Despite my father growing up in Gosport , the only football match I recall him mentioning going to as a boy was when his uncle George, who lived in Plumstead, took him to see Charlton Athletic at The Valley. This would have been at some time in the late 1930’s when Charlton were one of England’s top teams and having been promoted in consecutive seasons under Jimmy Seed from the Third Division South to the First Division, the ‘addicks finished runners-up, fourth and then third in the three seasons before the outbreak of the Second World War. Charlton had the largest club ground in the country at the time and in February 1938 a record 75,031 people piled in to watch an FA Cup tie versus Blackburn Rovers, it is reckoned that even then the ground wasn’t full. If it was that match that my father’s uncle George took him too, and it might have been, it’s little wonder he remembered it.
Now, over eighty years on and nobody can go to the football anymore and the stadiums sit empty as we watch the games on the telly. Not going to football is better than dying a horrible death from Covid-19 of course, so I’m not complaining, but footie on the telly is losing its appeal and logging into the ifollow each week is becoming a chore. At least I think that’s the problem, but it might just be that my team Ipswich Town keep losing and against the background noise of social media and the silence of the empty stadium football is no longer as enjoyable as it was back in the good old days of Paul Hurst, Mick McCarthy, Paul Jewell, Roy Keane, John Duncan and Bobby Ferguson.
Although in melancholy mood, I nevertheless log in to my lap-top and the ifollow and make the connection just in time to hear the tail end of a report from Carrow Road on Radio Suffolk, which ends with the words ‘mind the gap’. I understand these words are meant as a reference to Norwich City being in a higher division than Ipswich Town, but I find it rather endearing that people from Norwich should find travelling on the London Underground so memorable that they have taken to repeating a station announcement in this way. I settle into my Ikea Poang chair and as the pictures of Portman Road appear on my tv screen I take the opportunity to drink in sight of the pitch, seeking solace in a bottle of Titanic Plum Porter (two for £3 from Waitrose).
The mellifluous voice of Brenner Woolley introduces Mick Mills who waxes long, but not necessarily lyrically about the failure of Paul Lambert to prevent relegation in 2019 or to achieve promotion in 2020. The failures of last season seem to be being repeated again; and not achieving promotion again, says Mick, is “what worries local people”. Micks mention of ‘local people’ immediately has me thinking not of the Football League but of the League of Gentleman, and my mind’s eye puts Mick in a floral headscarf, thick-framed glasses and poorly applied lipstick repeating ‘local people’ in a high-pitched voice .
The lining up of the players for the start of the game and a minute’s applause for the recently deceased Diego Maradona curtail the disturbing image in my head. Maradona had, says Brenner “… a pure love of the ball and it loved him back”. Brenner’s attempt to get all poetic is appropriate given Maradona’s brilliance, but I can’t help thinking that affording emotions to inanimate objects is just a bit weird. Nevertheless, when it is eventually Brenner’s turn to shuffle out of his mortal commentary box I like to think that someone somewhere will be moved to say that Brenner loved his microphone and it loved him back, and that the same was true of Mick Mills.
Clearly inspired by the tribute to Maradona, Brenner is quick to get into footballspeak with the phrase “early doors from Pratley” as Charlton’s Darren Pratley does something or other early in the game. On the pitch David Cornell, with his first touch of the ball in his first league appearance for Town, slips and sends his goal-kick out for a throw-in. For the first five minutes Brenner can’t mention a Charlton Athletic player’s name without also telling us all the teams he’s ever played for. It’s as if he has researched all this information and he’ll be damned if he’s not going to use it, and as quickly as possible. The ball has been booted upfield by both teams several times in the opening minutes and Mick tells us this makes the game quite entertaining. I’m not convinced, and gain more pleasure from Brenner’s reference to “the pony-tailed Woolfenden”, although in truth, whilst in favour of long-haired footballers, I am not that impressed by the ponytail itself, but give it time.
The weirdly named Keanan Bennetts falls to the ground in the penalty area and Brenner tells us that “ two or three players put their blue-sleeved arms up there”. Mick however gives those blue-sleeved arms’ owners short-shrift and sounds somewhat disgusted that they should have appealed for what was clearly not a penalty. ‘Good old Mick,’ I think to myself, ‘you tell these youngsters’. Mick is having a good early afternoon and after Brenner tells us that Charlton have two ‘makeshift’ centre-halves in Darren Pratley and Chris Gunter, Mick explains his hopes for Town because James Norwood is a “very knowledgeable striker”. This probably means however that Norwood will be mostly looking to win free-kicks rather than appearing in a future episode of ‘Only Connect’. In a rich vein of form Mick goes on to explain why he and Brenner say that Town are playing a 4-3-3 formation, even though Town manager Paul Lambert has denied this and refers to more complicated permutations such as 4-1-2-2-1. “We’re trying to paint a picture” says Mick, although sadly he omits to mention painting by numbers, Abstract Expressionism or Kayden Jackson Pollock; it’s an opportunity missed by the Town legend.
In the thirteenth minute Luke Chambers wins Town’s first corner through the unexpected means of a shot with the outside of his right foot. Three minutes later and Brenner says “Town the better side at the moment” and he’s not wrong, although it’s not long before Charlton are passing the ball within the left hand side of Town’s penalty area; it’s a situation “very similar to how McGuinness gave away a penalty ….here……before” says Mick sounding as if he is struggling to remember that it only happened last Saturday against Shrewsbury. In the twenty-first minute Charlton score having made easy progress through the left side of Town’s defence once again.
Brenner tells us that Brett McGavin wins a free-kick because of a “high-shoe” from Andrew Shinnie, who we have to hope scores lots of goals with his lower leg. Dozzell sends a lofted pass “over the top” but “ there’s too much on that from Andre “ says Brenner with cosy familiarity as the ball sails out of play. From upstairs I hear a shout ,“Oooooooh”. My wife is in the bedroom with Pompey, King’s Lynn Town and the FA Cup on BBC iplayer. Not expecting to miss anything much at Portman Road I nip up the stairs in time to witness a replay of some Pompey player or other sweeping the ball into the top corner of the King’s Lynn net from a few metres outside the penalty area. “Is he allowed to do that?” I ask. Apparently he is. Pompey will go on to win 6-1, which makes my wife happy and me too because it’s good to see teams from Norfolk lose.
I return to Portman Road in time to see James Norwood fall to the ground clutching his hamstring. “That’s gutting for the lad” says Brenner going into footballspeak overdrive and thereby sounding like a public schoolboy straining for ‘street cred’. “What is the matter with this club? asks Mick more pointedly, querying why we have a whole team’s worth of players out through injury. Mick believes someone seriously needs to carry out some research into why we have so many injured players. Once the game restarts little Alan Judge comes close to scoring but for a fine flying save from Ben Amos in the Charlton goal , and then Judge becomes the only player of the afternoon to be booked.
Asked to sum up the first half by Brenner, Mick says “ It’s been indifferent really”. Asked his opinion of Charlton, Mick says they have players who have “…been around a long time. They can play. They’re okay”. What this glowing eulogy says about Town I can’t make out. After a cup of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate protein bar the second half begins.
Ipswich win a corner, they don’t score. Eleven minutes pass and my eyes are feeling heavy. “We do have to think about changing direction again” says Mick as if Town had struggled with the change of ends at half time. It’s the 59th minute. In the 65th minute I open my eyes to see Town’s converted electric milk float ferrying Charlton’s Paul Smyth off the pitch. I’ve been asleep. The wonderfully named Omar Bogle replaces Smyth and Town’s players don’t notice, allowing him to remain unmarked beyond the far post so that he can easily divert either a cross or a poorly aimed shot from Darren Pratley into the Town net. Charlton lead 2-0.
The remaining twenty-two minutes do little for me, although I do not fall asleep again and am kept entertained by the name of the next Charlton Athletic substitute, Ben Purrington, who replaces Chukwuemek Aneke. I can’t decide whether Purrington is having a great game or whether it’ s just that I find his surname so unlikely, but the word Purrington is now all I can hear from Brenner’s commentary. Mr Purrington, it sounds like the name someone might give to their pet cat. “Prodded away by an alert Purrington” says Brenner, sounding as if he is enjoying the substitutes surname as much as I am.
The final ten minutes of normal time arrive. Little Alan Judge shoots at goal but his shot is straight at Amos the goalkeeper; if he’d shot like that at Amos the old testament prophet, he would probably have saved it too. “Charlton up to fourth, and third if they can get another goal” says Brenner optimistically. Town win their second corner of the half. Seven minutes of added on time are to be played, some of it perhaps because the milk-float that carried off Smyth “ran into traffic”, a phrase I don’t remember Brenner using today. “What do you think Mick Mills?” asks Brenner with a weary sigh. “We lost to Hull and we deserved to lose this one as well” is Mick’s honest and accurate assessment.
With the game over I watch the players leave the pitch before the ifollow broadcast ends abruptly, a bit like my enjoyment of today’s game, although that didn’t last as long. Whatever, I’ll be back for the next game.