The end of the football season is nigh and where promotion and relegation has not already been decided, hope and anxiety masquerade as excitement. When “mathematically” a team can still be promoted it really means they have as much chance as winning a lottery jackpot, realistically none. Attracted by this sense of hopeless futility I am heading to Stowmarket who must win their last four matches, hope Felixstowe lose their final three and at the same time overhaul a superior goal difference.
It’s a grey, wet, day in late April in which the showers for which the month is famed have seemingly joined together in an unwanted show of soggy solidarity. My train is hurtling towards Ipswich through a blur of swishing greenery; rain drops speckle and streak the windows and opposite me sits a slight teenage girl; her head consumed by a set of massive earphones; only that little head and her dangling legs are visible behind a bulging rucksack twice the size of her torso. Arriving at Ipswich I have to buy a ticket for the second part of my journey; walking into the booking hall four clerks sit in a row as if awaiting a sudden rush for tickets, only one of them acknowledges my presence and therefore, although he is at the far end of the row I buy my ticket from him. There is a twenty minute wait for my connecting train and so I sink into the soft two-seater sofa in the waiting room between platforms three and four. I gaze up through the long, gracefully shaped window of the small room at the wooden fretwork valance of the platform canopy and beyond through the steady drizzle at the reflection of a brick chimney on the shiny slate roof of the main station building. The train is late but beauty abounds.
From Ipswich it’s just an eleven minute train journey to Stowmarket (£3.65 return with a Gold Card), out past marshalling yards and Morrison’s, past the scrapyards of Claydon and along the valley of the River Gipping through Needham Market; arrival at Stowmarket is announced by Munton’s (Passionate about Malt) and the multi-coloured storage tanks of the ICI paint factory.
Leaving the red-brick station with its glorious Jacobean style gable, I walk only a few paces before entering the Kings Arms public house to enjoy a pint of Woodforde’s Wherry (£3.30). It’s another attractive little building, although plain, but its appearance is spoiled by the unsympathetic UPVC windows. In the lounge I sink again into a two-seater sofa almost identical to the one in the waiting room at Ipswich station.
There is snooker on the television and a man and woman sit on another sofa drinking tea and reading the papers. “Miserable out there, isn’t it” says the man. I resist the temptation to contradict him and say that I think it rather beautiful, if wet, so I tow the party line and say something fatuous about wondering when it will clear up.
It’s twenty past two and my mobile phone tells me it’s a fifteen minute walk to Green’s Meadow, the home of Stowmarket Town. The rain has ceased and I set off, crossing the River Gipping, admiring the Grade 1 Listed church of St Peter and St Mary and the Grade II* listed, but seemingly derelict eighteenth century Lynton House in front of it. The route to Green’s Meadow is along Gipping Way, past the badly spelt Bodywize Gym, Lidl and the predictable queues of shoppers at its checkout tills, who stare out through the plate glass to assuage their boredom; perhaps I should wave.
Stowmarket Town is a part of Stowmarket Community Sports and Social Club whose premises, a low, single-storey prefabricated building, reminiscent of the temporary classrooms of my childhood primary school, sits behind a large surface car park by a roundabout. It’s not impressive looking, but the yellow and black signage gives it a certain unity and smartness. Entry to the Greens Meadow ‘stadium’ (£6) on match days is through the ‘turnstiles’ which are close to the half way line. There is no queue and as I walk in the referees and some players are warming up on the pitch, which on such a grey day appears almost luminous, its grass, lush, damp and very green.
A few people have already taken up their positions in the corrugated iron clad stand to the left where strangely a white UPVC door is propped on its side; a portal to a horizontal universe. I cross through the metal cage that is the players’ tunnel; glancing towards the changing rooms I see more UPVC windows leaning against a fence. I take a wander round the ground, a man stands on a chair to fix one of the goal nets, there is a lot of signage about toilets. I head towards the bar, which is doing a good trade as people stay
out of the cold and damp. I buy a plastic pint ‘glass’ of Greene King IPA (£3) and find a table where I sit and look through the programme (£1). The IPA has its familiar taste, something reminiscent of the smell of plasticine. The programme contains a lot of adverts and it’s good to see local butchers, chip shops, metal merchants, plumbers, carpet fitters and purveyors of aggregates supporting the club. I particularly like the full page advert for Emmitt Plant with its colourful pictures of diggers and dumper trucks. A bald man called Russell Hall, who wears a black shirt covered in yellow smiley faces is available for ‘adult comedy nights’, after dinner speaking and ladies/gents nights; I shudder a little and turn the page. Apart from a bored eight or nine year old, the only females I can see here are serving behind the bar.
I leave the bar and head outside via the toilet; there is a slight smell of damp in the corridor. Back outside, the teams appear from the metal cage and run through the pre-match handshake routine. Stowmarket wear their customary yellow and black striped shirts with black shorts and socks, whilst Long Melford wear an Anderlecht or perhaps Fiorentina or Toulouse inspired change kit of all purple or violet, but with black and white hooped socks, as if they forgot to buy the whole ensemble. Melford kick off the match with their backs to the town, playing towards the A14 and the looming concrete bridge which crosses the adjacent railway track and River Gipping.
The men who were in the bar drinking are now stood in the corner of the ground drinking. A few wear flat caps, some fashionably, some less so. “Blimey, it’s like an audition for Peaky Blinders round here” says one bloke; it’s a comment that makes me smile more than anything I anticipate Russell Hall might say. I wander round to behind the dugouts. Stowmarket win a corner and their number five heads the ball directly into the arms of the Melford goalkeeper. One of the Stowmarket coaches clutches his head in anguish as if imitating Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, or having a seizure. The Melford right-back then rather uncharitably passes to the Melford number eleven, simultaneously calling “man-on”. It’s akin to throwing him something boiling hot and yet also very fragile. He might have done better to pass to someone else.
Stowmarket are the more adept team but they’re struggling to make chances and Melford are competing equally well. A man with a rucksack on his back opens a Tupperware box and bites into a soft roll. It is about twenty-five past three and the ball hits the net in the back of the Long Melford goal, off the head of Stowmarket’s top-scorer Josh Mayhew. The public address announcer hasn’t been paying attention, the goal did arrive a little out of the blue and his announcement is a bit late. One spectator tells him the score is still nil-nil whilst another says “No, that goal was in the first half”. The excitement is too much for me and unusually I feel hungry, I stroll to the tea bar and order a bacon roll (£2.50); the bacon is quite tasty if not as crispy as it could be.
On the pitch Melford’s number seven Jose Zarzoso-Hernandez is keeping the Stowmarket right-back occupied. It’s about twenty to four now and suddenly Stowmarket are two-nil up as Remi Garrett scores from close range and a slight deflection. The announcer is fully awake now and has James Brown with him, who feels good even if he does end his celebration a little abruptly and mid-note. Melford break away but prevaricate and fail to score and a minute before half time, James Brown literally picks up where he left off, feeling good again as Luke Read scores a third Stowmarket goal, again from close range. James Brown finishes before just a hint, but no more of Tom Hark leaks out of the PA.
Referee Mr Thomas Hancock soon whistles to end the half and I get a pounds-worth of tea to wash away the remnants of my bacon roll; bits of the bread are stuck in thick pasty lumps between my gums and cheeks. Carrying my tea I step back inside the club house to catch the half-time scores (Ipswich at Reading is goalless). One end of the room is screened off and a printed notice announces that it is the Sponsors’ Area; blokes in smart casual dress are gathered around a buffet with paper napkins and paper plates. I glance out of the window and see players returning for the second half, so I join them, in a manner of speaking.
The man who earlier ate a soft roll from a Tupperware box remarks to his friend as he looks across the pitch from outside the club house, “You can see the slope from here”. “Oooh, yes” says his friend. Tupperware man then eats a chocolate coated biscuit, possibly a Nestle’s Breakaway or supermarket own brand equivalent. I walk away to stand level with the edge of the penalty area looking across towards the sweeping concrete flyover that is the A14. The view reminds me of the cover of the booklet inside the 30th anniversary edition of George Harrison’s defining triple album “All Things Must Pass”. The concrete bridge is a wonderful backdrop to the corner of the football ground, running as it does above the height of the trees, which surround the ground on two sides. The roar from the traffic is constant and I wonder how polluting it must be down here at pitch level. Do asthmatic players struggle more at Stowmarket?
It’s now four minutes past four and a long throw from Melford’s David Lopez is headed on before Will Wingfield forces it over the goal line from close range to make the score 3-1. “That was some throw” remarks the old boy stood next to me, a comment that I belatedly realise was made to me. What can I do but agree? It certainly was. Another old boy joins the first “How are ya?” he says. “Arroight” Is the reply.
– “Yeah, foine” says the first, with an air almost of disappointment.
At just gone ten past four Stowmarket’s Josh Mayhew scores his second goal, reacting in a split second to hit the ball hard and high into the Melford net from more than 20 metres out. Now Tom Hark is heard over the PA and the announcer calls out Mayhew’s name in the exaggerated drawn out manner of a boxing match compere. The majority Stowmarket contingent in the crowd of 179 cheered a little and applauded when the goal went in, but they don’t seem overly thrilled and don’t react to the amplified call to celebration. There are no Ultras here, but then, it is Suffolk. If the people aren’t taciturn, they’re not saying what they are.
I continue to enjoy the match and the spectacle of Greens Meadow, the green of the pitch and trees all around, the amber, black and purple of the team kits and the concrete, corrugated iron and yellow painted steel and the knot of drinkers by the clubhouse. Stowmarket make three substitutions all in one go and then at about twenty five to five Josh Mayhew completes his hat-trick and the PA gets positively frenzied as it launches Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” at us and Grunge meets the flat cap, as Stowmarket meets Seattle.
No further goals are scored, but the afternoon has grown increasingly cold as a creeping, penetrating chill seeps from the damp ground. Thanks to Suffolk stoicism or quiet inebriation there are no complaints, but disappointingly with the final whistle the vast majority of spectators either just leave or head back inside the clubhouse without offering up the applause both teams deserve. As the players stand in ragged circles to receive their post match de-briefs from their respective coaches, I too turn and leave, and walk the wet streets back to the railway station, and as I do so I reflect upon the joy of a damp afternoon in Stowmarket.