Today, Ipswich Town, the team I have supported since 1971 are in the north west of the country playing away to Bolton Wanderers in what I still think of as Football League Division Two. I prefer to restrict my lengthy road trips to le péage of France if I can, but as une homage to my team’s direction of travel today, I am journeying to the far-flung north-west of Suffolk, to Mildenhall, to see Mildenhall Town play Great Wakering Rovers in the Bostik League North Division.
It was never possible to get to Mildenhall by train from the rest of Suffolk without first going to Cambridge. Then in 1962 the evil Dr Beeching did away with the Mildenhall branch line for passengers altogether, and now the only way to get to Mildenhall for a football match by public transport on a Saturday is by bus. The marvellously monikered Mulley’s Motorways operate service 355 which leaves Bury St Edmunds railway station at 22 minutes past each hour and takes 26 minutes to reach Mildenhall bus station, whilst Stephenson’s of Essex service 16 leaves at 52 minutes past the hour en-route to Newmarket and takes two minutes longer. Inevitably however, connections with trains from the direction of Ipswich are ‘clunky’ ensuring a bus has just been missed or there is a 25 minute wait for the next one. Getting back again is possible leaving at ten to five or ten to six or on the last bus out of town at ten minutes past six. Happily, Mildenhall bus station is but an under eleven’s goal-kick away from the football ground in Recreation Way. If travelling by train to Ipswich you won’t get back until almost seven-thirty, which given that it’s just just 74 kilometres away, works out at a feeble average speed of less than 30 kilometres per hour.
In common with everyone else I’m not getting any younger, and hoping to make the most of the time I have I left I reluctantly decide to further poison the planet but save time and travel by car. I fire up the trusty Citroen C3 and head off along the A14 towards Bury St Edmunds and then the lightly trafficked A1101 to Mildenhall. It’s a dull, grey, overcast day but it’s a pleasurable enough drive through Fornham All Saints, Hengrave, Flempton, Lackford and Icklingham, each with their own thatched cottages and medieval flint churches. From Lackford a change in scenery is perceptible as arable farmland begins to give way to the heath and pine trees of the Brecks.
I arrive in Mildenhall in good time and park up the Citroen in the free car park beyond Sainsbury’s supermarket, a very short walk from the ground; the River Lark is nearby and signs tell me that the area is liable to flooding, but I think my Citroen will be safe today. With almost 55 minutes until kick off I decide to explore and soon form the impression that Mildenhall is sadly a little down at heel. The town museum isn’t open yet, but the tourist information office at the bus station has already shut. The sixteenth century market cross, which features on the football club badge squats amongst parked cars by McColl’s convenience store in the rather shabby market place next to the uninspiring shopping precinct. But Mildenhall’s glory is its’ impressive, 14th century, Grade 1 Listed parish church of St Mary’s, with its spectacular carved wooden angels in the roof. You can’t beat a bit of medieval woodwork and this is some of the best. But West Suffolk District Council needs to make more of Mildenhall, they can have that as the strapline. If the railway still ran to Cambridge it would surely be very different.
Spirits raised by the host of angels I head back to Recreation Way but struggle to find a way into the football ground as what looks like it should be the turnstile is locked. Spotting a trio of likely looking football watchers I follow them into Sainsbury’s car park, round the back of the Mildenhall swimming pool and down to a metal hut at the bottom end of the ground by Jubilee Park. It’s about twenty to two and I am one of five or six people all entering the ground at once, there’s almost a queue. I hand over a tenner and receive two fifty pence pieces in change, I tell the gateman that the club website says entry costs £8, he replies that that price is for members; it doesn’t say that on the website but I let it go unsure if the Trades Descriptions Act applies to football admission prices or the internet. Inside the ground there are people queueing up to take more money off me as first I buy a programme (£2) and then a man with barrow-boy patter tries to convince me that £2 for three draw tickets will be the best two quid I ever spend; “Not if I don’t win” I tell him. He looks slightly hurt by my harsh logic so guiltily and foolishly I hand over two pounds; I am destined not to win.
Weighed down with programme and draw tickets I head for the busy clubhouse and am excited to find four hand pumps on the bar; admittedly one is serving Greene King IPA, which is just about forgivable being just 22km from Bury St Edmunds, but the others are for Adnam’s Broadside, Mighty Oak Maldon Gold and Black Country Ales Chain Ale. This has to be the best selection of real ale at any football club in Suffolk; one-nil to Mildenhall Town. I choose a pint of the Chain Ale (£3); it’s a bit watery and flat but it leaves a pleasant aftertaste.
Clutching my plastic glass of ale I step back outside into the natural light to sample the pre-match atmosphere; a soporific ballad (I think it’s what is called R & B) is played over the PA system and a white-haired man struggles to copy down the details of the team line-ups into his programme. I am impressed that the metal perimeter fence has cup-holders for my beer; this is possibly the best thing I have ever seen at a football ground. I wander back down towards the players’ tunnel and arrive in time to see the gate across the terrace closed and the players lining up behind a steel grille at the side of the stand where a notice advises rather enigmatically that “obsessive foul or abusive language” will not be tolerated. I wonder to myself what constitutes obsessive foul language and decide it might be something like shouting “Arse!” or worse every time a member of the opposing team touches the ball; I then wonder if this sort of abuse is something peculiar to Mildenhall and West Suffolk because I have never seen such a sign anywhere else, or it could simply be that the sign writer meant ‘persistent’ not ‘obsessive’.
My reverie is interrupted by the teams bursting on to the field to the plodding strains of Thin Lizzie’s “The boys are back in town” with the referee and his assistants to line-up and shake hands before the appreciative crowd. The teams are announced over the PA system and with coin tossing, end selection and team huddling all out of the way the game begins with Mildenhall, known colloquially as “The Hall” kicking up the not inconsiderable slope in their yellow shirts and black shorts towards the bus station, Mildenhall Social Club and home of the local Sea Cadet troop. Great Wakering Rovers meanwhile, inevitably play down the slope towards Jubilee Park the River Lark and the tower of St Mary’s church Barton Mills beyond; they sport green and white striped shirts with white shorts and socks. Great Wakering’s is a bright, striking kit perfect for a dull day like today and has a hint of the 1940’s or 1950’s about it; it is probably the finest kit I have seen all season; with a kit like this even the rubbish games can look good.
Possibly in part due to the assistance of gravity, Great Wakering dominate the play from the very start with frequent breaks literally down the flanks. But early play is also very competitive and when The Hall’s combative number six Jordan Lawal is tripped by Rover’s colossal number nine Shomari Barnwell, Lawal is somewhat piqued and appeals to the referee Mr Andrew Hitchcock. “Ref-er-eeee” he says pleadingly before sagely adding “You gotta deal with that”. Only five minutes have passed since kick-off but Hitchcock surprisingly takes Lawal’s advice and displays his yellow card for all to see, confident he has not booked the wrong man.
Behind the goal which Rovers are attacking is a group of three or four youths with a green and white chequered flag. Like work experience versions of Ultras they bang on the perimeter fence and chant “Come on Rovers” as their team wins a corner and “You’re rubbish, you’re bleedin’ useless” when a Mildenhall player miscues a clearance. “Why don’t you shut-up?” calls a voice from the mass of drinkers stood in front of the clubhouse. “Why don’t you shut-up?” is the classic, typically teenage response from the work experience boys. Teenagers, you got to love them, because if you don’t they will grow up to be maladjusted adults, sociopaths and Norwich City supporters.
It’s about a quarter past three and the public address system announces that ticket number 371 has won the prize draw; my numbers (Nos 423 to 425) are forty-nine tickets too late, if I’d only got myself here sooner and hadn’t spent time gazing up at those angels in the church roof I might be £40 richer. One of those angels must have been Satan. But I barely have time to swallow my disappointment before The Hall grab my attention by going a goal behind. A short through ball lays waste the square defence and Shomari Barnwell runs through to take the ball around the solidly built Jake Hayhoe in the Mildenhall goal before rolling it into the net from an acute angle. No one can claim Great Wakering don’t deserve it and they continue to be the better team by some way. A low Great Wakering cross bounces up and there are appeals for handball, “Fuck off” says a derisive voice from the Mildenhall bench. I move round to stand between the dugouts to enjoy the swearing and fully appreciate the extent of the slope. “Good Ringo. George, George!” shouts one of the two Great Wakering coaches, presumably to number two Jason Ring and number four George Cox; it’s probably my age but I can’t help thinking of the fab four at least until one of them says “Coulda been good, but it was a shit touch”.
It’s half past three and in a rare, nearly effective attack Mildenhall almost equalise as the ball drops in the six yard box, but no one is close enough to prod it into the net before Gt Wakering goalkeeper Bobby Mason smothers it. The Mildenhall manager Ricky Cornish, whose nose reminds me a little of the late Bob Hoskins is less than happy and at times seems lost for words. In contrast, in an idle moment one of the Gt Wakering coaches says “I can’t remember the last time we lost” (it was four games ago) then adds mysteriously “Oh yeah, it was when we had that hologram in goal”. Mildenhall have the ball in the Great Wakering net at about twenty to four but the ‘goal’ is disallowed before Great Wakering have a second player booked; bald-headed number six Marc Gorball being punished by Mr Hitchcock for a foul on Mildenhall’s captain Luke Butcher.
“Come on Mildenhall” shouts a desperate sounding voice in the crowd “you’re going down” and with Romford currently winning Mildenhall are indeed now bottom of the league in 20th place, fifteen points behind 15th placed Great Wakering who, should they win today can be reasonably confident that they will be playing in the Bostik League again next season. With the half-time whistle I make my way to Mal’s diner (the tea hut) for a pound’s worth of PG Tips in a polystyrene cup before I check up on the half-time scores on the clubhouse TV; Ipswich are winning 2-0, which is nice. A part of the club house is screened off to provide a hospitality area for today’s match sponsors, KJM Roadsweepers. Before today I thought road sweeping was the preserve of local councils and hadn’t realised that private road sweeping businesses even existed, and I contemplate how ‘KJM’ might have started out with just a couple of stiff brooms but now has a fleet of modern mechanical road sweepers scouring the streets of West Suffolk.
A little after four o’clock the football resumes and with Mildenhall now kicking downhill they begin to benefit from the force of gravity that playing downhill seems to bring. The Hall spurn two good chances to score and Jordan Lawal shoots against Bobby Mason with the whole goal to aim at. Despite making more of a game of it and making Great Wakering look a little shaky in defence, Mildenhall are not playing accurately enough and optimistic crosses and passes inevitably end up as goal-kicks. It’s only a quarter past four and number eight for The Hall, Panny Boxer is replaced by number seventeen John Sands. The change of ends seems to have given Mildenhall a ray of hope, although as much as the slope helps them it seems to frustrate them too; but it’s probably not the fault of the slope, sadly like Ipswich Town, this season they’re just not good enough.
It is twenty past four and after struggling for a quarter of an hour or so Great Wakering suddenly and unexpectedly discover the joys of passing football. Four or five passes are strung together one after another ending with a low cross which is swept easily into the net by the big right boot of Shomari Barnwell; Great Wakering are two-nil up and the game is as good as won. It‘s a goal to be proud of. Needing to absorb the beauty of what I’ve just seen, I take a sit down in the sparsely populated metal pre-fabricated stand close to the ‘top’ corner of the ground opposite the club house.
Sat in the stand and looking around I decide I like Recreation Way with its slope and views of St Mary’s church tower beyond the incongruous white gable of the Sainsbury’s supermarket and the belisha beacons in its car park. The clubhouse is like one of the ugly bungalows visible beyond the opposite side of the ground which has mysteriously been mis-placed and equipped with a bar. At either ends of the ground high trees house nests of rooks and to cap it all it’s as good as in the town centre, where like cinemas, smart hotels, restaurants and bus stations football grounds should be.
The game enters its final fifteen minutes and the unexpected happens. Great Wakering’s Marc Gorball is turned and he grabs old of his tormentor. There are the expected howls of discontent and as far as Marc Gorball is concerned Mr Hitchcock is the man who knew too much and a red card is brandished. It’s not much of a walk for Gorball to the players’ tunnel but he makes the most of it turning to stop and point his finger on more than one occasion. As unfortunate as it is for the player concerned and the ‘good of the game’ I love a good sending off.
But football is nothing if not a mirror on the vagaries of life and within five minutes the ten men of Great Wakering create an opening down the left. Barnwell charges forward, exchanges a pass and then bears down on Hayhoe in the Mildenhall goal, slipping the ball past him into the net as he drops to the turf. It’s three-nil to Great Wakering and Shomari Barnwell runs towards the adoring trio of teenage fans behind the goal with his arms outstretched, like a huge cargo plane descending into the nearby US airbase before he is mobbed by ecstatic team mates. This is the goal that has definitely won the game.
It’s gone twenty to five now and the final minutes are perfunctory. Home fans leave disconsolate, or seek solace in the bar. Great Wakering fans gather to applaud their team from the field. Finally Mr Hitchcock calls time. Mildenhall are bereft, Great Wakering delirious, but regardless of the final score it’s been an entertaining afternoon. If Mildenhall are relegated they’ll be a welcome addition to the Eastern Counties Premier League and whatever happens Great Wakering will brighten up afternoon’s everywhere with their green and white striped kit.