The clocks have changed, British summer time has gone, it is now late autumn when the football season begins in earnest. No more basking on sunlit terraces in T-shirts, from now on it will be cold or wet and sometimes both; proper football weather. I am surprised somewhat therefore to be strolling to the railway station under bright blue, cloudless, sunny skies with a balmy breeze at my back. On the train a man is wearing shorts. But then, this is the start of a new, new era; Ipswich Town manager Paul Hurst has gone with the leaves from the trees, to be replaced by Paul Lambert, the first Town manager with a surname that can be convincingly pronounced with a French accent. Death and decay may be all around me in the natural world, where plant life is full of fungi, mould and mulch but my optimism and belief and in my team is re-born, again.
Arriving in Ipswich, the town itself seems as relaxed or dull as ever, perhaps even more so. There is no one much about. I cross the small, weak bridge over the disused railway on Princes Street, a metaphor for Paul Hurst’s reign as manager. It’s half past one, but Portman Road is quiet. Men in day-glo jackets fail to stop a small Vauxhall with a barricade of wheelie bins. As usual a cluster of over-zealous individuals wait outside the Sir Alf Ramsey stand for the turnstiles to open, a habit that by the look of them they began forty five years ago or more before seats, when claiming your spot on the terrace was a necessary ‘thing’. A man heads towards the door of the ticketing information office, “Don’t waste your money” someone shouts out to him. Polythene bags full of crisps, sweets and the local paper lay on the street awaiting purchase for a pound. In the club shop there is a stock of ITFC branded ‘With Sympathy’ and ‘Get Well Soon’ cards; somewhat ironic given the club’s currently moribund situation at the foot of the league table, but otherwise rather tasteless.As ever I seek pre-match solace at St Jude’s Tavern, which is fuller than usual and I detect that blokes with Lancashire accents are responsible. As I recall from the corresponding fixture last year, Preston North End supporters would seem to have the greatest appreciation of real ale amongst Town’s Championship rivals, and I salute them for that. At the bar the moustachioed barman serves me a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is Mr Bee’s Pollen Power. I sit at the only available table, in the corner by the door, and await the arrival of Mick. I am approached by a man with a Lancashire accent who recognises me from last year when we chatted in this very bar. I am unsure whether to be flattered or worried that someone has recognised me from a single meeting a year ago. The man who I learn is called George seems very happy to renew our acquaintance and I share his enthusiasm for this entente-cordiale between fans of ‘rival’ provincial clubs at different ends of the country. Ipswich and Preston are not so different; two clubs stumbling along in the Second Division but both with the illustrious histories to forever raise them above the likes of Norwich City and Blackpool.
Mick arrives to drink the match day special and we talk of my recent experience of house-sitting in the town of Meudon just outside Paris. I show him a photo on my phone of Yume the dog who I walked each day in the nearby forest, as well as pictures of the public art at La Défense. We each drink another pint of the match day special before we part and I head down to Portman Road at about a quarter to three. A sign outside the church around the corner refers to disciples and it seems appropriate as the crowd congregates for the match. The quiet of an hour and a half ago is gone and I detect the smell of tomato sauce wafting its way towards me from the burger vans in the car park. The floodlights are already illuminated although in Portman Road the afternoon still seems bright, but inside the stadium the East of England Co-op stand, which oddly is on the west side of the ground casts a cold, damp, dark shadow over the pitch. I buy a programme (£3.00) out of a desire to remember the occasion with a souvenir, but can’t help immediately regretting the expenditure.
In the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand Pat from Clacton has returned from a cruise around the Greek Islands and as ever, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, today with this young son Elwood. There is plenty of space next to Pat so I settle down a couple of seats along from her leaving my allocated seat as one of the 14,700 odd that will remain unoccupied this afternoon. In front of Pat and me is a lady called Fiona who was in the audience for a supporters’ Q & A session with Paul Lambert during the week and could be seen on a local BBC TV news report of the event. I tell her “I’ve seen you on the telly, haven’t I” in the manner of someone who has just bumped into Valerie Singleton.
Very soon the teams venture side by side onto the pitch and Town’s new manager Paul Lambert takes his first walk along the touchline from the players’ tunnel to the dug-outs. The crowd cheer and clap, he waves, I wave back. Today the club is once again
commemorating Armistice Day, which is something that never used to happen at football matches, but we live in strange times. I wonder if people are compensating for the absence of religion in their lives. But even stranger, today the minute’s silence for remembrance of those killed by war is also for the chairman of Leicester City Football Club. This is truly bizarre. As good a bloke as he evidently was, and as tragic as it was that he died in so horrible a fashion, the chairman of Leicester City has not much to do with Ipswich Town and nothing to do with Remembrance. Lots of good people died this week and do so every week and ITFC don’t commemorate them and rightly so, it would be daft. Remembrance of the people killed in conflict is unique and whilst it sadly fails to stop successive governments sending more people to their deaths in increasingly dubious military campaigns there is nevertheless a special point to it. Combining that remembrance with marks of respect for random other tragedies is wrong.
Confusing marks of respect over, the game begins with Ipswich in blue and white with nasty red trim aiming at the goal closest to me Pat, Phil and Elwood. Preston North End, nickname the ‘Lilywhites’ or ‘Proud Preston’ are wearing all yellow and play in the direction of Henley where my grandfather was born; he survived the First World War with damaged lungs from gas, and shrapnel scars on his shoulder and the back of his head.
From the off Town look keen and are constantly urged forward by the new manager Paul Lambert who prowls up and down the touchline in a black v-neck jumper and black
trousers. From the corner of the North Stand drum beats and supportive chants can be heard; this feels like a positive new start. Ipswich win the first corner of the game but then Preston win one too. “Yellows, Yellows!” bellow the four hundred and four Preston supporters in the Cobbold Stand, enjoying the best thing about their team wearing what was once the archetypal away kit.
Although there is little real skill on show that might thrill the crowd it’s not a bad game, only spoiled by the erratic decision making of the diminutive, balding referee Mr Andy Woolmer who seemingly harbours bitterness against the taller more hirsute men all around him. He books Ipswich captain Luke Chambers and with his assistant fails to correctly award Ipswich a corner and then gives free-kicks where he shouldn’t. He doesn’t know what he is doing opine the home supporters in a child-like mantra. How I miss the old chant of “Who’s the bastard in the black”.
There is a palpable sense that the crowd are willing the team on to score and claim their first home win of the season. Just before half time, Freddie Sears chases a punt forward and the Preston goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, who incidentally sports a hairstyle reminiscent of Roger Federer’s, hurries out to narrowly beat him (Freddie Sears not Roger Federer) to the ball. But his clearance is weak and in the direction of Town’s Jordan Roberts; the two players race for the ball, Roberts reaches it first but is then felled by the late arriving Maxwell. Mr Woolmer ignores the “Off! Off! Off! requests from the crowd, Maxwell is booked along with protesting Prestonian Daniel Johnson, Freddie Sears scores from the resultant penalty and Portman Road is awash with joy. The Town team are warmly applauded from the field as Mr Woolmer gets a second thing right, successfully interpreting the information on his watch and blowing for half-time.
It’s time for me to syphon off some of that Pollen Power before enjoying a stick of Panda brand liquorice and a stare up at the half time results on the TV screen in the concourse beneath the stand, which seem stuck on the Premier League. I have noticed before that the half-time and results captions always linger longer on the Premier League and have concluded that it is because the supporters of Premier League clubs are slow readers. I don’t have time for this and return to the stand for an important conversation with Ray.
With a one goal lead against a team that hasn’t threatened our goal any more than we have threatened theirs, hopes are high for the second half and to begin with Town dominate possession, although continue to fail to seriously look like scoring. I overhear an elderly woman behind telling someone that one of the players is her nephew’s grandson. Pat and Fiona talk about their holidays. Every now and then the North Stand sings. “When the Town go marching in” is recited in dirge-like fashion for some reason and the singers then congratulate themselves with a round of applause. I think they need to do much better.
Pat turns to me and says how with Town having all this pressure and possession, Preston will probably score. I ask her if she’s been here before. It’s about twenty five to five and Mr Woolmer penalises Town’s Gwion Edwards for a perceived foul at the edge of the penalty area. Ipswich carefully construct a defensive wall and Preston’s substitute Paul Gallagher dismissively sends the ball around the wall and into the corner of the Town goal. Preston have equalised. Oh bugger.
Two minutes after the goal Town substitute Kayden Jackson chases another punt upfield. Once again the interestingly coiffured Maxwell races from his goal and with a worrying lack of control clatters into the back of Jackson. I am reminded of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. Imaginary Preston fans Rose and Valerie screaming from the Cobbold Stand say he must go free, but Mr Woolmer does not agree and shows Maxwell a yellow card for the second time this afternoon before producing the fateful red card.
Our cries of “Off! Off! Off!” change to gloating, waving and chants of “ Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!”, although “Good-byee, Good-byee” would have been a more appropriate choice in order to combine the event with a celebration of the centenary of the end of the First World War.
This is probably the best sending off we’ve seen at Portman Road for some time and to cap it, Preston don’t have a substitute goalkeeper, but have to put one of their outfield players in goal. Surely Town must win now. But of course they don’t. Preston’s makeshift goalkeeper is better than the real one and makes an excellent save from a Danny Rowe shot. It’s a tense finale which drags on into seven minutes of added on time. There is occasional decent support from the crowd at corners but it’s not exactly a continuous and intimidating, wall of noise. Preston’s stand-in goalie is jeered when he kicks the ball, which is a bit odd because as an outfield player that’s what he should be best at. Town fans are not always the brightest.
Hopes of a win are finally dashed as the clock passes five o’clock, Mr Woolmer blows his whistle for the final time and the positivity and enthusiasm for the new, new era evaporate just a little for some, completely for others. “I thought we played well” I hear a man say as we file out into the darkness. “Bloody useless” says another man, rather angrily. I feel his pain.