I first saw Accrington Stanley play back in January 2004, it was an FA Cup tie at Layer Road, Colchester; Colchester won and the Accrington manager, who incredibly is still the same bloke, although he’s been to Rochdale and back via Southport and Sligo since then, became very, very agitated and might even have been booked or sent off; it was a lot of fun. I recall looking forward to that match very much indeed, and heading for twenty-years on I am still looking forward to seeing Accrington Stanley tonight at Portman Road. Accrington Stanley are just one of those ‘must see’ clubs with a funny name like Crewe Alexandra or Hamilton Academicals, or Borussia Monchengladbach or Red Boys Differdange (sadly no longer with us), and what is more, Accrington Stanley were named after a pub, the Stanley Arms.
After a hard day’s graft at the desk face I collect my thoughts by mooching around town for an hour, growing sadder by the moment at the streets of shops left empty by people’s lazy love affair with Amazon and their ilk. In an attempt to make the World a better place my wife has just deleted her Amazon account, I’d recommend anyone to do the same. But for the time being at least, it doesn’t stop the town looking like a beautiful friend who has been punched in the face. Feeling a little downhearted at the state of the modern world, and with the sun going down and casting cold shadows I do what anyone with a mild dependency on alcohol would, and head for the pub.
In ‘the Arb’ I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.51 with Camra 10% discount) and a Scotch egg with thick cut chips (£9). It’s bloody cold today, but all the tables inside are either already occupied or reserved, so I do what I always do and sit out in the beer garden. Just before my food arrives, so does Gary, nursing a pint of Lager 43 which is the liquid element of his order of a pint and a ‘half-stack burger’ for a tenner. We talk of death, people we once worked with and holidays, and we eat our food before Mick arrives and buys halves of Suffolk Pride for me and him and Lager 43 for Gary. I remark on how Lager 43 sounds like the name of a prisoner of war camp. Two other men are in the beer garden and we talk to them. They work in insurance and one of them has only missed one match all season, the game at Cambridge; he asks what we think the score will be tonight, Mick says 2-1, I say 3-0, Gary says 4-0. Gary tells them that one of the two boys who appeared in the ‘Accrington Stanley’ TV advert for milk in the late 1980’s and 1990’s has recently been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder after beating a man to death. The one who has been imprisoned is the one who said “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?” No good could ever come of such ignorance.
At about twenty past seven we depart for Portman Road, and I feel a little as if the Suffolk Pride and the Scotch Egg and Chips are fighting it out to see which one will repeat on me first, but happily by the time I reach turnstile 61 off Constantine Road I think I‘ve walked them off. It’s disappointing that turnstile 62 is not open tonight; the lights are on but no one is at home, but it is some consolation that turnstile 61 is operated by one of the stadium’s more attractive turnstile operators. I take my seat next to Fiona just as the teams are marching side by side on to the pitch; I joke with the man from Stowmarket that this is no coincidence as I have been giving the team talk. Stephen Foster announces the line-ups and pretending to be French, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and I bawl out the Town players’ surnames as he does so. Satisfyingly, the last name on the team sheet is Nathan Broadhead, allowing me to draw out the second syllable of his surname for extra effect.
The game begins and Town, in classic blue and white, get first go with the ball, booting it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Despite Accrington’s first choice kit of red and white not clashing with Town’s, they sport an away kit of white shirts and black shorts and from a distance could be Germany or even Hereford United. It feels cold enough to be mid-Winter and perhaps that’s why the Sir Bobby Robson Stand burst into a chorus of “ Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s ‘Mary ‘s Boy Child’. But perhaps realising that it’s now 7th March, or that they simply don’t know any more words, the singing quickly trails off. An Accrington player soon earns the dislike of the home crowd for some perceived misdemeanour, but their goal keeper makes it all better by inaccurately hoofing the ball into touch and provoking chants of “De-de-de-de-de, fucking useless” to the tune of Pig Bag’s May 1981 hit single ‘Papa’s got a brand new pig bag’. It’s nice to be reminded of a tune people might have danced to as they celebrated Town winning the UEFA Cup. On the touch line Town manager Keiron McKenna appears to sport a short brown anorak; it’s what my friend Pete’s mother would have disparagingly called a ‘shorty-arsed jacket’ and not suitable for a cold night like tonight.
Ten minutes recede into the past and Town win the game’s first corner; as usual it comes to nothing but having won the ball back Sam Morsy plays the ball to Massimo Luongo who picks out what commentators might strangely call a ‘delicious’ through ball, which speedy Kayden Jackson latches on to and crosses low for Nathan Broadhead to side foot into the Accrington net and give Town the lead. It’s a classy goal that few if any other teams in the third division would be capable of scoring .
Almost ten minutes later and Town are producing things of beauty again as Janoi Donacien wins two tackles in quick succession, comes away with the ball, strides off down the wing and delivers a cross which his headed goalwards by Freddie Ladapo. It turns out to be a comfortable catch for the Stanley goalkeeper Lukas ‘Kid’ Jensen, but the joy of football isn’t just in the goals.
The game is a quarter of the way through and it’s time for a ‘catch-up’, so Accrington’s Rosaire Longelo receives treatment whilst everyone else gathers for a chat over by the dug outs. Surprisingly Longelo’s ailment proves to be terminal and he is substituted for the more plainly monikered Jack Nolan. The game resumes but the crowd has gone quiet after all the excitement of the early goal and Accrington are not looking as hopelessly beaten as I hoped they would. We might need more goals.
Meanwhile, referee Mr Lee Swabey is beginning to annoy the home crowd by not giving free-kicks to Town when he should, giving free-kicks to Accrington when he shouldn’t and generally being a bit of an arse. “ Oh shuddup ref” shouts a slightly whiny voice from the front of the stand as someone makes it clear they just cannot take anymore. Happily, Town produce a few flashes of football again to raise our spirits and the Sir Bobby Robson catches an invisible wave of euphoria as they sing “Addy, Addy, Addy-O, ITFC, they’re the team for me” followed by “Ole, Ole, Ole, We’re the Tractor Boys, gonna make some noise” like it’s 1962, 1978 and 1981 all rolled into one. Mr Swabey hasn’t finished however and takes his incompetence to new levels by showing his yellow card to Cameron Burgess for a perceived foul that is at worst innocuous.
Three minutes of added on time are inevitably added on. The minutes subtract themselves like all minutes do and then Swabey succeeds in blowing his whistle; the team leave hurriedly for their half-time cuppa forgoing any ovation, but Swabey takes his time and runs the full gauntlet of boos that he has worked so hard to earn and so richly deserves. It’s been a difficult half, mostly rather turgid, but illuminated by outbreaks of beauty like a cloudy but windy night when there are just occasional glimpses of a bright, pale moon or twinkling stars.
Overcome by poetic similes I make for the front of the stand for a chat with Ray and his grandson Harrison. We talk of Mr Swabey and Priti Patel, but fortunately the teams appear back on the pitch before we become too depressed.
At nine minutes to nine the match resumes and the groundlings in the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are soon chanting “Blue and White Army” over and over again to no particular tune. As usual, many quickly fall by the wayside; bored hopefully, but a knotty rump carry on, seemingly mesmerised by the endless repetition of the same five syllables. Eight minutes into the half and Town win a corner and a minute later Kayden Jackson wins another as his cross is deflected away. The corner produces no goal again, but Town retain the momentum and Nathan Broadhead embarks on a simply superb dribbly run deep into the Accrington penalty area, he pulls the ball back, a shot hits the cross bar but Kayden Jackson has been waiting to tap it back into the net and Town lead 2-0. It must feel like time to open their Christmas presents in the Sir Bobby Robson stand as Harry Belafonte’s ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ gets another joyful airing with its altered words about fighting on Boxing Day , even though Ipswich Town haven’t played Norwich City on Boxing Day in over forty years.
Time soon comes round for the first substitutions and Massimo Luongo and Nathan Broadhead depart and Marcus Harness and Cameron Humphreys replace them with everyone getting generous applause. The personnel change makes no difference to Town and Kayden Jackson is soon breaking away to put in another low cross which runs tantalisingly behind Freddie Ladapo and Cameron Humphreys shoots a little awkwardly wide of the far post. More minutes pass, and Conor Chaplin wins another corner and then Harry Clarke and George Hirst replace the excellent Leif Davis and Freddie Ladapo. Stephen Foster announces the attendance as 22,413 including 59 from Accrington. The now usual self -congratulation follows and applause for the visiting faithful, which is a nice change from the 1970’s when the away supporters would simply have been told by the North Stand that they would be going home in an ambulance. There is much debate about the number of Accrington supporters tonight as several of us have counted no more than 26 in the Cobbold Stand. Theories abound about whether police and stewards have been counted too and I suggest that there perhaps are unusually high number of pairs of Siamese twins amongst the Accrington support or may be several visiting fans are all sharing the same coat, or simply watching the match in shifts. I wonder what Pat from Clacton would have thought if she’d been here instead of watching at home in i-follow.
Fifteen minutes remain and another corner is won, only for Marcus Harness to head over the cross bar. Accrington’s Doug Tharme goes down under a challenge from George Hirst and wins a free-kick; “Fucking tart” calls an angry voice from somewhere behind and I reflect on how few players are called Doug nowadays. Another corner goes to Town as Marcus Harness has a shot blocked and then Town ‘go knap’ on substitutions as Kyle Edwards usurps Conor Chaplin, the top striker many fans didn’t seem to know we had. Just to make the dying minutes a little more interesting, Accrington win a corner , but they’re no better at them than any other team . The flags on the roof of the Cobbold Stand hang limp in the still, cold night air and I sigh at the thought of five minutes of added on time and wonder if I can stave off frost bite for that long. I decide to employ the power of mind over matter and hope for a third Town goal to keep my feet warm, and lo and behold Harry Clarke is suddenly charging goalwards only to be pole-axed by the streaky yellow figure of Lukas ‘Kid’ Jensen who is summarily sent off by Swabey who has upped his game, shamed perhaps by being mentioned in the same sentence as Priti Patel. At first, Jensen hangs about a bit as if he expects some sort of late reprieve, but in fact he probably doesn’t know if his team still have a substitution left to make or whether he must hand his yellow shirt to an existing team mate. A much shorter substitute goalkeeper eventually appears from the touchline and Jensen departs, at first in the direction of the dugouts, but then towards the dressing rooms as the gloating Town fans sing “Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio” . When everything settles down Kyle Edwards pops the free-kick over Accrington’s defensive wall and into the top right hand corner of the goal to give Town the 3-0 scoreline they deserve.
With the final whistle, the man from Stowmarket and his grandson file past me and we discover that we share the view that it wasn’t the best match overall despite the scoreline, but we are nevertheless leaving with a warm feeling inside after that wonderful third goal. It’s been an evening of moments of bright illumination, a bit like a compelling but slightly dull book, which every now and then has some really good pictures to look at.