Four day working weeks are second only in my list of favourite working weeks to any weeks with fewer working days. But four day working weeks are definitely a good thing and so Easter week has therefore been a good week; and now, to add another layer of ‘good’, Town are playing at home to Buckinghamshire’s finest, Wycombe Wanderers, known as The Chairboys because of the town’s indiginous chair-making industry. I have however been dreaming again this week, this time about dating mysterious younger women; women who I do not recognise and who presumably are figments of my sub-conscious. These are pleasant dreams until I remember that I’ve been married for twenty-three years, although weirdly my wife doesn’t seem to mind, in the dreams at least; she probably just rolls her eyes.
I came to town early today to deliver a card congratulating two friends on their forthcoming wedding, which they are flying out to on Tuesday, because they are holding it in Las Vegas. Travelling 6,000 miles to get married is no way to save the planet, but at least I tried to off-set their profligacy by recycling old photographs to make their card. Having parked up my planet saving Citroen e-C4, I walk across Gippeswyk Park beneath blue skies decorated with cotton wool clouds. On Commercial Road a Range Rover speeds across the junction with the Princes Street bus lane and a youth calls out “Blue Army” through the open car window. Shouting youths aside, the streets are unusually quiet for a match day, until I reach Portman Road, where pre-match business is as usual and people hang about stuffing their faces with marshmallow bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. The Wycombe team bus is parked opposite the Alf Ramsey Stand and on the back of the Cobbold Stand Bobby Robson appears to be squeezing his face through the top light of a window. I buy a programme (£3.50) from one of the blue kiosks; I check that I can pay by card and the young programme seller asks me how many programmes I want. I tell him I’m not exactly sure how much is in my account, so I’ll stick with just the one; fortunately, he laughs.
I leave Portman Road and walk on towards The Arb. By the underground spiral car park a man sits down on a bench to read the Daily Mirror and in the surface car park above another man swigs beer from a bottle, it reminds me of how in Montpellier fans have pre-match, ‘bring your own’ booze -ups in the park and ride car park next to the tram terminus. At The Arb there is no queue at the bar and I therefore waste no more of my life before ordering a pint of my ‘usual’, Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.60 with Camra 10% discount). I retire to the beer garden, which is busy with happy drinkers and diners enjoying the sun, I ask a couple of blokes if they mind if I ‘perch’ at the end of their table, they don’t. I read my programme and they talk to each other about holidays. One of them is thinking of going to Mexico, the other says that “Linda’s going to have the cat when we’re in Crete”.
It’s not two o’clock yet, but the would-be holidaymakers soon drain their glasses and leave for Portman Road, one of them says they can stop at the Arcade Tavern on the way if it’s too far. Mick won’t be joining me today because he’s on his way back from Antwerp; (he had wanted to go somewhere to celebrate his 70th birthday to which he didn’t have to fly) but very soon I am not completely surprised when Gary sits down opposite me. We talk of mutual acquaintances, of quizzes Gary has recently participated in, of football in the Scilly Isles and how Gary saw Colchester United play Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup when Wycombe were still non-league; I tell him Wycombe’s old ground was called Loakes Park. Gary buys me another pint of Suffolk Pride, which is very kind of him. At about twenty-five to three we head for Portman Road, I think we’re the last to leave the pub.
Our conversation continues as we accumulate fellow fans all around us, all walking to the match. If everyone was singing in rounds it would be like that bit in West Side Story as the Sharks and the Jets gather for the rumble beneath the freeway flyover. Gary and I part at the corner of Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way and as a parting shot I remember to tell him how there’s been a new ice cream van stopping in my street this week; slightly weirdly however it is painted grey and black, and also carries the words “All events catered for” above the drivers cab, and I speculate whether it gets booked for wakes after summer funerals.
Leaving Gary to find the Magnus West Stand, I head down Portman Road to the new turnstiles at the back of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, which are in use for the first time today; except that I walk past the entrance to those turnstiles and carry on walking out into Princes Street, and then onto Chancery Road and into Russell Road, and opposite the Ipswich Borough Council offices is where I find the end of the queue. “Flippin’ ‘eck” I think to myself, in the style of the class-mates of Tucker in Grange Hill. This is all rather annoying and once again proves change to be a bad thing. The queue moves quickly however, although it doesn’t stop one shambling, scruffy looking man from loudly moaning about the situation as he waves his season ticket about and tells everyone “Forty years I’ve supported this club”. I happen to know that the man’s name is Dave. I wonder if he’s worried he might have to spend the next forty years queuing.
I’m soon walking past the back of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand again and am pleased to see that there are still turnstiles numbered 61 and 62, and whilst I am inevitably drawn towards these, I am instead ushered towards an open gate and a man with a bar code reader. I feel like I’ve made the kind of entrance into the stadium that Watch with Mother’s Mr Benn would have made. After re-cycling some of my two pints of Suffolk Pride, I take my seat between Fiona and the man from Stowmarket who is probably really from Stowupland; ever present Phil who never misses a game, his young son Elwood and Pat from Clacton are all here too. With so many people still outside I am surprised there are so many people in the ground. I’ve missed kick-off and the first three minutes of the match. It might be the first time I’ve missed the kick-off since Town played away to Northampton in the League Cup on a very wet night in October 1987, but it might not be because I think I also missed the kick-off at Nottingham Forest as recently as November 2002.
I quickly work out that Town are kicking towards the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and Wycombe Wanderers are wearing red shirts, shorts and socks with white trim and that as away kits go it’s one of the more boring ones, as if they put all their thought into their groovy two-tone blue home kit and had no imagination left. “Alright?” says the bloke behind me to what I think is his son. “Yeeeah!” is the expected, but weirdly elongated answer from the sprog. I’m soon amused by the Wycombe number seven who is left lying in the middle of the pitch as Town attack; the ball is passed and passed again, and again and again. Play only stops when Town are awarded a free-kick, when the prostrate player then miraculously gets up and manfully carries on. The game isn’t very exciting, and I wonder whether it was more fun in the queue and how long it is now. Town aren’t playing badly though, it’s just taking time to find the key to unlocking the Wycombe Wanderers defence. But there’s a palpable sense of people willing the team to win and it manifests itslef as a huge collective sigh of disappointment when what looks like it might be a crucial pass from Harry Clarke is intercepted by an opponent.
In the fifteenth minute Town score, there is a mighty roar from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but elsewhere we all saw the linesman raise his flag and we have retained our insouciance, although I am tempted to chant “You thought you had scored, you were wrong” because it doesn’t seem like the Wycombe supporters are going to bother, and they don’t. Five minutes later and a Wycombe player goes down as if hurt. As a track-suited angel provides succour it gives the opportunity for remedial touchline coaching for everyone else. All is quiet but for the beat of the drum in the Sir Bobby Stand, which is annoying Pat from Clacton; she doesn’t like loud noises.
The half is already half over as Wycombe have a shot from outside the penalty area which flies over the Town cross bar, it came as a result of a set piece free-kick and that is Wycombe’s chief weapon, unlike the Spanish Inquisition who as men now in their sixties and seventies know, had numerous weapons in their armoury, none of which were set piece free-kicks. A sense of restlessness is beginning to gurgle through the Town support. “Come On Town” calls the bloke behind me and a chant of “Come on Ipswich “ is repeated with varying degrees of enthusiasm around the ground at least three times, possibly four. Harry Clarke has a shot, but it’s a relatively easy save for the Wycombe goalkeeper Max Stryjek. “Ooh, that bloody drum” says Pat from Clacton. There are a little over ten minutes until half time and Town win a corner as a Conor Chaplin shot is saved. The corner is hit low and is cleared, but three minutes later Town win another. “Come On You Blues” chant sections of the crowd, at least three times, and I blow the strange red and white reverberating plastic thing I found in the club shop of Racing Club de Lens in 2017. George Hirst heads the ball imperiously into the Wycombe net. Town lead 1-0. Relief and joy slosh about together in a heady cocktail.
Five minutes until half-time and Nathan Broadhead wins yet another corner. From the Sir Bobby Robson the strains of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’ can be heard, although all I can make out of the lyrics is that something is “falling apart again”, I just hope it’s nothing structural. From Joy Division the choir soon flits to “When the Town go marching in” sung to an even more slow, turgid pace than usual as if the world was in slow motion, .which is almost the title of a single by New Order. The ball is in the Wycombe penalty area, it’s at the feet of Conor Chaplin, time stands still, no one moves, Conor Chaplin kicks the ball into the goal past a static Stryjek and Town lead 2-0. Joy abounds once more. After three minutes of added on time I join Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison down at the front for some conversation about haircuts, queuing, the often-dubious use of the words ‘ethical’ and ‘affordable’ and the scandal of how the food stall beneath the stand had sold out of sausage rolls even before kick-off. Ray kindly ‘pours out’ four mini-Easter eggs for me from a polythene bag, I eat two having carefully and studiously peeled off the delicate foil wrapping, because it feels horrible against the fillings in your teeth.
The football resumes at seven minutes past four with Wycombe Wanderers getting first go with the ball, although they soon lose it, and Town quickly have another corner. I give the two remaining Easter eggs that Ray gave me to Fiona and Pat from Clacton; Fiona’s egg is in a blue wrapper, Pat’s is in a green one, but she takes it anyway and pops it in her handbag for later. Seven minutes into the new half and referee Mr David Rock gets to air his yellow card for the first time as Wycombe’s Chris Forino needlessly hurtles into Wes Burns and sends him flying. “The Town are going up, the Town are going up” sing the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand with feeling as Wes Burns darts down the wing to put in a low cross, which is diverted into the side netting by a Wycombe boot.
It’s the fifty-seventh minute and the ball is controlled by George Hirst in the middle and played out to the right, Harry Clarke and Wes Burns are both through on goal, but Wes is travelling faster and facing head on to the goal, Harry defers to Wes who strikes the ball; one split second the ball leaves Wes’s boot, later that same split second it nestles in the back of the Wycombe goal net. “Pick the bones out of that” is the expression that springs to mind and Town lead 3-0. What had started as a difficult looking fixture against a team eager to get into the play-off places now looks like an end of season romp against mid-table duffers keen to get away on holiday.
“I’m looking forward to my baked potato, salad and prawns now” says Pat, confident the afternoon is going to end well and explaining that although today is a Friday, it’s like a Saturday. Pat’s enthusiasm must be infectious and for a moment it seems like the whole crowd start to sing “We’ve got super Keiran McKenna, He knows exactly what we need, Woolfy at the back, Ladapo in attack, And now we’re gonna win the fuckin’ league.” But I must be hallucinating, may be it was the Easter eggs. “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing…” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the tune of ‘Mary’s boy child’, clearly totally confused as to which Christian festival is which.
I count seven seagulls on the cross-girder of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and Wycombe replace the prosaically named Nick Freeman with the more exotic sounding Tjay de Barr. News that neither Plymouth Argyle nor Sheffield Wednesday are winning prompts chants of “We are top of the league, we are top of the league” because we are, thanks to goal difference. A quarter of the match remains and it’s time for Town make a mass substitution, replacing over a third of the team in one fell swoop. As the changes are announced, the players draw the sort of personally directed applause they don’t get when they just leave the pitch with everyone else at the end of the match. Wes Burns, George Hirst, Nathan Broadhead and Conor Chaplin are the recipients of the ovations and the crowd sings “Ei, E-i, E-i-o, Up the Football league we go”. Stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us that there are 28,511 souls in the stadium today with 643 of that number vainly supporting Wycombe when they could have been at home making chairs. Many of the crowd warmly applaud themselves for turning up.
Town win a corner courtesy of the clumsy looking Ryan Tafazolli, and Cameron Burgess heads over the cross-bar. Four minutes later and substitute Kyle Edwards gets the ball inside the Wycombe penalty box, but before he has the chance to control the ball he is barged over by Wycombe’s Scowen whose surname sounds as rough and unrefined as his challenge is. Appropriately, given that the referee is Mr Rock, it is a stone wall penalty. Freddie Ladapo steps up to score, shooting to the left as Stryjek stupidly but conveniently dives in the opposite direction. Town lead 4-0, it’s a rout, a sound thrashing, a gubbing and a stuffing.
The afternoon’s work is done; another substitution is made as the excellent Massimo Luongo is replaced by Dominic Ball, another corner is won, Wycombe make more substitutions of their own and Tafazoli receives the booking his savage play so richly deserves after he attempts to beat off Kayden Jackson with a thrusting forearm to the throat. At least five minutes of additional time is played out in which Wycombe succeed in extending Town’s run to nine consecutive clean sheets before the result is finally confirmed a bit before five o’clock.
To my right Fiona and Pat from Clacton quickly disappear back to their other lives and soon afterwards to my left the man sat there heads back to Stowmarket, or possibly Stowupland. Many linger to hail their conquering heroes. In all truth it’s not been the very best of games, but then again it has, and the excellent result has left me with the warm glow of satisfaction. Town have outplayed and outclassed a well organised team. I feel like celebrating , I wonder if the ice cream van will be round tomorrow.