as the 21st century’s replacement for the Football Association’s velvet bag has paired Ipswich Town with fourth division Oldham Athletic.  This is a pairing to rival some of the worst failures ever, like a race between a Ford Edsel and a Sinclair C5, or a competition between the Enron bank and ITV digital.   Ipswich Town and Oldham Athletic, I have been told, are the least successful clubs in English professional football in the past twenty years, being the only two who have either not been promoted or not made it to any sort of match at the new Wembley Stadium.  The good thing is that this has saved us supporters a considerable amount of money on grossly over-priced tickets, match day programmes and catering, for which we should be grateful.

It’s a blustery, cloudy day and fallen leaves scuttle along the footpath as I make my way through Gippeswyk Park; the autumnal scene reminds me of some of the opening sequences of the film The Exorcist. Portman Road is very quiet, stewards in huge fluorescent orange coats and sniffer dogs easily out number supporters outside the away fans’ entrance.  The display on the windows at the back of the Cobbold Stand tell of former FA Cup glories and the day in March 1975 when a record crowd of 38,010 filled Portman Road to see the sixth-round tie versus Leeds United. I look at my watch, it’s a quarter to two; I had already been inside the ground nearly twenty minutes by now on that day forty-six and a half years ago. I buy a programme for a knockdown price (£2.00), and  confirm to myself that I prefer this 32 page programme to the usual 68 page one, even though it costs more per page; I live in hope of an eight or twelve page edition for less than a pound.

At the Arboretum pub (currently known as the Arbour House), I choose a pint of Nethergate Augustinian Amber Ale (£3.80).  The bar is unusually full, so my pint and I decant to the safety of the beer garden, which is reassuringly more like a backyard with tables and chairs. I text Mick to tell him “Je suis dans le jardin”.  It’s not long before he joins me with a pint of beer and a cup of dry roasted peanuts.  We talk of Ipswich Town, of property development and pension funds, catching the TGV to Marseille, the buildings of Le Corbusier, the colour theory of Wassily Kandinsky and the Bauhaus, and electric cars.  A little after twenty-five to three we leave for Portman Road, bidding the barmaid goodbye as Mick places our empty glasses and the cup that no longer contains peanuts on the bar.

Our tickets today (£10 for me, £5 for Mick plus £1.50 each unavoidable donation to some parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) are for Block Y of what is now known as the Magnus Group Stand, but used to be the plain old West Stand, named simply after the compass point rather than a commercial concern called West that had paid for the privilege.  Flight upon flight of stairs take us to the dimly lit upper tier of the stand where we edge past a line of sour-faced males of indeterminate age, but over fifty, to our seats.  My guess is there won’t be much banging of drums, lighting of flares or even vocal encouragement from these people, who look more like Jesuit priests than football supporters.

Although Remembrance Sunday isn’t until next week, and there will be a minute’s silence before the game versus Oxford United next Saturday, bizarrely we have another pre-match minute’s silence today.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us it is because we are in the ‘Remembrance period’ but it feels like football just likes minutes silences.  As ever the silence is strangely followed by applause, and then the game begins.  For the first forty-five minutes Town will be mostly trying to send the ball in the direction of the goal in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand (previously known as Churchman’s end) where in the lower tier I can make out ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton.  Later, Mick will ask me if “the lady from Essex” still comes to the games, and I will point her out to him, locating her using gangways and rows of seats like co-ordinates in a game of Battleships.   Mick spots her and Pat from Clacton is sunk. Oldham Athletic are wearing a fetching ensemble of orange shirts and black shorts with orange socks; it’s a kit that stirs memories of Town’s fifth round tie away at Bristol Rovers in the snow of February 1978; or it would if, as is the modern fashion, Oldham’s shirts didn’t look like they’d had something spilled down the front of them.

Town start the game well with Oldham’s interestingly named Dylan Fage conceding a corner within the first minute before the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a cross directly at goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler.  Within eight minutes Town lead as the oddly named Macauley Bonne’s cross sees Wes Burns do an impression of the shopkeeper in Mr Benn as suddenly, as if by magic he appears to score from very close range.  This is just the start we need; we will now surely go on to win by three or four goals to nil because Oldham Athletic are third from bottom of the fourth division and Town won 4-1 at Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday, what more convincing evidence predicting our inevitable victory could there be?  Indeed, Town continue to look the better team as the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Wes Burns both have shots blocked, but then the shots become fewer to be replaced by scores of passes back and forwards across the pitch.

Bersant Celina tries a little flick pass with the outside of his right foot, which doesn’t succeed. “You’ve got to earn the right to do that sort of thing” announces the joyless sounding man beside me to the World, presumably unaware that he is talking rubbish; you just need to get it right.  Oldham break forward and are a pass away from a shot on goal on a couple of occasions. “We’re leaving the door open” continues the joyless man, seemingly happy to be miserable.

Despite the 1-0 lead, the Portman Road crowd, which will later be announced as consisting of 437 Oldham supporters within a paltry total of 8,845, is quiet.  Where are the other 29,165 who were here in 1975?  A good number are probably no longer alive, I guess.  “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”  chant the Oldham supporters in the Cobbold stand with predictable coarseness.  I feel like telling them that’s because some of us are dead.  Despite high hopes the FA Cup seems to have lost a little of its sparkle and it’s only twenty -five past three.  I realise that over the Cobbold Stand and across the roof tops beyond I can see the top of the Buttermarket shopping centre.  It’s the twenty seventh minute and Oldham’s number nine, the optimistic sounding Hallam Hope heads the ball just wide of the Town goal. 

Seven more unremarkable minutes pass and the sometimes not very controlled Sam Morsy is booked by referee Mr Hair, who it is to be hoped will one day referee in the Bundesliga.  Stupidly, having dropped to the ground under a challenge, Morsy grabs hold of the ball as if to award himself a free-kick.  Rightfully, Herr Hair books him for hand ball and the pointlessness of the incident mirrors the drifting aimlessness of the Town performance and its quiet backdrop; this isn’t what Cup football is meant to be like. 

After a couple of further failed goal attempts from Oldham, with four minutes left until half-time they score. Latics’ number ten, Davis Keillor-Dunn, who sounds like he could have been friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, sends a fine shot into the corner of the Town goal from about 20 metres after Toto Nsiala initially fails to deal with a ball that had been booted forward.  “How shit must you be we’re drawing 1-1” sing the Oldham supporters to the tune of Sloop John B, coincidentally showing the majestic timelessness of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds.

With half-time fast approaching Kane Vincent-Young tugs an Oldham shirt to concede a free-kick. “Stupid boy” says a man who sounds even more joyless than the man next to me but nothing like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.  I suggest to Mick that players should have their hands bound with tape to prevent them from pulling each other’s shirts; ever reasonable and practical Mick suggests they simply wear mittens.  Following a corner to Oldham, the half ends and with the exception of one man, the occupants of Row J rise and then descend the stairs to use the toilets and the catering,  or to just stand about.

As Mick and I wait for the queue to the toilet to shorten we talk of exorcism, the disappointment of the first half, the architectural splendour of the Corporation tram shed and power station in Constantine Road, and how my wife Paulene has a degree in theology.  I decide I can wait until after the game for a pee and whilst Mick joins the queue and disappears into the toilet, I am impressed by the long hair of a man standing a few metres away from me,  but die a little inside when I read in the programme that when he grows up one of today’s mascots wants to be a policeman.  More happily, the other two mascots want to be a footballer and a superhero.

Back in our seats the second half begins with the unusual replacement of both Ipswich full-backs as Janoi Donacien and Steve Penney replace Kane Vincent-Young and Cameron Burgess.  It’s a change that brings almost immediate results as a mittenless Janoi Donacien tugs an orange shirt and Herr Hair awards a penalty to Oldham.  The otherwise impressive Dylan Bahamboula steps up for Oldham to see his penalty kick saved by Christian Walton and a sudden roar fills Portman Road which belies the small number of people present.  For a few minutes the home crowd is energised and it physically feels as if we care as much we think do.  Wes Burns dashes down the wing, urged on by the crowd, but the sudden excitement is evidently too much and he propels his cross way beyond the far post and away for a goal kick.   “How much more waking up do we need?” asks the joyless soul next to me.

To an extent Town’s performance in the second half is better than that of the first.  The full-backs now on the pitch are an improvement on those they replaced a

nd Oldham produce fewer decent chances to score.   When Connor Chaplin replaces the ineffective Kyle Edwards the link between Morsy and the front players is strengthened and another dimension is added to our attacking play, but somehow it’s still not enough.  As I tell Mick, all our players looks like they got home at four o’clock this morning.

As Town’s failure to score grows roots and blossoms, the Oldham supporters gain in confidence. “Come on Oldham, Come on Oldham” they chant, giving a clue to the home fans as to what they might be doing, but we don’t twig.  The upshot with ten minutes to go is a reprise of that old favourite “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit” and who can argue, it’s no longer 1975.  Despite Oldham encouraging Town with a misplaced pass out of defence, we are unable to capitalise and the Oldham supporters are the only ones singing as they ask “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” Predictably no one dares break our vow of silence to answer their question.

As the game enters its final minutes Sone Aluko replaces our best player, Wes Burns, and Rekeem Harper replaces Lee Evans.  Encouragingly Oldham replace their best player, Dylan Bahamboula with Harry Vaughan, but nothing works and five minutes of added on time only raises hopes, but does not fulfil them.

The final whistle is blown by Herr Hair and the crowd get up from their seats showing the same level of emotion that they might if they were all on a bus and it had just reached their stop, turning away from the pitch and averting their gaze like you would if trying to avoid eye contact with a drunk.  It has been a very disappointing afternoon of FA Cup football,  and has failed on every level to live up to what the competition is supposed to be about. 

On the bright side, at least we are still in the draw for the Second Round and until we lose the promise of glory still remains.  It’s not every year we do as well as this.

Heybridge Swifts 2 Grays Athletic 1


It’s a Spring-like Saturday in late March and there is just a week to go until the clocks go forward; there are tiny buds on the trees and although the sky is overcast the air smells fresh and clear.  Frogs are mating in my garden pond and frisky Collared Doves are settling on my satellite dish and messing up the signal.  It’s a beautiful day to make the twenty-odd kilometre trip by Citroen C3, past Feering to Tiptree and on through Great and Little Totham to Heybridge, a village of about 8,000 people on the north side of the River Blackwater from Maldon.  Until September 1964 it would have been possible to catch a train from Witham to Maldon East and Heybridge station, but the evil Dr Richard Beeching put an end to that and thoughtlessly condemned this corner of Essex to a future of increased traffic and air pollution.

Leaving the B1022 I turn left into Scraley Road, home of Heybridge Swifts Football Club.  Scraley Road is not an attractive name, it sounds a bit like Scaley Road and conjures up images of an unfortunate skin condition.  It’s only about two-thirty but the rough, unsurfaced car park is already full; happily there is an overflow car park about 50 metres along on the right, although for some people that’s too far and they have chosen to park at the side of the road.  The overflow car park is just a muddy track to the local rugby club but it’ll do and I pull up out of the mud and puddles onto a patch of lush grass to park the Citroen.   I walk back to football ground which, as a large sign tells me, is now known as the Aspen Waite Arena, which sounds extremely posh.  When did football grounds become arenas I wonder to myself; probably about the same time that ‘naming rights’ became ‘a thing’ I reply, but silently so as not to appear weird.   I cross the main car park to the black and white painted metal turnstile block avoiding more puddles and form a fledgling queue behind one other person, although I have to walk around two others who seem to be having difficulty finding their money.  Entry costs £10 for an adult and I ask for a programme too (£2).  “There you are dear” says the friendly lady turnstile operator, handing me a glossy programme and a small amber cloakroom ticket with the word ‘Adult’ on, which I soon lose.

From the turnstile I emerge directly into an open space behind one of the goals; to my left a blue polythene tunnel doesn’t quite make it from the changing rooms to the perimeter of the pitch, beyond that is a well populated open patch of grass behind which sit the clubhouse/bar and the tea bar.  I step inside the busy clubhouse but there’s no real ale on the bar, just the usual bland, mass-produced, heavily advertised fizzy stuff, so I head back outside to the tea bar to join a queue of one.  With the previous customer gone away clutching a burger and cup of tea I ask the smiley-faced young woman behind the counter if there are any sausage rolls.  There are and having found his oven gloves the ‘chef’, a more serious-faced, grey-haired man, takes a baking tray from the oven and prises a row of half a dozen sausage rolls from it with a spatula.  I pay the young woman (£1.50) and smiling she hands me one of the ‘released’ sausage rolls in a white paper napkin.   The sausage roll tastes much better for that smile but otherwise compares to one from Greggs, although not as greasy, which is a good thing.

I have time to wander around the ground and take in the architecture before the teams emerge from the blue polythene tunnel and line-up to say “hello” to one another;  as they do so the theme from ‘Z Cars’ plays over the public address system.  The music ends abruptly and the teams are announced very rapidly by a man inside a glass box in the middle of the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  This afternoon’s opponents are Grays Athletic.  As I drove here listening to BBC Radio Essex, the match was described as a ‘derby’ by a young-sounding presenter called Victoria. But given that all but six of the twenty teams in the Bostik Football League North Division there are from Essex there are rather a lot of ‘derbys’. 

The Swifts kick-off towards the First Call Community Stand and the River Blackwater and Maldon beyond; they wear black and white striped shirts with white shorts and socks, a colour scheme no doubt inspired by the colours of Apus Apus, the Swift, although seen up close Swifts are actually dark brown.   Grays Athletic meanwhile are in all blue with white sleeves and look a bit like Ipswich Town playing away to a team that wears white shorts; they are playing in the direction of the club house and Tiptree.   As much as  Grays might look like my team Ipswich Town and even though the legendary Fabian Wilnis played for them (33 times in 2008-09 season) I decide to support Heybridge Swifts today;  Swifts are my favourite birds because they remind me of warm summer evenings, and Swifts is such a great if disappointingly rare name for a football club.  I grew up in Shotley  in Suffolk where the village team, now known as Shotley Rose after the village pub, were originally the Shotley Swifts; in the 1920’s my grandfather was on the committee and  I have a much-prized photo of him with the team posing with a trophy.

A long line of home supporters file from the clubhouse to the far end of the ground to stand behind the goal into which the Swifts are hoping to score.  The home team dominate the opening stages and have the first shot as the ball rebounds to their number seven, the top-notch wearing Elliott Ronto, whose shot is well saved by the Grays ‘keeper, the beautifully named Clark Bogard.   Although he sounds like a matinee idol, Clark is a large man who clearly does not possess a ‘six-pack’ and from a distance his all yellow kit would, for a short-sighted person, perhaps give the impression of a naked Homer Simpson.  Predictably the ‘wit’ of the home supporters is soon in evidence. “Come on Fatty” shouts an estuarine voice as Bogard lingers over a goal kick.  There is a rowdy atmosphere on the shallow, covered terrace and two lads self-consciously bang a couple of drums, but not enough to really annoy anyone.  “ E’s only ‘ere for the after match meal” shouts someone else at the ‘keeper. “The food’s good here” responds Clark with a greedy expression, admirably entering into the fun.  “Ello princess” shouts a pre-pubescent lad following a strangely different tack.   A man in his sixties shuffles through the stand selling half-time draw tickets. “Afternoon Steve, Bob” he says to a couple of regulars.  I buy a strip of tickets, numbers 416 to 420 for a pound, I am not destined to win.

The name of Swifts’ Toib Adeyemi is an early entry in the notebook of the tall, elegant referee Mr Farai Hallam, but Swifts continue to get closer to the Grays’ goal than vice versa.  It’s a bit after a quarter past three and Grays number 11 Joao Carlos surges past the Swifts’ left-back and crosses the ball, it ends up in the Heybridge net and Grays are winning; it’s an own goal and is attributed to Swifts’ number nine Daniel Walker. “Come on you Swifts” is the not-downhearted response from the terrace of the First Call Community Stand.  A black-headed gull wheels above the pitch and disappears over the stand; I move from behind the goal to sit in the main stand, a structure with a row of tubular stanchions along its front, behind which the blue plastic seats have a shallow rake; it’s a classic non-league football stand in a classic non-league ground, a bit home-made looking and scruffy in places, but therein lies its character.  A German Shepherd and two other dogs that look like poodles but aren’t look on, although it’s doubtful they brought themselves here on their own. As the half wears on I move again, closer to the tea bar this time, and am now amongst the Grays Athletic supporters.  Grays are now doing better in terms of possession of the ball and are enjoying a few breakaways.  Number eleven Joao Carlos is a threat down the left, “Go on Carlos” and “Get in the fuckin’ box” shout the Grays fans, before Carlos is booked by Mr Hallam for diving. 

Half-time arrives a little late because of a few stoppages for injuries and I make the short walk to the tea bar but have to join a slow moving queue.  Behind me two men, a West Ham supporter and an Orient supporter talk about the Orient; the football club, not the far East.  The Hammers fan has a habit of finishing the O’s fan’s sentences, like in that sketch by The Two Ronnies, but not as funny. They agree that West Ham isn’t proper football anymore; this (Heybridge Swifts) is proper football.  Eventually my turn comes and I ask the smiley-faced young woman for a tea (£1); she’s still smiling and her smile can’t help but raise the spirits of Swifts fans unhappy that their team is losing.

I drink my polystyrene cup of tea as I take a look through the programme.   I read the thoughts of Swifts’ manager Julian Dicks which are plain and straightforward except for one sentence which reads “Then we gave away a free kick and no one stood on the ball and they popped the ball out and their forward hit a worldy.  He wont hit a ball like that again down hill with the wind behind and Chris had no chance”.  Sheer poetry.

It is five past four and with the start of the second-half I take up a place on one of the two rows of wooden benches in the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  There don’t seem to be any families in the stand although the rest of the ground is well peopled with mums and dads and children of all ages.  I wonder who Mick Gibson is or was and if the stand is just for his family.  The Swifts seem re-invigorated by their half-time tea and the words of Julian Dicks.  Firstly Manny Osei-Owusi gets wide and plays the ball back only for number four Nicholas Brown to skew his shot embarrassingly wide. But minutes later a corner is won, the ball is sent towards goal and repulsed, but only as far as  Toib Adeyemi who is on hand to send it into the goal from close range and the scores are level at one each.  The crowd cheers, although not as much as I thought they would, but then lunchtime and afternoon drinking does make you feel a little sluggish.

I make the same circuit of the ground that I made in the first-half enjoying the different back drops to the action on the field; bare trees on one side, 1960’s suburban houses on the other and blue skies and wispy cloud above.  The sun is now shining through the cloud and shadows of trees and the Mick Gibson Family Stand play across the pitch.  On the opposite side of the ground spectators shadows play against the corrugated metal boundary fence; it’s beautiful in a way that a football match inside a large stadium never can be.

I sit again in the main stand and catch half a conversation behind me as a man explains to his friend about a holiday or short-break he’s been on.  “They’re good hotels too, they suit me, know what I mean?” he says. I don’t know what he means, but then he wasn’t talking to me.  It’s about twenty five past four and the Swifts win a free-kick and rather unexpectedly their number eight, the ostentatiously named Jack Adlington-Pile scores with what might be termed a Jack Adlington-Pile driver, a thundering direct shot worthy of winning any game.   Unavoidably there is a bit more of a reaction to this goal as people voice a collective “Cor!”.   Grays are marshalled well by their imposing captain Stanley Muguo but they can’t get back in to the game and it’s the Swifts who come closest to scoring again as another free-kick, this time from number four Nicholas Brown defies the laws of physics by hitting the inside of a post and re-bounding out.  

As the match heads towards its conclusion Adlington-Pile and Luke Wilson get to see Mr Hallam’s yellow card, as disappointingly they attempt to hang on to the lead by foul means as well as fair.  Whilst the match remains interesting, Grays are just not good enough to score again and the fact that although only four places separate the teams in the league table, Swifts have nineteen, and now twenty-two more points tells a story.

With the final whistle the Grays Athletic players form a post-match huddle, perhaps to stem recriminations, whilst the Swifts enjoy a bit of a love-in with their justifiably appreciative supporters.  It’s been a good match, and arguably going a goal behind and coming back to win is the best sort of win there is.  Scraley Road, or the Aspen Waite Arena as it is known until someone makes a better offer, is a fine non-league ground even if they don’t serve proper beer and like Swifts on summer evenings I look forward to a return.  

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.

Braintree Town 1 Truro City 1

It’s a mild and blowy Tuesday night in November and there’s a ‘top of the table clash’ just eight miles down the road from my house as Braintree Town play Truro City in the Vanarama National League South. It might not be far from my house, but Braintree is a bloody long way from Truro, 343 miles apparently and as far as any club has ever travelled to play a league match against Braintree Town. In awe of such a statistic I am inexorably drawn to witness the occasion.
I could get to Braintree by train, but I’d have to change at Witham and I don’t want to do that. So I take the easy option, which is to drive. Parking up near the end of Clockhouse Way at about ten past seven, the streets are quiet, with no one heading for the match,

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drawn by the eerie glow of the floodlights through the now mostly skeletal boughs of the trees. L S Lowry would never have made much of his painting ‘Going to the match’ if he’d lived and painted in Braintree. Entering the car park of the Ironmongery Direct Stadium (formerly and more prosaically known as Cressing Road) I stop to snap a photo for this blog. “How many pictures of grounds have you got then?” asks a man heading for the turnstile. He thinks I’m a ground hopper. I am a bit embarrassed, but say “Oooh, not many, a couple of hundred”.
The admission price this season at Braintree has very sportingly been reduced from £16 to £14 following relegation and similarly the programme is 50p cheaper too, although it’s no longer glossy, I like it all the more for that. I enter the stadium to the strains of Amen Corner: “If paradise is half as nice as being here with you…” which makes me feel wanted. Sadly the welcoming choice of music does not last until kick-off as the two teams enter the field to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Fanfare for the common man”. I say Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s; but it was only their arrangement of a piece written by American composer Aaron Copland, which your common man might possibly not know. It’s no less appropriate for work-a-day Braintree but it’s a bit naff too. But there’s nothing very exotic about the Vanarama National League South,

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as its name perhaps suggests; like a lot of non-league football it is the haunt of builders and ‘White Van Man’, which is possibly why Vanarama, purveyors of commercial vehicles, thought it worth their while to sponsor it.
I take up a position at the end of the low metal roofed terrace on the east side of the ground, known as The Shed. Three Truro fans are attaching flags to the back wall of the stand, one of which refers to Truro being the Tin Men.

There is a larger group of Truro fans stood behind the goal at the end of the ground that the teams appeared from; they have a big Cornish flag. Truro City kick-off the game towards those supporters, wearing all blue, whilst Braintree make it a colourful spectacle by wearing all orange. The three Truro fans immediately make one helluva racket repeating “Truro, Truro, Truro” over and over and over again to the tune of Amazing Grace. A larger bunch of Braintree fans stood just a few yards away look on slightly bemused or perhaps impressed; eventually they respond with some chants of “Iron, Iron, Iron” , but not any old iron, the Iron that is Braintree Town’s nickname. They soon give up in the face of Truro’s Amazing Grace however, which eventually ends abruptly with a little cough. The Truro fans then start to sing ”Come on Truro, come on Truro” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne which is predictably answered with “Fuck off Truro, fuck off Truro” to the same tune; the concept of terrace wit is grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, jet airliners from Stanstead soar overhead, the noise of their engines blotted out by three blokes from Cornwall under an echoing tin roof. On the pitch, Braintree look sharp from the start with their diminutive number seven darting about on the wing just in front of me and the Cornishmen. Both teams seem to be made up of three or four enormous blokes; at least two at the back and one up front. The remainder of the team look tiny by comparison, it’s as if the Vanarama National League South imposes some sort of combined height quota on its teams; the aggregate height of the team not being allowed to exceed the length of seven Transit vans placed end to end. Truro’s number four is possibly the most enormous man on the pitch, he sports a beard and although he is absolutely massive he doesn’t really deserve the ‘fat bastard’ epithet the Braintree supporters inevitably award him.
The three Cornishmen embark on an acapello rendition of “Come On Truro” in what is rapidly becoming an evening of K-tel’s greatest hits from the terraces . The Truro supporters behind the goal break into a rare song and the vocal threesome sing “We forgot that you were here” to Bread of Heaven. Intrigued by this I ask one of the Cornishmen why they aren’t they with the others behind the goal. He tells me it’s because they wanted to be under the roof. I ask if there isn’t some split between Truro supporters, “Don’t ask” he says, so I don’t. One of their flags is for the Truro City Independent Supporters Club so I just speculate that may be there is some sort of great Cornish schism much like the one that afflicted the Christian Church in the middle of the eleventh century. (1054).
Meanwhile it’s not a bad match, the blend of big blokes and smaller ones is an even one and the teams are well matched, but to the extent that the ball is rarely in danger of hitting either goal net. I am conscious that a man in a hi-vis jacket has been stood next to me for several seconds and I turn slightly to my right to face him. He’s a steward, and it’s as if he’s been waiting for me to acknowledge him, “Could you stand behind there please sir” he says, gesturing towards the chunky orange crush barrier. “Okay” I say cheerily, not wishing to cause a scene, although I had been quite happy where I was. The Beatles “Hey Jude” is now the vehicle for the latest chants of “Truro” whilst Braintree supporters weirdly and somewhat mournfully appropriate “Sloop John B” to chant “We know who we are, We know who we are, There’s one team in Essex, We know who we are”.
It’s about twenty past eight and suddenly the Braintree Town defence mysteriously melts away allowing Truro’s number ten Cody Cooke to run through and score a goal. The Truro fans are very pleased and inevitably have a song to celebrate the occasion as they tell us “ Cody Cooke is one of us, he loves Truro” although I thought it sounded like he loves Jesus, which of course he might. Half-past eight arrives and brings with it half-time and I move to the terrace by the players tunnel.

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The tannoy treats us to a rarely heard hit from 1970, Blackfoot Sue’s “Standing In The Road”; tonight at Cressing Road is proving to be a musical wonderland.
The second half begins and Braintree quickly hit their first decent shot on target and then they score as Roman Michael-Purcell easily turns in a cross from Phil Roberts who had made an exciting run forward. Restless as I am I am now sat in the box like main stand. Behind me a man who probably has a mental illness provides an occasional commentary announcing players names and incidents. His voice reminds me a little of the late John Arlot; he has a slight burr which lengthens the players’ names. He seems to have a love for the sounds of the names and is familiar with them all; he repeats some of them often such as Marcel Barrington and Christian Frimpong, who he calls Ping Pong. His ‘commentary’ is in in the style of John Motson as he announces substitutions for both teams but then Truro’s Andrew Neal flattens Frimpong in full flight. “Refereee, refereeee!” our commentator calls and then adds “Fucking cunt” . Then, to close this episode he says “Yellow card, Andrew Neal, the cheeky little fellow”.
The wind is getting stronger and swirls of willow leaves spiral down in front of the stand onto the edge of the pitch. More substitutions are announced behind me as is the fact that Matt Baxter does not come off the bench for Braintree, “ Not Matt Baxter, not Matt Baxter” is the refrain. The game remains tight and interesting as both teams play to win but don’t really come that close to getting a second goal. Truro substitute Tyler Harvey likes to run at the Braintree defence and creates a couple of half-chances and with his long tied back hair he looks like he might be found surfing on Newquay beach when not turning out on a Tuesday night for Truro City. I like to think there is a VW campervan somewhere in the club car park.
The match draws to a close with both sides going for goal unsuccessfully. It was tight at the top of the Vanarama National League South table when this game began and now when it ends at a bit after half past nine, it still is; a point for each team alters nothing. The home crowd are perhaps more disappointed not to have won than the travellers from Cornwall who have at least had a road trip and a jolly sing-song; and me, I’ve had a lovely time.

Whitton United 5 Coggeshall Town 4

The Eastern Counties First Division is the tenth tier of English football, just a few seats, some floodlights and a half-time plate of sandwiches for the opposition committee separates it  from the clubs that play on a piece of waste ground and use jumpers for goalposts, well  almost.  But that doesn’t mean clubs at this level don’t have history; Whitton United have been going since 1926 and Coggeshall Town since 1878, the same year as mighty, illustrious Ipswich Town, former League Champions, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Texaco Cup winners.

It says in the match programme that a Whitton team existed in the late 1800’s, back when Whitton was a small village a mile or more outside Ipswich.  But between the World Wars Ipswich Corporation, as it was then, began to build the Whitton estate providing much needed,  good quality, rented housing for working class people.  Whitton is now a part of Ipswich, and if supporters in the Eastern Counties league did sing (with the notable exception of Wivenhoe Town’s they tend not to) they could chant “Small club in Ipswich, You’re just a small club in Ipswich” without fear of contradiction.

Whitton United is a rare thing in the Eastern Counties League, a team representing a truly urban area, and more than that it might be said to represent a large council estate.  The contrast with Coggeshall therefore is on the face of it quite stark.  Coggeshall, with its National Trust owned medieval buildings and its vineyard and ley lines is positively poncey by comparison.  The other big difference is that Coggeshall Town are being bankrolled; there are stories of players attracted from beyond Essex on the promise of big appearance money.  The realisation of this is shown in their relative league positions with Coggeshall currently top of the table, where they have been virtually all season, whilst Whitton are merely near the top of the bottom half of the table, albeit on a roll of five consecutive victories.

The King George V Fields ground is outside the Whitton estate next to the main road out of town towards the A14 and Stowmarket.   A third of the pitch is overlooked by a large heap of rubble that was once the concrete floor of the Tooks bakery (aka bread factory), formerly the club’s neighbour. Behind one goal there is no accommodation for spectators whatsoever, just a stretch of grass from the goal net to a very big fence, with the road beyond.   There is a stand on each of the other three sides; two of them resembling country bus shelters, one of which is labelled ‘The Shed’; whilst downhill, behind the other goal is a pre- fabricated, metal stand containing the requisite number of seats for the club to play in the Eastern Counties Premier League. should the need arise.  The changing rooms have a wonderful green and white striped tin roof.

It’s a grey, blustery afternoon with a constant threat of rain, but the two teams in their striped kits, Whitton in green and white and Coggeshall in red and black stand out through the gloom and offer the promise of excitement.  I wander around the perimeter rail before the game kicks off and a bloke on his way to one of those ‘bus shelters’ and carrying a couple of pints of beer says hello; “ We need a good result today after last week” he says.  I have no idea what either team did last week, but I agree because it would be churlish and a bit weird not to do so and I’m not one to start an argument with someone I don’t really know.  To begin with, the promise of a good game is all there  as the ball bounces awkwardly on the soft pitch and is buffeted by the wind, producing a scrappy match with neither team looking much good.  Despite kicking up the not inconsiderable slope and against the wind however, Coggeshall gradually start to look the stronger team.

I walk round the back of the dugouts and towards the end of the ground where the only spectators are those in passing cars and buses who are probably surprised to find themselves watching a football match, albeit for a few fleeting seconds only.  One or two beep their car horns as they drive by.  Coggeshall are kicking towards the goal at this end and it doesn’t take long before they score, a close range tap-in from Scarlett, despite claims of offside from Whitton.  Somewhat bizarrely Coggeshall’s number four is booked in the aftermath and from what I can make of what referee Mr Pope seems to be saying, it is because he egged on the Whitton players in their offside protests. ‘You started it’ I think I hear the Pope say as if scolding Martin Luther.  The same player is then spoken to again by his holiness and told to concentrate just on the football by the Coggeshall coach; “I only said bad luck baldy” the player opines after Whitton’s follicly challenged centre-half concedes a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area.

I drift back towards the Whitton bench having had enough of the Essex club’s manager’s questioning of Mr Pope and decide to briefly compare and contrast him with the Whitton manager.  I conclude that the Whitton man mostly complains to himself and to the bench in a sort of audible internal dialogue.  The results of the comparison fit with my own pre-conceived ideas of Ipswich and Essex people.  Happily for Whitton however, my move into their half coincides with a couple of attacks down the left, one of which results in a free-kick and ends with an unexpected, but not completely undeserved equaliser from Bell.

Half-time arrives with scores all square and I indulge in a pounds worth of tea and a warm in the clubhouse, although I have to be let in because the door only seems to open from the inside.  I return to pitch side too late for the re-start, but haven’t missed anything and take up a spot in the seats behind the goal.  It starts to rain.

With the wind at their backs and playing down the slope it seems like it might be easier for Coggeshall in the second half and gradually, as in the first half they begin to dominate the attacking play, but without really making any decent chances to score; then, a break down the left, a through ball and a goal for Whitton by Percy (sadly his surname not his first name).   It’s a bit of a surprise but the game returns to its previous pattern and with about fifteen minutes left, after some more Coggeshall domination the ball is crossed low, blocked and partly cleared before the Coggeshall substitute Guthmy coolly places the ball in the middle of the goal to equalise.  Now it really looks like Coggeshall will go on to win and that’s what the bloke behind me tells his children when they ask.

The good thing about football however is that is totally unpredictable, which is why all these ‘sports betting companies’ (bookies) advertise relentlessly to part mugs with their money.  Proof of football’s unpredictably arrived within just a minute or two as a deep cross from a corner was headed in at the far post by Griggs to put Whitton ahead again and then within minutes of that a through ball saw  Cheetham brought down in the box resulting in a penalty which gave Whitton a 4-2 lead. The rain had now eased and I stepped out of the stand so that I didn’t have to peer through a goal net and another bigger net placed across the front of the stand to protect inattentive spectators from stray footballs that might inadvertently smack them in the chops when they were looking at their mobile phones rather than the game; serves ‘em right I say.  Barely had I done this and with about six minutes left Whitton scored yet again with Cheetham ‘converting’ a cross by the beautifully named Franco Mallardo.

Surely that was it, 5-2 with just five minutes left? But no, Coggeshall rightly decided that the game wasn’t over until his holiness Mr Pope says so, and just as I would never leave a game before the final whistle, so the ‘Seedgrowers’ , for that is what their nickname is, continued to try and win the match.  And it was a good job they did or this report would be over already.  First, continuing the ecclesiastical surname theme started by the referee, Monk made it 5-3 with a fine half volley from the edge of the penalty area,  and a short while later he then crossed the ball for Nwachuku to smack a fourth goal high in to the Whitton United net.  There was still enough time for a free kick on the edge of the penalty area to be sent over the Whitton cross bar, but finally Mr Pope whistled Amen and the game was over.

It had been a most entertaining game, even if some of the defending had at times been hard to spot, and in difficult conditions on an awkward slopey pitch the players of both teams had given their all.  I was surprised therefore and disappointed that at the end no one clapped or cheered as the two teams left the pitch; but no one booed either, so it was one up on Portman Road I guess.   The 5-4 score line alone deserved some appreciation, but there was nothing, not a cough, not a wheeze, not even a tiny chortle. Everyone just filed away into the car park.   To an extent, at this level of football the result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the two clubs are still there each week to play; this is perhaps true more for a real community club like Whitton United than a club like Coggeshall Town which has been adopted by someone with spare cash like a mini Roman Abramovich.

There was apparently only a crowd of 57 at this match, which is disappointing for a Saturday when Ipswich Town are not playing, and looking about there were very few people under thirty there.  A football match where you can drink in sight of the pitch should be a massive draw and at £6.00 entrance fee it provides good value for money compared to the £40 Norwich City wanted from IpswichTown fans to get into Carrow Road the following day.

Eastern Counties League Football should be the model for sustainable football, so I urge you, support your local team, it’s friendly, it’s funny, it’s fun, it is well worth it.  I had a lovely time.  Thank you Whitton United.