Ipswich Town 0 Burnley 0

You have to go back thirteen years to 2010, when Britain had a Labour government and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ was on at the cinema to find an FA Cup run for Ipswich Town that wasn’t more than just an initial tie and defeat in a replay.  Admittedly, first round ties were won last year and two years before that, but the fourth round is unchartered territory for many a millennial.  Back when I was a lad, when things were still fab, groovy and magic, in the time before the world seemed to go completely and utterly insane, three consecutive FA Cup victories for Town would have seen us into the quarter finals.  But fate has been a cruel mistress to Ipswich since then and now our FA Cup begins in November and any story of success is by its very nature an epic tale.

Today’s FA Cup opponents are Burnley, the club against whom Ipswich Town recorded their first ever victory in what is now laughably known as the Premier League.  That victory, on a Tuesday night in August 1961, was just sixteen months after Burnley had become  League Champions, but Town won 6-2 and the less than snappy sports headline in the Ipswich Evening Star read “Six goal Ipswich rock mighty Burnley in great game”.  Ipswich and Burnley are the smallest two Towns in England to have ever been home to the football League Champions and when Town were Champions in 1962 Burnley were runners-up, so if you’re feeling sentimental think of us as sort of footballing twins separated at birth; luckily for Town we’re the one that didn’t get taken to live ‘up North’.

With thoughts of football history and past glories illuminating the manuscript of my mind, I park up my smoothly silent Citroen e-C4 and step out across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arb beyond.  It’s a cold, dull day like all the others lately,  but the exercise of the walk warms me up. In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to buy a programme (£2) in the modern cashless manner and from inside his moulded booth the programme seller tells me to enjoy the match. I thank him and realise that there’s something about the little programme sellers’ booths that makes me think they should also sell ice creams.

At the ‘The Arb’, I buy a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) and the landlord explains that he is doing his best to keep the price down below £4.00, which is good of him.  I retire to the beer garden where an electrician is fitting new heaters to the shelter.  I sit at a table beneath an umbrella, I am alone, but not for long as Mick soon appears apologising for being late before disappearing again only to reappear with his own pint of Suffolk Pride.  We talk of my electric car and trip to Oxford last Saturday, of newspapers and the France 24 news channel and app, doctor’s surgeries and how I find the appearance of a man in a cowboy hat who has come outside  for a smoke a little weird; i expect he’s smoking Marlboros.

Time passes and before long we have to leave for Portman Road, or otherwise we’d miss the kick-off.  In Sir Alf Ramsey Way we enter by the turnstiles where there is no queue.  A steward with a loud hailer announces the existence of these magical turnstiles and encourages their use, but to little avail. As usual for cup ties, our seats are the ‘posh’ padded ones in Block Y, seemingly designed for people short in leg and tender in buttock.  The teams are already on the pitch as we edge our way to our seats past a homely looking, grey-haired woman and her slightly chubby, bearded male accomplice, perhaps a husband or paramour. We catch the tail end of the “Na-na-nas” from the Beatles “Hey Jude” and the game begins. Town have first go with the ball and kick from left to right towards the stand of Sir Alf Ramsey, architect of that 6-2 win in the late summer of 1961, when supporters still travelled to the match by trolleybus.

Within a minute or so Kayden Jackson is sprinting away down the  right, ball at his feet, he crosses the ball low and hard and George Hirst hits it past the near post from somewhere near the middle of the penalty area, just like he did at Oxford last week.  It’s a very exciting start to the game and helps to temper my disappointment that Burnley are not wearing their traditional claret shirts, but are instead decked out in what has become the ubiquitous and profoundly boring all-black away kit, which every club seems to have.  Burnley’s kit features red trim, as if that could make any difference whatsoever.

Burnley’s Scott Twine stoops to tie a boot lace.  “Come on referee!”  bawls a whiny man behind me. “Why are we stopped to let him tie his laces” he continues, “ I’ve never seen a game stopped for a player to tie his laces, I’ve never seen it before”. The whiney man is absolutely apoplectic and wants everyone to know he’s never seen such a thing before. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anyone so angry, so early in a game about a player tying his boot lace, but I decide not to shout it out.  I did see the game delayed whilst Sam Morsy put on a pair of new boots last week at Oxford, I don’t shout that out either.

“I didn’t get a programme” says the chubby bearded man beside me to the homely, grey-haired woman, “Because of the high demand”.  Something in his voice tells me he was too mean.  Marcus Harness hits the cross bar with a right-footed shot from the centre of the penalty box.  With the ball returned to goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, Town pass the ball out from the back and Burnley players are quick to close down the Town defenders, causing a ripple of unease amongst some supporters. “Playing from the back, it’s what modern teams do” calls out the whiny bloke again to ensure we all know that he understands ‘modern football’.  I can’t help but chuckle.

Eleven minute have gone and Burnley win the first corner. “Come on Burnli, Come On Burnli” chant the Lancastrians in their deep accent full of short vowels, rolled ‘r’s and lolling ‘l’s.   Jordan Beyer tugs at Sone Aluko’s shirt as Sone tries to break forward, and is booked by referee Tom Nield. “Dirty northern bastard” I say to Mick, because it amuses me to do so.  The noise inside the ground is stirring as both home and away fans get into the spirit of what the FA Cup used to be all about. It feels like 1974.  As Burnley’s Scott Twine writhes on the ground and then gets up and plays on when he doesn’t get a free-kick, the chubby man next to me mansplains to the homely woman that he wasn’t really hurt.  It’s twenty past three and Burnley’s Jay Rodriguez shoots high over the Town cross bar, spurning Burnley’s first chance of a goal.

Town win their first corner. “Come On You Blues” chant several people, even in the west stand.   The booking count is levelled up when inexplicably Marcus Harness fails to stop when running and collides with Ameen Al-Dakhil’s ankles. Town win another corner as something of a hit and hope cross from Kayden Jackson looks like it might dip under the Burnley cross-bar, forcing their extensively named goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell to tip the ball over.  Another corner follows  and the chubby man next to me tells the homely looking woman that it’s a very exciting game; it’s nice of him because she might not have realised if she was busy knitting or making a shopping list perhaps.  

Only ten minutes until half-time now, and in an outbreak of astounding cheek or wilful absence of self-awareness, Town fans chant “Your support is fucking shit” presumably to the Burnley fans, although singing it to one another would be understandable in the context of many previous matches.  Shocked, I inexplicably imagine that Vaclav Hladky reminds me a bit of Laurie Sivell, probably because he looks quite a bit shorter than all his defenders.  A beautifully flowing Town moves produces another corner to Town and the whiny bloke behind me gets all self-righteous again loudly expounding “We don’t play that way anymore, lumping it forward” as if no one else can possibly have noticed.

It’s been a fine half of football despite the whiny man and by way of celebration the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “ Oh when the Town go marching in” at the proper speed, although possibly without quite the  joy of genuine evangelists.  Finally, the fact that no more than a minute of added-on time is to be played seems to confirm that for forty-five minutes at least all has been right with the world – except that we haven’t scored.

With half-time Mick and I use the facilities to disperse excess Suffolk Pride, but the queues for the toilets are so long it’s impossible to find where they end in the cramped confines of the upper stair cases and bars of the west stand. We return to ground level where there is more space and more square footage of urinal. Returning to our seats in time for the re-start, we ease past the homely looking woman and the chubby man and I pause to take a look at who might be the whiny man behind me, I think he is wearing tinted glasses and has a very pink face beneath a hat.

The game resumes at six minutes past four and  Burnley up their game a bit, being a tiny but significant bit quicker and pressing more than in the first half. As a result Vaclav Hladky has to make two excellent saves, but make them he does, and with aplomb, reminding us of why we have a goalkeeper.  But it’s not all Burnley and Town soon win a corner.  “ There are people say we can’t defend…” expounds the whiny bloke, but I’m fed up with him and tune out before he concludes his latest treatise. In the Cobbold Stand the Lancashire hordes start to sing “The Irish Rover”, which seems a little odd, although there were a lot of Irish immigrants to Lancashire in the nineteenth century, but they’d be getting on a bit now. More odd is that the chubby bloke beside me joins in.

Mick asks me what substitutions I think Kieran Mc Kenna will make and I tell him that George Hirst  and Marcus Harness and possibly Sone Aluko are most likely to go off first , and so it proves,  as with an hour gone Freddie Ladapo,  Nathan Broadhead and Conor Chaplin replace them.  Burnley make three substitutions too, although I’m disappointed that neither of their other two players with double-barrelled surnames are in today’s squad. Who’d have thought Burnley would have so many players with double-barrelled surnames?

Ten minutes later and Sam Morsy is shown his usual yellow card for a pretty unexceptional foul, “He collects them doesn’t he?” says Mick. I can’t disagree.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster announces that today’s attendance is 25,420 of which 1,581 are from Burnley;  he thanks everyone for their ‘tremendous’ support. “You’re not sitting where I am Stephen” I think to myself.  Six minutes after his booking Sam Morsy is replaced by new signing Massimo Luongo, who like Morsy joined Town from Middlesbrough.  With his beard, dark hair and large frame, Luongo even looks a bit like Morsy from up here, and I ponder for a moment on the possible advantages and desirability of bringing on substitutes who look like the player they replace.

“Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” chant the crowd in all parts of the ground as full-time begins to draw ever closer. Kyle Edwards replaces Kayden Jackson who trots off the pitch to a loud ovation; he has been truly excellent today.  “ I know why you play” calls the whiny bloke loudly as if no one else does and everyone sat around him is one of the people who criticises Jackson on social media.  Time is running out,  Town win a corner  but Luke Woolfenden can only head the ball wide. Massimo Luongo is even playing like Sam Morsy, but hasn’t been booked, and indeed he gets fouled by the economically-named Jack Cork, provoking frantic flagging from the linesman and a final yellow card of the afternoon from Mr Nield.  Four minutes of added on time are announced, five are played and the game ends.

It’s been yet another excellent afternoon of football at Portman Road, even though not winning can rarely be anything but a little disappointing.  Best of all however, this felt like a proper FA Cup tie, played in front of a big crowd who have turned up with hope and may be expectation and possibly because it’s the FA Cup.  It’s been a very long time since that happened, not thirteen years, more like thirty.

Ipswich Town 4 Morecambe 0

One of the many potentially good things about the FA Cup for supporters of third division clubs, is that if your team gets to the third round or beyond, then Saturday fixtures get postponed and are magically transformed into midweek games under floodlight.  This is a good thing if your re-arranged games are at home, not so good if you feel the need to travel to every away game.   Those good people of Morecambe for whom supporting their football team is a kind of religious devotion must wonder what they have done wrong. Not only is it a particularly cold and damp month, but they live in an out of season seaside resort somewhere up North and now the Football League are telling them that to support their team they must travel the best part of five hours on English motorways  to the far end of the country on a grey Tuesday afternoon in January.  At lunchtime today I was told that the Morecambe FC coach was already in the West End Road car park. When I walked past later I took a look, it had a parking ticket on the windscreen.

I have suffered too today,  I have been to work in the office instead of staying in the comfort of my own home.  But now, at a quarter past four, after almost eight hours of ceaseless toil I am meeting Roly and we are heading for the pub.  By way of a change we are in the Three Wise Monkeys where we drink coffee like the sophisticated metrosexuals that we are, I have an Americano and Roly has some frothy milky looking thing.  We settle in two large arm chairs beneath the stairs and discuss the late Cyril Fletcher, the ridiculousness of BBC tv’s That’s Life,  and football.  I detect a level of pessimism in Roly that I attribute to his long Suffolk heritage.  Coffee can only take a man so far along the path to enlightenment however, and we eventually move on to The Arb to drink beer and eat:  a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.90?) and Cajun Chicken Burger (£13) for Roly and a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride(£4?)  and a Scotch Egg with thick cut chips (£9) for me.  Unusually, we sit inside the pub and not outside, probably because we have arrived early enough for there to be a vacant table.  After a while Mick arrives, walks through the bar and out towards the garden, returns, presumably because we aren’t there, and finally buys us both very low alcohol beers brewed by the Big Drop Brewing Company and has a pint of Suffolk Pride for himself. The conversation continues mostly courtesy of Roly who occasionally interrupts if someone else speaks, apologises for interrupting and then carries on, before apologising for interrupting again.  It sounds worse than it is because I don’t have much to say anyway, which is just as well.

When Roly finally draws breath, I take the opportunity to suggest it’s time to leave for Portman Road and that’s what we do. We part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, Roly strangely and quickly joining a queue for a turnstile into the West stand, whilst Mick walks further on to a turnstile where there is no queue; I make my way to turnstile 60 and the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, which perhaps ought to be in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, but isn’t.  Inside the ground, Fiona is here and so is ever present Phil who never misses a game and the man from Stowmarket, but Elwood and Pat from Clacton are not.  Pat had sent me a message at twelve minutes past three to say she wouldn’t be coming tonight on account of her not fancying sitting in the cold with her arthritic pains; I guess sitting in the cold without her arthritic pains was not an option; like a faithful dog, wherever she goes they go too.

I’ve missed the start of Stephen Foster reading out the Town team, which is a shame, but I join in just as soon as I can, shouting out the surnames of the players as he announces them.  No one has started joining in with me yet,  but I  live in hope.    The game begins, Town get first go with the ball, we win a corner and the ball drops kindly; Freddie Ladapo is more alert than anyone else and scores from close range.  We’re winning and I’ve not really had time yet to notice that Morecambe are in red shirts and shorts with white socks, which I am a little surprised to find is a pretty good combination, and shows just how important socks are.

 Of course we scored in the first minute against Fleetwood a few weeks back and that didn’t end as well as we’d  hoped, so no one’s getting too excited and after a brief bit of shouting and cheering and  even a brief chant,  which fades out like no one knows the words after the first line, the crowd becomes quiet. “ I missed the first goal didn’t I?” says a voice from somewhere  behind me.

Leif Davis breaks down the left flank at high speed and weirdly the referee, Mr Rock, appears to be chasing him.  Mr Rock , what an example he is to all football officials, cut him in half and you’ll find the word ‘referee’ is written all the way through him.  Lee Evans steps forward and from nothing unleashes a shot against the Morecambe goalkeeper’s righthand goalpost. I probably say “Phwoarr!” or something similar.  Meanwhile, the bloke behind me sounds impressed with new signing Harry Clarke.  “That Clarke likes to take the ball forward” he says, before adding “He likes travelling with the ball”  making me imagine him on the bus with a ball on the seat next to him.  Harry Clarke will go on to have one of the best home debuts I’ve seen since Finidi George dazzled us over twenty years ago.

It really is very quiet in Portman Road tonight. There aren’t many Morecambe supporters here but I can hear them singing “Oh when the reds going marching in” . A Morecambe player, Jensen Weir, is down injured after a foul by Wes Burns and silence reigns as if everyone is holding their breath to see if he’s going to be alright; he is. Within seconds of the game resuming another new Town signing, Nathan Broadhead, plays the ball forward, Freddie Ladapo runs around his marker, gets sight of goal and shoots against the foot of the far post.  Normally the ball would defy the laws of physics and bounce out to be cleared by a fortuitously placed defender,  but the alignment of the  planets and stars must be on the huh tonight and the ball spins across behind the goal line and against the net on the far side as if it’s doing a little celebratory dance,  and Town lead 2-0.

Town win another corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand sing “We’ve got Super Kieran McKenna he knows exactly what we need…” and the floodlights seem to be producing a lot of glare in the lenses of my glasses tonight, it could be because it’s a damp evening or may be my glasses are just a bit grubby.  Town treat us to some quick and attractive passing, running and movement; the working man’s ballet as Alf Garnett called it. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me to his neighbour, as you would if you were watching Stade de Reims versus Troyes in Ligue 1.  The crowd is very quiet again, almost as if they are in awe of what they’re seeing on the pitch, or are concentrating very hard to understand it.  In the Sir Bobby Robson stand the lights keep turning off and on as if someone is leaning on the switch.  “Ladapo’s got the touch of Messi tonight” says the bloke behind me in an unrelated incident.

In their defence tonight Morecambe have the exotically named Farrend Rawson, a tall player made more conspicuous by his totally bald head and goatee beard. It makes me think how different Flash Gordon could have been if Emperor Ming had also turned out for a third division football team.  “Come On You Blues” is an unexpected if faint chant from the bottom tier of the Cobbold Stand. Another corner to Town, a header from Richard Keogh and a flying save from the talented Conor Ripley in the Morecambe goal , who is probably the chunkiest goal keeper  at Portman Road so far this season.

Thirty-seven minutes are up and Wes Burns escapes down the right wing, crosses the ball and Conor Chaplin shoots low inside the far post to make the score 3-0 to Town. “Ole, Ole, Ole” sings the crowd for all of five seconds before returning to quiet contemplation. There are six minutes of additional time to be played and it’s enough for Chaplin to score again, this time with a typical snap shot inside the near post and the score is 4-0.

As ever I take a half-time stroll to the front of the stand to say hello to Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.   Michael and Harrison have a new van, Harrison has tickets to see Noel Gallagher  and The Zutons and has discovered that ‘psychedelic folk’ artist Robyn Hitchcock is some thirty years older than his wife Emma Swift.  Otherwise, talk is of how many more goals can Town get in the second half.

The game resumes at six minutes to nine and Morecambe bring on three substitutes in one fell swoop, which includes the replacement of Curly Watts with Aleister Crowley, something which the writers of Coronation Street were never brave enough to do.  Also entering the fray is Michael Mellon, one of the few players in league football whose surname is a mis-spelt fruit.

Four minutes in to the half and Mr Rock displays his yellow card for the first time after the sophisticated sounding Jacob Bedeau assaults Nathan Broadhead.  Morecambe’s Crowley is a tiny man who one might think was a child if it wasn’t for his five o’clock shadow.   Nathan Broadhead produces a superb shot which is heading for the inside of the goal net until the huge flying frame of Ripley hoves into view and a Ripley arm extends and pushes it away beyond the post.  Ripley is having a fine game and five minutes later performs a sort of break dance after he slips when making a hasty  clearance from in front of the looming Freddie Ladapo. A little while later he does it again after taking a goal kick.

Almost an hour of the game has receded into history and Morecambe have their first attempt on the Town goal, a speculative near post header than arcs slowly beyond the far post.  Two minutes later and after some fabulous skill from Conor Chaplin, Kayden Jackson sprints away down the right and lays the ball back for Nathan Broadhead to place a firm shot in Ripley’s midriff.  It’s now Town’s turn to get in on the multiple substitution act as the unlikely firm of solicitors Morsy, Broadhead and Ladapo leave to be replaced by Cameron Humphreys, Kyle Edwards and George Hirst.  Fiona reveals that she once had a cat called George.

Just under twenty minutes of normal time remain and Morecambe earn their first corner and  appreciation of their travelling supporters who get their kicks where they can and celebrate disproportionately.  Marcus Harness replaces the excellent Conor Chaplin and Stephen Foster tells us that tonight’s attendance is 21,948 with one-hundred and two from Morcambe, although I have a quick count and can only spot sixty-four.

After such a goal laden first half, the second half has been less thrilling, but it has nevertheless passed quickly.  Apart from already being four-nil up, the crowd has had not very much to sing about in the second half, but the quiet at Portman Road has at times been almost oppressive, as if some people had turned up for a bit of a moan after Saturday’s defeat at Oxford and are now sulking.  As the final minutes roll by and just three more are added, the Sir Bobby Robson stand at last break into song with some celebratory Ole, Ole Oles and a drum can be heard too.  Perhaps the Rio de Janeiro branch of the supporters club were late getting here tonight.

With the final whistle I swiftly depart, erroneously thinking that I will quickly be able to get out of the Portman Road car park and away into the night.  It seems that far too many people had already left and have clogged up the streets.  But I didn’t turn up tonight just so I could get away early, that would be daft.  I came for the football and that’s been excellent, it’s been a night to remember for Town and I doubt Morecambe will forget it either.

Oxford United 2 Ipswich Town 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 0 Portsmouth 0

Spring is sprung and as former Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells us, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of promotion and sneaking into the play-offs. With such thoughts in mind, I once again park up my trustee Citroen C3 in classical sounding Waller’s Grove, and tread steadily across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arboretum pub beyond, which is now known as the Arbor House.   It’s a gloriously sunny day, which sits beneath a pale blue sky, once the grey clouds have broken up.  The human contents of the Station Hotel spill out onto Burrell Road and in the pub garden Pompey fans revel in the joys of beer and life.  On Portman Road a golden Labrador sniffs for incendiaries and I buy a programme (£3.50) for the first time using cashless payment.  There are far more police about than usual, no doubt because of some strange belief that the followers of today’s opponents, Portsmouth Football Club, are somehow rowdier than your average spectator, but on Portsea Island life is lived to the full.

At the Arb’ I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and bask in the sun in the beer garden where I am soon joined by Mick. who I haven’t seen since before Christmas.  We talk of Fatty Liver Disease, Home Office funding for the housing of Afghan refugees, conversations with mutual friends, bicycles, people who still think Brexit was a good idea, Baptists, my wife’s twin aunts in Portsmouth, one of whom has sadly died and electric cars.  We don’t talk of Ukraine except to say that it makes us too angry and sad, and we simply don’t know what to say about it.  At some time after two-thirty, having finished our beers, we depart for Portman Road, Mick walking his Raleigh bicycle as we go and finally locking it up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where we head for our respective turnstiles, Mick making for the posh West Stand seats and me the cheap seats in the lower tier of what I still think of as Churchman’s.  For a second consecutive fixture there are queues at turnstiles 59 and 60, but I’m inside the stadium by ten to three giving plenty of time to use the ‘bathroom’ facilities before taking up my seat.

In the stand, Pat from Clacton is here, as is ever-present Phil who never misses a game, along with his young son Elwood.  Fiona is away on a cruise to the Canary Islands, but her seat is occupied by Mark, a long -time supporter who travels on the coach from Clacton with Pat, but usually sits in the West Stand. Curiously the seats immediately in front of me are empty today.  We will later learn that there are 25, 495 other people here too, each with their own distinct lives, hope and fears and tales to tell, and 1,986 of them are also Portsmouth supporters.

At a minute past three, after knees are taken and applauded the Town begin the game, hoping to rattle the net of the goal just a little to the right and in front of Pat, Phil, Elwood, Mark and me.  Town are back in our traditional blue shirts and white shorts after Tuesday’s flirtation with all blue, whilst Pompey are in a handsome kit of red and black halves with black shorts, it’s a kit with personal significance for me because my wife was wearing an earlier version of the shirt when I first spoke to her back in the 1990’s, and it was the shirt I spoke to her about.

“Hello, hello, we are the Pompey boys” sing the Portsmouth supporters helpfully and politely introducing themselves, as if to hold out a hand and bid us all a good afternoon.  There is a fine atmosphere inside Portman Road today courtesy of the Pompey boys (and girls) and a chorus of “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” is soon ringing out and the Sir Bobby Robson stand respond with “Oh when the Town go marching in” sung to the tempo of a funeral march and with a similar quota of joie de vivre.   It’s conceivable that the Pompey fans can’t hear the Town supporters’ dirge above the sound of their own anthem, or it could be that they can only clearly see the impassive faces of the Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but our visitors soon break into the old  favourites of away fans at Portman Road with choruses of “You’re support is fucking shit” and its intellectually superior sibling chant “ Is this a library?”.  Moving swiftly into goading mode they produce a rendition of the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just a small Town in Norwich” before finishing with “You’re supposed to be at home”. Such is the wit of football supporters. “Never heard that one before” says the bloke behind me sarcastically as I imagine that I’ve been listening to an advertisement for a compilation of football ‘s favourite chants from K-tel Records.

Twelve minutes past three and Town, who have been dominating possession, win the game’s first corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the Pompey boys and girls showing that it’s possible to vocally encourage your team when they’re defending as well as when they attack; this afternoon is proving to be an education.   The corner kick is delivered and Luke Woolfenden, looking a bit like a 1990’s Eminem with his bleached blond hair stoops and twists to somehow head the ball away from goal rather than into it.  Four minutes later and Pompey win a corner too, eliciting even more chimes.

Sam Morsy has already had to pause the game once to check on his gammy leg; a legacy (no pun intended, though it’s a pretty good one, isn’t it?) from Tuesday night’s game, but now with seventy minutes still to play, he has to be substituted by Tommy Carroll, who incidentally last played for Town against Pompey on 4th May 1968 (Town won 2-1 at Fratton Park).  Bringing on a player who would be over eighty if he was still alive unsettles the Town team and Pompey nearly score as Aiden O’Brien shoots spectacularly over the cross bar from very close range and then Luke Woolfenden gives the ball away to O’Brien who thankfully misses again, this time shooting wide of the far post.  It’s almost as if Town had been setting up O’Brien to embarrass himself. Town bounce back briefly to win a second corner but then a George Hirst shot has to be saved by Christian Walton. On the left touchline the referees assistant fits very snugly into his pale green shirt, almost as if he’s been vacuum packed.

After twenty minutes, the incidence of foul play is increasing, and O’Brien falls beautifully, arching his back in a graceful curve as he is allegedly fouled by Wes Burns.  If they ever put on Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, O’Brien has to be worth a punt for the part of Odette.  A short while later Pompey’s Louis Thompson is the first player to be shown the yellow card belonging to the largely ineffectual referee Mr Christopher Sarginson, as Wes Burns wriggles in a heap on the turf.

A third town corner is greeted with a song involving repeated Ole’s or Allez, I’m not clear which, from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but the corner kick is easily cleared at the near post.  The improbably named Mahlon Romeo then drags down Dominic Thompson and holds the ball up angrily in the air as if to say to “But look, I got the ball” when he is called out by Mr Sarginson,  who, I like to think ,tells him that he could equally have come away with the ball if he’d hit Thompson with a long plank of wood or set a dog on him, but it would still be a foul.

“Oh, great ball Bakinson” calls a sarcastic voice somewhere behind me as Janoi Donacien mistakenly passes to a Pompey player.  “Oh Shut up” says someone else, understandably frustrated by the sort of people who inexplicably seem to need a bete noire in every Town team.  Conor Chaplin has a shot blocked and with half-time nearby Cameron Burgess concedes a corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the 1,986 in the Cobbold Stand. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” answer the Sir Bobby Robson Stand revealing a level of sophistication, wit and humour which goes some way to explaining the popularity of TV’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ among much of the general population.  Entering time added on a Conor Chaplin snap shot whistles past the left hand post of the Pompey goal before Kayden Jackson runs on to a through ball and has his shot saved by Gavin Bazunu.  Jackson appears to tweak a hamstring in the process of running and shooting and troops off angrily and dejectedly to be replaced by the oddly named Macaulay Bonne whilst Town take another corner and the three minutes of added on time are played out.

Half-time brings relief and nourishment in the form of a wee and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, but unusually I do not go and talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison because Ray is somewhere up the back of the stand with his brother-in-law today.  Half-time nevertheless passes quickly and the football soon resumes along with the pattern of Ipswich possession interspersed with corner kicks and a series of crosses which carefully avoid anyone likely to divert the ball into the Pompey goal.

As Bersant Celina wins another corner, the volume of the home crowd seems to be turned up a notch as if there is either a sudden collective understanding that they can help the team, or an outbreak of collective anxiety. From a cross, subsequent to the corner kick , the ball comes out to Wes Burns, but he wellies it over-enthusiastically and high above the Pompey cross bar.  Pompey are mostly the lesser team in this contest but they retain the ability to threaten occasionally and as half past four approaches a header from Sean Raggett lands on the roof of the Town goal net and the “Play Up Pompey/ Pompey Fuck Off” duet is reprised. It took the home fans a while to think of their response to the Chimes, but now that they have they’re not missing a beat.

Pompey’s Louis Thompson is replaced by Joe Morell and Tyreeq Bakinson seems to carefully place a shot into the arms of Pompey goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu before Bersant Celina wins yet another corner, and Bakinson heads the ball into the side netting, promoting jeers from the Pompey supporters directed at those Town supporters who might have thought the net was bulging from within.  Over seventy minutes have passed and the competitive edge in the game unfortunately boils over as it appears that the Pompey manager, the never-smiling Danny Cowley, gets in Dominic Thompson’s way as he prepares to take a throw-in.  Thompson seems to over react somewhat, but Cowley makes no attempt to appease the offended wing-back and starts to come over all macho.  An unseemly melee ensues and the Sir Bobby Robson  stand are unforgiving as they announce “ Cowley, Cowley, You’re a cunt; Cowley, You’re a cunt”.  To my shame I join in with a shout of “Bugger-off back to Braintree”, but mainly because I enjoy the alliteration and find any mention of Braintree faintly amusing.

The match descends into its final ten minutes as Bersant Celina shoots wide and Tyreeq Bakinson is booked. Meanwhile Pompey swap Aiden O’Brien for the interestingly monikered Denver Hume and   I notice that their bearded Ryan Tunnicliffe has strange hair, cut into a sort of bob like a 1920’s flapper.  Pompey also replace George Hirst, whose name is satisfyingly close enough to Geoff Hurst to make me smile and his substitute is a man with two surnames, Tyler Walker. With three minutes of added on time ebbing away some folk in the home crowd begin to accuse Pompey of time wasting; there are even calls of “Boring Boring Portsmouth”, which are ridiculous and reveal how easily some people can slip into repetitive behaviour; it saves having to think.

The final whistle brings inevitable disappointment that Town haven’t won, tempered by the understanding that this has been a good match and we haven’t lost either, which we often do at home to Portsmouth.   Pat from Clacton makes a swift exit and Mark thanks me for my company;  I reciprocate before heading out into the chill of the early evening for the journey home and the thoughts of Mick Mills through the medium of BBC Radio Suffolk and the car radio.  Life is generally good, although it could sometimes be better.