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.

Ipswich Town 2 Barnsley 2

Barnsley FC, Wikipedia tells us, has spent more seasons in the second division than any other club. Just to prove the point I have seen Ipswich Town play Barnsley thirty times and but for one FA Cup tie all of those matches have been in the second division.  This does of course mean that Ipswich Town are also second division perennials.  Today’s fixture, therefore, is exceptional and indeed it is the first time that Ipswich and Barnsley have ever met as third division teams; what it is to live in interesting times.

In all other respects today is a normal, sunny, late summer Saturday as I make my way down through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the railway tracks and over the river to Portman Road, where, as ever, I buy a match programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless, but slightly slow manner.  Programme in hand I march on towards the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum) where both doors are open wide; I step inside and turn towards the bar. “Gary, what the hell are you doing here?” I exclaim at the unexpected sight of my friend and former work colleague, Gary stood at the bar. “I’m buying you a drink, what would you like?” is Gary’s very quick and very welcome response.  I have a pint of something for which the pump clip says “Suffolk Punch” and Gary has a pint of some lager or other, but not one of the industrial brands. We retire to the garden where Mick is already sat with a pint of what looks like Suffolk Pride.  Gary and Mick have met before but introduce themselves to one another nonetheless; it really shouldn’t but it feels to me a bit like when your wife meets a former girlfriend. 

The pub garden is alive with drinkers wearing the blue shirts of Ipswich Town, far more so than usual.  Cheerily, we talk of funerals because Gary has been to a few lately and Mick works for an undertaker. Gary tells the story of two people he knows who were concerned that they might not get a seat at a cremation which was likely to be ‘popular’ (perhaps well-attended would be a better choice of words), and so sat through the previous cremation too, just to be sure.  With our glasses drained, a bloke at the next table chain smoking and blokes at the table beyond talking far louder than is necessary, we depart a little earlier than usual for Portman Road.

Bidding farewell to Gary and Mick in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, because their season tickets are in what used to be the Pioneer stand, I carry on to the Constantine Road entrance where a man in a suit compliments me on my ‘Allez les bleus’ T-shirt as he checks my ticket. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all supported Town in French” I say to him a bit weirdly, although he seems to accept the idea.  I enter the stadium, taking the rare opportunity to use turnstile 61, which today is operated by a young woman who is very possibly the nicest looking turnstile operator I have ever seen at Portman Road.  I arrive at my seat in time to see the teams walk on to the pitch and hear them announced by former Suffolk Radio presenter Stephen Foster, who once again looks a bit like a best man, microphone in hand in his grey suit.  My attention is briefly snagged when I think I hear that the Barnsley number ten is called George Benson, but checking the handily placed scoreboard I sadly see that he’s actually called Josh Benson, but the idea was good while it lasted.  Naturally, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with this son Elwood and so are Pat from Clacton and Fiona as well as the man who I think is from Stowmarket; I can see Ray and his son Michael and his son Harrison down at the front of the stand.

With knees taken and applauded Barnsley get first go with the ball as, wearing their traditional kit of red shirts, white shirts and red socks they aim the ball towards the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end. Town of course wear their traditional blue shirts and white shorts and as the teams line up it looks like a re-enactment of my childhood Continental Club Edition Subbuteo set, albeit without the strange poses of the plastic players.  Despite a high level of background noise, it takes just one minute and twenty seconds for the visiting Barnsleyites to deliver a chant of “Is this is a library?”.   Up in the Cobbold Stand there are several well filled red shirts in the away section and a bald-headed, middle-aged bloke in what looks like full kit, makes me think of Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden the PE teacher in Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Kes’.

Beside me today is a man in a bright orange hi-viz jacket emblazoned with the name of Veolia, the French waste disposal company. “Come on mate” he shouts, possibly to Freddie Ladapo as Conor Chaplin shapes up to thread a through ball beyond the enormous Barnsley defenders. “Come on, early pressure” continues my neighbour, “Pass it around, pass it around”.  He’s living every moment of his own live commentary.  A radio commentator might say that Town have started ‘on the front foot’ and by way of proof the bloke behind me announces that “ the pressure is unreal” .  The first two shots on goal however are by Barnsley players. There is a lot of jeering from the Barnsley fans and it sounds as if someone may be being ejected from the ground, around me people stand up tall and peer to their right to see what’s happening, they remind me of meerkats.

It’s the tenth minute and people rise and applaud as one in memory of a baby who has died.  On the pitch the game is interrupted by a foul and then carries on.  Neither side is exactly peppering the opposition goal with shots and the match is tense and physical; it’s engrossing but not exciting. Barnsley make an early substitution due to injury, reducing the aggregate of the numbers on their shirts by three as number 22 replaces number 25.

It’s the eighteenth minute and Wes Burns and Liam Kitching race for the ball, the enormous Kitching sticks out an arm to impede Burns and holds his shirt, Burns holds Kitching’s shirt and the linesman flags for a free-kick to Barnsley.  It’s a biased decision favouring the defender who had been first to foul, it would have been better to have made no decision at all.  “Pressure” shouts the bloke from Veolia out of the blue. Barnsley substitute, and former occasional Town player James Norwood can be seen trotting from the bench to the dressing room. “He’s injured already” says the bloke behind me. “Going for a Nando’s” says the bloke next to him.  “Come on Town, we haven’t even got out of…” bawls the bloke beside me trailing off, seemingly unable to remember what it is we haven’t even got out of.  If this was going to be a driving analogy I would guess “first gear” is what we haven’t got out of, but if this was going to be an analogy about going to bed it might be “our trousers”; admittedly however this would be an unusual analogy .

It’s the twenty seventh minute and Wes Burns is victim of over physical defending and Town have a free-kick about 20 metres from goal. Conor Chaplin steps up to send a sublime shot over the defensive wall and into the top corner of the Barnsley goal.  It’s a marvellous, beautiful goal and Town are winning. “They’ve gotta come out now” says the bloke behind me, suggesting that he believes some of the Barnsley players will now reveal that they enjoy the company of other men.

Six minutes later and following a series of Barnsley free-kicks the ball is crossed to the far post where Jack Aitchison heads it across goal and inside the far post to provide an unexpected equaliser. “It’s all gone quiet over there” chant the Barnsley fans conveniently forgetting that they are in a library, so it would be quiet wouldn’t it?  They compound their error by chanting “You’re not singing anymore” when apparently, according to their earlier chants we weren’t singing anyway.  Like ‘leave’ voters who don’t want to queue to have their passports stamped when only going ‘next door’ to Holland or France they seem to want their cake and to eat it too.

Leif Davis and Sam Morsy have shots blocked and Davis heads past the post as half-time looms.  When three minutes of added on time are announced, Barnsley’s number two Jordan Williams is sprawling on the grass. “Ha-ha” calls a Nelson Munce-like voice from somewhere behind me.   It’s been a good half of football but not a thrilling one if one inexplicably forgets Chaplin’s goal,  so the Nelson Munce soundalike has gained a higher profile in my mind than he probably deserves.

Half-time is the usual round of talking to Ray and Harrison and Michael and eating a Nature Valley Honey and Oats Crunchy bar.  Ray asks what I know about solar panels, and I tell him I have them on my roof because my mother in-law died. 

The game re-starts at two minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon making a fine save, diving to his right to ensure a decent passing and running move by Barnsley does not end with a goal.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fookin’ thing” chant the Barnsley fans in their South Yorkshire dialect. “Your support is fookin’ shit” they continue before rounding off their medley with a rendition of “Top o’ the league, your ‘avin’ a laff”.   It’s the fifty -third minute and Freddie Ladapo has an attempt cleared off the line. “Get up ya fairy” calls the man from Veolia at Luca Connell as the Barnsley player writhes about in the centre circle before being attended to by a physio. Today’s attendance is announced as being 25,001 with 613 being Tykes and Colliers from Barnsley.  On the Clacton supporters bus the winner of the guess the crowd competition is just two out, guessing 24,499, although misleadingly the guess of 25,050 gets more of the actual digits correct and therefore almost looks closer.

The game is nearly two-thirds over and Barnsley’s Callum Styles is booked for a cynical block on Wes Burns.  Barnsley win a corner. “I’m getting worried you know” admits Pat from Clacton beginning to lose her faith that Town will win this match.  “Come on Town, defend” shouts the bloke beside me giving helpful advice as the corner kick is taken.  The corner is defended as suggested and when play next stops Barnsley make another substitution, James Norwood replacing Jack Aitchison who walks off so slowly and gingerly that he looks like he might have suffered a sudden attack of diarrhoea.

The sixty-sixth minute and the Barnsley supporters think they’ve scored as the ball rattles into the side netting in front of them at the end of another decent move.  Relief and schadenfreude combine to transform the mood of Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand who are able to jeer at the stupidity of their northern neighbours.   With the game into its final quarter Town introduce mass substitutions. Stephen Foster announces that there will be three, but only tells us about Kayden Jackson replacing Freddie Ladapo and Marcus Harness replacing Tyreece John -Jules.  The forgotten substitution sees Kane Vincent-Young appear in place of Leif Davis.  As happened at Shrewsbury last week, the change quickly produces results and Wes Burns runs down the right and into the box before producing a low cross which Sam Morsy side-foots into the net.  Town lead, and are on top to the extent that three minutes later Marcus Harness scores a third, only for alleged referee Steve Martin to disallow it for reasons unknown.  Unlike his American namesake, this Steve Martin seems to be the man with no brain rather than ‘The man with two brains’ and should in future be known by the same name as Steve Martin’s dog in his 1979 film ‘The Jerk’, alternativley ‘The Jerk’ would do.

As if having an idiot for a referee is not bad enough Town soon suffer further by failing to defend a corner and allowing Barnsley’s Callum Styles, a man who according to the app on my phone is shorter than Conor Chaplin ( I think the app must be wrong) , a free header which he places just inside the far post.  If only the man from Veolia had shouted “Come on Town, defend”.  As I remark to Fiona “ I think that is what is called giving him too much time and space”.

Despite the disappointment of gifting Barnsley another equaliser Town press on for another winning goal and dominate the remaining fifteen minutes, reducing Barnsley to desperate clearances rather than considered passes out of defence.   Wolfe is booked for fouling Sam Morsy and a Wes Burns shot is pushed away for a corner by the outstretched arm of the Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins, who I like to think was named after Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sone Aluko replaces Conor Chaplin with five minutes of normal time left.  James Norwood is booked for diving and happily does nothing to suggest it was a mistake to let him go. Anderson of Barnsley is booked for kicking the ball away when a free-kick is awarded; it’s a display of bad sportsmanship and unneccessary nastiness which seems common to this team of mostly mardy millennials.  Fiona leaves early to get away for a family barbecue, despite the fire risk due to the drought, and a ridiculous eight minutes of time added on are announced.  Town win a corner from which George Edmundson heads against a post; Kane Vincent-Young sends a header towards goal, but it is kept out with a flying save; Aluko and Harness both have shots blocked.

 It’s almost five o’clock when The Jerk ends the game and walks off to the boos of the crowd, including mine.  We now expect Town to win, and only the referee and some uncharacteristically forgetful defending have prevented that today, but that’s not so unusual, and at least we didn’t lose. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose as it might say on a future T-shirt when we all start supporting Town in French.

Shrewsbury Town 0 Ipswich Town 3

My first encounter with the ancient town of Shrewsbury was in the August of 1969 when on a family holiday to Aberystwyth.  Shrewsbury was a convenient overnight stopover on our coast-to coast journey and I recall peering through the rain-streaked rear window of the family Ford Cortina as we arrived in the evening rush hour in Shropshire’s county town and sought out the bed and breakfast recommended in the AA guide; I think it was named after a local priory or abbey.  Thirteen years later my father and I returned by coach to see Ipswich dumped out of the FA Cup at Gay Meadow. We did the same again two years later.  My last visit to Shrewsbury was almost 35 years ago to the day, on 22nd August 1987, to witness a goalless draw in the Second Division. Today my return will re-kindle old memories and reveal the delights of the ‘New Meadow’.

I spent last night at a hotel in nearby Telford, where I drank a pint of Camden Pale Ale, a beer that tasted so heavily of citrus my mouth felt all evening as if I’d eaten a whole tub of lemon sorbet.  This morning I take a short walk from my hotel after breakfast and decide that if the residents of Telford were true to the architecture of their town, they would still all have big hair, shoulder pads and the sleeves on their jackets would be rolled up.  I didn’t much like the 1980’s and I am happy to quickly make the short hop to Shrewsbury having first filled up the petrol tank of my trusty Citroen C3 and discovered that fuel is 5p per litre cheaper at Sainsbury’s in Telford than it was on Thursday in Ipswich.  At the Meole Brace Park and Ride site near New Meadow, it costs a fiver to park and then walk to the football ground.  If you pay £2 to ride the bus into Shrewsbury and back however, the parking is free, and you get to ride on a bus, twice.  With an eye for a bargain and a bus trip, I arrive early and catch the bus.

Shrewsbury is a fine town to roam around for a couple of hours, with scores of fab buildings to see, I particularly liked the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s church, the ‘new’ market hall and the ‘cosmic egg’ as well as street names such as Mardol, Dogpole, Grope Lane and Bear Steps.  At the castle I look down upon the site where Gay Meadow used to be.  On Mardol I drink a pint of Castle Eden Golden Harvest Ale (£3.80) in the King’s Head pub, where the bar maid shows me the medieval wall paintings and even takes me out into the street to show me the interpretive signage telling the history of the neighbourhood and how in the sixteenth century it used to be the red-light district.  Oddly she also tells me that her name is Maggie May after the Rod Stewart song and that Maggie May was a prostitute; sadly, I don’t get the opportunity to tell her that Maggie May was in truth just an ’older woman’; although the Maggie Mae that the Beatles sang about on the ‘Let It Be’ album was a prostitute.

My mind swimming with the delights of Shrewsbury Town centre, which as medieval towns go really only tops Ipswich due to more exciting topography, I catch the bus back to Meole Brace from where I will walk to the football ground.  The New Meadow can be seen across fields from the road outside the Park and Ride and again, after a stroll through a retail park, from a nearby railway bridge; it’s not an architectural gem of a football ground but the cantilever steelwork has a certain appeal.  The club shop beckons as I have instructions to purchase a cuddly gnome to add to my wife’s collection of football club soft toys. The shop is much, much, smaller than I had anticipated and with its modest display of replica kits on hangers it has the feel of a walk-in wardrobe. I find the necessary gnome (£9.00) and a match programme (£3.00) and make my purchases.  Placing the chosen gnome in a plastic bag, the woman in the shop explains, as she rolls her eyes, that she won’t put my programme in the bag too because she knows that some people like to keep their programmes flat.

With time still to spare until kick-off I watch Town fans watching the team alight from the team bus, and then eat two Marks & Spencer chicken and ham sandwiches (£3.50) that I bought in the retail park. It starts to rain, and I shelter behind a brick wall. Happily, it was just a shower and after enjoying a poster of a former Shrewsbury player called Ken Mulhearn, whose fantastically coiffured hair looks like he may have modelled 1970’s knitting patterns,  I take a look at the ‘Fanzone’ which, showing how enlightened Shropshire is, is available to both home and away supporters. Music plays, it’s a song by the Smith’s and I think how it is somehow from a different 1980’s to the one in central Telford.  Fans queue for fizzy beer, there is a ‘festival atmosphere’ and in a converted shipping container at one end of the Fanzone an elderly man in replica shirt sits behind a desk, whilst another man in late middle age with a blue and yellow scarf wrapped around his neck announces the result of a prize draw; a woman holding a beer and a man with very poor posture look on; I feel as if I’m at a village fete.

Eventually, I make my way to turnstile 18 and after seeing ever-present Phil who never misses a game, in the toilet,  and bumping into a man named John and another called Ray, neither of whom I have seen for at least three years, I take my place in row M seat 18.  “Shrewsbury‘s a shit hole I want to go home” chant some Ipswich fans across the aisle from me to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’.  I can only assume they have recently discovered irony, because I have found Shrewsbury to be a smashing little place.  In the corner between the main stand and the away end I see house martins swooping and diving, I love our summer visitors but sadly have seen very few this year at home.  In due course, the game begins, with Town having first go with the ball and for the first time wearing this season’s red and black striped away shirt. Shrewsbury Town meanwhile sport yellow and blue striped shirts with blue shorts, as does their lion mascot who unimaginatively is called Lenny.  Ipswich are playing towards something called the Salop Leisure Stand, whilst Shrewsbury are aiming towards the DMOS People North Stand, where I and my fellow Ipswich fans are spending the afternoon.

Town quickly win a corner and it is the Tractor Boys who are making all the noise with someone banging a drum and a child behind me shouting in an ear-hurting high pitch, as children do. Kane Vincent-Young takes the ball around the goalkeeper and looks set to score but is apparently tackled fairly, although those around me believe otherwise and bay for a penalty. “You’re Welsh and you know you are” chant Town fans to the Shrewsbury fans presumably implying that there is something wrong with being Welsh rather than just providing an insight into the number of people in the local telephone directory with surnames such as Davis and Pugh.  It is racism, but the English, Welsh and Scots have a reciprocal agreement on abuse enshrined in the Act of Union of 1707.  Marcus Harness has a low shot saved at the near post by Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.

On the touchline Kieron McKenna is wearing what from a distance looks like a white cardigan, it’s not to my taste but it shouldn’t affect the result, I hope, although Town are living dangerously at times at the back by insisting on drawing Shrewsbury on to them with daring passes between defenders in our own penalty area.  “Your ground’s too big for you” chant my accomplices in the DMOS People North Stand having quickly totted up that there are a good 2,319 empty seats in the 9,875 capacity stadium.

I look at my watch, it’s only a quarter past three, it feels like it’s later.  Perhaps to help the passage of time the town fans air a new song to the tune of The Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’, which celebrates the fact that. “we’ve got; Marcus Harness”.  Sam Morsy gets booked for an unnecessary and at worst petulant kick or trip on Tom Bayliss.  Like many third division teams, Shrewsbury’s approach is physical and bullying, but Ipswich are possibly the bigger bullies so far today. But all of sudden, like the sun streaming through the clouds that play across the Shropshire countryside, some superior skill shines through as Tyreece John-Jules slaloms past a defender and scores in to the bottom right hand corner of the Shrewsbury goal; Ipswich Town lead 1-0 and it’s a bit beyond twenty past three.  Town are the better team but are now proving it and continue to do so by preventing Shrewsbury from getting anywhere close to the Ipswich goal.

Tyreece John-Jules looks like he is through again on goal but is called offside and the home fans are so quiet the Ipswich supporters dare to chant “Na-na-na, football in a library”, which is something that I would frown upon.  As the first half draws to a close Cameron Burgess gives Shrewsbury the gift of a corner kick with an inelegant  sky-high clearance, but despite bouts of all in wrestling between opposing players Ipswich manage to clear the ball up field.  Two minutes of added on time ensue, which the PA announcer tells us are sponsored by Reece Media, “designed to deliver”.  I wonder to myself if the sponsors pay more depending on the amount of time that is to be added on; a first-half with lots of stoppages could potentially end up with spectators thinking of Reece Media for minutes on end.  The closing act of the half is Ipswich winning a corner, but as so often happens, nothing comes of it .

I pass half-time eating most of a Nature Valley Oats and Honey Crunchy bar but then I spot a man called Richard who is eating a hot dog at the front of the stand. Richard and I have previously journeyed together to such exciting locations as Coventry, Sunderland, Blackpool and Nottingham and he even wrote this blog once when I was in a coma.  We catch up on the intervening years and whilst we do so a large, probably overweight, young man walks by on chubby legs and vomits, and as he does so he mystifyingly appears to try and catch the vomit as it is propelled from his mouth.  “Why would you try and catch it?” asks Richard rhetorically. 

I threaten to contact Richard about possible future away trips and as drops of rain begin to fall we part, eager to forget what we have just witnessed.  At five past four the football resumes and Shrewsbury quickly win a free-kick which leads to an unsightly melee in the Ipswich penalty area, but we are strong today and successfully out muscle the home team.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand a small murmuration of starlings swoops and pulses like a weird flying muscle and Tom Bayliss levels up the score for yellow cards after he fouls Lee Evans.  In the next sixty seconds a fine move down the left to Leif Davis allows him to send a square ball to Conor Chaplin who shoots from at least 20 metres out with his left foot into the bottom righ hand corner of Marosi’s goal.   Ipswich lead 2-0 and it’s another fine goal which Shrewsbury came nowhere near preventing. There could never be another Eric Gates,  but if in the inevitable dystopian future our Tory overlords decree for reasons of insane political dogma that there has to be one, I’d like it to be Conor Chaplin.  Eric’s goals of course went more top corner than bottom corner.

Town go close to scoring again. Leif Davis is getting loads of space on the left. Kane Vincent-Young gets to one of Leif’s crosses but that’s all, and the ball orbits up and over the away supporters. “ Two-nil to the Tractor Boys” we sing and the noise carries on but without too much very interesting happening on the pitch.  Then it changes, and Town dominate, and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from 25 metres. Cameron Burgess receives a head injury and dons a dark bandage, he’s big enough to be our third division Terry Butcher.

It’s gone half past four and Shrewsbury make substitutions because they have to do something; Caton and Bowman for Udoh and Pyke, and Bloxham for Da Costa.  Ipswich quickly follow suit. Jackson and Ladapo for Vincent-Young and John-Jules, but not because we have to, just because we can. Kayden  Jackson soon wins a corner and  Lee Evans heads wide.   Harness and Chaplin who have been magnificent are replaced by Edwards and Aluko.  Shrewsbury win a rare corner but it’s just a platform for Ipswich to break away up field and win another corner of our own.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand the mini murmuration of starlings reappears and settles on the two floodlights that project from the roof of the stand and look down on the pitch.  In the same way that twitchers gather to see rare birds, it seems that shropshire starlings gather to watch decent football.   A lone house martin swoops and dives above the pitch, picking off the insects Sam Morsy hasn’t already crushed.

The attendance is announced as being 6,556.  “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich” chant the now gloating Ipswich fans whilst also being simultaneously and illogically scornful of the ‘small’ crowd.   Full-time approaches and after another slick passing move Freddie Ladapo side foots weakly into Morosi’s grateful arms.  Six minutes of added on time are announced and after just two, more approach play down the flanks finds Morsy in the middle. Morsy shoots; his shot appears to be going in but is blocked on the goal line,  but the ball rebounds to Kayden Jackson whose leg is in the perfect position by accident or design to place the ball perfectly between Shrewsbury defenders and into the net. Three-nil to Ipswich and there’s barely time for Shrewsbury to have their consolation ‘only shot of the game’ which Matthew Pennington helpfully boots directly at Christian Walton.  “Head for the corner” shouts an excited and deranged looking young man dancing on the steps in front of me, who clearly has a view on the way to ‘see the game out’.  He needn’t have worried. It’s Ipswich who finish the game with another corner kick just to sum up their domination of this fixture.

Euphoria reigns in the DMOS People North Stand as elsewhere the stands empty in silence.  It’s a love-in at our end of the ground. Importantly, I get to see that Kieran McKenna isn’t wearing a white cardigan, although I’m not sure what it is, a sweatshirt perhaps?  Brimming with the happiness only a 3-0 away win can induce, I head back to the Meole Brace Park & Ride unaware that I wont get out of the car park until 6 o’clock.

Ipswich Town 4 Charlton Athletic 0

Today is the last day of the season in the English third division, and in common with every last day of the season for about the past twenty years it doesn’t matter much if Ipswich Town play today’s game or not.  In 2019 Town had already been relegated by the time what is often thought of as this auspicious day arrived, but usually, like today, Town are becalmed in mid-table mediocrity with no fear of relegation and no hope of promotion.  Ours is the club that would confound Rudyard Kipling and his poem ‘If’; we neither meet with triumph nor disaster, so what else can we do but treat them both the same. According to Kipling they are both imposters so perhaps what we encounter is reality and may be therefore we’d better get used to it.  But of course, next season is going to be different, Keiran McKenna is the messiah and so we approach today not with dull resignation, but with hope and new found belief, even though it’s a pesky 12.30 kick-off.

The one saving grace of the early start for today’s game is that my walk down through Gippeswyk Park is enchanting, serenaded as I am with sweet birdsong and bathed with soft spring morning sunlight.  The tide is high as I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge on which a banner reads “Champions of England, back in ‘62”. The heavy stench of body sprays and perfumes falls from the open windows of the Pentahotel.  In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and a Turnstile Blue fanzine with an ‘old-fashioned’ pound coin. Reaching the Arbor House pub (formerly The Arboretum) the front door is invitingly open and having stepped inside I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) before going out back into the garden where Mick is already nursing a pint of the same fine beer along with a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.   We talk of planning permissions, Mick’s discovery that he has vertigo and what has and hasn’t happened since we last met, which seems long ago, before the Cambridge game back on 2nd April.  We are interrupted by a telephone call from Mick’s son who it transpires will be attending a four day, all expenses paid conference in Paris; it’s alright for some, although he does have to make a presentation. Checking our watches at five past twelve we decide it’s time to leave for the match; I return our glasses and the empty cup that once contained peanuts to the bar, which is also now empty.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way Mick and I part ways as he secures his bike and heads for the posh seats of the West Stand and I make for the cheap seats near the front of what used to be ‘Churchmans’. Entering the hallowed halls of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand through turnstile number 60 I thank the overweight turnstile operator and am soon stood in a row with other men before a stainless-steel trough.  The man next to me is gushing forcefully against the steel and I shuffle as far away as I can for fear of unpleasant splashback.  Washing my hands, I am greeted by Kevin who I know from our previous mutual involvement with Wivenhoe Town; he tells me how much he enjoys this blog, which is kind of him.

Up in the stand, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood are all here as I take my place between Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket.  We enjoy a few bars of Hey Jude and a red smoke bomb from the Charlton fans before at 12:31 the game begins; Ipswich having first go with the ball and facing the direction of Phil and Elwood, Pat, Fiona and me.  Bizarrely I think I hear the Charlton fans chanting “We’re the Millwall boys, making all the noise, everywhere we go”, that can’t be right, can it?  A woman sat in front of me devours an obscene looking foot long hot dog.  It’s the third minute of the match, the smell of the smoke bomb lingers and Town break; Bersant Celina to Conor Chaplin and out to Wes Burns, who shoots inaccurately and a little wildly from outside the penalty area.  With the smell of the smoke still lingering it currently seems more like Guy Fawkes night than the last match of the season, but no fireworks yet.

It’s the fifth minute and another clever pass from Conor Chaplin is meant to put Wes Burns through but he hasn’t reacted, it’s the third time already that Mr Burns has not been his usual self. A minute later and Bersant Celina does a few step overs before passing square to Tyreeq Bakinson who allows the ball to run across in front of him, looks up and then strikes it firmly into the top right- hand corner of the Charlton goal and Town lead 1-0.  As I remark to Pat from Clacton, Bakinson has been unlucky with a few shots from outside the penalty area in previous games, so it was a goal that had been coming for a while, although happily today we’ve only had to wait six minutes.

It always feels good to score early in a game, it’s almost as if the first goal is the hardest one to get.  But good things, possibly including goals, are like buses, someone probably once said and so it will prove. The twelfth minute and a through ball from the excellent Conor Chaplin sends Wes Burns clear of the Charlton defence and he hits the ball past the on-rushing Charlton goal-keeper, whose sprawling arms and legs aren’t sufficient to counter the deft use of the outside of Mr Burns’ right foot – “Excellent” as his cartoon namesake might say.  How we cheer, although it’s not enough to stop the Charlton supporters from chanting “Two-nil and you still don’t sing” as they trawl their back catalogue of late 1970’s disco hits.

Four minutes later and we think we’ve scored again as yet another through pass from Conor Chaplin, who must be carrying a slide-rule with him today allows the oddly named Macauley Bonne to ‘score,’ only for his and Conor’s work to be annulled by the raised flag of the brutal, heartless linesman.   It’s days like this when there’s nothing at stake that the attitude of ‘disgraced’ French referee Tony Chapron is required; Chapron has admitted having allowed some disallowable goals during his career because they were good goals. La Beaute 1 Actualite 0.

This is just what the last match of the season should be like and to add to the fun lots of players are slipping over on the watered wet turf, eliciting the inevitable jeers from a crowd that just loves slapstick. A slow clapping accompanies that song that includes the words Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez, Allez, I cant decide which. The joy is so infectious even people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand put their hands together and chant, albeit a little bashfully.  Above the Cobbold Stand the three flags hang limply and Charlton get a little more into the game, winning two corners, but to no effect. I am struck by the thought that Wes Burns’ hair is looking much neater today than usual and he seems to have discarded his usual head band.  Wes is pictured on the front of today’s programme all dressed up with a black tie, which incidentally needs straightening, to receive his Players’ Player award at last Wednesday’s awards night and it looks like he may not have been home since.

More than a quarter of the match is over and as Town win a corner Pat from Clacton produces a polythene bag of sweets. “We always score when I get the sweets out” she says “Or we always used to” she adds, harking back to the ‘good old days’.  I tell her that I think the difference is we simply  always used to score in the ‘good old days’. This time the sweets don’t work, despite ever-present Phil also going all Cuban with a chorus of “Score from a corner, We’re gonna score from a corner” to the tune of ‘Guantanamera’.  At the other end, a long throw for Charlton ends with a low bouncing shot bouncing harmlessly past Christian Walton’s right hand post.

“Is this a library?” chant the Charlton supporters in the time honoured operatic fashion,  thereby creating an odd impression of the benefits  of public education in South East London.  A half an hour has passed since the game began and Town’s attacking vigour has subsided somewhat, giving way to plenty of square passing.  In a rare moment of real excitement Sam Morsy shoots past a post and then,  perhaps in an attempt at what passes as satire for south-east Londoners, the Charlton fans embark on a long passage of chanting in which they call either “We’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball” or “We’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball” according to whether or not their team has the ball. As an exercise in observation it’s not very taxing for our visitors, but it is very, very boring and after a while a little annoying. 

On the pitch meanwhile, Charlton are probably having as much if not more possession than Town as half-time approaches and they almost score when Jayden Stockley heads across goal and Christian Walton has to make a fine diving save, palming the ball away for a corner.  It’s a very good save indeed, but the best thing about it is that it interrupts the Charlton fans incessant, boring chanting about whether or not their team has the ball.  Sadly, after the corner comes to nought the chanting resumes.  Only four minutes to half-time and Town win another corner, “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Charlton choir employing Welsh religious music and seemingly becoming angrier, or at least more‘potty-mouthed’ in the process.  The last action of the half sees Conor Chaplin drop a looping header just the wrong side of the cross bar and a long passage of passing play leads to yet another aimless corner.

At half-time I speak briefly with Ray who has his wife Ros with him today; they have been enjoying pre-match hospitality in the form of a late breakfast in honour of their grandson Harrison’s 18th birthday earlier this week.  I speak with Harrison’s dad Michael and also give Harrison his birthday present, a copy of the CD ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ by the excellent Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who has provided the soundtrack to most of my adult life. Happily, Harrison will later let me know that he thinks the CD is “Brilliant”.  Meanwhile, behind us, public address compere Stephen Foster talks to true Town legend,  84 year old Ray Crawford, who was top scorer in Town’s Championship winning team of 1962 and even turned out for Charlton Athletic too a few years later.  If any other Town player ever deserves a statue it has to be Ray, Town’s all-time top scorer with 228 goals in just 354 games, no one will ever beat that. Returning to my seat,  I speak to ever-present Phil and let him know that I have e-mailed the club to suggest they paint or paper the walls inside the away supporters section to look like book shelves.  I am disappointed that I have not yet received any response other than that they will forward my e-mail to the ‘relevant department’.  I e-mailed again to ask who the ‘relevant department’ might be, but have not received a reply; they no doubt think I’m a looney.

The second half is still fresh when Charlton’s George Dobson becomes the first player to see the yellow card of the distinguished sounding referee Mr Charles Breakspear, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  A minute later as if in an act of calculated revenge Conor provides yet another precise through ball which releases the oddly named Macauley Bonne, who then delivers a low cross for Wes Burns to despatch in to the Charlton goal net for a third Town goal.  Pat from Clacton records mine and Fiona’s celebrations for posterity in the form of a digital photograph which will later appear on Facebook, as is the fashion.

“3-0 on your big day out” chant the taunting, mocking occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the south-east Londoners. Pat looks to see what she has drawn in the Clacton Supporters’ coach ‘predict the result’ draw; it’s four home goals and any number of away goals, so Pat could be in the money!   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand as if they know that Pat may yet be a winner.  The thrill of expectation is broken by Janoi Doncien tactically heading over his own cross bar before  the North Stand launch a chorus of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” as they pretend it’s Christmas and Charlton make their first substitution, with Alex Gilbey who, like both the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Kane Vincent-Young once played for Colchester United, but unlike them shares his surname with a brand of gin, being replaced by Chukwuemeka Aneke.   Janoi Donacien appears to have been injured in heading over his own cross-bar and is also replaced, by the aforementioned Kane Vincent-Young.

Less than half an hour of the season remains but Conor Chaplin continues to make incisive passes and this time Luke Woolfenden almost puts in a low cross before sending the ball high and wide from what was possibly a shot.  “3-0 and you still don’t sing” chant the Charlton fans sounding increasingly frustrated at the Town fans’ insouciance, but still enjoying a cheery late 1970’s disco vibe.  The attendance is announced as being 26,002 with 1,972 of that number being Charlton supporters.  Weirdly, some people applaud themselves for turning up, but to my right there is a sudden exclamation. “I don’t believe it” says Pat from Clacton, “The bloody dog has won it”.  The ‘it’ in this case is the Clacton Supporters’ bus guess the crowd competition, and the dog is her brother Kevin’s dog Alfie, who Pat will later worryingly refer to as her nephew.  “Does he win a lot?” asks the man with the crew cut who sits in the row between Pat and ever-present Phil.

Cameron Humphreys replaces Conor Chaplin who receives well-deserved rapturous applause and Charlton replace Conor Washington with Elliott Lee to reduce the number of Conors on the pitch from two to zero within the space of seconds. “Is this a library?” and “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Charltonites again, ploughing an all too familiar furrow, but perhaps not realising that as football stands go the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is a sort of retirement home in which many of the occupants are constantly singing “Bobby Robson’s Blue and White Army”, but in our heads.

Thirteen minutes to go and Jayden Stockley heads against the Town cross bar. Three minutes later and a shout of “Handball! ” goes up from the Charlton fans. Nobody not in a red shirt knows why but there follows thirty seconds of every touch of the ball being greeted with a call of “ Handball” from the ever sarcastic people of Ipswich.  Charlton win a corner. “Charlton, Charlton!” shout the Charlton fans, showing how supporting your team is done, but it doesn’t bring a goal so it’s not worth it, although a prone Christian Walton does have to claw the ball down to stop it entering the net.  Six minutes to go and James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne to rich applause for both players.  James Norwood has announced that this is his last game for Town; if this were a US TV Cop show he’d get shot just before the final whistle, but happily it’s not.  Returning my attention to the actual football, “We want four” I think to myself half- imagining what Portman Road crowds of old would have chanted, and as I do so Cameron Humphreys threads a Conor Chaplin-style through-ball into the path of James Norwood who, from a very oblique angle steers it into the net, possibly off the goalkeeper, for his last ever Town goal. It’s only the third time Town have scored more than three goals at home this season and the it’s the biggest end of season win I’ve witnessed since Town beat Crewe Alexandra 5-1 in April 2005.   As Town fans cheer, Charlton fans sing “We forgot you were here” and three minutes of time added on melt away into forgotten history.

As last days of the season go, this has been a really good one, despite the 12.30 kick off, but it feels like it comes with the rider that Town have to do well next season.  Personally, I’m not too bothered either way, I just like to see Town play well; if we do that and we finish eleventh again I won’t be suicidal, although may be the club’s American investors will be.  But I can afford to be complacent, I’m old enough to have seen Town win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, but the likes of Harrison and Elwood haven’t, so come on Town, do it for them.

Ipswich Town 0 Cheltenham Town 0

It’s been a while since I’ve been to watch the Town at Portman Road, having forgone the last six matches thanks to the pandemic.  But it’s been a lot longer since I last saw Cheltenham Town play (7th September 2002 at Layer Road, Colchester to be precise), and it’s a lot longer still since Cheltenham Town played at Portman Road (19th March 1938 in the Southern League).  Add to the weight of history the fact that because I am not in my nineties, I have never seen Ipswich Town play Cheltenham Town at Portman Road, and you have the recipe for an evening of excitement to rival that of the last match I saw live, Town versus Barrow in the FA Cup, a truly awful goalless draw as I recall.  On days like this I don’t miss the Championship one little bit.  What’s being in the third division for if it’s not for playing the likes of Cheltenham Town?  Live for the moment and breathe as deep as you dare.

Rocking up on Anglesea Road at twenty-seven minutes to seven, I park my trusty Citroen C3 on a single yellow line and head for what I call the Arboretum pub, but the current occupiers label the Arbor House.  Eight minutes later I have hurried as quickly as I could through the bar, pausing only to mumble a request for a pint of Lacon’s ‘Jack Valentine’ (£3.80) through my face mask, and now I sit in the peace, solitude and creeping cold of the softly lit beer garden.  Amusing myself with the wonders accessible on my mobile phone I sip my beer and get into the funky groove of the righteous soul music climbing out of the plastic speaker in the corner of the garden shelter in which I’m sat. If I didn’t know I was in Ipswich I’d think I was in 1970’s Harlem as the sounds of Sir Joe Quatermain and Free Soul ((I got) so much trouble in my mind (1973)); Smokey Robinson (Baby that’s backatcha (1975)) and the Bobby “Blue” Band (Ain’t no love in the heart of the city (1974)) move my feet and my boogie body.  Beginning to feel like I’ve stepped back in time and looking forward to seeing the likes of Ian Collard, David Johnson and Colin Harper at Portman Road tonight I suddenly return to the now with the realisation that for £3.80 I could probably have bought everyone in the pub a drink or may be two in 1973, although I would have been a tad underage to have done so.

Leaving my reverie in the pub garden I head for Portman Road, my heart leaping a little as I catch a first glimpse of the glare of the floodlights in the night sky.  I approach the ground along Alderman Road to manufacture that ‘going to the match’ down terraced streets feel.  In the back of the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand supporters already in the ground appears as silhouettes on the stairs and through the plate glass windows of the concourse.  Having purchased nothing with coins of the realm for over a month I recklessly buy both a programme (£3.50) and a Turnstile Blue fanzine (£1). I walk between the rows of fumy supporters’ buses lined up opposite the old tram depot and approach the Sir Alf Ramsey stand from the Constantine Road gate, eventually returning to Portman Road through turnstile number 60. I’m back.

In the stand I reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never missed a game until he caught Covid; they’ve missed me, or at least that’s what they tell me; they’re nice like that. With seconds to go before kick-off Fiona arrives too and I say hello to the man who sits to my right, who I always imagine is older than me, but possibly isn’t.  The game begins; Town getting first go with the ball, but I am quickly struck by how disappointed I am by Cheltenham’s kit. In my mind’s eye, a phrase that reminds me of my favourite Small Faces song, I see Cheltenham Town in red and white stripes, but tonight they sport a sort of knock-off Arsenal shirt with pinstripes and a Raglan sleeve.  The Raglan sleeve incidentally is the least desirable of all the sleeves for use on a football shirt.

Aside from the shirts, the football is fast and frantic, with Wes Burns uncontrollably shooting over the cross bar from close range after five minutes, and Bersant Celina making a weaving run before dipping the ball over the cross bar not five minutes later as Town confidently dominate their sartorial inferiors. The ostentatiously bald-headed referee, Mr Andy Davies, unexpectedly makes me think of the similarly hairless, on-loan St Etienne goalkeeper Paul Bernadoni, before a man behind me with a slightly Northern or Midlands accent annoys with a laugh that sounds like Disney’s Goofy.  “Unlucky, unlucky, unlucky; keep going, keep going, keep going” says an oddly repetitive woman from behind as another Town attack comes to nought and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand show signs of life, breaking into Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, to sing as ever of ceaseless fighting despite Norwich having run away, and all apparently and mysteriously because of Boxing Day.   High up in the Cobbold Stand the Cheltenham followers reveal a lack of originality matched only by their lack of memory as they chant “We forgot, we forgot we forgot that you were here” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. With my attention back on the pitch, I can’t help but guffaw as Cheltenham’s  Reece Hutchinson hurls himself headlong to the ground in a wonderfully unconvincing attempt to cheat his way to a free-kick.  What was I thinking, staying away to avoid Covid when I could have been a part of this rich tapestry?

Ipswich’s dominance is total and is such that two of our three defenders, Janoi Donacien and Luke Woolfenden are seen exchanging forward passes within twenty-five metres of the Cheltenham goal.  Then a deep, angled Tommy Carroll cross is met with a diving header from Conor Chaplin, only for Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans to palm the ball away in front of Bersant Celina, who is taken too much by surprise to attempt to kick the ball back at the goal.  I’m just thinking how we haven’t been able to exploit Kayden Jackson’s ability to run very fast, when he suddenly breaks down the left, but when he comes to cross the ball he seems to have become over excited and at the far post the ball skids off the forehead of Conor Chaplin at such speed that it must have caused a friction burn.  It somehow feels as if everyone is just a bit too eager,  but out of the blue at the North Stand end Christian Walton fails to clear the ball successfully and his scuffed effort falls to a Cheltenham’s theatrically named Elliott Bonds, but fortunately Bonds’ left footed shot sails hopelessly high above the goal.

Town’s onslaught resumes and Cheltenham show the first sign of resorting to non-footballing tactics to relieve the pressure. “Oh, get up you wanker” says a polite sounding woman behind me as a red-shirted defender lays prostrate on the turf following a gentle collision with another bloke in a football shirt.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Cheltonians predictably in a quiet moment, and equally predictably no one responds.  Kayden Jackson delivers a slightly limp shot into the arms of Owen Evans and with the first half half-over, Town win their first corner, from which Tommy Carroll shoots impressively wide to the extent that the ball arcs away from the goal and stays on the pitch; Bersant Celina spots the unlikely trajectory and crosses the ball back into the ‘mixer’ but there’s no happy end to the incident.

 The second half of the first half plays out in a succession of Town corners and missed goal attempts.  Much of the first half football has been as exciting as it’s ever been at Portman Road in the past twenty years, but the plain truth is there has been no one to put the ball in the net.  As the half draws to a close Wes Burns turns to lash the ball back into the area in front of the goal from the by-line, but the ball strikes Hutchinson’s outstretched arm or possibly arms; VAR would doubtless have recorded the crime but instead Town are awarded another corner from which Luke Woolfenden deftly diverts a graceful header very precisely over the cross bar.

With the half-time whistle the Cheltenham players jog hastily and as one from the pitch, as if someone had just said “last one back in the changing room’s a sissy”.   By contrast Town’s players seem either less enthused, or just less sensitive to childish name calling.  It seems more likely they are lost in thought, grappling to understand how they are not two or three goals up. Forgetting about football for a bit I pop down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad.  Behind us stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster hands over his microphone to comedian and TV personality Omid Djalili, but sadly his words are completely scrambled by the hopeless public address system. Meanwhile Harrison’s dad offers me what the Tim Horton’s website enticingly describes as a ‘mini donut style cake ball’.  I am warned that it will probably taste of maple syrup; but contrarily it tastes of cinnamon. Whilst not ungrateful, and happy to ingest either cinnamon or maple syrup flavoured foodstuffs I am happy not to be offered another.

Cheltenham Town kick-off the second half by lumping the ball down field in the traditional manner.  Town soon get back to winning corners, but with much less frequency than before and somehow the speed and excitement of the first half has departed, leaving in its place mis-directed passes and an unsporting belief amongst the Cheltenham team that they could break away and score a goal of their own.   I remain full of hope, but either Town have lost their mojo or Cheltenham have worked us out.  The game descends into more of a battle with half an hour to go as Cheltenham’s Charlie Colcutt becomes the first player to enter Mr Davies’ address book for a heinous foul on Wes Burns and then the substitutions begin with Kane Vincent-Young replacing Dominic Thompson and the oddly named Macauley Bonne appearing in lieu of Kayden Jackson.  Cheltenham stopper Lewis Freestone is next to have his name etched in copper plate in baldy-Davies’s book as ten minutes later the Cheltenham number six ruthlessly chops down Conor Chaplin.

One bright spot in the second half is the announcement of the night’s attendance of 21,318, of whom 251 are supporting Cheltenham.  Pat from Clacton announces to Fiona and I that the winner of the Clacton supporters’ coach guess the crowd competition is the squirrel that steals the food from the bird table in her garden. I explain to Fiona that squirrels are very clever animals, but I didn’t know they enjoyed coach travel.

Following speed, excitement and accurate passing, enjoyment now leaves the game as Callum Wright of Cheltenham hangs about too long in a prone position on the turf and draws the vitriol of the Sir Bobby Robson stand for his trouble.  “Wanker, Wanker!” roar the lower tier to Wright’s bemusement as he is soon substituted with Aaron Ramsey.  “How could they tell?” he must be wondering to himself as he looks for hairs on the palms of his hands.  Time is running out and in desperation a chant of “Come On You Blues!” is sent out into the ever more chilly night air.  But the chant is only repeated twice more, almost as if everybody feels a bit self-conscious about shouting for any longer than that.  

The final ten minutes are miserable as Cheltenham players spend an unusual amount of time apparently suffering from cramp, something that I thought only happened in extra time in Wembley Cup finals.  Sadly, the ever-unresourceful Town fans can only think of chanting “Boring Boring, Cheltenham” rather than urging on their own team to victory by turning Portman Road into a frightening cauldron of noise.  Cheltenham do waste time, but what professional football team doesn’t when they are close to claiming a hoped for but not necessarily expected away point?  

“Come on Ipswich, score in the final second” I say to creation as the sixth minute of added on time ebbs away. But the final whistle blows, and it feels a bit like we’ve lost.  That’s the trouble with expectation, especially when you’ve not had any for a while.  Not to worry, I think I’ll still be back again next time.