Ipswich Town 1 Sheffield United 1

The first time I saw Ipswich Town play Sheffield United was in April 1972; the result was a goalless draw but I remember the game not just because Sheffield had a character from Beatrix Potter playing for them (Len Badger), but because it was also the first time I had suffered the pain, shock and hurt of seeing a Town player sent-off. The late Colin Harper was that Town player; he had protested too much to the evil Gordon Kew who had awarded a penalty to Sheffield United; but Colin laughed last as Laurie Sivell saved the kick, because back then right was on our side, sometimes. At the end of the game the pitch was pelted with cushions by spectators in the West Stand who were aiming at Mr Kew and his police escort. It is now hard to believe that such passion could be shown by people in what is probably Portman Road’s most comatose of stands. The up-shot of this reminiscence however, is the admission that I have never much liked Sheffield United.

optional signals

But today is a beautiful, bright winter’s day and it’s almost Christmas, so in the spirit of goodwill towards all men it would be very bad manners not to put my ill-will towards The Blades on hold. Feeling better for that loving feeling I arrive at the railway station to find that the 12:57 to Ipswich is delayed by six minutes due to ‘signalling problems’. I text my wife Paulene because she likes to know of all the small misfortunes that befall me and because she likes to have her already low opinion of Greater Anglia railways reinforced whenever possible. Paulene texts me back with a series of emojis; her interpretation of potential ‘signalling problems’.

simplicity creations

As I wait for the train I enjoy the low winter sun; on the railway platform a sign advertises the services of The Samaritans, they are “in my corner” should I need them; but I’m not a boxing fan and the words don’t really work as a footballing analogy. The arrival of the train soon shakes me from my reverie. I sit on the grey moquette by a window and look about the carriage. The face of an ugly old woman with a big nose leers down at me from a poster advertising Simplicity Cremations, their strapline being ‘making funerals less of an undertaking’. I’m not sure when humour became ‘a thing’ in advertising for undertakers; I think of an alternative strapline with more of an accent on the ‘simple’ cremation “Light the blue touch paper and retire”. It is interesting that an undertaker would think that train passengers’ thoughts should turn to their own deaths, although when delays are really bad I guess people do begin to wonder if they will ever make it home and therefore begin to make plans.

christmas club shop display

Arriving at Ipswich there are two Christmas trees on the railway station concourse and two policemen guard the doors. A string of lights fail to make the Station Hotel look very festive; I hurry on towards Portman Road where there is little festive feel but for one steward in a red and white hat. For a reason I find hard to explain I buy a programme in the club shop, but it was worth it to see the display of Christmas themed soft toys and assorted tat.

Round the corner in Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to hear the Salvation Army band strike up with ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. Beginning to feel a lot as if it’s Christmas I head for St Jude’s Tavern to enjoy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which today is Maldon Brewing Co’s ‘Five Gold Rings’. I sit and read the programme, occasionally joining in with the conversation of the match-day regulars who are sat around the table next to me. I enjoyed the Match Day Special but variety is the spice of life and from my second journey to the bar I return with a pint of Maldon’s ‘Winter’s Ale’ (£3.20) and finally I drink a half of Earl Soham Brewery’s ‘Sir Roger’s Porter’ (£1.70). Glass drained I walk down Portman Road with one of the St Jude’s regulars with whom I had been sitting, I think his name is Ian; he is a bald man who currently has a limp, I discover that like me he has a penchant for French and Belgian football. I silently envy him his visits to Royal Antwerp and Aalst.
Portman Road is not overly busy, it’s close enough to 3 o’clock for most people to be already inside the stadium and by now only those who have struggled against Christmas crapulence to leave the pub are making their way through the turnstiles. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile No3 and bid the operator a cheery Christmas greeting. I make my way, via the gents, to my seat next to Elwood and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just in front of Pat from Clacton. I ask Pat if she enjoyed Tina Turner The Musical, which she went to see yesterday, in London. She did; although it was the understudy who played Tina. I hand a Christmas card to Elwood, to give to his dad, who tells him to put it in their bag.
The game begins with Ipswich as ever in their blue and white kit, which this season has sadly been tainted by the ugly logo of an organisation peddling on-line gambling. Without good reason, unless they are showing solidarity with France’s gilets jaunes, Sheffield United eschew their proper colours of red and white striped shirts and black shorts in favour of luminous yellow shirts with black shorts. I keep a look out for piles of burning tyres and pallets but fortunately there are none to be seen as Town get the ball rolling towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood. Another good afternoon’s work from Zero the sniffer dog.

“Oh when the Reds, Go marching in” sing the Yorkshiremen in the Cobbold Stand “Hark, now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” is the riposte from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and I wonder if the Salvation Army have been co-opted into the Blue Action supporters group. The football is fast and furious but it’s Sheffield who are fastest. Town may have to bide their time this afternoon, Sheffield United look quite good despite their poor choice of shirts. In the Sheffield corner of the Cobbold Stand the Okey Cokey breaks out and all around the stadium is a sprinkling of Santas and people dressed as elves. At seventeen minutes past three Sheffield United ‘score’ but the ‘goal’ is disallowed, something to do with a breach of the offside rule it would seem. “Down with the Wednesday, you’re going down with the Wednesday” sing the Sheffielders, presumably not to their own team, although if not it doesn’t seem a very charitable thing to sing, given the time of year.
It’s almost twenty five past three when Town at last have a goal attempt of their own as a cross from the right is met by the head of Ellis Harrison, a man who until today I did not realise had such impressive calf muscles. The header is caught easily by the Sheffield goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Six minutes later a deep cross from Town’s Gwion Edwards drops into the edge of the Sheffield penalty area, Freddie Sears is running onto it, there is an audible gasp of expectation from the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but Henderson gets there first, giving him cause to dance and sing. Town then win a corner; Luke Chambers launches himself towards the goal like a human missile and heads the ball solidly into the roof of the net. The ‘goal’ however is disallowed by referee Mr Woolmer. “What the hell was wrong with it?” calls the old boy behind me, showing admirable bias towards his team. Unfortunately, the human missile took out a few too many Sheffield players in the course of its rather flat trajectory.
Having disallowed a ‘goal’ Mr Woolmer seemingly develops a taste for enraging the home crowd and awards a free-kick against Ellis Harrison when it’s likely he was the player who was fouled and when Town are heading towards the Sheffield goal. The crowd is at once energised. “Who’s the wanker in the black?” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand in a rare display of unified voice. I volunteer the information that the wanker in the black is Mr Andy Woolmer, a short balding man who every other step has to skip or jump to keep up with the longer strides of his assistants as they walk on and off the pitch…like Private Baldric on the opening credits of Blackadder Goes Forth. This is the fourth consecutive home match for which Town have been given a ‘short ref’. I think its about time we had a lanky one.


Perhaps it is just Ipswich’s good fortune, perhaps the Sheffield players are unnerved by the better than usual vocal support for Ipswich or by the use of the word ‘wanker; perhaps they have heard about the cushion throwing incident in 1972, but they proceed to muck up several passes leaving Ellis Harrison with a run on goal and space to shoot. Ellis shoots, Ellis scores. I get a perfect end on view of the ball swerving wonderfully inside the netting just behind the goal post; it’s a thing of beauty, it’s bloody marvellous. Joy abounds.
There are eight minutes until half time. “I hope we get to half-time without…..” says the old boy behind me, his voice trailing off as if he cannot bear to utter the words to complete the sentence. Half-time arrives and Town are still winning. It has been a struggle but in the last ten minutes we came good, in part thanks to the diminutive Mr Woolmer’s ability to stir up the supporters with his abject refereeing.
I visit the gents, I talk to Ray and hand him a Christmas card; a very small brass band play Christmas Carols in the centre of the pitch. On the concourse below the stand what looks like a soil pipe is decorated with a twist of blue lights, some rather feeble strings of lights dangle from the roof and a Christmas tree decorates the entrance to the upstairs hospitality area. The stadium announcer tells us that the Premier League half-time scores will be on the scoreboard, “should you wish to see them”, which I think is a nicely condescending touch, richly deserved by those who do wish to see them.
All is well until the second half begins and within a minute Sheffield equalise through Billy Sharp a man who despite his thirty-two years has a name which will forever sound like he’s a young scamp of an eleven year old who’s just stepped out of a Barry Hines novel. He should perhaps call himself Bill or William now he’s a bit older. “Well, we’re gonna see plenty of the ball this half then” remarks the old boy behind me looking on the bright side, sort of.
It turns out that whilst we do see quite a lot of the ball being passed between the gilets jaunes in our half of the pitch, they don’t manage to create many certain chances to score and Dean Gerken makes hardly any saves; far, far fewer saves than he did against Wigan last week. Sheffield’s dominance of possession leaves the Ipswich crowd quiet for long periods but no one moans to fill the void. Everyone outside that one corner of the Cobbold Stand is of course hoping for another Town goal, but a draw will be alright. The crowd is announced as 17.942 (1,292 from Sheffield) which is pretty good for a Second Division team bottom of the league on the Saturday before Christmas, and shows that people do still care and still believe that relegation will be avoided. At twenty-five to five a chorus of “Come On Ipswich, Come on Ipswich ” ringing around much of the ground is strong enough to prove the point.

Mr Andy Woolmer

This is an enjoyable game and the old dear behind me is getting her kicks from Mr Woolmer’s lack of height, “I don’t know how he can see the fouls, he int tall enough is he?” she says before querying how he can manage to measure out ten yards at a free-kick with “… his little legs”. Happily for those of us satisfied with a draw, only three minutes of added time are called and whilst Mr Woolmer books Jordan Spence and gives Sheffield United a free-kick just outside the penalty area in that time, his efforts to let Sheffield score come to nought. The game ends and a warm applause flows from the stands. “That was bloody brilliant” says the old boy behind me getting a bit carried away with it all. I wait to applaud the team from the field and of course boo the referee. If I had had a cushion I doubt I would have hurled it at Mr Woolmer, possibly because we didn’t lose, but probably because I’m quite mild-mannered really. It’s odd that we think we live in a more liberal society than we did in 1972, but hurling a mere soft cushion would probably see me tracked down and banned for life from Portman Road now.
It has been a grand afternoon at Portman Road and Town are well worth their point against a superior team. We seem to be successfully assuming the role of plucky underdog, which in a league rammed full of Premier League pretenders will allow us a wry smile come the end of the season when only three of them get what they wished for…..and of course they should be careful of what that is. As for Town, we’re bottom of the league at Christmas, but I’m happy……or as happy as one can be.

Ipswich Town 1 Wigan Athletic 0

In 1978 when Ipswich Town were winning the FA Cup, Wigan Athletic finished second in the Northern Premier League behind Boston United and were elected to the Football League in place of Southport. Today, as ever-present Phil who never misses a game will later joke, Wigan are Town’s peers and today we meet. That’s a good joke Phil, you are wasted teaching IT to the youth of Northampton. Wigan bobbed about in the ‘lower divisions’ for several years, I remember seeing them lose frequently at Layer Road in the 1990’s, but eventually the club had the good fortune to be adopted by millionaire Dave Whelan who built them a stadium and paid their way in to the Premier League (spit). I met Dave Whelan once in a professional capacity; he flew down to Ipswich by helicopter just to meet me, and my colleague (boss). As we talked informally to break the ice my colleague, let’s call him Steve because that is his name, offered him a million pounds for Titus Bramble (then a Wigan Athletic player) and he accepted. I’m still not sure what we would have done with Titus Bramble in our office.

Today is a gloriously grey mid-December day. The sky is dull, the wind is gusty and the cold is very cold; so cold it cuts against my skin like a knife as I walk to the railway station. There are plenty of people waiting for the 12:57 train; Christmas shoppers mostly, heading for the bright, twinkling lights of Colchester. The train is late. A freight train seems to be to blame; it crawls through the station belching thick, dark diesel fumes. “Bloody hell” says a youth out to his impress his mates before he breaks into a bout of ostentatious coughing. More mature people cover their noses with their scarves or hold their breath. I wander down the platform and wait near a man who has hair like a young Sid James. The train is nine minutes late, but arrives in due course. As it draws into the platform two men in their late sixties manoeuvre themselves towards the sliding doors. “Ooh, it’s one of the refurbished ones, have you been on one of these?” says one of the men who has an unfortunate squint to one eye. The other man doesn’t answer. I imagine he’s thinking “Twat”.

The Christmas shoppers and Sid James desert the train at Colchester and I  am left to contemplate a sign inviting me to recharge my lap-top, tablet or phone, but only my lap-top, tablet or phone, from a sealed up power point. It’s as if Greater Anglia railways had considered being generous, but then thought better of it.

Ipswich is as grey and cloudy as the station where I began my journey and the streets are cold and quiet. I stride over the Princes Street bridge purposefully in my overcoat and blue and white scarf, probably smiling slightly to myself because I’m looking forward to the match; surely we can win today, I’m thinking. A woman in a car waiting at the traffic lights catches my eye and gives me the thumbs up. Yes, we will surely win today. I see the banners on the lamp posts advertising the Rodin exhibition at the gallery in Christchurch Park and am further inspired; I really must go and see ‘The Kiss’. We’ve got it all in Ipswich. Seriously.

Portman Road is quiet for a match day but perhaps that is because the turnstiles are already open and the people usually here at 1.30 are all inside doing whatever people who arrive an hour and a half before kick-off do. I head for the Fanzone to deliver a bag of groceries to the FIND foodbank charity; I’m not going into the Fanzone but a steward tries to stop me nevertheless because I haven’t shown that I have a match ticket, I tell them not to fret, I’m only going ‘over here’. Hopefully FIND will have had a successful day and will make further collections on future match days.

I head on to St Jude’s Tavern past a steward walking a car along Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I call to him that he needs a red flag. St Jude’s is very busy but I quickly avail myself of a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is St Jude’s Thaddeus. I perch on a bar stool in a dark corner; it’s the only vacant seat left. I’m not quite half way through my pint when Mick appears at the door, the large fur-trimmed hood of his coat casts a deep shadow over his face and beard making him look a little like a slightly sinister polar explorer. Mick quickly acquires a pint of the Thaddeus too and we talk of car insurance, my recent weekend in Amiens, of Trappist beers (Orval and Chimay), Jules Verne, ethical candles, gilets jaunes and Emmanuel Macron. Finishing my first pint, I buy a pint of Mr Bee’s Black Bee (£3.40) and Mick has a half of the Match Day Special. Time flies by and it’s almost ten to three, I have to dash.

 I seem to be the last person to be making his way down Portman Road towards the glowing floodlights, in the nearing distance supporters scurry across from the car park and hurry through the turnstiles like people getting in, out of the rain. At the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand I greet the turnstile operator with cheery smile and proceed to the seats where as ever I will find ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and Pat from Clacton.

Phil hands me a Christmas card, which is nice  and after the referee Mr Scott Duncan poses for photos with the team captains and mascots the match is soon underway. Town get first go with the ball and are trying to send it in the direction of me, Phil and Pat. Town as ever wear blue and white shirts despoiled by the ugly advert for on-line betting whilst Wigan are obviously the away team because they are all in yellow.

The game is a bit of a mess. Town start slightly better than Wigan and mill around their goal for a bit, but without threatening to score. Not really making the best of the Latin rhythms of Guantanamera, the 310 Wigan supporters in the Cobbold Stand sing “Down with the Wanderers, You’re going down with the Wanderers”. Presumably they are addressing their song to Ipswich and not to their own team, but you never know. At the North Stand end of the ground the ambience is less Cuban and South American and more Spanish, although the chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” are swept away on the icy wind above the muffled sound of drums. Wigan begin to have more of the ball, but are as ineffective close to Ipswich’s goal as we are to theirs.
The game settles down into scruffy mediocrity but the hope that everyone is drawing from the realisation that Wigan are as bad as we are is palpable; at times that hope congeals into belief and the vestiges of long lost vocal support ripple through the stands. “We’re going to see Tina Turner the musical on Friday, in London” I hear Pat say. “I’m not” says Phil.

There are several free-kicks and the Wigan players seem keen to hold proceedings up whenever they can by feigning mortal injury and clutching various limbs before skipping off to kick or shove someone in blue and white. Frustrated by another delay the old dear behind shouts “Keep it goin’, we gotta get home tonight. It’s obviously not cold enough for ‘em.”

With a half an hour gone a tuneless, droning chant of “Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan, Wigan” makes a succinct commentary on the type of game it is and makes me think of the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” and I mourn the death of Pete Shelley quietly to myself whilst waiting for something good to happen. A page from a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times dances its way across the pitch, blown and buffeted by the wind. Then another page floats by and another. “ It’s coming across a page at a time” says the elderly voice behind me and she chuckles ,enjoying the sight of paper blowing about more than the match it seems. A serious looking steward with a head wrapped in earphones steps forward to grab a piece of the newspaper and dispose of it. “Underground, overground, Wombling free” I sing. It’s twenty-five to four and Freddie Sears breaks free of the Wigan defence, he bears down on goal, he shoots over the cross bar. Five minutes later Wigan’s, or more accurately Everton’s Callum Connolly misses the goal too after a corner, “Crikey, you’re worse than us” is the verdict from behind me.
Half-time is a blessed opportunity to thaw my hands beneath the warm air blowers in the gents’ toilet; it’s a cold day and I’ve drunk two pints of beer so I take the chance to use the other facilities too. Outside on the concourse I eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and then, back in the stand chat with Ray, who also hands me a Christmas card. It is starting to rain and it’s getting dark.
The second half of the match begins and the break has made me more conscious of the cold easterly wind; even Paul Lambert has a coat on this afternoon, even if he has left it not done up. For now, despite slowly numbing fingers due to fingerless gloves, I feel warm. My woolly socks, cosily fitting boxer shorts bought in an Amiens supermarket (Auchan), a T-shirt bearing the words “Allez-les bleus”, long-sleeve cotton 1950’s Ipswich football shirt, chunky woolly jumper, beneath a heavy overcoat, and a woolly ITFC badged hat and scarf seem to be doing the trick. I was worried about the boxer shorts because they have the word ‘Athletic’ all around the waist band, but have decided that like sticking pins in a wax effigy having a part of the name of our opponents printed on my pants will put a hex on them.

The standard of football doesn’t improve. “It’s probably better on the radio” says the old girl behind me. The cold intensifies with the rain and my feet start to feel like blocks of ice. Dean Gerken the Ipswich goalkeeper draws disapproving moans and groans from the crowd as he hurries a clearance, which screws away into touch. He glowers back at the crowd. Perhaps he senses and even resents the loyalty in the crowd to Bartosz Bialkowski. The wind and rain are making it difficult for players who like to hoof the ball, but I think we are right to expect better on this occasion. I begin to wonder if this game might not become the win we are waiting for, but despite that minor ‘altercation’ with “Gerks” there is still a prevailing atmosphere of hope and support. We know we aren’t here to be entertained, we are here to see a win and people are sensing that they have some part in making that happen because perhaps the team might not be able to do it alone. Every now and then a string of on-field events will cause an eruption of supportive sounds from the stands and belief is restored. Even when a shot from Wigan’s Reece James strikes the Ipswich cross bar it seems to galvanise the support, not make them depressed and scornful as would have happened last season. It’s gone twenty past four and an Ipswich ‘attack’ takes ‘shape’ in a random manner on the right. The ball is hit hither and thither and into the box where there is more bagatelle until Freddie Sears half volleys the ball into the ground and towards the goal, it strikes Everton’s Callum Connolly and, as Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton looks over his shoulder, the back of the goal net. Ipswich Town are winning.
The remaining twenty four minutes are both awful and utterly enjoyable. The referee Mr Scott Duncan, despite having the name of a former Town manager whom the supporters respect, unlike the last four managers, makes a catalogue of dubious decisions many involving granting Wigan free-kicks around the edge of the penalty area. But this only draws everyone together, if we have to beat both Wigan Athletic and the referee so be it. Town manager Paul Lambert is equally gung-ho and has now discarded his coat like some sort of footballing King Lear challenging the wind and freezing rain to do its worst.  Wigan’s last chance is the ludicrous addition of seven minutes of time added on, it’s as if Wigan have benefitted from their own time wasting earlier in the match. But thankfully Wigan are not good enough to make anything of it. If it was a Friday in the 1960’s it would be time for Crackerjack by now, but at last Mr Duncan’s whistle draws its last and Town have won at home for the first time in just over six months and for just the third time this year.
This has  been the worst brilliant match I have ever seen and certainly the best terrible one too. The foul, freezing weather has just made it more marvellous, more memorable. This is what being a football supporter is all about, days like this. I have learned again the joy of a single win. The wait has been worth it. I feel sorry for those supporters of clubs who have never been bottom of the league in mid-December without a home win, they don’t know what they’ve missed. Today our souls have been enriched.
Tonight my wife and I shall drink champagne.