Only the 10th of August and it’s bloody started already. Summer is still here although today it has the good grace to pretend its autumn; a howling gale licks around the corners of my house and my Women’s World Cup bunting, strung joyfully across my back garden, slumps over the patio and plants in colourful tatters.
I look out of an upstairs windows to glimpse a silver Vauxhall Astra slip past; it’s Roly, he’s going to park on my back drive. Roly is not the name of the Vauxhall Astra, he’s the driver. We had planned to meet at the railway station but seconds after he bought his ticket his train was cancelled; the result of a fallen tree, possibly two. We walk to the railway station, the usual journey ensues. Roly tells me how his partner Sarah would castigate him for catching the train and not driving all the way to Ipswich, but he’s not going to tell her. Roly wants to save the planet, like me, and he also hates having to find somewhere to park and then sitting in traffic after the game.
Ipswich appears to be in a state of emergency, a police van sits in the middle of the station plaza but in fact everything is okay, it’s just ‘Norfolk and Suffolk working together for you’. Football chants in thick far northern accents are carried up on the wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel. We cross the road and hurry away; we pass a lairy looking youth who suddenly bawls something unintelligible.
After a successful relegation season it’s a new dawn for Ipswich Town in division three and entering Portman Road I think I might buy a programme for every match this season to mark the newness, the difference. I am looking forward to seeing the slightly unfamiliar clubs deemed ‘unfashionable’ by dullard journalists. I approach a programme booth; I don’t think I will buy a programme after all, they’ve put the price up to £3.50 a copy, that’s an increase of 16.6%, way above the rate of inflation, not that I know what that is. Why couldn’t they just make the programme less glossy, a bit smaller, add a couple of adverts and take out some of the drivel no one reads? I want to blame Brexit.
At St Jude’s Tavern Roly buys two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is Mr B’s Plan Bee, he gives one to me. We invade the space of a man sat at a table on his own, but I ask him first if the seats are free, they are. Mick arrives and buys a pint of porter and a packet of crisps, which he opens upon the table for us all to share, I don’t ask him how much the porter or the crisps costs. It only takes one person with a loud voice in St Jude’s Tavern to make it difficult to hear what my fellow drinkers are saying and such a person is here today so I end up nodding and smiling as the conversation drifts in and out of my comprehension. I buy two more pints of the Match Day Special, Mick doesn’t want a second, but I get him a bag of dry-roasted peanuts (90p). It’s barely half past two but Roly wants to get down to the Portman Road so that he can eat. We hang on ten minutes or so but soon give in to his gluttonous cravings.
At the corner of Portman Walk I leave our trio andI head for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand whilst Roly and Mick head west to the East of England Co-op Stand and the posh seats. I tell them I will wave up at them and doff my cap from amongst the groundlings behind the goal. I make my way to the far end of Portman Road, following the pointing finger of Sir Bobby Robson’s statue; the parked up away supporters coaches either side of him displaying the names of County Durham towns he would have been familiar with.
Nearby, a ginger-haired bloke in a yellow hi-vis jacket sells Sunderland fanzines. There are queues at the turnstiles, possibly because not all the turnstiles are open. I pause to select the fastest moving queue and am quickly in the ground. I speak briefly with Dave the steward with whom I once worked and then use the toilet facilities before proceeding to my seat. Nothing has changed, Pat from Clacton is here and so of course is ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood. On the pitch before us the serious looking steward with the enormous headphones looks as worried as ever, as if fearing that a violent supporters’ rebellion might start at any moment. To confuse the operators of the improved CCTV surveillance system I have moved my seat slightly, I no longer sit in front of the old dears behind me, but behind them, a couple of seats to the left of Pat from Clacton. Otherwise it seems like the first day back at school, “Have you had a good summer?” asks Pat from Clacton, “It’s not over yet” I tell her, not really answering the question but subconsciously implying that the start of the football season doesn’t mean an end to ‘summer fun’. Ever-present Phil and I shake one another’s hand “Happy New Year” says Phil, which seems apposite.
It’s busy here today, with plenty of seats occupied that may not be sat upon again all season. The attendance will eventually be announced as 24,051. The Sunderland supporters are present in large numbers (1,847) and mostly seem a humble, self-effacing lot. No unduly boastful or mean spirited songs can be heard from the Cobbold Stand, which is nice. Their continuing, numerically impressive support for a club which was successful in the 1890’s but otherwise is most notable for a level of mediocrity which puts Ipswich Town’s recent averageness in the shade is such that mass sainthood doesn’t seem unreasonable. In nineteen eighty-something Sunderland even lost a League Cup final to Norwich, for heaven’s sake. That careless catastrophe aside, Sunderland have good reason to be forever loved a little by everyone outside West Yorkshire because of the 1973 FA Cup final, which not only saw hated Leeds United beaten by the then Second Division team, but gave us the joyful sight of a man in a trilby hat and pale raincoat running with arms and hands outstretched to embrace his victorious players. Manager Bob Stokoe’s joyfulness is now captured forever at The Stadium of Lights in a statue to him and by association his team of Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Horswill, Watson, Pitt, Kerr, Hughes, Halom, Porterfield and Tueart. They might have won the FA Cup before in 1937, but seeing the world through a filter of ‘Ipswichness’ and TV pictures then 1973 was Sunderland’s 1978.
It’s three o’clock, the game begins; Sunderland in their excellent traditional kit of red and white striped shirts, black shorts and red socks get first go with the ball. Town parade this season’s version of whatever Adidas is peddling, a similarly traditionally plain blue shirt, white shorts and blue socks number. The crowd is noisy but there’s little co-ordinated chanting or singing. The football is fast and uncontrolled; the long ball is favoured. After not many minutes the child sitting behind me is bored; I can understand why, it’s not exactly recognisable as the ‘beautiful’ game, but to the trained eye Town are already looking better than Sunderland. Kayden Jackson is very quickly booked for trying to con the referee Mr Neil Hair, a man who I wish was German, into awarding him a penalty. I quite liked Kayden Jackson last season, I hope he isn’t going to be an arse this season.
A fraction of the match passes that is equal to the percentage increase in the cost of the match programme since last season and a long throw is helped into the Sunderland penalty area; the ball is cut back, Luke Garbutt controls it and surges through a mass of players towards the touchline before striking a finely angled shot through the legs of Sunderland goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and just behind the far post. “Garbutt, 1-0”, as David Coleman might have said had he not been long dead. How we cheer. This is what we came for. Joy abounds.
I think this is better than I expected, although even last season we took the lead in a few games. The remaining half an hour of the first half sees Sunderland fail to do anything to threaten Town’s lead. It takes them forty minutes to even have a shot at goal. Kayden Jackson pines for attention and has an ice bag pressed against his head. Garbutt develops a mystery ailment and is substituted by little Alan Judge. Everyone in a blue shirt is playing well, but no one scores another goal. This new system of two players ‘up-front’, isn’t working that well; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson sometimes get in each other’s way, they’re no Johnson and Whymark or Crawford and Phillips, not yet anyway.
Half-time arrives and I dash from my seat to stand before the stainless steel urinals beneath the stand before checking on the half-time scores, which are singularly unremarkable. I return to the stand to speak with Ray and his grandson Harrison. Our verdict on the game is that it’s okay and Ipswich are by far the better team, but the quality of the football could be better. Harrison predicts a final score of 3-0. Ray and I reserve judgement, our capacity for unbridled optimism beaten, squeezed and drained out of us by decades of bitter experience.
The second half disappoints. The blue skies over the Sir Bobby Robson Stand are as lovely as ever and I bask in the warmth of the August sun, but Town have lost their way; all they can do is pump in inaccurate cross after over-hit cross after inaccurate cross, Alan Judge buzzes about doing nothing very successfully. An hour has passed and a Sunderland throw is punted forward. Luke Chambers has this covered; he is a yard or two ahead of Marc McNulty even though he cannot run as fast. But Chambers doesn’t decide what to do and as he waits for an almost static ball to roll into touch McNulty dispossesses him and then simply has to pass the ball into the path of the incoming Lynden Gooch who side foots the ball into a gaping wide goal. It’s like last season all over again.
There’s plenty of time for another goal but Ipswich have no inspiration, no means to prise an opening. Fortunately Sunderland have even less idea and their forays forward are both rare and ineffective. “Your support is fucking shit” sing some Sir Bobby Robson Standers to the Sunderland fans, demonstrating a complete absence of any concept of irony. Mr Hair annoys the home crowd with a series of decisions that penalise imaginary infringements and favour Sunderland. Pat from Clacton offers me a sweet from a plastic bag and shows me her new blue and white watch that she’s only going to wear on match days. It’s a nice looking watch, but I’m feeling very self-centred and prefer the crumbly peppermint I took from Pat’s pick’n mix selection; it’s probably my highlight of the second half. The attendance is announced and I verify that Pat from Clacton’s brother has won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus; his guess was the highest of all, 24,001.
After three minutes of added on time the game ends. I rise from my seat and quickly leave. It’s been an afternoon of three thirds, Sunderland, Wonderland, Blunderland……all infused with Peppermint.
Today my favourite name of an opposing team’s player was Denver Hume. I also liked the names Dylan McGeouch and George Dobson.
This week I have been reading ”The man who hated football”, a novel by Will Buckley (2005)