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.