Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 0

I have been in the office, where I now work just one day a week, since eight o’clock this morning and it’s now half past four in the afternoon.  I have wasted enough of my day just existing and accumulating the means to continue my shallow, feckless Western lifestyle, now it’s time to live and be shallow and feckless.  I check my mobile telephone. At 16:12 I received a message from Pat from Clacton. Pat tells me she was joking last week when she told me she would not be at the match tonight, but then proceeds to tell me she won’t be at the match tonight.  Pat says she’s still suffering the after-effects of Covid, which apparently includes heavy breathing. As much as watching a football match with a 1968 vintage Jane Birkin appeals to me, it’s probably best for Pat that she stays in Clacton tonight.  The good news however is that Pat won £51.25 playing whist whilst on holiday in Great Yarmouth, but the real point of the message, I think, is to ask me to photograph ever-present Phil who never misses a game when he celebrates Town having scored a goal.  Pat from Clacton always photographs ever-present Phil when he celebrates a Town goal at Portman Road, it’s a ritual like a state funeral or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Tonight, Town are playing Derby County in a third division fixture, something that has never ever happened before in this universe, like Boris Johnson telling the truth.  If casually asked how many times I had seen Derby County play I would have guessed at a mere fifteen or sixteen. In fact, I have discovered that Derby County are one of twenty professional clubs I’ve seen play over thirty times.  Despite two League Championships, Brian Clough and Robert Maxwell, Derby County have seemingly made little impression on me, perhaps because of their anonymous monochrome kit or their uninteresting out of town stadium which has meant I know little of Derby itself. What is Derby famous for? Rolls Royce engines and East Midlands airport?  Still without answers to these questions time passes and a little short of two hours after receiving Pat from Clacton’s text message I walk through the front door of the Arbor House formerly the Arboretum pub; it’s heaving with Friday night revellers. I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£4.00) and a Scotch egg (£4.50) and retire to the beer garden to wait for my Scotch egg and the arrival of Mick.  As the evening light recedes into darkness I struggle to read the programme (£3.50) I had bought earlier in the club shop after I left work, but this is partly because the programme is hopelessly dull too, despite its rainbow colours on the front page, which also features an un-flattering cartoon image of George Edmundson in which he looks uncannily like Kryten from the BBC TV comedy series Red Dwarf.

By the time Mick arrives I’ve eaten my Scotch egg and am amusing myself with a private mobile phone-based exhibition of the photos from my holiday in Brittany whilst unavoidably hearing the conversation of the middle-aged couples on the next table which concerns whether they would go to a concert by Ed Sheeran at Portman Road. The consensus seems to be that they would go “just to say they’d seen him”.   It seems to me a bit like flushing a couple of fifty-pound notes down the khasi.  Over by the window to the gents’ toilet two old boys, possibly on their way to, or from, a ‘Tarts and Tramps’ fancy dress party shuffle in, one wears a floppy hat and talks loudly about the range of beers at the Moon and Mushroom pub in Swilland, whilst the other sounds like he’s growling.

When Mick arrives he buys us both pints of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride plus a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps, which pleasingly have only travelled from Wormingford near Colchester, some 33 kilometres away.  Our conversation this evening is punctuated with laughter as we discuss burials and the disposal of people’s ashes and how people seem to have become strangely sentimental lately.  With kick-off not until 8 o’clock this evening, courtesy of Sky TV’s broadcasting schedule, we have more time than usual to laugh about such things and don’t notice everyone else leaving for the match and it’s closer to kick-off than usual when we eventually leave, making a sharp exit through the back gate.

Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way are less busy than usual when we arrive because most people are already inside the ground.  As I hasten through the turnstiles, I can hear former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster ‘giving it large’ as he reads out the team line-ups in his archetypal radio DJ manner; he sounds even more Tony Blackburn than usual tonight, no doubt for the benefit of Sky TV. By the time I take my seat next but one to the man from Stowmarket, the teams are on the pitch, and the Town team are forming a collaborative huddle preparing to start the match.  It’s Town who get first go with the ball I think, I’m not really paying attention yet as I get to grips with seeing Ipswich wearing all black and Derby in maroon or burgundy shirts and white shorts.  I imagine Derby think they look exotic like AS Roma or Sparta Prague, but they remind me of Northampton Town.  As for the Ipswich team, they look like Johnny Cash, though I guess that’s preferable to looking like Ed Sheeran.

With the start of the game come the chants from both sets of supporters, Derby transporting us back to the 1970’s by repeating “Derby, Derby, Derby” over and over again to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’, just like Town fans used to chant “Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” in that run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1975, the year Derby last won what I believe is now called the Premier League.  “Score in a minute, we’re gonna score in a minute” continue the Derbeians less nostalgically but more optimistically.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” add the Town fans from what in 1975 was the North Stand, and there are even a few chants of the same from the top of what was the West Stand.  It’s a sign that the stadium must be as good as full to capacity.

 A young bloke with a beard sits himself down in Pat from Clacton’s seat. I give him a look like Paddington Bear. “Is this seat free” he asks a little nervously. “Well, there’s no one sitting there tonight” I tell him in a voice that’s as close as I can get to sounding like a Suffolk Johnny Cash.  He smiles broadly.  I think I’ve put him at his ease.  On the pitch the play is frenetic, with both teams trying to play neat, passing football but frequently interrupting one another. Sam Morsy is booked after just ten minutes for a foul on the wonderfully named Lewis Dobbin. Ipswich have more success at getting close to their opponents’ goal and win three early corners, George Edmundson heads wide and Tyreece John-Jules clearly dives in the penalty area having won a few free-kicks already elsewhere.  I thought it was an obvious dive; the way he had already established eye-contact with referee as he fell gave it away, a bit like a Labrador staring at you as you eat your dinner.  He should be told to leave any desire to cheat in North London where it belongs, or Kieran McKenna will write to his mum.

“Come on Dorby” comes the chant from the Cobbold Stand and I think I detect a hint of a Midlands accent. Soon the away support are riffing on a familiar theme,  “Football in a library, de-de-dur” is followed by “No noise from the Tractor Boys” and “Shall we sing a song for you” as the youth of Derby vainly goad the pensioners and families in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, who stoically wait for Town to take the lead before thinking about whether they might start to clap or break a smile.  But the ground has gone a little quiet, they’re right.

The half is half over and Derby equalise in the competition to see who can have most players booked as  the name of James Chester is recorded in referee Mr Swabey’s notebook.   The game is almost a third over before Derby win their first corner.  “Are you alright mate?” says the bloke behind me to his son, who answers “Yeah”.   My view of the pitch is temporarily blocked as the people in front all stand up to let pass someone, who I guess couldn’t wait thirteen minutes until half-time for a pee.  A chant of “Blue and White Army” builds quickly and then falls away just as soon.  I notice that Derby have no sponsor’s name on their shirts.  “Peter Sykes, please contact the nearest steward” announces the voice of Stephen Foster.  I look but can’t see anyone approaching their nearest steward. It’s not that the game isn’t holding my attention, it is, and it is unpredictable, but the goalkeepers could have made hammocks from their goal nets and it wouldn’t really have mattered.  Perhaps to relieve his own boredom, Derby ‘keeper Joe Wildsmith gestures wildly at the linesman for not flagging Kayden Jackson offside.  The linesman predictably ignores the wild Wildsmith,  but would probably secretly like to give him ‘the finger’.   The half ends with hopes of a goal as Town win a free-kick on the edge of the Derby penalty box.  Children at the front of the stand prepare to video the event with their mobile phones, but their youthful hope and enthusiasm is dashed as Lee Evans shot avoids the defensive wall but not Joe Wildsmith. Three minutes of added on time are announced with a flourish by Stephen Foster but bring forth nothing to justify his optimistic tones.

The half time break sees me join Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad Michael ‘down the front’ where I encourage Harrison to buy ‘Shufflemania’, the new LP by Robyn Hitchcock which is released today.  Ray regales me with a story about his dad who used to drive the Ipswich Town team bus in the 1960’s.  Ray’s dad was known as ‘The Cat’ by the Town players and he maintained that this was because he would play in goal in 6 or 7-a-side warm up games when only twelve or thirteen players would travel as there was only one substitute allowed, and before 1965 no substitutes at all.  Ray was to find out later from a Town player of the period that his dad wasn’t called ‘The Cat’ because of his goal keeping prowess, but because late one night, having returned from a distant away trip , he backed the bus off Constantine Road and over the club cat.

The second half begins with renewed vigour from Ipswich and Derby fans alike who both sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” as if vying with one another in some sort of choral competition.  The encouragement seemingly works and just seven minutes into the half we witness the first shot from open play that is worthy of the name as Marcus Harness conjures up a half-volley that is blocked.   It’s a symptom of Town now dominating possession and looking the team most likely to score.  In the Cobbold Stand the Derby fans sing a song which to my ears sounds as if it’s about a man, possibly called Michael, who found an octopus, but I doubt that’s right. “ We forgot that you were here” respond the Town fans in the old North Stand in a curious role reversal; I conclude that the half-time break can do funny things to people and to prove the point the Derby fans produce a chant which sounds like the theme from the Addams Family, but then it is nearly Hallowe’en.

The second half is a better ‘watch’ for home fans even if it is ‘all up the other end’ from my perspective in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. In the sixty-seventh minute it all gets much better still as Kayden Jackson breaks down the right, loses the ball but carries on running as the unsuspecting Derby defender decides on a back pass which is nothing more than a pass to Jackson who shoots on goal.  The ball hits the post but rebounds to Wes Burns who has plenty of time to hit the ball into the net and give Town a lead which they now probably deserve, and they haven’t even made any substitutions yet.  I remember to take ever-present Phil’s photo for Pat from Clacton as Phil and his son Elwood hold their arms aloft whilst grinning joyfully.  “E-i E-i E-i-o, Up the Football league we go” sing the Town fans, and not to be outdone the Derby fans sing the same before deciding that they would be better served by a chorus of the sneering “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.”

Tonight’s attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 28,415, with 1,777 of them being the people who have been shouting all evening about Derby and what poor supporters Ipswich fans are. Ipswich continue to be the better team however, and Kayden Jackson shoots the wrong side of the goal post, substitutions are made and with seven minutes left former Town player David McGoldrick tries to make amends for collecting much of his salary from Town whilst not actually playing, by kicking Wes Burns in the penalty area.  After pausing to decide if he should really give Ipswich a penalty, Mr Swabey points to the spot.  It seems he was right to pause for thought because sadly Town will waste the opportunity given to them.  “Jackson’s taking it! ” says the bloke behind me somewhat incredulously and his surprise proves well-founded as Kayden’s kick lacks both the pace and accuracy required unless the goalkeeper dives the wrong way.  Wildsmith dives the right way and the score remains 1-0. 

“Ken Rodwell, contact the nearest steward” announces Stephen Foster perhaps making up a surname laced with double entendre to help reduce the tension of the closing minutes as Derby win a rare corner.  Seven minutes of added on time are announced and at the first stoppage in play four Town players collapse to the ground.  I don’t think they’ve got the hang of this time-wasting thing, they’re surely meant to go down one at a time? 

Time moves on inexorably. “Got to be it” says the bloke behind me after what he thinks seven minutes feels like. “Got to be it” he says again a short while later and then again. “Got to be it, innit” he says before saying “Got to be” at least twice, and then inevitably it is it, the final whistle, and a tidal wave of relief floods from the stands, not because Derby had looked like scoring, but just because no one has any faith that Town can win a match that’s shown live on the telly, well they just did.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.

Ipswich Town 0 Hull City 2


As I prepare to leave my house and head for Portman Road my wife Paulene is watching Aussie Rules footie on her lap-top, Geelong Cats are playing The Demons and whilst we don’t know it yet, the Cats will win by a massive eighty point margin.  “Oh, are you going already” she says and I kiss her goodbye.  Spring is here.  It is the last weekend in March and as walk to the railway station the sky is a clear blue, it is sunny and verging on warm.  A black cat looks down at me from a tree; I guess that it has climbed up there to avoid running across my path and bringing me good luck.   Spicy smells waft from the local Indian restaurant; a man on the station platform is wearing sunglasses and shorts, which seems optimistic or foolish, perhaps both.  The train is on time and busy with passengers, heads bowed in the thrall of their mobile phones.  At Colchester a man in a Chelsea beanie hat picks his nose enthusiastically, gouging away at his left nostril with his index finger.  A young woman opposite me wears leopard print sneakers.  “Hold on Scarlett” says a big-chested woman to her young daughter as they pick their way between the seats and the train pulls away; she staggers a little and almost topples over “Whoops”.  Sheep graze on the meadows near Manningtree and a haze hangs over the river, blotting out all sight of Felixstowe.

I’m first off the train at Ipswich and away over the bridge and up Princes Street.  I look over the bridge parapet and in the beer garden of the Station Hotel a group of Hull City supporters all clad in black look like Goths, I photograph them and they wave; I wave back.  In Portman Road I waste three pounds on a match day programme because somehow it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.  I later regret my decision but am no doubt destined to repeat the mistake.  There is a sense of sluggish anticipation outside the stadium as people wait for the turnstiles to open; some queue to collect tickets, others stand and munch on fatty fast food lunches.  At St Jude’s Tavern the usual blokes in their sixties and seventies are drinking the usual beer. The Match Day Special is once again St Jude’s Goblin’s Piss (£2.50).  I provoke a certain amount of jealousy because my pint has a head on it whilst everyone else’s looks flat. In truth the beer is cloudy and yellow and I now realise how it got its name. What it has to do with Goblins I don’t know, but I guess they couldn’t just call it Piss, although oddly I did once hear the lead singer of Brighton’s finest  late 1970’s pub band The Piranhas (Boring Bob Grover)  ask for a ‘pint of piss’ at a Student’s Union bar. The conversation is of French cricket teams, what a strange and wonderful country Belgium is, Belgian beer and football.  I have a second pint of the Match Day Special and at about twenty to three depart for Portman Road.

The sun is still shining and walking down the hill towards the ground the huge, beaming face of Bobby Robson above the club shop seems to be peaking around the corner, as if he’s trying not to be seen.  I pick my way through the crowds past queues into the increasingly shabby looking Cobbold Stand with its peeling blue paint.

I enter the ground through turnstile number seven where there is no queue, smiling broadly as I cheerily thank its moustachioed operator. After a visit to the gents I take up my usual place near Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  Pat tells me about how she spent the week before last at the Burlington Palm Hotel in Great Yarmouth, playing whist in the afternoons and evenings but seeing the sites, including Burgh Castle and the seals of Horsey Beach in the mornings; she tells me she enjoyed it a lot more than coming here.

The game begins with Town aiming for but not hitting the goal just to the right of me, Pat, Phil and Elwood.  Town get first go with the ball. Today’s opponents Hull City, known as the Tigers wear their traditional kit of amber and black striped shirts with black shorts and amber and black socks.  In the opening minutes Town look keen and push forward; “Paul Lambert is a Blue, He hates Norwich” sing the North Stand touchingly raiding their collective childhood memory of nursery rhyme tunes and re-purposing “London Bridge is falling down.”  It’s ‘early doors’(!) but Ipswich are on top and the North Stand are getting carried away with it all, goading the 485 visiting Hullensians with a chorus of “You’re support is fucking shit” which seems a bit rich.  It disappoints me; good humour and humility are called for when supporting a team as bad as Ipswich Town is currently.

Inevitably Hull’s revenge is swift and three minutes later the Ipswich Town defence clear off to that place that they go at least once every match, where no one can see them, but they leave the ball with  Hull City who score; a nicely placed shot by Kamil Grosicki formerly of Rennes, who like a true artist makes full use of the space offered by an open goal.  “How shit must you be, we’re winning away” is the questioning and not unreasonable retort from the Humberside 485, although in fact they have already won as many as four away games this season. But the answer to their question has to be “very”.

Four minutes later and Jon Nolan who is the subject of the “One to One” feature in the programme and has his name on the cover, retires hurt. Nolan is replaced by ‘the boy’ Dozzell.   With Hull leading, Ipswich fade a little; they still have lots of the ball but don’t do much with it that might result in  a goal. “It’s all nice knocking it about, but….” shouts an exasperated voice from the stand not needing to finish his sentence to convey what he means.  The Ipswich defence evaporates again and Hull nearly score a second goal and at half-past three  Myles Kenlock has a shot which sweeps above the cross-bar and the brief spurt of excitement inspires an unexpected burst of support “Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich! Come On Ipswich!” sing what seems like several people all at once.

A large, bright, luminous presence appears to my right hand side; it is a hi-vis coat and inside is a steward who after listening to his ear piece proceeds to ask me if I am in possession of a camera.  Thinking naively that he just wants to talk about photography, I rather proudly tell him I am; well, it’s quite a good one and wasn’t that cheap.  He asks me not to take any more pictures.  I think it’s rather unfair to single me out when virtually everyone in the crowd is carrying a mobile phone and many of them are being used to take pictures and videos.  I tell the steward so and he says “Yes, it is a bit of a grey area”.  Football Association Ground regulations state that photos or videos captured on mobile phones must not be published or shown on social media sites.  Yeah, right.  It reminds me a little of the first and second rules of Fight Club.

1 Notwithstanding possession of any ticket the Club, any police officer or authorised steward may refuse entry to (or eject from) the Ground any person:

1.1 that fails (or in the Club’s reasonable opinion is likely to fail) to comply with these Ground Regulations or any reasonable instruction issued by a police officer or authorised steward; and/or

1.2 whose presence within the Ground is, or could (in the Club’s reasonable opinion), constitute a source of danger, nuisance or annoyance to any other person

16 Mobile telephones and other mobile devices are permitted within the Ground PROVIDED THAT (i) they are used for personal and private use only (which, for the avoidance of doubt and by way of example only, shall not include the capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing, or any other communicationof any Material for any commercial purposes); and (ii) no Material that is captured, logged, recorded, transmitted, played, issued, shown or otherwise communicatedby a mobile telephone or other mobiledevice may be published or otherwise made available to any third parties including, without limitation, via social networking sites.

19 Save as set out in paragraph 16 above, no person (other than a person who holds an appropriate licence) may capture, log, record, transmit, play, issue, show or otherwise communicate(by digital or other means) any Material in relation to the Match, any players or other persons present in the Ground and/or the Ground, nor may they bring into the Ground or use within the Ground (or provide to, facilitate or otherwise assist another person to use within the Ground) any equipment or technology which is capable of capturing, logging, recording, transmitting, playing, issuing, showing or otherwise communicating (by digital or other means) any such Material. Copyright, database rights and any other intellectual property rights in any unauthorised recording or transmission is assigned (by way of present assignment of future rights) to the Club and the EFL. You further agree (if and whenever required to do so by the Club and/or the EFL) to promptly execute all instruments and do all things necessary to vest the right, title and interest in such rights to the Club and the EFL absolutely and with full title guarantee.

Peeved and wanting to begin a revolution I stand up, face the crowd behind me and  try and encourage everyone to get out their mobile phones and take pictures, predictably I fail, but it strikes me as funny how cow-eyed and mindless everyone looks.

Town have a couple of shots cleared off the line in the closing minutes of the half but so what. Half-time arrives and I vent some more Goblin’s Piss, look at the half-time scores and have a chat with Ray who today is here with his wife Ros as well as grandson Harrison.  This is Ros’s third game this season; she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it that much, nor am I anymore.

The second half is much like the first but probably less exciting.  Hull score almost immediately as Jarrod Bowen makes a speedy, jinking run from the middle of the Hull half, all the way down Town’s left flank and then passes to Kamil Grosnicki who hits a precise shot off the far post and into the net.  It’s a good goal but most teams would have got close enough to Bowen to knock him over before he got to the penalty area.

After that the Tigers seem largely happy to let Ipswich rain in a series of inaccurate crosses and mis-place their passes whilst they wait to run away down the wings again when they get the chance.  Referee Mr John Brooks shares his name with my grandfather, but disgraces it with a series of unwelcome decisions.  Had the late John Henry Brooks been in charge I am sure Ipswich would have won, not because he was an Ipswich supporter, he grew up in rural Oxfordshire, but because he would have had a bet on the game beforehand and would have backed the team with the longest odds.

Pat shows me some of the pictures she took of the seals on Horsey Beach; it’s a second half highlight.  With an hour played the large and angular German, Collin Quaner replaces nippy Kayden Jackson, who has played quite well considering the standard of the overall team performance.  Paul Lambert urges his team on, prowling the ‘technical area’ in his Marks and Spencer v-neck jumper whilst Hull’s manager is less animated and wears a jacket and tie and looks a trifle staid.  On seventy four minutes eighteen year old French-Tunisian Idris El Mizouni from Meudon just outside Paris makes his first appearance at Portman Road.  As I tell Pat, I met Idris’s dad in Meudon last September when I saw Meudon play St Ouen in an early round of the French Cup.  I very much hope Idris does well, we need more foreign players, they’re better than the British ones, they tend to be able to control the ball and pass to their own team mates.

There are moments where Town ‘come close’ but never close enough.  The old boy behind me isn’t happy “ We pay good money to see this” he says .  It’s Hull that come closest to another goal in time added on as a Marc Pugh shot curls against a post. With the game in its final minutes the crowd show a bit of life with some rhythmic clapping and a few supportive chants from the North Stand, which is unusual after a not very-good performance. Nevertheless, such support is a good thing even if the team could perhaps have done with it earlier in the game, rather than as a show of sympathy at the end.  The final whistle is greeted with a bit of a love-in at the North Stand end of the ground despite abject defeat and the fact that Paul Lambert’s record as manager is now worse than Paul Hurst’s.   Relegation is as good as certain but a lot of supporters remain simply satisfied that Mick McCarthy is no longer manager, or that’s what they’re saying.

On the train home I speak with three Hull supporters who are saddened that Ipswich should be going down and surprised that we have never played in the national third tier.   They add that they know from experience that third division football is bloody awful, we should do well.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.