Ipswich Town 1 Nostalgia 1

On a damp May evening three years ago, I recall thinking to myself that it feels like 1978 and Ipswich Town have won the FA Cup all over again.  With my Portsmouth supporting wife Paulene, I had gone to see the Wolsey Theatre’s production of ‘Our Blue Heaven’, the music-backed play that celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Town’s FA Cup win. I can honestly say it was the most enjoyable Ipswich Town related evening I had had in nearly twenty years, since that season in the sun at the start of the third millennium when Town did things like beating Liverpool and Manchester City at their own grounds, having finally managed the previous May, to win a play-off semi-final and victoriously tread the turf at the old Wembley stadium for the last time. 

Fast forward to October 9th 2021, and in the spirit of celebration of Town’s winning the UEFA Cup forty years and five months before, which the club itself has seen fit to mark with the sale of a wallet, luxury boxed badge, and travel mug, the New Wolsey Theatre is staging the final performance of its production ‘Never Lost at Home’, the story of the 1980-81 season, but mainly the winning of the UEFA Cup, something no ordinarily lovable, small town football club will probably ever do again.  Not keen on spending an evening in an enclosed space with about 400 other people, most of whom will probably not be wearing a face mask, I have opted to cough up the £20 to watch the two- and a-bit hour performance on-line from the safety of my living room.

Forty and a bit years ago in May of 1981, I had just finished my final exam at the University of Sussex and I was now just wasting my time, until the lease on my shared student house was up, by playing football, going on pub crawls, walking on the Downs, visiting friends at the other end of the country and taking days out in an aged, bright orange, Dutch registered, left-hand drive Fiat 600 which my friend Chris (mainly known as ‘Jah’ due to his love of Reggae) had borrowed from a woman on his Social Anthropology course.  A lack of available cash and the demands of academia had sadly meant that in Town’s run to the final of the 1981 UEFA Cup final, I had only seen two home games, those against Aris Salonika and FC Koln.  Of the other games, I mostly remember the nervous anticipation of waiting for the result on the radio or television news.  The away matches I recall most are those at St Etienne and Koln.  I remember learning that Town were a goal down in St Etienne and was very chuffed to hear they had equalised as I headed off to the Student Union bar that March evening.  When I discovered Town had won 4-1, I could hardly believe it, and indeed it was a performance that has gone down in history as one of the best-ever by a British club in Europe and possibly Ipswich Town’s greatest performance ever.  As for the game in Koln, I remember that my friend Stephen went to the game on a supporters’ coach from Shotley and I remember seeing Terry Butcher’s winning goal on television, having been fearful that the one goal lead from the first leg would not be enough.

On the morning of 20th May 1981 my sister dropped me and my father off at Ipswich railway station where we caught a chartered train to Parkeston Quay and a chartered ferry to the Hook of Holland before boarding a chartered coach to Amsterdam.  Everyone travelled with the Ipswich Town Supporters Club and Anglia Tours back then, and I still have the pennant to prove it.  I wouldn’t enter Holland again for another 35 years, until I drove through a small corner of it on my way to Dusseldorf for a pre-season game in 2016, but I recall it being very neat.  In Amsterdam my father and I spent the time before the game in a small bar where we drank Amstel, a beer rarely seen in Britain back then, thankfully.  My father had encountered it before in foreign ports when in the Royal Navy and had warned me that it was gnats’; he was right, but it was all there was, they didn’t have any Tolly Cobbold Original.    Amsterdam was beautifully warm that May evening, which was just as well because terraces of the Olympic Stadium were open to the elements, which given that it was built for the 1928 Olympics isn’t that surprising; stadium builders weren’t always big on rooves back then.  In 1987 the Dutch government designated the Olympic Stadium as a National Monument, obviously because Town won the UEFA Cup there, but also because of the fine brick architecture by Jan Wils, an exponent of the Amsterdamse School.  It’s good to know that there is a corner of the Dutch capital that will forever be imbued with the memory of the presence of 7,500 Town fans.

My memory of the match that night in Amsterdam is one of anxiety and tension, despite taking an early lead that put us 4-0 up on aggregate and then gaining a second away goal.  AZ 67 Alkmaar were a bloody good team, but happily not quite good enough, despite Town being visibly knackered at the end of a colossal sixty-six game season. Forty years is a long time, and I’m not sure now what I remember from being there and what I remember from having seen various tv clips since.  I think I remember being frustrated that in the second half we couldn’t keep the ball away from Alkmaar, but I know I do recall wishing away the last twenty minutes of the game, and constantly checking my watch; willing Alkmaar not to score again and the Town defence to hold firm.  I remember nothing of the journey home, although I think my father might have invested in the luxury of a two-berth cabin in the hope of a couple of hours of sleep.

Tonight, “Never Lost at Home” picks up the story of the fictional Coombes family who followed Town to Wembley in “Our Blue Heaven”, and the story very much has the feel of being a sequel, which of course it is.  This time the tale begins with the family vowing to have someone at every game for what promises to be the greatest season in the club’s history as it vies to win an unprecedented treble.  Once again, the story is set against the background of the events of the times, in particular the high rates of unemployment resulting from the Thatcher government’s monetarist policies and indeed Scott loses his job to create some jeopardy in the story as it inevitably hinders his ability to get to games. Once again also, the story and the season unfold to a soundtrack of popular tunes of the time, although just like in ‘Our Blue Heaven’ it doesn’t, because several of the songs are from as much a four years later, which rankles somewhat because songs such as Tears for Fears ‘Everybody wants to rule the world’ (1985) were actually the soundtrack to avoiding relegation, not seeking glory.

Despite the failure to use the actual music of 1980 and 1981 (what a pity we never played Rapid Vienna or IK Start), rather than just generic 1980’s hits, there is nevertheless an authentic feeling of nostalgia for a time and a place.  I can’t fully explain why, but I had tears in my eyes in the first part of this production.  It might have been because I was reminded of how awful some of the music of the 1980’s was; I always hated ‘Eye of The Tiger’ (1982) and have consequently never seen any of the ‘Rocky’ films, but more likely I was mourning my lost youth and my lost football team, both of which seemed to go missing at much the same time.

 One major departure from the mostly repeated formula of “Our Blue Heaven” is the introduction in “Never Lost at Home” of one of the players as a recurring character, that player being the now legendary Arnold Muhren.  The choice of Arnold was, if not inspired, then obvious, because perhaps more than any other player, even his fellow Dutchman Frans Thijssen, Arnold somehow personifies that 1980-81 team, despite having actually joined Town three years before in September of 1978.  Again, the story employs a little artistic license as it almost implies that Arnold and Frans joined for the 80-81 season, but that is easily forgiven and does add to the mythology of that remarkable season.  I can only think that in casting actor Dan Bottomley as Arnold Muhren, one of the main considerations must have been his legs, because these have the same straight up and down shape of Arnold’s.  Not for Arnold the meaty thighs of Mick Mills or Paul Mariner; Arnold was a sinewy thoroughbred, built for the measured pass, the clever change of pace and direction in a single stride, the sort of footballer who simply danced through midfield and no longer exists in a game where speed, strength and bulk has usurped grace and subtlety.

The greatest triumph of ‘Never Lost at Home’, as it was of ‘Our Blue Heaven’, is the performance of Peter Peverley as Bobby Robson.   Not only does Peverley, with his gently hoarse County Durham accent, and perfectly observed Robson-esque mannerisms create a wholly believable vision of the Town manager, but he also delivers the great man’s words as he sends his team out in search of glory.  So stirring and convincing are Peverley’s words it might be an idea if the current Town management employed him to give Paul Cook’s team talks.

Oddly perhaps, ‘Never Lost at Home’ tails off towards the end, in contrast to the prequel which had something of a grand finale as the stories of the characters all came together on 6th May with a birth, a marriage and the Cup Final itself.  This time the characters don’t have their own stories to be resolved other than what happens to them as they travel across Europe in the rounds leading up to the final. We all know the ending, and although Town ultimately win the UEFA Cup, sadly mine and a lot of people’s memories of 1980-81 are probably tinged with a feeling of ‘what should have been’ with the loss of the FA Cup semi-final to the hugely inferior Manchester City and the loss of the ever-elusive League Championship to Aston Villa, a team we beat no less than three times over the course of the season.  But as one of the characters in the play points out, we had already won the Cup and the League before, so if it was to be only one out of three, best that it was the UEFA Cup.   Reassuringly however, it’s good to know that we only lost out in the Cup and the League because none of the characters in the play could get to the Cup semi-final or the penultimate League game of the season at Middlesbrough.

In truth, ‘Never Lost at Home’ wasn’t quite as good as ‘My Blue Heaven’, although my seeing it through the television screen rather than in the flesh is doubtless a factor in that. The story doesn’t have the drama of its predecessor and by drifting further into 1980’s the music is not so much ‘not as good’, as ‘worse’. Nevertheless, it was still massively enjoyable all the same, bringing back those memories of what genuinely was a marvelous time to be a Town supporter and which seems even more so given all that’s happened since. I can only hope that both ‘Our Blue Heaven’ and ‘Never Lost at Home’ are both resurrected in ten years time, not only to celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of the FA Cup and UEFA Cup wins, but also their own 10th anniversaries; or perhaps we could have a musical about going to a musical about winning the FA Cup and UEFA Cup; I’d watch it.

Ipswich Town 5 ABBA 5

The football season is over save for the silly play-offs, and now it’s the height of Spring,  and with little else to occupy him a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Eurovision Song Contest;  or maybe not.  But last week’s transmission of the bizarre, annual , musical  television ritual extravaganza was inevitably accompanied by the airing of a clip show on BBC4 of past performances by the competition’s only notable success, Abba.  I have never bought, stolen, borrowed or owned an Abba record, tape, download or CD, but I will admit to being unable to suppress a smile when I hear one played.    Equally, I couldn’t resist watching that clip show and felt rewarded when it brought back memories of a road trip I made in the summer of 1995, which took me and my then girlfriend via Parkeston Quay, DFDS Seaways ferry, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Uppsala and Sundsvall to Pitea in northern Sweden, where we stayed with my girlfriend’s pen friend and her husband.  It was a very long drive for which the soundtrack for several stages of the journey came courtesy of a CD of Abba Gold belonging to my girlfriend.

The experience of listening to Abba on that road trip has stayed with me and it led to an article in the erstwhile Ipswich Town fanzine A Load of Cobbolds.  Now, in the spirit of nostalgia inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Ipswich Town’s UEFA Cup win and  in the absence of anything better to do I have reproduced that article below, updating it to modern times where necessary:

When you’re an eleven or twelve year-old football and pop music loom large as pre-pubescent priorities.   I bought my first record (Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono) in 1971,  the same year that I started watching Ipswich Town, and I  soon began to feel that footie and pop music were somehow inextricably linked. The late Sixties and early Seventies was a time when it was easy to confuse footballers with pop stars and my two worlds satisfyingly collided.  The fashion for any bloke who aspired to being hip and trendy was an enormous thatch of hair coupled with equally vast sideburns.  Squeezed into a pair of bollock-hugging, crushed-velvet flairs and sporting a deafeningly loud shirt,  Ian Collard or Rod Belfitt might have been members of The Hollies, or Kevin Beattie a member of Nazareth.

The similarities in the appearance of pop stars and footballers subsided a bit as the Seventies wore on and sadly, sartorially Punk Rock never seemed to catch on with any footballers at all.  There were however still some startling lookalikes within the ranks of the PFA, I thought.  It could have just been my addled perception, but I always felt that Arsenal’s Frank Stapleton and Shakin’ Stevens were the same bloke.  Moving on into the 1980’s the separation at birth of Oldham Athletic’s Andy Ritchie and Jimmy Somerville was ‘well documented’ at the time, but less well-known is the fact that Roy Keane and Sinead O’Connor were also twins.

More amazing than these superficial similarities, which admittedly are largely the invention of my fevered imagination, is the very precise correlation between the success of one particular football club during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and a particular pop group.  Both were at their peak between 1973 and 1982. The football club of course was Ipswich Town and the pop group was Abba.

If you take time to trawl through the collected works of the famous Swedish songsters, as Dave Allard might have called them, you will not only enjoy a richly rewarding aural experience, but you will soon reach the conclusion that the fact that Town and Abba were both at the peak of their powers over precisely the same period of time is no coincidence.   Listen carefully to the lyrics and you will be able to trace the history of the Town’s success through that glorious era.  You will find that listening to Abba Gold (Greatest Hits) is as close to a religious experience as you can hope to get;  something akin to an Ipswich Town Dreamtime, harking back to an epoch when Portman Road was inhabited by ancestral figures of heroic proportions who possessed supernatural powers.   In the film Muriel’s Wedding the eponymous Muriel says that Abba’s songs are better than real life.  Now, as we sit in the murky depths of the third division and look back at Town’s glorious past you too will believe this is true.

As you might expect from Europe’s foremost supergroup many of the songs make reference to Town’s European campaigns of that era in the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ cups.  It is likely that it was through Town’s exploits on the continent that the talented Swedes first became Town supporters, although we were actually only drawn against Swedish opposition  once when in 1977 we met Landskrona Bois and most inconveniently The Stranglers played the Ipswich Gaumont on the very same night as the home leg.  Naturally, I missed The Stranglers concert and sadly never got a second opportunity to see them.    There is clearly a reference to Town’s UEFA Cup triumph over Lazio in the title of the number one hit ‘Mamma Mia!’, a song which also contains a lyric that suggests one of Abba had perhaps had a brief flirtation with a Town player or supporter and may explain the uncanny connection between Abba and the mighty Blues;

“Yes, I’ve been broken hearted, Blue since the day we parted.”

The moving ballad ‘Fernando’ is sung to an imaginary Spanish fan and recalls those sultry September and cooler autumn evenings when we entertained Iberian opposition from Real Madrid, Las Palmas and Barcelona.

“There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando….

Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regrets. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”

That last line referred to the fact that Town were twice drawn to play Barcelona, whilst the line  before that refers to our having lost both ties despite being confident after winning the first leg.  Another song, ‘Super Trouper’, whilst still referencing games played under floodlight, perhaps because of the lack of daylight hours in Sweden during the English football season, refers to an individual player and employs little-known Swedish rhyming slang in a thinly disguised paean to goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me shining like the sun, Smiling having fun feeling like a number one”

In the 1978 Abba hit “Take a chance on me”   the subtle Swedish Blues fans reveal the little known story of how Frans Thijssen successfully pleaded with Bobby Robson to let him join his compatriot Arnold Muhren at Portman Road and to try his luck in English football. 

Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me. If you need me let me know and I’ll be around. Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie, if you put me to the test, if you let me try”.

Although those days were such wonderful times for Town, not every song described a happy or uplifting event.  There were sad days too at Portman Road back in the Seventies and hard decisions had to be made for the good of the team.  The 1977 ‘Number One’ hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ was about the departure of former Portman Road favourite David Johnson, the one-time ‘King of Portman Road’, who left Town to join rivals Liverpool.  In the song, the reflective Scouser looks back on the good times he has had at Portman Road since his move to Town from Everton four years earlier.

  “Memories, good days, bad days, they’ll be with me, always”

David appreciates however that his recent form has not been good and in the circumstances a move is the best thing for everyone.

  “Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do, we just have to face it this time we’re through; Breaking up is never easy I know but I had to go, Knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I could do”.

Back in the Seventies, money wasn’t the driving force in football that it is today.  Nevertheless, the spending power of clubs such as Manchester United, who were able to make expensive signings virtually every season despite being rubbish, rankled with Bobby Robson and he longed to be able to make big signings for Town.  Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” was a song about his frustration. 

“In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man…  “

”All the things I could do if I had a little money…”

“Money, money, money, always sunny in a rich man’s world”

Both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’ showed something of the downside of those glory years and as we look back on those days from the fag-end of the first quarter of the miserable twenty-first century a melancholy aura pervades our memories, in part because ultimately Town failed to win the League Championship that we deserved, but perhaps also because even at the time we knew it all had to end one day, and when Bobby Robson left to manage England in 1982 we secretly knew it had.  Abba knew it too and two of their hits put these feelings in to sharp perspective.  The haunting melody of ‘Winner takes it all’ explores the pain that looking back on the good times would bring; it begins:

 “I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me now it’s history”

Abba’s last big hit ‘Thank you for the music’ is sung from the perspective of our legendary club captain Mick Mills who reminisces, having regretfully left Town for Southampton, about the joy and beauty of those days between 1973 and 1982.  If you’ve listened to the slightly dull monotone of Mick’s summaries as he sits alongside commentator Brenner Woolley on BBC Radio Suffolk, you will appreciate the opening lines to this song; 

“I’m nothing special in fact I’m a bit of a bore, If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before…”

But Mick’s talent was as full-back and captain of the greatest Ipswich Town side ever and this was the ‘music’ referred to in the title of this most moving of Abba songs.  This was a song from the heart of ‘Mr Ipswich Town’, Mick Mills, and it is truly uncanny how Mick with his blond locks and luxurious facial hair even looks like a bit like a composite of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the song’s composers.  This song is the ultimate celebration of those ten seasons at the top in which Mick thanks fate for the glorious hand he was dealt.

“I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair

I want to sing it out to everybody

What a joy, what a life, what a chance

So I say Thank You for the music

The songs I’m singing

Thank you for the joy they’re bringing…”

The songs of Abba define and encapsulate a golden period in the story of the twentieth century and the time before Thatcherism and neo-liberalism destroyed your innocence.  Abba’s songs, their success and the glory of Ipswich Town, the nicest professional football club the world had ever known did not happen together by coincidence.  The proof is in the lyrics of the songs, and shows that cosmic forces were at work.  Those of us who lived through the 1970’s were truly blessed to have experienced the music of Abba as it happened, but we are doubly blessed to have been Ipswich Town supporters too.

Thank you for the music Bobby Robson and Mick and all the lads who played for us between 1973 and 1982 , and thank you for the music Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 0

Sunday bloody, Sunday, a classic angst ridden film drama from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger starring Glenda Jackson, Murray Head and Peter Finch and featuring a doomed dog called Kenyatta, but also how I describe the Christian Sabbath when Town have to play on it.  I like my football on a Saturday and at 3 pm to boot.  Noon on a Sunday should be when the pubs open and nothing else.  To make matters worse today’s is the first match of the league season, a fixture which for the sake of symmetry if nothing else should kick off at the same time as every other club’s first game of the season.  As if Boris ‘Bozo’ Johnson being Prime Minister wasn’t enough to cope with.  Why do things only ever get worse?

Waking from my slumbers a little before 8 o’clock I draw the blinds and am bathed in bright early autumn sunlight. I shower and dress, donning my button neck, blue, Ipswich Town branded T-shirt purchased over the summer from the Planet Blue website, where my review of the garment has never appeared despite having been submitted three times (see previous blog post “Consumer City 1 Lockdown Town 0”); I’m not bitter, but the truth must be told. After a breakfast with my wife Paulene of bacon, egg, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms with tea and an espresso coffee, all prepared by me, I look for things to fill the time until shortly before noon when I will switch on my lap top, log on to the ifollow and hope that it lets me watch the match.  I have heard that yesterday Portsmouth supporters were unable to watch their game versus Shrewsbury Town on the ifollow and ended up listening to local radio.  I am soon in my garage breaking up cardboard boxes to put out for the refuse collection on Wednesday; it’s been a busy week of deliveries with two new toilet seats and thirty-two bottles of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer pale ale all arriving courtesy of men driving white vans.  Boxes crushed, I potter about and fold away the blue and white bunting that bedecks my garden each summer to celebrate the season the sun and the Town.

Time passes quickly and Paulene is soon telling me that she has logged me onto to the ifollow and  it’s working.  I pour myself a pint of water, which I liven up with a squirt of lime juice, and lie on my back on  the orange canvas bean bag that normally sits in the corner of the room, but which I have re-positioned centrally in front of the smart tv.   I have today’s match programme by my side; impressively it arrived in yesterday’s post in time for the match.  It’s not the best programme I’ve ever seen, it’s front cover, which appears to be an homage to the programmes of the 1980-81 season is a little speckled at the edges, like a poor photocopy, which is possibly the source of the design, but at least the cover price is a £1 cheaper than if this was a normal game.  I don’t mind if there are fewer pages and less to read, I just want a few folded sheets of paper that are specific to this match and which lists the teams or at least the names from which the teams will be selected.  Who actually reads all the other drivel that’s printed in the massive programmes we pay the price of a paperback book for anyway? Less is more in the world of football match programmes and I pine for those of the 1960’s and 70’s.  In France, the clubs that produce a programme do not charge for it.

I am now comfortably slumped and as the broadcast begins I am surprised, but pleased, to hear the familiar, nearly Geordie tones (he’s from Berwick-Upon-Tweed) of Brenner Woolley and the flat, steady delivery of Mick Mills.  Mick sets out on a lengthy monologue in which he immediately tempts fate by explaining that this is a good time to play Wigan.  He goes on to explain in a manner which suggest he thinks we should be surprised, that he has been doing a bit of research and had logged on to the Wigan website to see who is in their squad.  But he tells us that they have shipped out sixteen players and only brought in two so it was a waste of time; presumably he didn’t recognise any of the names. 

The players are now walking onto the pitch to the accompaniment of the crap-rock strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”, this despite the absence of a crowd.  I wonder to myself if the ‘entrance music’ is meant to inspire the players, and feel glad I am not a professional footballer.  Sadly the opportunity has not been taken to have some fun with the entrance music by playing something like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” or something by Roger Whittaker.  I’m pleased to see the players ‘take the knee’ and hope that all the people that it annoys, and sadly there are some,  are so annoyed that they slam their heads repeatedly against the nearest wall and pour boiling water over their own genitals.  Today’s referee and assistants are wearing purple tops which make them look like sporting Anglican bishops, which is appropriate for a Sunday game.  Meanwhile , Brenner Woolley tries to trump Mick Mills efforts to tempt fate by telling us that Wigan Athletic as a club are “in free fall”, which is probably not quite true.   At 12:02 little Alan Judge literally gets the ball rolling for Town who are resplendent in their new kit of all blue with Adidas decorations and the yellow  and blue badge that the team wore back in the days when it won Cups and was one of the very best in Europe, if not the World.  Wigan in contrast are today’s ‘baddies’, wearing all-black, although the gift of the tv close-up reveals that the shirt features a grim machine-like pattern of various shades of grey hexagon.

The game begins like a tennis match with the ball being knocked back and forward pointlessly between the two teams, but this disappointment is tempered by the realisation that Brenner Woolley’s radio commentary is actually much better than the usual tv commentary because he makes the effort to say who has the ball, and that is all we really need to know. On a tv screen the numbers and names on the backs of the players’ shirts are too small to read and most of the players look the same with their conscripts’ haircuts.

Eight minutes pass and Wigan should be ahead as 19 year old Nigerian Emeka Obi is left all alone to head Gary Roberts’ corner powerfully but clumsily past the post; the Ipswich defence seemingly need to learn the lesson that black lives especially matter when they’re in your own penalty area.  At about this time Paulene comes into the room and by some sorcery manages to make the screen bigger.  This naturally adds to my enjoyment but not as much as Teddy Bishop does in the eleventh minute as he heads into the goal an attempted clearance of a Freddie Sears’ left-wing cross.  It’s a goal that in its construction has something in common with Roger Osborne’s FA Cup winning goal in 1978, with the Wigan defender playing the role of the hapless Willie Young and with Freddie Sears as David Geddes.

As well as putting Town ahead, the goal highlights the fact that the commentary is fractionally ahead of the pictures on the screen as Brenner tells me that Teddy has scored a moment before the ball strikes the net.  As the game continues it’s a lack of synchronisation that ultimately proves reassuring as Emeka Obi is twice more left free to score, but Brenner promptly tells me that he fails to do so at the very moment when my heart is about to enter my mouth.  Brenner spoils it a bit though when he confirms that Wigan should be ahead, but adds, sounding slightly disappointed “…as it is , it’s 1-0 to Town”.  From wrongly placed bias Brenner then veers towards surrealism with the phrase “Ipswich Town’s ball, in the shape of Stephen Ward”.   The picture in the programme of Stephen only adds to my worries because I hadn’t realised he had a nose bigger than mine and hair neat enough to suggest he might follow a career as a referee once his playing days are over.

Whilst Brenner Woolley’s commentary adds things to the commentary not visible to the human eye, Mick Mills is I think having a very good day, providing some convincing and totally plausible tactical analysis about the full-backs and how the two teams’ respective line-ups and formations cancel each other out.  On days like this it’s as if Mick is wearing the number 4 shirt again in Frans Thijssen’s absence and is running the midfield.

Wigan had looked quite good for a spell but Town are looking better, and a passage of absolutely marvellous play ends with Teddy Bishop having a shot tipped away on to the post by Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones, whose name instantly has me breaking into the opening song on the Clash’s eponymous first album.  It’s easily the highlight of the match so far, but soon Brenner is competing with more weirdness as he tells how “Naismith scoops Sears’ cross away with his left shoe”.  His left shoe! No wonder we’re winning if Wigan are playing in their shoes; but presumably for these Lancastrians it’s better than playing in clogs.

With a half hour gone there is a drinks break and the camera lingers on Wigan manager John Sheridan and his coach gesticulating and pointing enthusiastically as if relaying the latest odds on another relegation to the club’s former owners.  Meanwhile Town manager Paul Lambert is wearing a rather unpleasant shiny grey Adidas training top and a blue Ipswich Town branded baseball cap.  I’m not a fan of baseball caps, to me they just say “Sir Francis Chichester”, and whilst I have nothing against the sadly deceased circumnavigator, he wasn’t a Town fan.  What have you done with your v-neck black jumper Paul? That looked much more classy.

As the end of the half draws nigh Joe Garner hits the Town cross bar with an overhead kick and my attention is grabbed by his nascent ginger beard, but also his skinhead haircut, which makes him look like he could be a member of the BNP, although I’m certain he isn’t.  The half ends with Mick Mills telling us that “A second goal would be handy to say you’re in a good position” before the sound from Radio Suffolk takes on a weirdness to match Brenner’s commentary making the co-commentators sound like a cross between the Daleks and Peter Frampton. Oddly it’s an aural effect that suits Mick more than Brenner.

Half-time brings adverts like on the real telly and I am being encouraged to purchase the services of Screwfix, something called Utilita, some sort of video game and to watch the EFL on Quest, and then it happens all over again as if I might need reminding.  Not really interested in this commercially driven filling of the football broadcast sandwich I head to the fridge and pour myself a glass of Faro Foudroyante lambic beer.  Paulene is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen and expresses her surprise that Town are winning.  My beer tastes a bit like cider and is very refreshing on a warm day like today.

The joys of the ifollow broadcast return with Norwood replacing Drinan for Town and Perry replacing a Wigan player; like Mick Mills, I don’t know who.  At 13:07 the fun begins again and soon Brenner is saying “Norwood takes the ball on his shoe”. What is it with these northerners playing in shoes? Are Church’s and Clark’s suddenly offering better sponsorship deals than Nike and Adidas?  This doesn’t bode well I’m thinking; thank goodness we’ve already scored one goal because I can’t see Norwood scoring  if he’s not wearing boots.  Idiot.  I’m surprised Paul Lambert allows it.

The second half is interesting enough to begin with; but Wigan are doing better and Brenner suggests that Town let Gary Roberts go too soon, although he is now thirty-six years old; but it’s an opinion I support. In recent years Town and English football in general have valued athleticism and endurance above skill far too much. I want to watch football not long distance running.  Brenner now adds incontrovertible facts to set alongside his opinions and lets us know that Town have won only four of their last sixteen home games before Mick Mills advises that someone else should have a go at the free-kicks after Freddie Sears sends  a second hopelessly over the cross bar; I couldn’t quite understand why he took them when Bishop and Dozzell are both playing, but perhaps  I am wrong to see them as the heirs to Peter Morris, Arnold Muhren, Mark Brennan, Ian Redford and Jimmy Juan.

An hour has passed and Luke Chambers is the first player booked, but the match is becoming a bit boring; Mick Mills euphemistically describes it as ‘mundane’ and asks if Wigan aren’t beginning to be the better team.  If I didn’t have beer to hand I’d be hoping for Pat from Clacton to appear with a bag of sweets now; hopefully the sugar would help me feel less queasy at the sight of Joe Garner’s completely tattooed left arm, which makes him look as if he has a nasty skin condition, all his veins and capillaries are a little too close to the surface  or he hasn’t washed his arm for a year.  But more to do with the game I am currently unimpressed with Norwood who seems to be wrongly playing beyond the defender who is marking him (Naismith), which means the ball is always intercepted before it reaches him, whereas Drinan played in front of the defender, received the ball, controlled it and laid it off bringing Dozzell and Bishop, the attacking midfield players, into the game.  I like to think that Mick Mills would be impressed with my tactical evaluation.

 Seventy-three minutes pass and Edwards replaces Sears, and three minutes later Huws replaces Bishop and the game swings back in Town’s favour.  Just four minutes after Huws comes on Edwards doubles Town’s lead after a second excellent passing moving from Town, again down the left, and our record of sixteen successive games televised by Sky tv without a win looks set to end.  The game is as good as won and the remaining highlights are reduced to seeing Wigan substitute Oliver Crankshaw massaging his right buttock, although he does have reassuringly long hair.  Town attempt to end the game with panache, playing ‘keep ball’ until it reaches Luke Chambers and it’s good to see Emyr Huws then kick Joe Garner in the stomach. But there’s nothing more to this and at four minutes to two referee Mr Thomas Bramall calls time. 

It’s been an afternoon of mixed and fluid emotions just as should be the case with proper football matches.  The game has been won, but the result was often in doubt and credit to Messrs Woolley and Mills, today they have reflected and explained the turmoil, the trouble and the ultimate satisfaction, a much better performance than last Saturday.  The ifollow has also done its job and I feel more confident about watching future broadcasts, even if I am paying over the odds just to watch the telly.

Paris St Germain 4 Stade de Reims 1

It has been a warm, sunny day in Paris beneath a clear blue sky. I have spent the afternoon in St Ouen, now a northern suburb of the city, but a town in its own right.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her

44942590311_4d3b434cb6_o

house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc des Princes, security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour.

44025173585_b37d1e5baa_o

The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one, and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.

31064460688_7e352cdfe5_o

After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks

44942587611_72fcbe55dc_o

of soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the

44216940294_327da4a58a_o

injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but in particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures. But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.

I cannot deny I have enjoyed seeing Neymar, Rabiot, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani et al tonight, but those players would all still be as good if they all played for different clubs and the league would be more interesting for it. But heck , what am I going to do but write about it?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.