Lincoln City 1 Ipswich Town 0

Games against Lincoln City are like buses are supposed to be, you don’t see one for ages and then a whole bunch of them come along almost at once. Of course things have moved on in Suffolk and nowadays you don’t see a bus for ages and then find out that the County Council have withdrawn financial support for it.  But that aside today is the seventh time Town have played the Imps in the past four years, having not played them previously since 15th of April 1961, and despite an absence of passengers or paying customers at Sincil Bank the game is still going ahead.

It’s a grey, overcast day, a dull end to the end of British Summertime and I have spent the morning half-watching live coverage of the Aussie Rules Grand Final between Richmond Tigers and Geelong Cats. The Cats are probably the under dogs, if that’s possible. I once stopped in Geelong for a cup of coffee and some food on a road trip from Melbourne and out along the Great Ocean Road, I also used to own a pet cat; these seem to me to be good enough reasons to be rooting for the Geelong Cats today.  My wife Paulene has an on-line subscription to watch every Aussie Rules game, every week of the season, and she is supporting Richmond.  Richmond win by 81 points to 50, but sportingly I join in Paulene’s celebration and share in the bottle of Crémant that I thoughtfully put in the fridge after breakfast.  Indeed, today my pre-match ‘pint’ is one of Crémant, which accompanies a light lunch of left over rice, salad and prosciutto.

Whilst Paulene switches her attention to the Giro d’Italia cycle race, I tune into Radio Suffolk on my trusty Sony transistor radio, plugging in the earpiece, and finely adjusting the dial to eliminate the hisses and crackles of the ether and Radio Essex just in time to hear a female voice handing over to Brenner Woolley and Alex Mathie in faraway Lincoln.  Brenner is quickly down to business asking Alex what he wants to see today; Alex is equally quick to tell us that he wants to see Town playing football in the attacking third of the pitch; thereby implying that he does not want to see the defence passing it aimlessly amongst themselves like they did at Doncaster Rovers last Tuesday in what could only euphemistically be called ‘building from the back’.  Meanwhile it sounds like Oasis are playing over the Sincil Bank PA system, but I could be wrong.

I didn’t watch or listen to the game at Doncaster on Tuesday, I’m not entirely sure why but I think it was the case that I simply couldn’t be bothered and preferred to sit and read a book.  Nevertheless, I was giving my support by wearing my button-collar blue T-shirt purchased on-line in the Planet Blue sale over the summer.  The T-shirt had previously not witnessed a Town defeat, but sadly by bedtime when I removed it from my rippling torso it had to be added to the huge pile of lucky garments that weren’t.

Back at Sincil Bank, or the LNER Stadium as the soulless lackeys of the capitalist system would now have us call it, Brenner helpfully describes how Town are wearing all blue whilst Lincoln wear red, black and red and are defending the goal off to Brenner and Alex’s left.  The reception on my Sony 310 transistor radio has become rather poor and I have to jiggle the radio about a bit whilst Brenner reveals that today’s referee is Mr Kevin Johnson.  The “ball runs to one of those red shirts” says Brenner, understandably unable to recognise the unfamiliar faces of the Lincoln players, although also suggesting to me at least that there could just be some red shirts strewn about the pitch.  Brenner fills his commentary with superfluous information about which clubs the Lincoln players have played for previously, where they went to school and what their first pets were.  Just three minutes have passed and it should be 1-0 to Lincoln.  “It’s all Lincoln just now” is Alex’s expert assessment.

Ipswich’s goal survives the opening minutes and our heroes work their way into the game a little more.  Both Brenner and Alex pronounce Lankester as Lancaster betraying their far northern heritage with their ugly short vowels; but they both now agree that it’s a good game.  “You’ve never seen them win here” says Brenner to Alex, and then in an attempt to feign positivity he adds “It’ll change this afternoon, fear not”.  He doesn’t fool me.

Oliver Hawkins seems to be playing well. “When the ball comes in, he’s made it stick” says Alex muddling his tenses and using a sort of glue metaphor to tell us that Hawkins can control a football.  The ball goes “…into the palms of Palmer the ‘keeper” says Brenner, becoming enjoyably playful with his words before sharing the important fact that there has never been a goalless draw between the two sides.

Twenty five minutes have passed. “There’s not a great deal happening at the moment” says Brenner.  Glancing through the living room window it looks like the world has started to melt.    “Rain!” shouts Paulene, and as one we dash out into the hall, through the Kitchen and into the back garden to rescue various socks, items of underwear and T-shirts from the rotary washing line, whilst I simultaneously hope I don’t miss a goal; happily I don’t.

A third of the match has now passed in to broadcasting history and Hawkins has a header cleared off the goal line. “He just rose and he’s hung in the air” says Alex taking one from the near the top of the pile of football commentating clichés, but sensibly eschewing any mention of salmon; it was “.. a phenomenal header” adds Brenner.  A minute later Hawkins shoots for goal and clears the stand; it sounds like it was a phenomenal shot.

Entering the final third of the first half Brenner refers to someone playing the ball with “his left shoe” and to Andre Dozzell getting “on his bike”, something Freddie Sears did in last Saturday’s match, and with Freddie not playing today I wonder if it’s the same bike or if each of the players has his own and if so how they all fit in the underfloor lockers of the team bus.  Does the presence of all the bikes mean that the kit has to be stowed on overhead luggage racks inside the bus?  Back in 1962 when Town won what is now called the Premier League, most of the players actually used their bikes to get to training each day.  Tsk, how times change, eh?

As the game drifts towards half-time, play has apparently stopped and there is talk of a drop ball and neither Brenner nor Alex seem to know exactly what is going on, or how we got into this situation, whatever the situation is.  It’s a most disconcerting few seconds of my life; it’s bad enough not really knowing what’s happening anyway when one listens to a radio commentary, but when the commentators don’t either it feels I’m like falling into a dark abyss, or at the very least being locked in the cupboard under the stairs.  It’s a relief when the action returns to my ears, although all too soon I feel my heart leap as Brenner’s voice suddenly rises in pitch and volume and Lincoln City’s Brennan Johnson surges into the penalty area, but thankfully shoots past Tomas Holy’s right hand goal post.  The half closes with Alex Mathie giving us his assessment that the game “deserves a goal,” although I’d argue that virtue is its own reward.

Over half-time I relocate from the living room to the Ikea Poang chair in the ‘back bedroom’ because I am struggling to concentrate on the finer points of Brenner and Alex’s commentary whilst also still able to hear the commentary of the Giro d’Italia cycle race on the telly.  I try out the kitchen first but for some unfathomable reason the radio reception there just isn’t good enough. I put the kettle on and make tea for Paulene but forget to pour a cup for myself.  Evidently under stress, but not knowing it , I settle down in the Poang to hear Alex conclude that it was an even first half but that “…Lincoln just shaded it with chances” before predicting that “…whoever gets the first goal is likely to go on and win the game”, which suggests that neither team is very good ‘up front’.   At three minutes past four “Nolan rolls the ball back to Wilson” and the second half begins.  Town are now playing, Brenner tells us, towards the end at which little Alan Judge scored the winning goal in the FA Cup last season.  Disappointingly Brenner fails to mention the towers of the Gothic cathedral that can be seen up on the hill beyond the roof of the Stacey West stand but in his defence , he does mention the Lincoln City player with the “Alice band keeping his blond hair in place”.  Radio commentary is all about painting a picture with words.

I look at Twitter and catch up on the FA Cup scores at Leiston (drawing 2-2 with Barnet), and at Banbury where Bury Town are winning 1-0.  It’s nearly twenty past four now and Brenner again raises the question of whether this game could be the first ever goalless draw between Town and Lincoln City.  There is clearly little sign of there being a goal at Sincil Bank, which incidentally is one of my favourite names of any Football League ground; let’s hope the club’s custodians never think it’s a good idea to move elsewhere.

Back in the commentary box it sounds like Brenner and Alex are about to argue. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have thanks to Twitter but I think that perhaps contrary to Brenner’s view Alex is trying to say that Town have had a good start to the second half “Are you admonishing me , Alex?” says Brenner. “No I’m trying to convince myself” replies Alex climbing down.  It’s the most exciting moment of the half so far. 

The game dribbles on; Brenner predicts that Lincoln’s Liam Bridcutt is heading for a yellow card as a result of a number of niggly fouls that “…he has committed since 3 o’clock”, from which I infer that Brenner thinks he may have been committing fouls before 3 o’clock too.  Bridcutt is not booked, although he was booked at Fleetwood the previous Saturday, so Brenner was right.   

It is thirty-three minutes past four and all of sudden Alex Mathie provides an object lesson to all co-commentators in how to sound exasperated.  “ You don’t need to do that…” says Alex before seemingly being struck speechless as Toto Nsiala nudges over Brennan Johnson, and Mr Kevin Johnson the referee, perhaps taking a lead from Boris Johnson about awarding honours and contracts to your friends and now it seems namesakes, awards a penalty to Lincoln City.   Brenner picks up the commentary from the stupified Alex and Jorge Grant scores.  “He doesn’t miss many when he takes them” says a recovered Alex, devising an odd variation on that motivational poster nonsense about always missing 100% of the shots you don’t take.

“I’d like to see it again Brenner” says Alex to his colleague about the penalty, as if this is something that Brenner has the power to arrange.  We now have a female Dr Who, so in the interests of diversity why not a Time Lord who has a side line commentating on Town matches. Keanan Bennetts replaces Jack Lankester with ten minutes remaining and then the game expands into four minutes of added-on time.  In the fifth minute of added-on time Jon Nolan is shown a “straight red” for a foul on Lincoln’s Harry Anderson and Brenner’s and Alex’s commentary sends me tumbling into the  darkness once again, they don’t seem to know what is going on, or prudishly won’t tell me.   It sounds like there is a punch up, which judging by the rest of the commentary of this half is the most exciting thing that has happened all afternoon, but the detail in the commentary is sadly lacking.  I am sat in my Poang wanting to know who is pushing who and who’s restraining who from doing what, but all Brenner tells me is that both goalkeepers are involved; but involved in what? Throwing punches? Kicking opposition players? Kicking their team mates?  Wrestling people to the ground?  Pulling faces? Flicking v-signs?  “Frustration, that’s all it is” says Alex. I know how they feel.

The game ends and I rather wish I hadn’t bothered, but heck what else is there to do on a Saturday afternoon than pretend I’m at a football match. I wonder if there’s any of that Cremant left.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The man entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Ipswich Town 0 Coventry City 1

Last night I went to a ‘gig’ in a very small music venue in Chelmsford called the Hot Box.  My friend Pete, who has never really got over being eighteen, invited me to see a ‘Psyche Rock’ band from Glasgow called Helicon, he thought I’d like them because some of their songs feature a sitar and I’m a sucker for a sitar, so he thought right.  It was when sitting in the bar chatting and listening to the trains rumble overhead (Hot Box is inside two railway viaduct arches) that we couldn’t help but notice all the reproductions of classic album covers of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that plaster the walls, and Pete spotted that for the Only Ones’ eponymous album released in 1978, my favourite year. Today I have realised how the lyrics to the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet describe my relationship with Ipswich Town “You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”.

Today the sky is blue with a hint of wispy cloud.  I stepped out of my back door a bit earlier and it felt flippin’ freezing; so, it is cloaked in a thick woolly jumper, overcoat and muffler that I set off for the railway station having flagrantly ignored the threat of COVID-19 and kissed my wife goodbye. The train arrives on time and the twelve minute walk has left me hot and a bit sweaty; life is not always what you expect. Naturally, the sun is shining in Ipswich and behind the Station Hotel in its beer garden the scarves and shirts of Coventry City fans mimic the colour of the sky; surreally the Eton Boating Song drifts up over the pub car park and the murky waters of the River Orwell, I half expect to see Boris Johnson and his cronies burning £50 notes in front of the rough sleepers who doss down at the front of the railway station.

In Portman Road the six-wheel, slate grey Coventry City team bus arrives at the same time as me, but the bus reverses into Portman Road, turns round and is re-directed to the Constantine Road entrance. Unlike the coach driver I know exactly where I’m going and walk on through, past a man who appears to have a metal bollard stuck up his anus, and the usual pre-match panorama of people munching low-grade meat product between slabs of low grade bread product.  The flags on the Cobbold Stand fly strongly in the breeze and I walk on towards St Matthews Street and St Jude’s Tavern where Mick is already a good way through a pint of Iceni Brewery Partridge Walk (£2.50).  I buy a pint of the same and once sat down we discuss the end of my phased return to work after illness, our weight , today’s team selection and, after Mick reveals how he can’t stand people going on and on about their dogs, dogs. Neither of us owns a dog but I used to have two Lurchers called Alfie and Larry, until they were put down.  I drink another pint of Partridge Walk whilst Mick sinks a Jamieson’s whisky and with fifteen minutes or so until kick-off we depart with the licensee wishing us luck as we don our coats.

Turnstile 5 is my portal into another world today and as usual I smile and thank the operator for letting me through. With bladders drained and hands washed Mick and I take our seats, stepping over them from the row behind so as not to inconvenience Pat from Clacton who is already ensconced at the end of the row.  Of course ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here too, along with his young son Elwood and there’s a welcome return of the old dears (Doug and Sheila) who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me; the only absentee is once again the man with the Brylcreemed hair; that’s two games on the trot he’s not been here, I fear we may have ‘lost’ him and Pat from Clacton says as much.  I won’t miss him, I found his thick hair furrowed with Brylcreem somewhat distracting.

The two teams soon emerge from the shiny, blue, plastic tunnel and Crazee the mascot waves his flag like Liberty leading the people in Eugene Delacroix’s painting. “L’étendard sanglant est levé” I sing to myself, in my head, whilst wishing this game was in Ligue 1 and not League One.  The sky is no longer blue, but grey and cloudy.  The game begins and Ipswich are wearing their customary lovely royal blue shirts and socks with white shorts whilst our guests Coventry are in a somewhat avant garde ensemble of white shirts with a black and white chequered band across the chest, black shorts and white socks; they look as though they are either the 2-Tone Records works’ team or the Metropolitan Police, but it’s quite smart in a un-football-kit-like sort of way. The 2-Tone connection is in fact used to market the kit and in my mind I take things a step further imagining the players on the team bus all in dark suits, pencil ties and pork-pie hats before stepping off the bus in a line like Madness or skanking to The Selecta.  If Ipswich Town was to go for a dress style based on that of a famous, local, popular music artist the players would have to have haircuts like a 1980’s Nik Kershaw, and indeed Frank Yallop did.

Five minutes pass and Town’s Jon Nolan falls theatrically in the penalty area, it’s a blatant dive and I express my disgust with outspread arms and disbelieving expression whilst those around me bay for a penalty.  Town looked okay for a short while, but Coventry are now dominating possession and seem like they have a plan. Up in the Cobbold Stand the Coventry supporters sing Tom Hark (originally a Ska song by Elias and his Zig-Zag Ji-flutes, but not on 2-Tone) and something about ‘going up’, which my ears won’t let me decipher.  The away following today is impressive, even if their annunciation is poor; we will later learn that there are 1,740 of them and in forty-nine years of coming to Portman Road I have never seen so many Coventry City supporters, but then this is the first time in forty-nine years that a Coventry team has come to Portman Road that is at the top of or even anywhere near the top of a league.  These people have been very patient, their team having previously only ever been models of mediocrity, although most Town fans would kill for a bit of mediocrity right now.

As seagulls soar overhead and perch on the cross girder of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand roof, Coventry win the game’s first corner, but the ball is sent directly behind the goal line. The match looks like being one of attrition, but then Coventry score; the uninspiringly named Matt Godden turning very cleverly and shooting inside the far post. No one saw that coming, least of all Luke Chambers and his chums in the Ipswich back-four. Fifteen minutes have passed. “Super, Super Matt” sing the Coventry fans as if advertising a local launderette, but then clarifying the matter by adding “Super Matty Godden”, all to the tune of Skip to My Lou.

The Sir Bobby Robson stand, who had been in reasonable voice fall quiet and the pall of gloom that had seemingly been blown out to sea after the defeat to Fleetwood on Tuesday returns.  “Fucking dog shit this” opines the roughly spoken gentleman behind me.  “Fuckin’ sums it all up” he continues, as a Town player is out-jumped for the ball, “How was he beaten in the air? He’s not even trying to win the fuckin’ ball”.  Pat from Clacton rolls her eyes at the coarseness of the language whilst owning up to me that she sometimes says “shit”.

On 28 minutes a ball drops over the top of the Coventry defence and Town’s Jon Nolan is on to it with just Coventry’s Slovakian goalkeeper Marko Marosi between him and glory. Nolan opts for abuse as he tamely heads the ball into the goalkeeper’s hands. “We’re gonna win the League” sing the Coventry supporters, sounding a little unsure of the words, having never sung them before this season.   Half an hour has passed and the wonderfully named referee, Trevor Kettle, whistles for a foul on Town’s Teddy Bishop and then gives his yellow card its first airing of the afternoon, brandishing it in the direction of the perpetrator Liam Walsh.  Town win their first corner five minutes later and Luke Woolfenden’s shot is sent wide of the goal.  It’s nearly half-time and seizing their opportunity to deliver ironic humour as Town supporters head for the toilets, the Coventry fans sing “Is this a library?” Time enough remains for Nolan to be through on goal again and send his shot over the cross bar and a few rows behind me some unusually posh sounding people talk to one another very loudly ,as posh people often do, about something completely unrelated to football.

Half -time brings boos for Trevor ‘The Whistle’ Kettle as he leaves the pitch with his two side-kicks in their unpleasant yellowy-green tops and the air is one of despondency.  Mick asks if I thought we should have had a penalty near the beginning when Nolan went down; I tell him I can’t remember the incident. “Well, you were very animated at the time” says Mick, and then I remember and have to explain that actually I was annoyed that Nolan had dived.  I speak with Ray who bemoans the absence of decent full-backs at the club and the fact that once again the goal Town conceded came down the left hand side of the pitch.

At 16:04 the second half begins, but the blokes behind don’t return for a good few minutes; they don’t miss much and we don’t miss them.  As time passes inexorably it becomes apparent that the second half is better than the first from a Town supporting perspective, we have more of the ball anyway, which makes it feel like we’re doing okay.  Godden misses a good opportunity to confirm the win for Coventry, but otherwise his team doesn’t look that much better than ours, just a bit more confident due to a fortunate habit of winning rather than an unfortunate one of losing.  Pat from Clacton tells me that she’s going to Yarmouth next weekend for a week of playing whist, but she’ll be back on the Friday, the day before the Portsmouth game.   She won £28 last year.

An hour of football has passed and as he turns towards goal Town’s Freddie Sears is hacked down by Coventry’s Kyle Macfadzean who is consequently booked by Mr Kettle, who I imagine must have asked “Would you spell that please” as he reached for his pencil and his notebook. With the help of her compact Sony camera and its zoom lens Pat confirms that Ed Sheeran’s is here again today and she snaps him. I tell her that I saw on Twitter that Rick Wakeman is here too, and she gets a really good picture of him in the directors’ box, in which he’s looking right down the camera.   Watch out for the Patarazzi.  Pat’s sister Jill wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus.  “Oh please let them score” entreats Pat as another cross is sent into the Coventry penalty area, but the team is in need of some luck and Pat gets out the masturbating monkey charm who introduced himself at the Fleetwood game; she rubs his head but nothing happens.  I learn that the monkey actually came from Cambodia, not Vietnam as I said before.

Neither Mick nor Pat from Clacton, nor I notice how many minutes of added time there are, so engrossed are we in the match and so strongly are we willing Town to score, but at 16:53 Mr Kettle whistles for the last time and it’s all over bar the booing, of which, thankfully, there isn’t as much as there was on Tuesday.  Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil and who never misses a game and Elwood make a sharp exit for their respective coach and car but Mick and I stay to applaud the team.  They haven’t all played well, but we don’t doubt that they tried to, who doesn’t want to do their best except nihilists and they probably want to be good at being nihilists.  If we don’t applaud them that can only make them feel worse; we’re Supporters, it’s what we do.  Something tells me the masturbating monkey would say it’s just fate.

Ipswich Town 0 Sheffield United 1

The ‘hectic Christmas schedule’ is over and today is the first Saturday of the new year and is therefore the day of the FA Cup third round, once one of the most auspicious dates in the English football calendar. The evil Premier League and the Football Association itself have together destroyed the glory of the FA Cup, but those of us who remember it as it was can stir our memories and pretend, shutting out the horrid reality to enjoy what should be a season highlight. Forty-four years ago I recall, Ipswich played Sheffield United in the FA Cup third round, it was the first FA Cup tie I ever saw and we won 3-2 having been 2-1 down. The wonderfully named Geoff Salmons and the brilliant Tony Currie scored for Sheffield United; ‘magic’ Kevin Beattie won the game with two goals in two minutes just before half-time and super Brian Hamilton got the other one for Town; marvellous. We went on to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the next round.
The draw has in one way been good to Ipswich, giving us a home tie, but sadly it is against a team in the same Division as us, so there is no chance of a ‘Cup upset’ and no road-trip to some far off exotic, provincial town like Fleetwood or Rochdale that Town have never graced.
It is nevertheless with a spring in my step that I set off for the railway station under a pale winter sun, wrapped up against the bitter cold.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The train is three minutes late and I board it along with a bearded man in a khaki hat and camouflage jacket and a teenage boy and girl who are carrying skateboards. In the far corner of the carriage a bearded hippy in a leather jacket drinks from a tin one of those peculiar ‘ciders’ that contain fruit other than apples. The man in the camouflage jacket huddles into another corner as if trying not to be seen, but he clashes horribly with the blue moquette of the train seats.
At Colchester all these passengers leave the train except for the hippy, who once the train OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAleaves the station inexplicably moves to the other end of the carriage leaving me alone with my winter clothing and enthusiasm for the FA Cup. Arriving in Ipswich the afternoon is not as bright, there is a pall of grey cloud. Football supporters spill out of the station and across the bridge opposite, there are three swans swimming in the river below; the tide is high and all is quiet, almost serene.

 

As usual Portman Road is a curious, greasy street cafe peopled with stewards in shapeless coats policing nothing in particular. The search dog looks happy and a man searches amongst the sauce bottles by one of the hot food stands. Programmes are only £2 today, so I buy one and a man on a bike weaves past me.


In St Jude’s Tavern the usual bunch of ageing Town fans sit and discuss football whilst I buy a pint of the Match Day Special (Yeovil Brewery Company’s Star Gazer – £2) and very good it is. I am soon joined by Mick who will be accompanying me to the game. We talk about travelling through Italy, Welsh counties, Donald Trump, Andrew Graham-Dixon and football. Mick gives me the £10 he owes me for the match ticket. After another pint of Star Gazer we head down Portman Road at about twenty minutes to three and into Sir Alf Ramsey Way. There is a short queue at the turnstile for the stand formerly known as the West Stand and once inside Mick remarks on the picturesque coffee stand, painted somewhat bizarrely to look like it’s built of stone.
In the stand we use the facilities and are both amused by the sign on the hand dryers which reads ‘Danger Electricity’. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFearless as we are, and confident in our general familiarity with modern electrical appliances we use the dryers nevertheless, despite the jolting, tingling sensation it gives us. It is two minutes to three by the scoreboard clock as we take our seats, but the teams are already lined up and ready to kick-off. Town are of course wearing their traditional blue shirts and white shorts with blue socks, but I am bitterly disappointed, mortified even to see that Sheffield United are not wearing their distinctive red and white stripes with black shorts. Instead, the visiting team sport plain white shirts with black shorts, like some sort of pathetic imitation of Port Vale or Germany. What is wrong with these people? They just keep finding new ways to ruin the game.
The game begins and Ipswich, fielding a more or less full strength team, given that most of the first choice midfield is injured, start quite well. They pass the ball to one another and approach the opposition penalty area. Sadly Sheffield begin to play a little as well and after about ten minutes and it becomes apparent that Town won’t be able to just dismissively swat away their challenge, which is a pity. The game evens up and Ipswich’s early bravado dissipates a little, but it’s okay, we’re playing better than usual because we have the ball as much as the opposition do. Then, at about twenty five past three a bloke called Nathan Thomas shoots from way out into the top corner of the Ipswich net and we’re losing. Crap.
The 1,100 odd Sheffield supporters who have been shouting and singing support for theirOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA team during the preceding minutes now do so with added joy and vigour. The 10,957 odd home supporters haven’t made much noise up until now and still don’t, although their team really needs some encouragement right now. The game dribbles on to half-time as depression sets in with the majority of those in attendance. Mick and I are sat in Block Y which is in the centre of the top tier of the West Stand; normally these are the most expensive seats in the ground, they are padded and they’re brown, not blue. But the people who sit in them are as quiet and miserable as the people I usually sit with in the more modestly appointed Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, they just look better fed and sound more pleased with themselves. A Sheffield player goes down injured and requires treatment, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. I remark to Mick how back in 1974 the North Stand would have been braying “Dig a hole and fuckin’ bury him”, but now they just grumble a bit to each other. People knew how to make their own entertainment back then.
The top tiers of both the North Stand (Sir Bobby Robson Stand) and Churchman’s (Sir Alf Ramsey Stand) are closed to supporters today because of the reduced crowd due to it not

being another bloody boring League match, but an exciting FA Cup game. The club has nevertheless placed stewards amongst the rows of empty North Stand seats, and all around the ground there seem to be a lot of stewards in parts of the ground where they are the only people there. It all helps add to Portman Road’s unique atmosphere.
At half-time I use a different toilet where the hand dryers don’t carry health warnings,

before Mick and I gaze out across the practice pitch beyond a red Citroen H van towards the former municipal power station and tram shed. We marvel that local authorities once built and provided these fabulous things, but don’t comment on the Citroen. The sun is steadily setting behind the cloud and when we return to our seats the pitch is glowing gloriously from the illumination of the floodlights.
The second half begins with some rare vocal encouragement for Town from the North Stand and I realise that the Sheffield United fans must be the first away supporters this season to have witnessed a whole first half without singing “Is this a library?” I can only think they don’t have opera in Sheffield or if they do they don’t much care for Verdi. Perhaps it is a hangover from the Thatcher era when Sheffield was the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire and opera is just too patrician. But full marks to these Blades fans for being more interested in supporting their own team than berating the opposition.
The heady early minutes of the second half fade away like the taste of the half-time beers, snacks and hot beverages and the game descends into dullness. Ipswich don’t exactly play badly, they just don’t create any attempts on goal, which suggests they have misunderstood the point of the game. Sheffield on the other hand do fashion some chances but spurn them. Ipswich captain and centre-half Luke Chambers and goalkeeper Bart Bialkowski seemingly attempt to settle the result with the sorts of misjudgements that one would only expect from the most inept of youths in full-time education, but the Blades are not sharp enough to take advantage.
Apart from the noise from the Sheffielders the game is conducted in near silence, with swathes of seats completely empty it feels like a reserve game. As the contest spirals down towards its miserable conclusion the North Stand at last find a song in their dark hearts, “ We want a shot”, they chant. Having inspired themselves with their own wit they proceed to trawl through their back catalogue of scatological old favourites: “ We’re fucking shit, we’re fucking shit; we’re fucking shit” and “You’re football is shit, you’re football is shit, Mick McCarthy you’re football is shit”. It doesn’t help lighten the mood or motivate the players to do better, I can’t think why.
Oddly, the announcement of four minutes of added on time is greeted with a rare growl of enthusiasm from the crowd, but it makes no difference and there is a sense that people are just clearing their throats for the inevitable booing that greets the final whistle. Ipswich Town are once again out of the FA Cup and after the long descent from the top of the stand Mick and I bid each other farewell. Mick thanks me for getting him a ticket and he means it; he doesn’t see Town play often and although it was a poor game he has enjoyed it. Mick is a very rational man. We go our separate ways and I depart through the club car park and its array of obscenely expensive Ferraris, Mercedes Benz, Audis and Range Rovers. Humming the Buzzcocks’ ‘Fast cars’ I look back on the stadium, the dark shapes of the stands silhouetted in the beams of the floodlights; such beautiful sadness.