FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was.   Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up.  To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name.  But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany.  Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.

Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website.  Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes.  Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us.  Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park.  The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.

It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened.  Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium.  I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much.  Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot.  Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it.  But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.

Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal.  Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out.  Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.

People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium.  Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves.  Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.

Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares.  I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.

As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On  Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout.  Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement.  Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence.  In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig.   Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”.  A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness. 

The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.  The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.

Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out.  The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.

Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.

The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match.  The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net.  It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.

The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago.  From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again.  With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.

With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England.  The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal.  When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.

A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net.  It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit.  The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait.  The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).

The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in.  The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure.  Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle

Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset.   A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand  hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header.  The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises.  All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.

With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match.  Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations.  We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people.  This has been a truly fantastic night.

FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.

Ipswich Town 2 Barnsley 2

Barnsley FC, Wikipedia tells us, has spent more seasons in the second division than any other club. Just to prove the point I have seen Ipswich Town play Barnsley thirty times and but for one FA Cup tie all of those matches have been in the second division.  This does of course mean that Ipswich Town are also second division perennials.  Today’s fixture, therefore, is exceptional and indeed it is the first time that Ipswich and Barnsley have ever met as third division teams; what it is to live in interesting times.

In all other respects today is a normal, sunny, late summer Saturday as I make my way down through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the railway tracks and over the river to Portman Road, where, as ever, I buy a match programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless, but slightly slow manner.  Programme in hand I march on towards the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum) where both doors are open wide; I step inside and turn towards the bar. “Gary, what the hell are you doing here?” I exclaim at the unexpected sight of my friend and former work colleague, Gary stood at the bar. “I’m buying you a drink, what would you like?” is Gary’s very quick and very welcome response.  I have a pint of something for which the pump clip says “Suffolk Punch” and Gary has a pint of some lager or other, but not one of the industrial brands. We retire to the garden where Mick is already sat with a pint of what looks like Suffolk Pride.  Gary and Mick have met before but introduce themselves to one another nonetheless; it really shouldn’t but it feels to me a bit like when your wife meets a former girlfriend. 

The pub garden is alive with drinkers wearing the blue shirts of Ipswich Town, far more so than usual.  Cheerily, we talk of funerals because Gary has been to a few lately and Mick works for an undertaker. Gary tells the story of two people he knows who were concerned that they might not get a seat at a cremation which was likely to be ‘popular’ (perhaps well-attended would be a better choice of words), and so sat through the previous cremation too, just to be sure.  With our glasses drained, a bloke at the next table chain smoking and blokes at the table beyond talking far louder than is necessary, we depart a little earlier than usual for Portman Road.

Bidding farewell to Gary and Mick in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, because their season tickets are in what used to be the Pioneer stand, I carry on to the Constantine Road entrance where a man in a suit compliments me on my ‘Allez les bleus’ T-shirt as he checks my ticket. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all supported Town in French” I say to him a bit weirdly, although he seems to accept the idea.  I enter the stadium, taking the rare opportunity to use turnstile 61, which today is operated by a young woman who is very possibly the nicest looking turnstile operator I have ever seen at Portman Road.  I arrive at my seat in time to see the teams walk on to the pitch and hear them announced by former Suffolk Radio presenter Stephen Foster, who once again looks a bit like a best man, microphone in hand in his grey suit.  My attention is briefly snagged when I think I hear that the Barnsley number ten is called George Benson, but checking the handily placed scoreboard I sadly see that he’s actually called Josh Benson, but the idea was good while it lasted.  Naturally, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with this son Elwood and so are Pat from Clacton and Fiona as well as the man who I think is from Stowmarket; I can see Ray and his son Michael and his son Harrison down at the front of the stand.

With knees taken and applauded Barnsley get first go with the ball as, wearing their traditional kit of red shirts, white shirts and red socks they aim the ball towards the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end. Town of course wear their traditional blue shirts and white shorts and as the teams line up it looks like a re-enactment of my childhood Continental Club Edition Subbuteo set, albeit without the strange poses of the plastic players.  Despite a high level of background noise, it takes just one minute and twenty seconds for the visiting Barnsleyites to deliver a chant of “Is this is a library?”.   Up in the Cobbold Stand there are several well filled red shirts in the away section and a bald-headed, middle-aged bloke in what looks like full kit, makes me think of Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden the PE teacher in Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Kes’.

Beside me today is a man in a bright orange hi-viz jacket emblazoned with the name of Veolia, the French waste disposal company. “Come on mate” he shouts, possibly to Freddie Ladapo as Conor Chaplin shapes up to thread a through ball beyond the enormous Barnsley defenders. “Come on, early pressure” continues my neighbour, “Pass it around, pass it around”.  He’s living every moment of his own live commentary.  A radio commentator might say that Town have started ‘on the front foot’ and by way of proof the bloke behind me announces that “ the pressure is unreal” .  The first two shots on goal however are by Barnsley players. There is a lot of jeering from the Barnsley fans and it sounds as if someone may be being ejected from the ground, around me people stand up tall and peer to their right to see what’s happening, they remind me of meerkats.

It’s the tenth minute and people rise and applaud as one in memory of a baby who has died.  On the pitch the game is interrupted by a foul and then carries on.  Neither side is exactly peppering the opposition goal with shots and the match is tense and physical; it’s engrossing but not exciting. Barnsley make an early substitution due to injury, reducing the aggregate of the numbers on their shirts by three as number 22 replaces number 25.

It’s the eighteenth minute and Wes Burns and Liam Kitching race for the ball, the enormous Kitching sticks out an arm to impede Burns and holds his shirt, Burns holds Kitching’s shirt and the linesman flags for a free-kick to Barnsley.  It’s a biased decision favouring the defender who had been first to foul, it would have been better to have made no decision at all.  “Pressure” shouts the bloke from Veolia out of the blue. Barnsley substitute, and former occasional Town player James Norwood can be seen trotting from the bench to the dressing room. “He’s injured already” says the bloke behind me. “Going for a Nando’s” says the bloke next to him.  “Come on Town, we haven’t even got out of…” bawls the bloke beside me trailing off, seemingly unable to remember what it is we haven’t even got out of.  If this was going to be a driving analogy I would guess “first gear” is what we haven’t got out of, but if this was going to be an analogy about going to bed it might be “our trousers”; admittedly however this would be an unusual analogy .

It’s the twenty seventh minute and Wes Burns is victim of over physical defending and Town have a free-kick about 20 metres from goal. Conor Chaplin steps up to send a sublime shot over the defensive wall and into the top corner of the Barnsley goal.  It’s a marvellous, beautiful goal and Town are winning. “They’ve gotta come out now” says the bloke behind me, suggesting that he believes some of the Barnsley players will now reveal that they enjoy the company of other men.

Six minutes later and following a series of Barnsley free-kicks the ball is crossed to the far post where Jack Aitchison heads it across goal and inside the far post to provide an unexpected equaliser. “It’s all gone quiet over there” chant the Barnsley fans conveniently forgetting that they are in a library, so it would be quiet wouldn’t it?  They compound their error by chanting “You’re not singing anymore” when apparently, according to their earlier chants we weren’t singing anyway.  Like ‘leave’ voters who don’t want to queue to have their passports stamped when only going ‘next door’ to Holland or France they seem to want their cake and to eat it too.

Leif Davis and Sam Morsy have shots blocked and Davis heads past the post as half-time looms.  When three minutes of added on time are announced, Barnsley’s number two Jordan Williams is sprawling on the grass. “Ha-ha” calls a Nelson Munce-like voice from somewhere behind me.   It’s been a good half of football but not a thrilling one if one inexplicably forgets Chaplin’s goal,  so the Nelson Munce soundalike has gained a higher profile in my mind than he probably deserves.

Half-time is the usual round of talking to Ray and Harrison and Michael and eating a Nature Valley Honey and Oats Crunchy bar.  Ray asks what I know about solar panels, and I tell him I have them on my roof because my mother in-law died. 

The game re-starts at two minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon making a fine save, diving to his right to ensure a decent passing and running move by Barnsley does not end with a goal.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fookin’ thing” chant the Barnsley fans in their South Yorkshire dialect. “Your support is fookin’ shit” they continue before rounding off their medley with a rendition of “Top o’ the league, your ‘avin’ a laff”.   It’s the fifty -third minute and Freddie Ladapo has an attempt cleared off the line. “Get up ya fairy” calls the man from Veolia at Luca Connell as the Barnsley player writhes about in the centre circle before being attended to by a physio. Today’s attendance is announced as being 25,001 with 613 being Tykes and Colliers from Barnsley.  On the Clacton supporters bus the winner of the guess the crowd competition is just two out, guessing 24,499, although misleadingly the guess of 25,050 gets more of the actual digits correct and therefore almost looks closer.

The game is nearly two-thirds over and Barnsley’s Callum Styles is booked for a cynical block on Wes Burns.  Barnsley win a corner. “I’m getting worried you know” admits Pat from Clacton beginning to lose her faith that Town will win this match.  “Come on Town, defend” shouts the bloke beside me giving helpful advice as the corner kick is taken.  The corner is defended as suggested and when play next stops Barnsley make another substitution, James Norwood replacing Jack Aitchison who walks off so slowly and gingerly that he looks like he might have suffered a sudden attack of diarrhoea.

The sixty-sixth minute and the Barnsley supporters think they’ve scored as the ball rattles into the side netting in front of them at the end of another decent move.  Relief and schadenfreude combine to transform the mood of Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand who are able to jeer at the stupidity of their northern neighbours.   With the game into its final quarter Town introduce mass substitutions. Stephen Foster announces that there will be three, but only tells us about Kayden Jackson replacing Freddie Ladapo and Marcus Harness replacing Tyreece John -Jules.  The forgotten substitution sees Kane Vincent-Young appear in place of Leif Davis.  As happened at Shrewsbury last week, the change quickly produces results and Wes Burns runs down the right and into the box before producing a low cross which Sam Morsy side-foots into the net.  Town lead, and are on top to the extent that three minutes later Marcus Harness scores a third, only for alleged referee Steve Martin to disallow it for reasons unknown.  Unlike his American namesake, this Steve Martin seems to be the man with no brain rather than ‘The man with two brains’ and should in future be known by the same name as Steve Martin’s dog in his 1979 film ‘The Jerk’, alternativley ‘The Jerk’ would do.

As if having an idiot for a referee is not bad enough Town soon suffer further by failing to defend a corner and allowing Barnsley’s Callum Styles, a man who according to the app on my phone is shorter than Conor Chaplin ( I think the app must be wrong) , a free header which he places just inside the far post.  If only the man from Veolia had shouted “Come on Town, defend”.  As I remark to Fiona “ I think that is what is called giving him too much time and space”.

Despite the disappointment of gifting Barnsley another equaliser Town press on for another winning goal and dominate the remaining fifteen minutes, reducing Barnsley to desperate clearances rather than considered passes out of defence.   Wolfe is booked for fouling Sam Morsy and a Wes Burns shot is pushed away for a corner by the outstretched arm of the Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins, who I like to think was named after Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sone Aluko replaces Conor Chaplin with five minutes of normal time left.  James Norwood is booked for diving and happily does nothing to suggest it was a mistake to let him go. Anderson of Barnsley is booked for kicking the ball away when a free-kick is awarded; it’s a display of bad sportsmanship and unneccessary nastiness which seems common to this team of mostly mardy millennials.  Fiona leaves early to get away for a family barbecue, despite the fire risk due to the drought, and a ridiculous eight minutes of time added on are announced.  Town win a corner from which George Edmundson heads against a post; Kane Vincent-Young sends a header towards goal, but it is kept out with a flying save; Aluko and Harness both have shots blocked.

 It’s almost five o’clock when The Jerk ends the game and walks off to the boos of the crowd, including mine.  We now expect Town to win, and only the referee and some uncharacteristically forgetful defending have prevented that today, but that’s not so unusual, and at least we didn’t lose. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose as it might say on a future T-shirt when we all start supporting Town in French.

Shrewsbury Town 0 Ipswich Town 3

My first encounter with the ancient town of Shrewsbury was in the August of 1969 when on a family holiday to Aberystwyth.  Shrewsbury was a convenient overnight stopover on our coast-to coast journey and I recall peering through the rain-streaked rear window of the family Ford Cortina as we arrived in the evening rush hour in Shropshire’s county town and sought out the bed and breakfast recommended in the AA guide; I think it was named after a local priory or abbey.  Thirteen years later my father and I returned by coach to see Ipswich dumped out of the FA Cup at Gay Meadow. We did the same again two years later.  My last visit to Shrewsbury was almost 35 years ago to the day, on 22nd August 1987, to witness a goalless draw in the Second Division. Today my return will re-kindle old memories and reveal the delights of the ‘New Meadow’.

I spent last night at a hotel in nearby Telford, where I drank a pint of Camden Pale Ale, a beer that tasted so heavily of citrus my mouth felt all evening as if I’d eaten a whole tub of lemon sorbet.  This morning I take a short walk from my hotel after breakfast and decide that if the residents of Telford were true to the architecture of their town, they would still all have big hair, shoulder pads and the sleeves on their jackets would be rolled up.  I didn’t much like the 1980’s and I am happy to quickly make the short hop to Shrewsbury having first filled up the petrol tank of my trusty Citroen C3 and discovered that fuel is 5p per litre cheaper at Sainsbury’s in Telford than it was on Thursday in Ipswich.  At the Meole Brace Park and Ride site near New Meadow, it costs a fiver to park and then walk to the football ground.  If you pay £2 to ride the bus into Shrewsbury and back however, the parking is free, and you get to ride on a bus, twice.  With an eye for a bargain and a bus trip, I arrive early and catch the bus.

Shrewsbury is a fine town to roam around for a couple of hours, with scores of fab buildings to see, I particularly liked the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s church, the ‘new’ market hall and the ‘cosmic egg’ as well as street names such as Mardol, Dogpole, Grope Lane and Bear Steps.  At the castle I look down upon the site where Gay Meadow used to be.  On Mardol I drink a pint of Castle Eden Golden Harvest Ale (£3.80) in the King’s Head pub, where the bar maid shows me the medieval wall paintings and even takes me out into the street to show me the interpretive signage telling the history of the neighbourhood and how in the sixteenth century it used to be the red-light district.  Oddly she also tells me that her name is Maggie May after the Rod Stewart song and that Maggie May was a prostitute; sadly, I don’t get the opportunity to tell her that Maggie May was in truth just an ’older woman’; although the Maggie Mae that the Beatles sang about on the ‘Let It Be’ album was a prostitute.

My mind swimming with the delights of Shrewsbury Town centre, which as medieval towns go really only tops Ipswich due to more exciting topography, I catch the bus back to Meole Brace from where I will walk to the football ground.  The New Meadow can be seen across fields from the road outside the Park and Ride and again, after a stroll through a retail park, from a nearby railway bridge; it’s not an architectural gem of a football ground but the cantilever steelwork has a certain appeal.  The club shop beckons as I have instructions to purchase a cuddly gnome to add to my wife’s collection of football club soft toys. The shop is much, much, smaller than I had anticipated and with its modest display of replica kits on hangers it has the feel of a walk-in wardrobe. I find the necessary gnome (£9.00) and a match programme (£3.00) and make my purchases.  Placing the chosen gnome in a plastic bag, the woman in the shop explains, as she rolls her eyes, that she won’t put my programme in the bag too because she knows that some people like to keep their programmes flat.

With time still to spare until kick-off I watch Town fans watching the team alight from the team bus, and then eat two Marks & Spencer chicken and ham sandwiches (£3.50) that I bought in the retail park. It starts to rain, and I shelter behind a brick wall. Happily, it was just a shower and after enjoying a poster of a former Shrewsbury player called Ken Mulhearn, whose fantastically coiffured hair looks like he may have modelled 1970’s knitting patterns,  I take a look at the ‘Fanzone’ which, showing how enlightened Shropshire is, is available to both home and away supporters. Music plays, it’s a song by the Smith’s and I think how it is somehow from a different 1980’s to the one in central Telford.  Fans queue for fizzy beer, there is a ‘festival atmosphere’ and in a converted shipping container at one end of the Fanzone an elderly man in replica shirt sits behind a desk, whilst another man in late middle age with a blue and yellow scarf wrapped around his neck announces the result of a prize draw; a woman holding a beer and a man with very poor posture look on; I feel as if I’m at a village fete.

Eventually, I make my way to turnstile 18 and after seeing ever-present Phil who never misses a game, in the toilet,  and bumping into a man named John and another called Ray, neither of whom I have seen for at least three years, I take my place in row M seat 18.  “Shrewsbury‘s a shit hole I want to go home” chant some Ipswich fans across the aisle from me to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’.  I can only assume they have recently discovered irony, because I have found Shrewsbury to be a smashing little place.  In the corner between the main stand and the away end I see house martins swooping and diving, I love our summer visitors but sadly have seen very few this year at home.  In due course, the game begins, with Town having first go with the ball and for the first time wearing this season’s red and black striped away shirt. Shrewsbury Town meanwhile sport yellow and blue striped shirts with blue shorts, as does their lion mascot who unimaginatively is called Lenny.  Ipswich are playing towards something called the Salop Leisure Stand, whilst Shrewsbury are aiming towards the DMOS People North Stand, where I and my fellow Ipswich fans are spending the afternoon.

Town quickly win a corner and it is the Tractor Boys who are making all the noise with someone banging a drum and a child behind me shouting in an ear-hurting high pitch, as children do. Kane Vincent-Young takes the ball around the goalkeeper and looks set to score but is apparently tackled fairly, although those around me believe otherwise and bay for a penalty. “You’re Welsh and you know you are” chant Town fans to the Shrewsbury fans presumably implying that there is something wrong with being Welsh rather than just providing an insight into the number of people in the local telephone directory with surnames such as Davis and Pugh.  It is racism, but the English, Welsh and Scots have a reciprocal agreement on abuse enshrined in the Act of Union of 1707.  Marcus Harness has a low shot saved at the near post by Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.

On the touchline Kieron McKenna is wearing what from a distance looks like a white cardigan, it’s not to my taste but it shouldn’t affect the result, I hope, although Town are living dangerously at times at the back by insisting on drawing Shrewsbury on to them with daring passes between defenders in our own penalty area.  “Your ground’s too big for you” chant my accomplices in the DMOS People North Stand having quickly totted up that there are a good 2,319 empty seats in the 9,875 capacity stadium.

I look at my watch, it’s only a quarter past three, it feels like it’s later.  Perhaps to help the passage of time the town fans air a new song to the tune of The Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’, which celebrates the fact that. “we’ve got; Marcus Harness”.  Sam Morsy gets booked for an unnecessary and at worst petulant kick or trip on Tom Bayliss.  Like many third division teams, Shrewsbury’s approach is physical and bullying, but Ipswich are possibly the bigger bullies so far today. But all of sudden, like the sun streaming through the clouds that play across the Shropshire countryside, some superior skill shines through as Tyreece John-Jules slaloms past a defender and scores in to the bottom right hand corner of the Shrewsbury goal; Ipswich Town lead 1-0 and it’s a bit beyond twenty past three.  Town are the better team but are now proving it and continue to do so by preventing Shrewsbury from getting anywhere close to the Ipswich goal.

Tyreece John-Jules looks like he is through again on goal but is called offside and the home fans are so quiet the Ipswich supporters dare to chant “Na-na-na, football in a library”, which is something that I would frown upon.  As the first half draws to a close Cameron Burgess gives Shrewsbury the gift of a corner kick with an inelegant  sky-high clearance, but despite bouts of all in wrestling between opposing players Ipswich manage to clear the ball up field.  Two minutes of added on time ensue, which the PA announcer tells us are sponsored by Reece Media, “designed to deliver”.  I wonder to myself if the sponsors pay more depending on the amount of time that is to be added on; a first-half with lots of stoppages could potentially end up with spectators thinking of Reece Media for minutes on end.  The closing act of the half is Ipswich winning a corner, but as so often happens, nothing comes of it .

I pass half-time eating most of a Nature Valley Oats and Honey Crunchy bar but then I spot a man called Richard who is eating a hot dog at the front of the stand. Richard and I have previously journeyed together to such exciting locations as Coventry, Sunderland, Blackpool and Nottingham and he even wrote this blog once when I was in a coma.  We catch up on the intervening years and whilst we do so a large, probably overweight, young man walks by on chubby legs and vomits, and as he does so he mystifyingly appears to try and catch the vomit as it is propelled from his mouth.  “Why would you try and catch it?” asks Richard rhetorically. 

I threaten to contact Richard about possible future away trips and as drops of rain begin to fall we part, eager to forget what we have just witnessed.  At five past four the football resumes and Shrewsbury quickly win a free-kick which leads to an unsightly melee in the Ipswich penalty area, but we are strong today and successfully out muscle the home team.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand a small murmuration of starlings swoops and pulses like a weird flying muscle and Tom Bayliss levels up the score for yellow cards after he fouls Lee Evans.  In the next sixty seconds a fine move down the left to Leif Davis allows him to send a square ball to Conor Chaplin who shoots from at least 20 metres out with his left foot into the bottom righ hand corner of Marosi’s goal.   Ipswich lead 2-0 and it’s another fine goal which Shrewsbury came nowhere near preventing. There could never be another Eric Gates,  but if in the inevitable dystopian future our Tory overlords decree for reasons of insane political dogma that there has to be one, I’d like it to be Conor Chaplin.  Eric’s goals of course went more top corner than bottom corner.

Town go close to scoring again. Leif Davis is getting loads of space on the left. Kane Vincent-Young gets to one of Leif’s crosses but that’s all, and the ball orbits up and over the away supporters. “ Two-nil to the Tractor Boys” we sing and the noise carries on but without too much very interesting happening on the pitch.  Then it changes, and Town dominate, and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from 25 metres. Cameron Burgess receives a head injury and dons a dark bandage, he’s big enough to be our third division Terry Butcher.

It’s gone half past four and Shrewsbury make substitutions because they have to do something; Caton and Bowman for Udoh and Pyke, and Bloxham for Da Costa.  Ipswich quickly follow suit. Jackson and Ladapo for Vincent-Young and John-Jules, but not because we have to, just because we can. Kayden  Jackson soon wins a corner and  Lee Evans heads wide.   Harness and Chaplin who have been magnificent are replaced by Edwards and Aluko.  Shrewsbury win a rare corner but it’s just a platform for Ipswich to break away up field and win another corner of our own.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand the mini murmuration of starlings reappears and settles on the two floodlights that project from the roof of the stand and look down on the pitch.  In the same way that twitchers gather to see rare birds, it seems that shropshire starlings gather to watch decent football.   A lone house martin swoops and dives above the pitch, picking off the insects Sam Morsy hasn’t already crushed.

The attendance is announced as being 6,556.  “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich” chant the now gloating Ipswich fans whilst also being simultaneously and illogically scornful of the ‘small’ crowd.   Full-time approaches and after another slick passing move Freddie Ladapo side foots weakly into Morosi’s grateful arms.  Six minutes of added on time are announced and after just two, more approach play down the flanks finds Morsy in the middle. Morsy shoots; his shot appears to be going in but is blocked on the goal line,  but the ball rebounds to Kayden Jackson whose leg is in the perfect position by accident or design to place the ball perfectly between Shrewsbury defenders and into the net. Three-nil to Ipswich and there’s barely time for Shrewsbury to have their consolation ‘only shot of the game’ which Matthew Pennington helpfully boots directly at Christian Walton.  “Head for the corner” shouts an excited and deranged looking young man dancing on the steps in front of me, who clearly has a view on the way to ‘see the game out’.  He needn’t have worried. It’s Ipswich who finish the game with another corner kick just to sum up their domination of this fixture.

Euphoria reigns in the DMOS People North Stand as elsewhere the stands empty in silence.  It’s a love-in at our end of the ground. Importantly, I get to see that Kieran McKenna isn’t wearing a white cardigan, although I’m not sure what it is, a sweatshirt perhaps?  Brimming with the happiness only a 3-0 away win can induce, I head back to the Meole Brace Park & Ride unaware that I wont get out of the car park until 6 o’clock.

Ipswich Town 0 Colchester United 1

It took me several days to get around to buying a ticket for this season’s annual August Tuesday evening embarrassment, otherwise known as the League Cup first round, but when I finished work on Monday afternoon I logged onto the ITFC website and characteristically, due to the difficulties I have with technology, printed myself off four tickets, fortunately all for the same seat. Fifteen quid is a lot to watch Col U, especially when twelve months ago it only cost a tenner to see the 1981 European Cup Winners Cup quarter-finalists Newport County, but sixty quid would have been beyond the pale, whatever that means.

I recall being quite excited at the prospect of Newport last year, but despite it being a much more local derby than our recognised derby versus Norfolk’s finest, this game tonight is not doing a lot for me.  My enthusiasm had been further sapped during the afternoon by being serenaded as I sat in my office by the raucous and vacuous chants of Colchester United supporters.   If my productivity took a tumble this afternoon, I’m not surprised.  “How do you think, we’ll do tonight” says the bloke in the club shop as I buy my programme (£2.00).  “I have no idea” I tell him honestly, “We don’t seem to do very well in the cups”.  Well call me Nostradamus; or on a Friday night Cassandra.

Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm and optimism I am compelled to follow the usual pre-match ritual at what was once known as the Arboretum. Parking up my trusty Citroen C3 just around the corner, because it’s gone 6pm, I step in off the dusty street to order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90). Tonight, with time to kill and the need for sustenance I also have a Scotch Egg (£4.50) and a portion of hand-cut chips (£4.00), and after a respectable interval, a pint of the appropriately named Lacon’s Encore (£3.80). An hour later, stuffed and bloated I head for Portman Road.

It’s a beautiful warm evening and my senses are treated amongst other delights to dappled sunlight dancing through the trees in Great Gipping Street, screeching seagulls, the smell of frying onions and the warm glow of the brickwork at the back of the Magnus Group stand.  I’m almost glad I made the effort to get a ticket after all. My seat tonight is up high in the shady interior of block N but on arrival I find somebody already sat there, I have to explain to him that his seat is actually in Block Y, a few seats away to our left; with his three chums he shifts along. I tell them I’ve done them a good deed because Block Y are the better seats.  I hope in vain that the seats next to me will now remain empty, but it’s not long before another three blokes, all nursing meat pies and plastic cutlery arrive.  “Excuse me” says the youngest brushing past.  I should have blocked his way and asked for the password – “Please”.

In the blink of an eye, or perhaps a little longer, the teams are on the pitch, knees are taken and applauded and Col. U, in rather boring red shirts and black shorts have kicked off defending the goal in front of what was Churchman’s cigarette factory the last time Col U won at Portman Road, which was on 13th October 1951; although in truth they have rarely had the opportunity since then. The noise inside the stadium is possibly the most I think I have ever heard made by 11,654 people at Portman Road. The Col U fans are giving it their all and the Town fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand (lower tier) are answering back.  For now at least, I am at last glad I printed that ticket, albeit four times.

On the pitch, the Town are soon on the attack and the blokes beside me, who are possibly from the ‘professional classes’ are concentrating deeply.  Behind me a couple of young women seem less enraptured and are having a bit of a ‘catch-up’, although of course women are known for their ability to multi-task.  Seven minutes pass and Col U’s  magnificently monikered number 17, Ossama Ashley dives spectacularly to head a cross away for Town’s first corner. A minute later and Town’s Greg Leigh runs on to a fine Luke Woolfenden pass and shoots across goal, but his shot is saved.  Up in the Cobbold stand the Col U fans are reduced to cheering when they get a goal-kick or throw, before coming over all sullen and spiteful by chanting “Your support is fucking shit” in the time-honoured manner of visiting away fans.  Ten minutes have passed.  Fifteen minutes have now passed and the Col U fans are still singing the same Welsh hymn, pronouncing “fuckin’” with a passion and feeling that only an Essex accent can produce.

Eighteen minutes have passed, Town are dominating but getting nowhere much and I’m ashamed to say I am getting a little bored. I notice the bright new concrete between the Cobbold and Sir Alf Ramsey stands beneath the new scoreboard;  I notice Kieron McKenna’s bright white jacket, which looks like it might be made of Nylon; I notice the fat bloke in front of me whose shoulders are moulding themselves around my knees and I notice a faint fusty smell and can’t decide if it’s the middle-aged woman sat next to me or the fat bloke.

The twentieth minute shakes me from my reverie as a fine move down the right tees up Cameron Humphreys with time and space for a shot on goal from 12 metres or so; he must score. Humphreys blazes the ball so high and wide of the goal I find it hard not to jeer along with the Col U fans. “Bloody Hell” I say to myself as those around me groan despairingly. Five minutes later and Humphreys does the same thing again.  Soon Col U’s Frank Nouble (pronounced Noublay as in Michael Buble) conveniently stays down after a challenge so everyone can have a drinks break. 

In a rare foray into the Town half by Col U, Town fans mystifyingly chant “Who are ya?” at some Col U player or other;  I can’t work out why they would be interested unless he has never previously played for Ipswich.  The ball stays down the Ipswich end for a short while and it looks just a matter of time before  Ipswich are on the attack again. But Rakeem Harper decides to pass the ball onto the penalty area to Col U’s Luke Hannant who is simply unable to miss the enormous target he has been given, and Col U lead 1-0.   There have been some terrible goals given away by Town players in recent seasons and this is up there with the very worst.  I don’t want to cry, so I laugh a stifled, sad laugh, a sort of “Ha!”

In the last third of the half Col U win a corner and then Town do. The bloke beside me says in exasperated tones “We could, should be three-nil up by now”. Kane Vincent-Young heads over the Col U cross-bar and Humphreys completes his hat-trick. “His confidence is just going to go” says the bloke beside me worriedly.  On the opposite side of the ground the Col U fans have at last got round to asking “ Is this a library?” I can only think they had been wracking their brains trying to remember the tune, most of them presumably not being ‘into’ Italian opera.

Half-time brings the reward of a somewhat soft Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and little else; even Norwich are winning at half-time.  The one enjoyable thing is the glowing reflection of the setting sun on the strip glazing of St Clare House and the AXA building; twentieth century office buildings rule.

At nine minutes to nine play resumes and having remembered La donna e mobile the Col U fans just can’t get it out of their heads.   The match resumes the pattern of the first half, although Town never again produce the sort of chances that Cameron Humphreys so capably fluffed in the first half.  Tyreece John-Jules launches a shot into a low orbit and falls over quite a bit.  Around me, increasingly frustrated Town supporters try to encourage their team with some clapping that gently peters out, but they can never quite summon the courage to shout and holler, chant or sing.

Fifty-six minutes have gone never to return and Col U replace the player with the most controversial first name, Ossama Ashley, with the player who has what I adjudge to be tonight’s best surname, Ryan Clampin.   In a magnificent display of time wasting Ossama is booked as he dawdles from the pitch pausing first to turn and applaud the away supporters,  and then to remove his shin-pads.  If some of the people around me in the stand had guns and stealth helicopters, Ossama would have suffered the same alleged fate as his near namesake.  One of the blokes behind me is so apoplectic with rage he can no longer form sentences that do not have the word ‘fucking’ in them.

The excitement subsides as Town revert to their relentless, patient, unrewarding pressure.  Former Town hero Cole Skuse is substituted by Col U to general applause from Town fans, although he looks a little confused by it, which perhaps as a member of one of Town’s most derided teams is understandable. With twenty minutes left, Town substitute a third of the team with Harness, Chaplin, Burns and Evans replacing Vincent-Young, Jackson, Aluko and Harper.  The game does not change, Town are no more incisive,  although Conor Chaplin does produce a spectacular overhead kick which goes wide of the goal.  Idris El-Mizouni usurps Cameron Humphreys with five minutes to go until the calling of five minutes of time added on.  In that time added on Lee Evans unleashes a powerful drive, but straight at the Col U goalkeeper and Luke Woolfenden is booked for fractiousness.

When full-time is called, the inevitable boos resound through the stand but if people aren’t used to Town being beaten by lower league opposition in cup competitions by now they never will be.  I now believe it is simply our fate to provide early season joy for the ‘little teams’, in the same way that people donate tins of beans for the needy at harvest festival; and then in November or December we hand out early Christmas presents.  No doubt somewhere it is being said, given our 78% possession and our tally of shots on goal that ‘on another day we would have won’.  Sadly, at the moment it feels like that day will either be a cold day in hell or 30th February.  Good luck in the next round Col U.