Oxford United 2 Ipswich Town 1

Oxford United is another football club for which I might claim some affinity due to genealogy.  My father’s father was from the Oxfordshire village of Cuxham, with a family history there going back into the 1700’s, whilst my wife’s mother was from Iffley, which is now a suburb of Oxford.  Added to that, my mother had a book of poems by Pam Ayres and rather liked Sir John Betjeman (a failed Magdalen College student) and Ernie the milkman too, but I never heard my grandfather speak of Oxford United, and I think he might have had a brother who played for their local rivals Reading.  Personally, I hate the bastards.  That is an attempt at a joke of course, but from the demented outlook of a football fan I do have cause not to like Oxford United much.  Ipswich Town have never won a league game in Oxford and the old Manor Ground in Headington, the scene of much Town disappointment for Town followers in the mid to late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, was an absolute dump, guaranteed to give you pneumonia from standing in the open in the rain, or cholera if you used the toilets, even though Town did get promoted there in 1992.  Adding an extra layer of resentment is the fact that my only previous attempt to attend a match at the Kassam Stadium, when spending a weekend in Oxford back near the turn of the century, a time I no longer really remember, ended with the game being called off due to a heavy frost.

With my mind a tortured maelstrom of contradictions and stuff I set out for Oxford, not in my trusty Citroen C3 but in my new electric Citroen E-C4 as I simultaneously attempt to right the wrongs of football watching history and save the planet from carbon monoxide poisoning at the same time.  The car won’t make a round trip of 240 miles without re-charging the batteries so I have been worrying and losing sleep all week imagining that I will not be able to re-charge the car and get home.  My research into the Zap-Map App and the comments of electric car users, intended to allay my fears through comprehensive preparation have only added to my insecurity.  I needn’t have worried of course, because having made the obvious choice to make a pre-match visit to the Redbridge Park and Ride super hub thing, I now am easily restoring the magical power of electric traction to my hopefully trusty but definitely clean air promoting Citroen EC4.  I find a small community of  electric car users there  who are willing to help and discuss best electric car-practice, although I can’t say much of the clique of Tesla users who have their own bank of charging points away from the hoi-polloi as if Elon Musk, the weirdly monikered owner of Tesla is trying to create his own fan base or private army over whom he has dominion.

With enough miles in the Citroen’s battery to ensure my return home after the match, I head for the Kassam Stadium just a few kilometres along the southern ring road.  It’s been a pleasant drive to Oxford on free-flowing motorways under pale blue skies and winter sun.  That was until I crossed the border from Buckinghamshire. Descending the awesome Aston Hill chalk cutting through the Chilterns  ( aka the Stokenchurch Gap) Oxfordshire is usually spread out below, but today it has been replaced by a murky, blurry smudge as if  Mark Rothko had painted a life size landscape.  To the side of the road, twenty or more large birds circle, they might by Kites but to my worried imagination they look like vultures; I’ve entered a scene from a fantasy novel in which the hero journeys into the cold and eerie kingdom of his evil nemesis, and to save battery power I haven’t even got the car radio on to keep me company.

An hour and a half later I have rocked up at the free-parking at the Kassam Stadium, where despite the car park being full, and it’s only half-past one, the little fella on the gate let’s me in and says if I can find a space I can stay.  After another steward directs me to some disabled parking spaces and I have to explain that I’m not disabled (not in any way that counts anyway) I follow the lead of another searcher and bump up onto a verge, which is very handily placed near the entrance for a quick getaway at the end of the game.  I switch off the car and eat the lunch that I brought with me, two poached salmon and water cress sandwiches on soft malted brown bread and two handcrafted classic pork sausage rolls.  I consume a chapter of my current read, a book entitled “Raw Concrete, the beauty of Brutalism”.  Outside of my Citroen it is foggy and grey and cold, and the home end of the Kassam stadium looms out of the misty gloom.  Just before two o’clock, I venture out to explore what lies beyond the sea of parked cars all around me.  I talk briefly to a man on a motorbike, who complains that people on foot won’t get out of his way.  I tell him I didn’t hear him, and it’ll be even worse when he has an electric bike; he doesn’t believe that will ever happen.  Although an Oxford supporter, the biker seems to think Ipswich will win by a couple of goals because they have some good players.  We part agreeing that we are both out to enjoy the afternoon whatever the result.

Outside the main stand I buy a programme (£4.00) from a woman stood behind a table. I had thought she said it was only £1,  and as I tender a single small coin I tell her  “That’s cheap”.  “Oh go on with you” she says as if I’m mucking about,  and my brain quickly reconsiders what I’d heard and tells me to hand over two larger coins and take the small one back, which in fact makes the programme rather expensive.  I wander on through more parked cars, past the statue of a bull with an impressive scrotum towards the club shop which is behind a cinema.  The club shop is a wonderful experience and I particularly enjoy the mugs celebrating the fact that Oxford lost three-nil at home to Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup; also for sale is a large mounted photo of the stadium that night, as if Oxford supporters need something to put up on their walls to prove that the stadium was very nearly full once.  There are also gnomes.

It’s one of those days when it seems I can’t help but catch people’s eye, and they nod as if they know me.   A policeman did it a minute ago and now a steward does it as I step up to turnstile three of the main stand.  Approaching the turnstile, I don’t know why but I half expect it to be automatic,  and I’m slightly taken aback to see the face and hand of a woman appear at a small window from which she scans my ticket.  Inside the stand, the walls are a mellow shade of breeze block, I buy a coffee (£2.20) and the young woman who serves me hopes that I enjoy it, which is good of her considering it’s just a paper cup of Kenco instant granules and hot water.  A man is selling programmes from behind a wall, and as if by way of advertisement he is reading a copy, pausing occasionally to call out “Programmes” in the manner of someone with Tourette’s syndrome, or like an evening paper seller.  There are the names of successful Oxford teams of the past printed on boards attached to the walls.  I find myself feeling slightly jealous of the names Cyril Toulouse and Les Blizzard.

Clutching my coffee to warm my hands, I find my seat, which is in the back row of the bottom tier of the stand, seat number 78, I chose it because that was the year Town won the Cup. Behind me is a wall of beautifully smooth polished concrete on the other side of which are Oxford’s ‘executive’ boxes.  An old boy on the back row stands to attention to let me past him as I ascend the steps, but I point to the seat and tell him I’m sitting next to him today.  As I stand by my tip-up seat and survey the ground the old boy fills me on our neighbours; the seats next to him and his friend are empty today because “they’ve got a do, this evening”  , whilst the bloke who sits in seat the other side of me will turn up just before kick-off, and in front of me will be a bloke wearing a cap with horns on and annoyingly the horns will always be in my field of vision.  The other seats about us are mostly filled with old blokes in woolly hats, the sort who I’m more used to seeing at non-league games.  I feel comfortable here, probably because I’ll soon be an old bloke myself.  An impressively loud chant suddenly booms through the fog from the Town supporters who are in the stand directly opposite me. It’ll be good if they can keep that up during the game and for more than the few seconds it lasted this time.

The man with the horns duly arrives as does my other neighbour, just as the old boy predicted, although he didn’t say he’d be eating a Twix, which he is. In time the teams appear, ushered onto the pitch between lines of flag waving children. Oxford United get first go with the ball and kick towards the end of the ground where there is no stand, just a scoreboard and fence with parked cars beyond.  Reassuringly both teams are wearing their proper first choice kits, although hi-viz versions would be handy today.  “Good player , him” says the old boy about Sam Morsy.  “Good goalie, him” says the old boy about Christian Walton. 

Only five minutes have elapsed and the Town fans opposite are unimaginatively already singing “Is this a library?” Has anyone ever walked into the Bodleian and chanted “Is this a football ground?” I wonder to myself.   “You’re support is fucking shit”,   continue the Town supporters, just like every other club’s fans do at Portman Road.   The illuminated advertising boards suddenly announce “County Plumbing Supplies” and I am reminded of my wife’s niece’s husband, who is a plumber up the road from Oxford in Banbury.  “Ethically sourced coconuts” reads the electric sign less prosaically moments later.  So far, on the pitch,  the football is all pretty humdrum, and Oxford are boldly not giving Town time to pass the ball about much, which from their perspective seems like a good tactic.   “Oxford Fabrications Ltd” reads a plain old wooden advert hoarding down in front of me.

“Here we go” says the old bloke as Town move forward quickly in their first proper attack.  The bloke the other side of me finished his Twix a while ago and opens a flask of coffee.  At the end of the ground with a stand, Oxford supporters sing rounds of “We’re the left side” “We’re the right side” as Town fans used to back in the 1980’s; I had expected these Oxfordians to be more cutting edge, despite the soft lilt of their bucolic accents.   The fog is swirling in an out and around the ground, hiding and revealing the occupants of the other two stands in turn.

Town earn their first corner after just ten minutes. “Come On You Blues” chant the Town fans with quite impressive volume.  Sam Morsy commits a foul and concedes a free kick half-way into Town’s half of the pitch. “Yellows, Yellows” chant the home fans briefly. “We forgot, We forgot , We forgot  that you were here” lie the Town fans unconvincingly.  As a quarter of the game recedes into the forgettable past, the Town fans are desperate enough to sense the need for encouragement; “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant, a couple of times, to remind themselves that they are here.  A minute later Marcus Harness lashes the ball over the Oxford cross bar, it is a good chance wasted.

The fog has thickened, and the orange and black clad and totally bald referee Mr Robert Madden calls for a day-glo ball. I joke with the old boy beside me that it has a bell in it and lights up too; standard football match humour, but it made him laugh, although he must have heard it before at his age. “Football in a library,  do-do-do” chant the Town fans before asking “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?”  Nobody responds, but the bloke with the horns gets up and heads downstairs, presumably to use the facilities. Town win a second corner.  The bloke with horns returns and the bloke sat next to him leaves; Wes Burns trundles through the Oxford defence and strikes a firm shot against the Oxford cross bar. Like Harness before him he probably should have scored.   A third of the game is gone forever, unless the match is abandoned, and as a broken down  Oxford player receives AA assistance, everyone else gets a drink and remedial coaching on the touchline.  Sam Morsy even changes his boots, perhaps for comfort, perhaps for fashion reasons, we will never know.

The game restarts and Conor Chaplin is soon flashing a header from a Marcus Harness cross straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. A minute later Oxford’s Yanic Wildschut stumbles goalwards through attempted tackles from Sam Morsy and Luke Woolfenden to find himself just six or seven yards from goal with a large space to aim at to Christian Walton’s left.  It’s an opportunity he doesn’t hit over or against the cross bar preferring to roll it accurately behind the far post to give Oxford the lead.  The old boy beside me is very happy indeed, if surprised. I stand up with those all around me, just to be polite really. Goals are sponsored by Tripp Hearing the electric advert boards tell us, who will also unblock your ears, presumably for a fee.

It takes just three minutes for Ipswich to equalise as Janoi Doncian breaks forward with no one to stop him and Marcus Harness crosses the ball to the far post where the unmarked Leif Davies is free to head the ball into the goal very easily indeed. I hadn’t expected Town to score so soon but am pleased they did.  “You’re not singing any more”  chant the Town fans, but I’m not sure anyone was.

The remaining eight minutes of the half drift off forgettably, Oxford win a free-kick from which a direct shot on goal is possible. “Yellows, Yellows” implores the scoreboard and two mournful chants of the two words emanate from the end that has a stand; the shot goes over the Town cross bar and after three minutes of additional time it’s half-time.

Half-time is still cold and foggy and I take a walk to the front of the stand to help move the blood in my veins. On the pitch a small collection of former players is gathered including Ron Atkinson famous for his awkward, room-silencing racist asides; I hadn’t realised he was still allowed out in public and just hope Marcel Desailly isn’t here too.  I browse the programme, which I decide I like, despite costing four quid, because it doesn’t have many adverts and other than the cover is not printed on glossy paper.  Less attractive is another hoarding in front of me advertising Mola TV which shows Belgian football on-line in the UK, but also the podgy, grinning face of Alan Brazil who, as great a player as he was for the Town does a fair impression of a complete arse on the radio.

At six minutes past four play resumes,  with the break having typically made us all feel a little bit colder than we were when the first half ended.  Town soon win a corner and chants of “Come On You Blues” can be heard through the fog.  The bloke sat beside me with the Twix and the coffee drinks some more coffee and eats another bar of chocolate of unknown brand.  A break down the right from Marcus Harness ends with a low cross and George Hirst driving a first time shot past an Oxford goalpost, it might go down as third opportunity missed.

Two thirds of the match is gone forever and Oxford win their first corner of the match, closely followed by the second.  “ Come On You Yellows” seeps through the fog from the end with a stand.  Marcus Harness and George Hirst are replaced by Nathan Broadhead and Freddie Ladapo and Oxford swap Wildschut and Mcguane for Joseph and Taylor.  A little creepily Oxford manager Karl Robinson seems to like to cuddle and fondle his players as they enter and leave the field of play; I’ve always thought  touching in the work place was strictly out of bounds.

Less than twenty to minutes to go and Oxford win a third corner, but the north stand has melted completely into the fog.  Conor Chaplin heads past the post from a horizontal position with his feet closest to the goal.  The game now stops as Mr Madden consults both captains and the managers, presumably about the deepening gloom and whether it is wise to carry on. Cross field passes and long balls are now even more hit and hope than usual.   The old boy beside me seems sure the game is going to be abandoned; I think he’d like to get home in the warm.  Some people in front of us do get up and leave.  “Where are ya?, Where are ya?” chant the Town fans playfully. “What’s going on, what’s going on?” chants the end with the stand, sounding more anxious.  The game resumes, but on the far side of the ground my view of the match is reduced to one of shadows and fog; if this was West Ham, Jack the Ripper might come on as substitute and we wouldn’t notice.

The game is into its last ten minutes of normal time and Oxford replace the improbably spelt Tyler Goodrham with Djavan Anderson.  The ball is in the Ipswich penalty area and comes out the edge where Cameron Branagan chances a shot on the half-volley which ends up in the top corner of the Ipswich goal.  It was to an extent a hit and hope a case of fortune favouring the brave, but Town are losing and on the basis of what has happened so far this afternoon defeat looms out of the fog.  Town’s response is to quickly replace as many players as possible and all three remaining substitutions are made in a sort of hopeful ‘powerplay’ of ‘fresh legs’.  Town win their second corner of the half, and then another and the ball strikes the cross bar for a second time, on this occasion from a Harry Clarke header. The pressure on the Oxford goal recedes. “No noise from the Tractor boys” chant the occupants of the end with a stand, and the game staggers on into seven minutes of added on time.  But Town don’t look like scoring again and they don’t.

With the final whistle I exit sharply, taking care not to bowl over any of the old boys carefully descending the stairs.  I am soon back at my car where the fog is freezing to my windscreen and with no queuing whatsoever am out onto Grenoble Road and then onto the B480 towards the motorway, the high road out of the fearful darkness that is Oxfordshire. It’s a great ending to an otherwise very disappointing afternoon, if I decide to care overly about the result, but as the old boys have no doubt learnt over time “You can’t win ’em all”, even when you’re expected to.  Sometimes just being happy you can get home after a day out is enough.

Ipswich Town 4 Rotherham United 1

The year of our Lord 2023 has not started well. I have been suffering with diarrhoea all week and on Friday evening the teams I was rooting for in their respective ties in the ‘round of thirty-two’ in the Coupe de France (Montpellier HSC, Nimes Olympique, RC Strasbourg and LB de Chateauroux) all lost.  Today began as dull and grey and has progressed to become both wet and miserable, but my gloom and despondency have lifted as today is also the third round of the FA Cup and mighty Ipswich Town have a home tie against mighty Rotherham United. 

When I saw my first FA Cup third round tie back on 5th January 1974 (Town v Sheffield United) it would have been inconceivable to think of first division Town beating fourth division Rotherham as ever being a giant killing, but forty-nine years on the tables have turned a bit.  With Rotherham now in the second division and Town in the third, if Town win today I shall be claiming this as a ‘giant killing’, albeit one akin to a school child who is rather big for their age thumping one who is small for theirs but in the year above.

Ipswich is grey, Gippeswyk Park is wet underfoot and traffic is queuing to get over the bridge opposite the railway station, but Portman Road is quiet as I step up to the first booth I come to to purchase a copy of today’s programme. “Let me guess, £2.00 today” I say to the young woman in the booth.  She smiles perhaps through pity but I like to think she almost appears impressed as I hand her a single coin and tell her it wasn’t that big a deal, I’ve been to Cup matches before. 

By and by I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ and at the bar tell the barman that I ought to have something non-alcoholic; he directs me to the third shelf from the bottom of a tall fridge with a glass door which is packed with cans of ‘craft’ beer.  I pick a can of Big Drop Galactic Milk Stout and returning to the bar the I hear the voice of Mick saying “I’ll get that” which is characteristically good of him.  Mick has a glass of an anonymous amber bitter and packet of Fairfield’s Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps.  We repair to the garden where we meet Gary coming in the opposite direction who texted me early this morning, but I didn’t reply because I hadn’t noticed.  Gary is on his way to buy himself a beer and returns with a pint of unidentified lager; Gary is from Essex.

The three of us talk a little of football, the tv series ‘detectorists’, but also of death, as ever.  Mick’s daughter’s neighbour died this week from cardiac arrest and Gary tells of a man whose birthday coincided with his wife being admitted to hospital and her father dying. Aside from the big things like wars, famine and climate change life can be pretty miserable on a micro-level, which puts football into perfect perspective, so we really should try and enjoy it whatever the result.

Not much after twenty-five to three we head for Portman Road, returning our glasses to the bar on the way and noting that ‘The Arb’ now has a menu for dogs; I make a silly comment about restaurants in Malaysia. Sir Alf Ramsey Way is thick with people queuing to get into Sir Alf’s eponymous stand and the Magnus west stand, but we carry on towards the Corporation bus depot and find no queue at all at the end turnstile, where for the first time in my life I gain entry by my wife having downloaded my ticket on my mobile phone and having it scanned.  Mick and I were both nervous that this would work but it did.  I find myself marvelling at the wonder of modern technology in the manner of uncle Bryn in tv’s ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

Having syphoned off some beer, Mick and I find our way to the ‘posh’ padded seats in Block Y from where will be watching this afternoon’s game.  Gary only bought his ticket last night and so is away in the humbler surroundings of F Block.  Courtesy of his season ticket, Gary normally sits in J Block which Mick tells me is also the name of an Ipswich drugs gang from the mean streets between Bramford Road and London Road.  In the oppressive dim light of the upper tier of the Magnus west stand, we edge ourselves past an unsmiling man and his unsmiling wife, although she could be his floozie, and we find our seats.  A little weirdly to my cold, unfeeling mind, today’s game is, according to page 23 of the programme, the Club’s annual Memorial Matchday in which members of the Blue Army who died in 2022, or ‘passed away’ as the programme calls it, can be remembered.   Before the game can begin the names of the deceased appear on the scoreboard and they receive a minute’s applause. “There are an awful lot of names” says Mick, who for a moment thinks these are all former players.  I’m not sentimental and find this Memorial Match idea a bit odd, but I am reminded nevertheless of former manager John Duncan and the excellent, original David Johnson,  John Jackson and, although I saw none of his thirty-four games for Town, Aled Owen. I recall seeing Jackson’s only game for Town, a 2-1 win over Manchester United and that Aled Owen played a single league game in the Championship winning season of 1961/62.  I think of fellow fan Andi Button with whom I saw many an away game in the 1980’s and 1990’s and even travelled with him by car to see Doncaster Rovers v Colchester United for what was the last game at Belle Vue before Doncaster were relegated from the Football League in 1998.

With applauses clapped and knees taken the game begins, Rotherham having first go with the ball, hoping to kick mostly towards the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and looking like Derby County or Germany in white shirts with black shorts, despite their proper kit of red shirts with white sleeves and white shorts not clashing at all with Town’s blue and white ensemble.  Perhaps the absence of the red kit is a sign that Rotherham haven’t turned up as themselves today and aren’t much interested in the Cup, but in fact their team shows just one change from that which lost in the league at Millwall last weekend.

The crowd is loud with a good noise from the Sir Bobby Robson stand where the most vocal support, Blue Action, has re-located itself from stuck up the corner to the central section. Despite the impressive support, the game starts slowly, very slowly, with Richard Keogh and George Edmundson frequently standing still with the ball at their feet before merely passing the ball between one another. As I remark to Mick, it’s not exactly a ‘blood and thunder’ cup tie. I spend my time getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings of Block Y with its tight legroom and padded seats and the man behind me with a loud voice who likes to explain things to his children, although to be fair they are asking questions, as children do.  Slowly, Town venture forward and a couple of forays on the flanks nearly produce moves worth applauding and some people do. Both Conor Chaplin and Kayden Jackson have shots on goal, but both are poor efforts.  Then twice the ball is given away cheaply in the Town half and luckily Rotherham fail to take full advantage, Jamie Lindsay trying and failing to pass when he should have shot and then most luckily of all the ball is sent from close range into the Town net only for the ‘scorer’ to be flagged offside.  The home crowd is in good voice with the lower tiers of both the Sir Alf and Sir Bobby stands looking full.

Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball. “Way offside” calls a bloke behind me in a tone of voice that implies that Ladapo being offside is a given.  “Way offside” he says again scornfully and then once more for luck when the assistant referee finally raises his flag.  This bloke behind me would seem to have turned up simply to let the world, or at least an unfortunate part of Block Y know that he doesn’t rate Freddie Ladapo.  The larger part of the first half is marred by such carping “Here we go, what are you gonna do with it? Do something with it” says another know-it-all as the opportunity for a match winning pass once again fails to materialise.   Much more enjoyably, when Kayden Jackson is fouled but gets no free-kick, a high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice from behind calls “Get your bloody glasses out”.

A half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich have dominated, they have not been incisive, and shooting has been snatched at and inaccurate.  The children behind are eating savoury snacks that smell like a dog has farted.  In the corner between the Cobbold Stand and the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I can see a patch of blue sky above what must be Holywells Park.  A fine rain has started to fall and it’s nearly half-time. Kayden Jackson breaks down the right wing, as the Rotherham defence back pedal, Jackson sends a low cross towards the back of the penalty area, Conor Chaplin can’t reach it, but Cameron Humphreys is running in and strikes the ball smoothly inside the left hand post beyond the diving Viktor Johansson, and Town lead 1-0, it’s a fine, fine  goal.

Half-time follows on quickly and the crowd seems happy, a goal always works wonders. Mick had departed early to siphon more used beer and I meet him in the bar where we watch the half-time results on the tv and play spot the ‘giant-killing’ which leads to a discussion about which league clubs are in and how it was easier when it was divisions one to four. I admit to Mick that I still refer to divisions one to four bloody-mindedly to show my dislike of ‘modern ways’ in the same way that I call the internet the interweb.  Mick says he does the same when he still calls Ipswich’s ‘waterfront’ the docks.

The game resumes at five past four and it’s still raining, just a bit harder.  We’ve barely got comfortable again before Keogh and Leif Davis get in a muddle and allow Conor Washington to slip between them and get beyond Keogh who stretches out a leg or two giving Washington the opportunity to fall over him and win a penalty, which being unfamiliar with the Corinthian Spirit he naturally takes. Washington recovers sufficiently from his ordeal to score the penalty and the hard work of the first half is laid to waste.  Keogh hasn’t had a great match today, he could be the new Luke Chambers although happily he’s no Mark Fish or Ivar Ingimarsson.

The match resumes again and despite no doubt the worst fears of the crowd, Town continue to be the better team and Rotherham don’t look like scoring again.  The rain continues, swirling and drifting through the beams of the floodlights as natural daylight fades from the streets around the ground. Over an hour has passed and Marcus Harness replaces Sone Aluko, Rotherham bring on the only player from their last league match who didn’t begin the game today, Dan Barlaser, who sounds like a character from a sci-fi novel.

Town play a patient game, which is just as well because there are twenty-six minutes to wait until Freddie Ladapo, with his back to goal is wrestled to the ground by Rotherham’s Wes Harding.  Conor Chaplin scores the resulting penalty and the Sir Bobby Robson stand channel the spirit of Doris Day with an essential but tentative chorus of “Que Sera, Que Sera”.  “It wasn’t even a great penalty” says the know-it-all behind me.  Four minutes later Town make mass substitutions, which as often seems to happen bring quick relief to our pain and Freddie Ladapo gets a free run at goal; he rounds the goalkeeper and shoots low and hard to put Town 3-1 up, much to the chagrin no doubt of the know-it-all.

Today’s attendance is announced by the dangerously up-beat Stephen Foster as being 15,728 with 215 of that number being Rotherhamites. It has to be the biggest crowd for an FA Cup match at Portman Road in at least ten years, probably more.  Rotherham continue to flounder.  “Ha-ha” says the child behind me sounding like Nelson Munce from the Simpsons as a rare Rotherham foray forward squirms away over the line for a goal-kick.  All around, except up in the Cobbold stand there is a sense of joy.  Cup fever has broken out at Portman Road and is spreading fast through a crowd previously thought to have been vaccinated against it. The until now totally reserved man beside me begins to mutter “Ole, Ole, Ole” to himself following the lead of the Sir Bobby Robson stand, only they’re not muttering.

Eight minutes of normal time remain and a Kyle Edwards shot hits a post. Gassan Yahyi replaces Freddie Ladapo and then Kane Vincent-Young takes advantage of a shove by Hakeem Odoffin and Wes Burns adds a fourth goal from the penalty spot as a result.  “Championship you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers safe in the knowledge that we can’t possibly lose now, and after three minutes of added on time Town’s ball books its place in the velvet bag for the fourth-round draw.

As we descend the stairs and head out into the drizzly darkness Mick and I reflect on our afternoon of FA Cup giant-killing .  I venture that it was pretty good. “After a very slow start” says Mick, tempering my enthusiasm, but I’m sure he’s only trying to keep my feet on the ground.   Wemberlee!

Ipswich Town 1 Cheltenham Town 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 0

I have been in the office, where I now work just one day a week, since eight o’clock this morning and it’s now half past four in the afternoon.  I have wasted enough of my day just existing and accumulating the means to continue my shallow, feckless Western lifestyle, now it’s time to live and be shallow and feckless.  I check my mobile telephone. At 16:12 I received a message from Pat from Clacton. Pat tells me she was joking last week when she told me she would not be at the match tonight, but then proceeds to tell me she won’t be at the match tonight.  Pat says she’s still suffering the after-effects of Covid, which apparently includes heavy breathing. As much as watching a football match with a 1968 vintage Jane Birkin appeals to me, it’s probably best for Pat that she stays in Clacton tonight.  The good news however is that Pat won £51.25 playing whist whilst on holiday in Great Yarmouth, but the real point of the message, I think, is to ask me to photograph ever-present Phil who never misses a game when he celebrates Town having scored a goal.  Pat from Clacton always photographs ever-present Phil when he celebrates a Town goal at Portman Road, it’s a ritual like a state funeral or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Tonight, Town are playing Derby County in a third division fixture, something that has never ever happened before in this universe, like Boris Johnson telling the truth.  If casually asked how many times I had seen Derby County play I would have guessed at a mere fifteen or sixteen. In fact, I have discovered that Derby County are one of twenty professional clubs I’ve seen play over thirty times.  Despite two League Championships, Brian Clough and Robert Maxwell, Derby County have seemingly made little impression on me, perhaps because of their anonymous monochrome kit or their uninteresting out of town stadium which has meant I know little of Derby itself. What is Derby famous for? Rolls Royce engines and East Midlands airport?  Still without answers to these questions time passes and a little short of two hours after receiving Pat from Clacton’s text message I walk through the front door of the Arbor House formerly the Arboretum pub; it’s heaving with Friday night revellers. I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£4.00) and a Scotch egg (£4.50) and retire to the beer garden to wait for my Scotch egg and the arrival of Mick.  As the evening light recedes into darkness I struggle to read the programme (£3.50) I had bought earlier in the club shop after I left work, but this is partly because the programme is hopelessly dull too, despite its rainbow colours on the front page, which also features an un-flattering cartoon image of George Edmundson in which he looks uncannily like Kryten from the BBC TV comedy series Red Dwarf.

By the time Mick arrives I’ve eaten my Scotch egg and am amusing myself with a private mobile phone-based exhibition of the photos from my holiday in Brittany whilst unavoidably hearing the conversation of the middle-aged couples on the next table which concerns whether they would go to a concert by Ed Sheeran at Portman Road. The consensus seems to be that they would go “just to say they’d seen him”.   It seems to me a bit like flushing a couple of fifty-pound notes down the khasi.  Over by the window to the gents’ toilet two old boys, possibly on their way to, or from, a ‘Tarts and Tramps’ fancy dress party shuffle in, one wears a floppy hat and talks loudly about the range of beers at the Moon and Mushroom pub in Swilland, whilst the other sounds like he’s growling.

When Mick arrives he buys us both pints of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride plus a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps, which pleasingly have only travelled from Wormingford near Colchester, some 33 kilometres away.  Our conversation this evening is punctuated with laughter as we discuss burials and the disposal of people’s ashes and how people seem to have become strangely sentimental lately.  With kick-off not until 8 o’clock this evening, courtesy of Sky TV’s broadcasting schedule, we have more time than usual to laugh about such things and don’t notice everyone else leaving for the match and it’s closer to kick-off than usual when we eventually leave, making a sharp exit through the back gate.

Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way are less busy than usual when we arrive because most people are already inside the ground.  As I hasten through the turnstiles, I can hear former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster ‘giving it large’ as he reads out the team line-ups in his archetypal radio DJ manner; he sounds even more Tony Blackburn than usual tonight, no doubt for the benefit of Sky TV. By the time I take my seat next but one to the man from Stowmarket, the teams are on the pitch, and the Town team are forming a collaborative huddle preparing to start the match.  It’s Town who get first go with the ball I think, I’m not really paying attention yet as I get to grips with seeing Ipswich wearing all black and Derby in maroon or burgundy shirts and white shorts.  I imagine Derby think they look exotic like AS Roma or Sparta Prague, but they remind me of Northampton Town.  As for the Ipswich team, they look like Johnny Cash, though I guess that’s preferable to looking like Ed Sheeran.

With the start of the game come the chants from both sets of supporters, Derby transporting us back to the 1970’s by repeating “Derby, Derby, Derby” over and over again to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’, just like Town fans used to chant “Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” in that run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1975, the year Derby last won what I believe is now called the Premier League.  “Score in a minute, we’re gonna score in a minute” continue the Derbeians less nostalgically but more optimistically.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” add the Town fans from what in 1975 was the North Stand, and there are even a few chants of the same from the top of what was the West Stand.  It’s a sign that the stadium must be as good as full to capacity.

 A young bloke with a beard sits himself down in Pat from Clacton’s seat. I give him a look like Paddington Bear. “Is this seat free” he asks a little nervously. “Well, there’s no one sitting there tonight” I tell him in a voice that’s as close as I can get to sounding like a Suffolk Johnny Cash.  He smiles broadly.  I think I’ve put him at his ease.  On the pitch the play is frenetic, with both teams trying to play neat, passing football but frequently interrupting one another. Sam Morsy is booked after just ten minutes for a foul on the wonderfully named Lewis Dobbin. Ipswich have more success at getting close to their opponents’ goal and win three early corners, George Edmundson heads wide and Tyreece John-Jules clearly dives in the penalty area having won a few free-kicks already elsewhere.  I thought it was an obvious dive; the way he had already established eye-contact with referee as he fell gave it away, a bit like a Labrador staring at you as you eat your dinner.  He should be told to leave any desire to cheat in North London where it belongs, or Kieran McKenna will write to his mum.

“Come on Dorby” comes the chant from the Cobbold Stand and I think I detect a hint of a Midlands accent. Soon the away support are riffing on a familiar theme,  “Football in a library, de-de-dur” is followed by “No noise from the Tractor Boys” and “Shall we sing a song for you” as the youth of Derby vainly goad the pensioners and families in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, who stoically wait for Town to take the lead before thinking about whether they might start to clap or break a smile.  But the ground has gone a little quiet, they’re right.

The half is half over and Derby equalise in the competition to see who can have most players booked as  the name of James Chester is recorded in referee Mr Swabey’s notebook.   The game is almost a third over before Derby win their first corner.  “Are you alright mate?” says the bloke behind me to his son, who answers “Yeah”.   My view of the pitch is temporarily blocked as the people in front all stand up to let pass someone, who I guess couldn’t wait thirteen minutes until half-time for a pee.  A chant of “Blue and White Army” builds quickly and then falls away just as soon.  I notice that Derby have no sponsor’s name on their shirts.  “Peter Sykes, please contact the nearest steward” announces the voice of Stephen Foster.  I look but can’t see anyone approaching their nearest steward. It’s not that the game isn’t holding my attention, it is, and it is unpredictable, but the goalkeepers could have made hammocks from their goal nets and it wouldn’t really have mattered.  Perhaps to relieve his own boredom, Derby ‘keeper Joe Wildsmith gestures wildly at the linesman for not flagging Kayden Jackson offside.  The linesman predictably ignores the wild Wildsmith,  but would probably secretly like to give him ‘the finger’.   The half ends with hopes of a goal as Town win a free-kick on the edge of the Derby penalty box.  Children at the front of the stand prepare to video the event with their mobile phones, but their youthful hope and enthusiasm is dashed as Lee Evans shot avoids the defensive wall but not Joe Wildsmith. Three minutes of added on time are announced with a flourish by Stephen Foster but bring forth nothing to justify his optimistic tones.

The half time break sees me join Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad Michael ‘down the front’ where I encourage Harrison to buy ‘Shufflemania’, the new LP by Robyn Hitchcock which is released today.  Ray regales me with a story about his dad who used to drive the Ipswich Town team bus in the 1960’s.  Ray’s dad was known as ‘The Cat’ by the Town players and he maintained that this was because he would play in goal in 6 or 7-a-side warm up games when only twelve or thirteen players would travel as there was only one substitute allowed, and before 1965 no substitutes at all.  Ray was to find out later from a Town player of the period that his dad wasn’t called ‘The Cat’ because of his goal keeping prowess, but because late one night, having returned from a distant away trip , he backed the bus off Constantine Road and over the club cat.

The second half begins with renewed vigour from Ipswich and Derby fans alike who both sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” as if vying with one another in some sort of choral competition.  The encouragement seemingly works and just seven minutes into the half we witness the first shot from open play that is worthy of the name as Marcus Harness conjures up a half-volley that is blocked.   It’s a symptom of Town now dominating possession and looking the team most likely to score.  In the Cobbold Stand the Derby fans sing a song which to my ears sounds as if it’s about a man, possibly called Michael, who found an octopus, but I doubt that’s right. “ We forgot that you were here” respond the Town fans in the old North Stand in a curious role reversal; I conclude that the half-time break can do funny things to people and to prove the point the Derby fans produce a chant which sounds like the theme from the Addams Family, but then it is nearly Hallowe’en.

The second half is a better ‘watch’ for home fans even if it is ‘all up the other end’ from my perspective in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. In the sixty-seventh minute it all gets much better still as Kayden Jackson breaks down the right, loses the ball but carries on running as the unsuspecting Derby defender decides on a back pass which is nothing more than a pass to Jackson who shoots on goal.  The ball hits the post but rebounds to Wes Burns who has plenty of time to hit the ball into the net and give Town a lead which they now probably deserve, and they haven’t even made any substitutions yet.  I remember to take ever-present Phil’s photo for Pat from Clacton as Phil and his son Elwood hold their arms aloft whilst grinning joyfully.  “E-i E-i E-i-o, Up the Football league we go” sing the Town fans, and not to be outdone the Derby fans sing the same before deciding that they would be better served by a chorus of the sneering “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.”

Tonight’s attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 28,415, with 1,777 of them being the people who have been shouting all evening about Derby and what poor supporters Ipswich fans are. Ipswich continue to be the better team however, and Kayden Jackson shoots the wrong side of the goal post, substitutions are made and with seven minutes left former Town player David McGoldrick tries to make amends for collecting much of his salary from Town whilst not actually playing, by kicking Wes Burns in the penalty area.  After pausing to decide if he should really give Ipswich a penalty, Mr Swabey points to the spot.  It seems he was right to pause for thought because sadly Town will waste the opportunity given to them.  “Jackson’s taking it! ” says the bloke behind me somewhat incredulously and his surprise proves well-founded as Kayden’s kick lacks both the pace and accuracy required unless the goalkeeper dives the wrong way.  Wildsmith dives the right way and the score remains 1-0. 

“Ken Rodwell, contact the nearest steward” announces Stephen Foster perhaps making up a surname laced with double entendre to help reduce the tension of the closing minutes as Derby win a rare corner.  Seven minutes of added on time are announced and at the first stoppage in play four Town players collapse to the ground.  I don’t think they’ve got the hang of this time-wasting thing, they’re surely meant to go down one at a time? 

Time moves on inexorably. “Got to be it” says the bloke behind me after what he thinks seven minutes feels like. “Got to be it” he says again a short while later and then again. “Got to be it, innit” he says before saying “Got to be” at least twice, and then inevitably it is it, the final whistle, and a tidal wave of relief floods from the stands, not because Derby had looked like scoring, but just because no one has any faith that Town can win a match that’s shown live on the telly, well they just did.

FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.