Coupe de France on Telly 5 Going to a Live Match 0

The world of football has stopped spinning on its axis, leather no longer strikes leather or skin or wood or nylon netting, whistles no longer blow, crowds no longer chant, turnstiles no longer click, the stink of frying onions no longer pervades the streets, people no longer gawp at the blacked-out windows of team buses, floodlights no longer shine, nobody leaps like a salmon, referees no longer brandish yellow cards, sniffer dogs no longer sniff for non-existent pyrotechnics, over-zealous stewards no longer hassle carefree supporters,  pre-match pints are no longer downed, blades of football pitch grass remain spittle free and no one listens to the results on their car radio.  Saturday has died, along with the occasional Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Having spent most of this season experiencing dead Saturdays, unable to go to football because of illness and my subsequent convalescence, it’s somewhat odd that now no one can go to football because of the Covid-19.  Social media is awash with reminiscences of past games and goals as bewildered football fans search for something to fill the void in their lives.  I have few memories of this season to look back on having only seen eight games, but I may be fortunate that at least I have plenty of recent experience of coping without going to a match.  When Ipswich travelled to Tranmere Rovers for example, I could not go and so sought solace in my living room. I now find myself reminiscing about that January day when I watched live football on TV, cue eerie sounds and a wavy effect in your mind’s eye.

After a frosty start to the 18th of January the sun has risen as high as it will get in the clear pale blue sky. It’s beautiful, but it’s cold.  It is Saturday. Football. Ipswich Town are away in Birkenhead; I haven’t gone, I can’t, but according to the ‘little book’ that I keep I have been to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers, nine times before, the last time being a 2-0 win in March 2000. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time; I’m staying home unless I go to a local game. Coggeshall Town and Stanway Rovers and Colchester United are my nearest clubs and they are all at home.  I won’t be going to Colchester as a protest at the withdrawal of the shuttle bus to the ground, the only thing that made the far out of town location at Cuckoo Farm in any way viable; we should be cutting carbon emissions to save the planet after all and I bet Greta Thunberg isn’t a Col U fan.  I find it hard to get enthused about bank-rolled teams such as Coggeshall Town, and Stanway Rovers has never managed to capture my imagination, probably because of its hyper-boring suburban location; all net curtains and open-plan living.

Ideally, even in preference to Birkenhead, I would be in France, where today is the round of the last thirty-two teams in the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup.  Three Coupe de France games kick off at noon English time, which after 11.30 is normally my least favourite time for a football match to start; all games should of course start at either 3 o’clock or at some time between 7.30 pm and 8.00 pm.  The three 12 o’clock games are Nice v Red Star, Prix-les Mézières v Limonest and Epinal v Saint Pierroise, and after a bit of interrogation of the ‘interweb’ I discover that all three games are live on ‘Jour de Coupe’ (Cup Day) on the French speaking Eurosport 2 channel, which is available to watch on the roast beef-eating side of the English Channel through the magic of the Amazon Firestick.   At 2 o’clock English time a further two games kick off with Gonfreville playing LOSC Lille and Belfort playing AS Nancy Lorraine.

The programme is presented by the personable Gaëlle Millon who certainly earns her money on Coupe de France weekends as she presents the matches at lunchtime, in the afternoon and on into the early evening with a 5 o’clock kick-off and then the later evening match at 8 o’clock.  It doesn’t stop on Saturday evening for notre Gaëlle either, as on Sunday she will then present the afternoon games and an evening match and then possibly another evening game on Monday too.  Gaëlle is perched on a high chair or stool behind a small desk in a studio which is probably in the headquarters of Eurosport in the Paris suburb if Issy-les-Moulineaux, which incidentally is only a fifteen minute walk from Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint Germain.

I miss the starts of the games because I am making a cup of tea, but no one has scored so I am not overly bothered.  The coverage is of the ‘Multiplex’ variety so all three games are being covered and the broadcast flits between them according to where it seems most likely something interesting is going to happen. But in reality the coverage concentrates, to begin with at least, on OGC Nice v Red Star because on aggregate these two clubs have the best cup records of those playing today, Red Star with five wins and Nice with three, although Nice haven’t won the Cup since 1997 and Red Star not since 1942.  Nice, managed by Patrick Vieira dominate the game, but I am pleased and then foolishly optimistic when Red Star hold out for ten, fifteen, twenty, and then twenty-five minutes.  In the twenty-seventh minute however, Danilo scores for Nice and with indecent haste Ignatius Gonago scores a second, a mere two minutes later.  After that second goal the result is a foregone conclusion; despite doing well in Ligue National, the French third division, Red Star are something of a Gallic Ipswich Town and rarely manage to score more than one goal a game.

I lose interest in the Nice game as a result of that second goal and begin to only pay attention to the TV when the Multiplex coverage switches to the games at Stade de la Poterie in Prix-les Mézières and Stade de La Colombiere in Epinal.  The game at Prix-les Mézières is between two clubs in the fifth tier of French football, the National 3.  Prix-les Mézières is effectively a suburb of Charleville Mézières the principal town in the Ardennes département which borders Belgium and is about 330 kilometres and a three hour drive from Calais.  Epinal is further south and east and is the principal town in the Vosges département. Epinal football club is in the fourth tier of the French leagues (National 2), whilst their opponents are in the first level of the Regional leagues which is the sixth tier.

Sadly the coverage rarely switches to the ‘lesser’ two games. I miss the Epinal goal which wins the match and Limonest concede the only goal of the match at Prix-les Mézières after fifty two minutes.  The Stade de la Poterie and Stade de la Colombiere are typical of French grounds outside the elite of most Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 stadia, which are the only venues to host fully professional football. The grounds or Stades are owned by the local authorities and whilst they all have a decent main stand or ‘tribune,’ the other three sides of the ground often have no cover at all and sometimes no terrace.  Poterie and Colombiere possess some of the charm of the English non-league, with spectators stood on grassy banks, a terrace of houses forming a cosy back drop, and traffic passing by with panoramas of streets and landscapes beyond. With more to see than just football, TV coverage from non-league is so much more interesting to watch because if the football is rubbish at least there is still something to see.

In the 92nd minute of the game in Nice Yanis Hamache scores for Red Star and for ninety seconds or so I hope against hope for another Red Star goal, extra time and the lottery of penalties.  But hope is all I get and Nice win the day, although Yanis Hamache gets a second moment of glory as he is interviewed on TV; the money he spent on a weird haircut wasn’t wasted.   On Twitter @RedStarFC tweet “Focus desormais sur le championnat,” which is pretty much French for “now we can concentrate on the League.” 

After a brief return to Gaëlle in the studio in suburban Paris, coverage of the three noon kick-offs quickly switches to the two ties which are beginning at two o’clock in Belfort and Le Havre.  The Belfort game sees ASM Belfort of National 2 play AS Nancy Lorraine of Ligue 2, whilst in Le Havre, ESM Gonfreville also of National 2 play LOSC Lille, runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2018-19 season.   Whilst Belfort’s stadium, the Stade Serzian is another typical French municipal stadium with a single cantilever stand on one side, a running track and views of suburbia all around, Gonfreville, which is effectively an industrial suburb of Le Havre, are borrowing the modern and totally enclosed Stade Océane, the home of Ligue 2 Havre AC.  Stade Océane, which looks as much like a giant, bright blue rubber dinghy as a football stadium, has made recent successful TV appearances in the Women’s World Cup and today the attendance is bigger than Le Havre usually sees for its Ligue 2 matches. The magic of the cup clearly translates into French.

Most of the coverage of the latter two games centres on Le Havre, but it is in Belfort where the action begins and continues as after just seven minutes the wonderfully named Enzo Grasso puts Belfort ahead.  Disappointingly for the romance of the Cup, which pretty much means ‘giant-killing’, Nancy’s Malaly Dembele equalises a bit less than twenty minutes later.   Sadly, I miss the goal, partly because I had become distracted by my mobile phone and partly because the live coverage at the time of the goal was in Le Havre so there was no over-excited commentator to alert me to it by bawling “ Quel but!” (What a goal!). Meanwhile in Le Havre there are no goals at all, only the intriguing sub-plot of how Lille manager Christophe Galtier’s hair seems to have grown darker whilst his beard has become more grey. It could just be my imagination however, and according to my wife it is, but then, she always had a bit of ‘a thing’ for Monsieur Galtier, I think it’s because he’s from Marseille.

Half-time takes us back to Gaëlle in Issy-les Moulineaux to re-cap on what has gone before and  chat with ‘experts’ perched on stools like performing animals. The second halves begin and all the decent action remains in Belfort whilst the live coverage is in Le Havre.  With just ten minutes of the second forty-five played, karma gets even with Malaly Dembele of Nancy for scoring that romance-crushing equaliser and he is sent off.  I don’t know why Malaly is sent off because once again I have become distracted and miss the action, this time because I’m catching up on what’s happening in Birkenhead, which is nothing.  Having learnt my lesson, I put down my phone and concentrate on the games on the telly.  Lille are making hard work of getting past Gonfreville, a club three levels below them and I begin to notice the perimeter advertising; the usual multi-nationals are there such as Nike and Volkswagen but less expected in a country known for its love of haute cuisine is KFC, but some welcome novelty is present in the form of EDF the French electricity company and the French bakers Pasquier, whose industrially processed bread products can also be found in British supermarkets. My reverie is broken as coverage switches to Belfort in time to catch a Nancy player blowing his nose on his shirt. He might have got away with if he was playing for Norwich, whose kit is the colour of snot, but Nancy are playing in white shirts today.  

Back to Le Havre and with sixty-nine minutes played Loic Remy at long last gives Lille the lead, but the replays of the goal are not over before there is also a goal at Belfort where hopes of a ‘giant-killing’ are restored by Thomas Regnier and the TV screen divides in two to show two goals being scored at once, the excitement in my living room is now palpable.  Five minutes elapse and Belfort are awarded a penalty which gives the programme director time to ensure that the main action is being beamed from Stade Serzian and Thomas Regnier scores again to give Belfort a 3-1 lead with just twelve minutes left to play of normal time.  This is great, so good I almost fail to notice that in the Coupe de France teams do not carry their usual sponsor’s names on their shirts, but instead all the away teams display the logo of PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) a horse racing promoter and betting organisation, whilst home teams advertise the symbol of the Credit Agricole bank.  As if that’s not enough all players display the name of the Intermarche supermarket chain across their shoulders and club crests are replaced by the badge of the FFF (Federation Française de Football), the French football association. My mind begins to drift to thoughts of Vincent (Samuel L Jackson) in Pulp Fiction and his ‘Quarter Pounder/Royale’ conversation with Jules (John Travolta); “It’s the little differences…”.  But injury time, as it used to be known, has started and with two minutes of it gone Victor Osimhan brings some late excitement to my TV screen as he confirms Lille’s ‘safe passage’ through to the round of sixteen with Lille’s second goal, but Belfort still have six whole minutes left to play. 

In Le Havre the game ends and the victorious Lille players line up to applaud the Gonfreville team from the pitch; what with the late goal, the mass sporting gesture not to mention the ‘giant-killing’ I feel rather moved by it all and emit a small cheer when the game in Belfort finally ends with no further goals.  Back with Gaëlle in the studio I remember to check the half-time score in Birkenhead, I wish I hadn’t.

Happy times, perhaps not quite as good as the real thing, but looking back from this shut-in, locked down world I feel quite privileged to have had them. Please appreciate the moment and make the most of it. In the words of Country, Pop and Novelty songwriter Ray Stevens “Everything is beautiful in its own way”. Oh, and there was a happy ending in Birkenhead after all.

Lakenheath 2 Mulbarton Wanderers 0


The village of Lakenheath, in the top left hand corner of Suffolk beyond Mildenhall is some 69 kilometres from the County Town of Ipswich, about an hour’s drive along the A14, the A1101 and then the B1112.  Lakenheath has a railway station but hardly any trains stop there.    If you want to watch Lakenheath FC play on a Saturday afternoon and you really, really want to travel by train two journeys are possible; leaving Ipswich at 8am and 8.08am these take you via Ely and Thetford or via Norwich and Thetford arriving at twenty four minutes past ten, giving you ample time to walk or even crawl the near 4.5 kilometres to Lakenheath village; no buses pass the station.  You’ll need to take a sleeping bag because there is no train back from Lakenheath until the next day.  If however, you like a lie-in on a Saturday morning but are still committed to saving the planet by using public transport then from Ipswich it is easier and quicker to catch the 11:20 train to Bury St Edmunds from where Mulley’s Motorways service 955 to Mildenhall connects with Coach Services service 201, which arrives ‘outside the post box’ (as opposed to inside it) at Lakenheath at 13.33.  Getting back is difficult however because the last bus out of Lakenheath arrives in Mildenhall at 18.18, eight minutes after the last bus departed for Bury.  The only way to return from Lakenheath therefore is to catch the 18.58 number 200 bus to Thetford, which is perfectly timed to arrive one minute after the train to Ely for the onward connection to Ipswich left at 19:24.  The next train from Thetford is the 19:54 to Norwich from where a connection arrives back in Ipswich at 21:41.   The on-line timetables tell us that the bus ‘services’ are supported by Suffolk County Council, but it’s as if they are trying to make them unusable, perhaps so a lack of passengers will justify not supporting them in the future.

With the best part of seven hours being a lot of time to spend on travelling to a ‘local’ football match, my wife Paulene and I reluctantly dodge the pleas of Greta Thurnberg and climb in to our trusty Citroen C3.  Sadly, it’s not such a fine day to go travelling either, with low grey clouds, a strong blustery wind and the threat of rain casting foreboding over the Suffolk landscape.  The countryside is bleak on a day such as this, although the open fields of Breckland with their rows of contorted Scots Pine trees (pine lines) leaning with the prevailing wind give this corner of Suffolk a distinctive character. 

Lakenheath has a long broad main street; we pass the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin on our right and at the instruction of our French speaking satnav turn a droite into Wing Street and then a gauche into a rough car park and the gateway to ‘The Pit’ or ‘The Nest’ as Lakenheath’s football ground is known.  Access is down a rough slope and round a sharp corner into another small rough car park; the site is an old chalk pit or quarry.  We’ve definitely come to the right place as the Mulbarton Wanderers team bus is parked opposite and they are today’s opponents. 

Tall trees surround us on three sides and as I lock up the Citroen Paulene takes crunchy footsteps across the car park to the small wooden turnstile hut without a turnstile.   Paulene asks the man in the wooden hut how old you have to be to be considered a pensioner but he doesn’t answer and charges us full price (£5 each), we buy a programme too (£1).  The  players are out on the pitch warming up as we head for the clubhouse; Paulene remarks on the dugouts being on the far side of the pitch and admits to having hated having to trudge across the pitch from the changing room to the dugout in her time as  physio with Wivenhoe Town.  It looks like Lakenheath have recently moved theirs to the other side of the pitch, perhaps to improve the view from the stand.

The clubhouse is spacious, if a little dark as a result, but the bar and barmaid are bright and welcoming and I order a glass of rose for Paulene; sadly there is no real ale so I take a deep breath and order a half of Greene King IPA ‘Smooth’, although I would prefer almost any other beer, even if it’s rough; the two drinks cost £5.30.  We sit at a table by a window.  The TV is on but a caption says there is no signal, perhaps because we are in the bottom of a quarry.  Without TV to dull people’s minds the room is filled with the sound of conversation but also the thumping rhythm of loud music from the changing rooms next door; I like to imagine it’s the referees not the players making the noise and that they are stood in their pants singing into hairbrushes and playing air-guitar .  At the table behind us three middle-aged men talk very loudly as if trying to be heard above the sound of jet engines at the nearby air force base. They discuss retired footballers, most of whom are now dead.  Although this is a far flung corner of Suffolk, the twang of London accents is evident.  A man in a yellow and black jacket sells us a strip of yellow draw tickets, Nos 481 to 485.  As usual I am destined not to win; the seller has got to me four strips too early.

Time passes quickly and it’s almost five to three. The loud men behind us have already left and we follow suit, downing what’s left of our drinks before braving the breezy outdoors; we both have our woolly hats on today.   The two teams line up behind the referee Mr Cameron Saunders and his two assistants Messrs Andrew Hardy and Lewis Lofts, who sounds like he might offer to board over your attic.  The group marches on to the pitch but quickly break formation, not hanging round for any ritual handshaking as happens at higher levels of the game.

Lakenheath get first go with the ball kicking towards Wing Street and wearing green shirts with white shorts and socks, they look a bit like French Ligue 2 club Red Star.  Mulbarton Wanderers are in all pale blue with shirts sponsored by ‘Pip’s Skips’ and they play in the direction of the railway line far off to the north.  The early pace of the game is fast with a clear desire to get the ball forward quickly.  Mulbarton soon settle but look lightweight up front.  Despite the blustery wind and a hard and uneven looking pitch some of the football is neat and good to watch.  For both these clubs it’s their first ever season in the Eastern Counties League First Division,  step-six of non-league football, and both have done well, with Mulbarton guaranteed a third place finish and Lakenheath set to finish fifth in the nineteen team league if they win today.

Weirdly Lakenheath don’t seem to have a team captain, with no one wearing an armband and no one annotated as such on the team sheet.  As much as a sort of football-collective seems a good idea, their goal keeper Frank Gammon, which incidentally I think is a great name, seems to be taking on the mantle however, with his constant encouragement and advice from the penalty area.  “Win your battles”, “Left Shoulder”, “No foul” he shouts, continuously.   But he’s doing a good job and Mulbarton are kept at bay without much difficulty.  Lakenheath seem to have just one striker, number nine Shaun Avis who the programme tells me has scored 15 goals in just seven games this season, which is rather impressive.  He looks lively but misses the two chances he has, taking the ball around the Mulbarton keeper Tom Wright by the corner of the penalty area, but then going for the spectacular and achieving it with a spectacularly high and wide shot before also glancing a free header wide of the goal.

Paulene and I take a stroll around to take in the ambiance of ‘The Pit’, which we both agree is a much better name than ‘The Nest’ not just because it is devoid of unfortunate associations with Norwich City, which is very important in Suffolk.  It’s a name that makes me think of Clive King’s children’s novel ‘Stig of the Dump’  and I imagine a variation of the story in which a boy makes friends with a team of Neolithic footballers and helps them erect a goal, which looks uncannily like Stonehenge.   This is a lovely football ground, the steep sides of the former quarry and the tall trees acting like natural substitutes for tall stands and creating a sense of enclosure which few non-league grounds even at much higher levels can rival.  Sadly it’s a grey day today but it must be beautiful in the sunshine; even today there is birdsong and  the tall trees sway eerily in the wind; wild flowers grow behind the goal lines and one corner of the pitch is covered in daisies, albeit closed up ones.  Sadly, it’s not yet possible to walk all around the pitch but a concrete path behind the dug-outs and right hand goal form the man stand is due to be completed in the close season.

Back on the pitch, Mulbarton appeal for a penalty. “Handball!” shouts someone, “Rubbish” shouts someone else in response from the stand.  Either way no one seems to much like referee Mr Saunders and someone else shouts “Referee, you’re getting worse”.  I am slightly suspicious of Mr Saunders myself, his hair is just a bit too neat; he could be a Jehovah’s witness or a Mormon. Meanwhile on the near touchline to the stand the grey-haired, be-spectacled referee’s assistant reminds me of a conductor on the Eastern Counties buses I used catch to school.

Half-time arrives and I depart for the clubhouse where there is a short queue at the bar for teas and coffees.  As I queue the half-time draw is made; ticket number 501 wins first prize and the man behind me in the queue discovers he is the winner, but at least I get my tea before him.   The tea (£1 per ‘cup’) is poured from a large pot into china mugs, this is sadly something that happens almost nowhere else in senior football any more but it should.  If a football club is happy to get the china out it makes you feel like a human being, not as if any old plastic or polystyrene receptacle will do just to get another quid out of you; it feels like they want people to enjoy this tea, as if they care; and a very good cup of tea it is too.  We drink our tea in the small brick stand, a homely and utilitarian structure with wooden benches, it’s beautifully dilapidated and I hope it’s never demolished to make way for one of the boring modern, ‘meccano’ stands.

Paulene and I are refreshed and the game begins again at precisely three minutes past four. Within six minutes Lakenheath are ahead.  No one seems quite sure why, although importantly Mulbarton players do not seem to be complaining, but Mr Saunders awards a penalty to Lakenheath and  top scorer Kelvin Enaro scores his twenty eighth goal of the season,  booting the ball to Tom Wright’s right as he collapses to his knees.   With a goal lead Lakenheath are more relaxed; the pace of the game is a little slower and the passing more accurate and more controlled, there’s less anxiety.   Mulbarton look even less likely to score than they did in the first half, but do claim the first booking of the match as their number seven, the splendidly named Dom Doggett,  incurs Mr Saunders’ wrath for a foul.  It’s not long before Doggett is substituted for number fourteen, Charlie Norman. 

For a while the game drifts and I listen to the birdsong and enjoy the lush greenery of the quarry banks.   A tall, grey-haired man walks up into the stand carrying a match ball. “Man of the match Dave? What did you do, score a hat-trick?” asks a voice at the back.   Eventually Lakenheath win a corner and the action steps up a gear. “Come on Heath” shouts a man in the stand; it’s not a very imaginative nickname for the club but it follows the pattern set at nearby Mildenhall who are known as ‘The Hall’.  Personally, I reckon they should be known as ‘The Quarrymen’ .   After one corner, follows another as a shot flashes past the post, deflected away by the Mulbarton defence.   It’s twenty-five past four and Frank Gammon sends a kick deep into the Mulbarton half, the bounce fools the Mulbarton defence and number eleven James McCabe runs on to poke the ball over Tom Wright’s head and puts  ‘The Heath’ (‘The Quarrymen’) two-nil up. 

With the second goal the game changes and seems to lose the reserve it showed earlier. Lakenheath miss open-goals and hit the cross-bar whilst Mr Saunders the referee becomes rather officious and begins to wave his yellow card about with gay-abandon, booking players on both teams, mostly it appears for whinging and whining rather than anything particularly serious.  I think it’s his way of adding to the entertainment, everyone loves a good moan about the referee.   But happily if there is any ill-feeling it doesn’t last and with the final whistle Mr Saunders and his assistants stand together to receive the handshakes of both teams.

As the stand empties out after the game we stop and talk for several minutes with three people in orange hi-viz jackets, who are temporarily working on the air base, it’s almost as if we don’t want to leave.   Driving back home along the B1112 Paulene and I reflect on our afternoon at ‘The Pit’ and both agree that we’ve had a most enjoyable time and importantly have witnessed a Suffolk team beating a Norfolk one which in my mind at least helps redress the recent imbalance between Ipswich Town and Norwich City.   We look forward to returning on a sunny day.

Ipswich Town 0 Swansea City 1


Despite being fortunate enough to grow up and go to school in Suffolk, I was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I lived until I was a few months old and my parents moved to my mother’s home village of Shotley  and took me and my sister with them, like the good parents that they were.  The nearest Football League club to Haverfordwest is Swansea City, (still Swansea Town when I was born) and there is an argument that says I might follow their fortunes, but I don’t.  The dual nationality comes in handy when Wales do well in the rugby and I like leeks,  cheese on toast, Ivor the Engine, Sgorio  and daffodils; but that’s as Welsh as I am see.  I wouldn’t normally mention it but today Town play Swansea City, and I’ve written this first paragraph in a Welsh accent. 

At the railway station it’s another gloriously warm, cloudless day and sunlight glints off the tracks.  The only travellers are all bound for Ipswich and the match; the train is on time.  The carriage is sparsely populated and I share it with a hard looking woman and two young children, a girl and a boy.  As the train arrives into Colchester she scolds them in a harsh voice that sounds like a man’s. “Drake, McKenna get away from the door”.  I can’t help but derive amusement from the names of children nowadays, it’s my age.  The children seem almost to roll their eyes as she speaks.  Pleasingly they leave the train at Colchester and twenty five minutes later I arrive peacefully in Ipswich.

Ipswich is best under a blue sky and everything is beautiful as I walk up Princes Street and past the peeling paint of Portman Road with its ragged club flag to St Jude’s Tavern, which is dingy and the customers are reassuringly as old and ugly as ever. I order a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50)  Nethergate Venture.  At the bar I meet Kev’ who I know from my days with Wivenhoe Town.  Kev’ is wearing a dark flat cap which in the gloom of St Jude’s looks like a beret.  I am wearing my “Allez les bleus” T-shirt today and tell him I thought the French had come to take me “home” to where I imagine I belong  –  that’s France, not Wales.   I sit with the regular old gits who assemble here on match days.  I talk to one of them (Phil) about statues of footballers and tell him that even Carlisle United has one, although I can’t remember who it is a statue of. Phil suggests it’s not a footballer but one of the Hairy Bikers because he knows one of them is from Cumbria.  I tell him the Hairy Biker he’s thinking of is from Barrow In Furness, where the nuclear submarines come from.  I drain my glass and fetch a pint of Butcomb Gold (£3.60), which seems livelier than the Venture even though I can’t help thinking Butcomb might be a West Country word for anus.

With the big hand heading up the clock face towards the figure eight, the pub empties and carried on a gentle human tide I soon find myself back in Portman Road.  A selection of people are hawking copies of the Turnstile Blue fanzine where Portman Road meets Sir Alf Ramsey Way and I buy one (£1);  it’s issue 20 and it’s much like the previous nineteen in its tone, but it’s nice when things are familiar.  Unusually there are queues to get into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand; not because of weight of numbers but because not all the turnstiles are open.  Nevertheless, despite my desire to be French I like a good queue to get in the ground; it carries a faint hint of the ‘big match’ atmosphere, which is the best 17,247 people can really hope for in a 30,000 seat stadium.  I enter turnstile number seven and wish the bespectacled female operator a happy Easter as she returns my freshly scanned season ticket card to me.  She looks up, surprised as if she’d forgotten about the resurrection.

Bladder drained, I occupy a seat near ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just along from Pat from Clacton.  Pat is fed up because a large man in a red hat is sat directly in front of her today and she’s only short; whichever way she looks a big red head is in her field of vision.  We sit and wait for the teams to appear from the tunnel.   

Town have been officially relegated for over a week now and today’s match is amongst the most pointless they have ever played, childishly I live in the hope that  they will therefore treat it as a bit of fun, a bit like testimonial games  are supposed to be.  Would anyone be bothered if the two teams each agreed to play a 2-3-5 formation?   I am not optimistic for this however as professional football tends to take itself much too seriously, like many of the fans, as the drivel that appears on social media testifies.   The teams are announced and my hopes of football for fun are dashed. 

The flags of tiny mascots and larger furry mascots sway to an amplified soundtrack of swirling music giving an undeserved aura of grandeur to the two teams as they walk out for this meaningless encounter, but I stand and applaud nevertheless, swept up with the lie that this match is bigger than really it is. As the game begins the noise level simmers down and a degree of reality returns. Town are hopefully aiming at the goal just to the left of me, ever-present Phil and Pat from Clacton; they inevitably wear blue and white shirts adorned with the unwelcome red adidas stripes and that nasty sponsors’ logo. In crisp white shorts and black shorts Swansea look like Germany, they are the Teutonic Taffies.

“One Dylan Thomas, There’s only one Dylan Thomas” sing the male voice choir from Swansea from the top corner of the Cobbold Stand, or perhaps they don’t. A serious looking steward collects blue and white balloons that have drifted from the stand, thereby  suppressing someone’s expression of joy; no doubt the balloons had strayed dangerously close to the pitch. I like to think that as part of the club’s Community programme the balloons will later be released at the birthday parties of deprived children. Next to me Pat from Clacton continues to glower at the big red hat on the big head of the big man sitting in front of her. On the touchline Paul Lambert is celebrating Easter with a new jumper, a grey one, an infinite number of shades lighter than his usual black one, and people still accuse Scots of being dour.

On the pitch referee Mr Darren England, which seems a good name for a football referee, makes himself unpopular with the home support by seemingly giving fouls against Ipswich players and not Swansea ones.  “You’re not fit to referee Subbuteo, you tiny little bugger” bawls an incensed voice from somewhere behind me, failing to notice that being tiny is actually one of the main requirements of being a Subbuteo referee along with being made from brittle plastic and glued into a circular base.   The game is rather boring and Swansea are hogging the ball; like every other club that has been to Portman Road this season, they have the better players, the better team.  Forty minutes pass and Town’s Flynn Downes gets into the Swansea penalty area and wins a corner. Will Keane misses a header and scuffs the ball against a post, the ball bounces about like it’s made of rubber bands before Trevoh Chalobah sends it flying past the other post into the stand.  Sixty seconds later, give or take, another corner is won and Toto N’siala heads Alan Judge’s kick solidly over the cross bar. The supporters behind the goal are getting almost as much possession of the ball as Andre Dozzell.  Pat and I are breathless at the sudden burst of attacking football from Town and are glad for the rest that half-time soon brings.

I use the facilities beneath the stand, eat a Panda brand liquorice stick and catch up on the half-time scores.  A young man in a shirt and tie and smart trousers compliments me on my ‘Allez les Bleus’ T-shirt, “Cool T-shirt” he says brightly. He’s not wrong.  The match stats on the TV screen above the concourse are blatantly wrong however, claiming Ipswich have had eight shots to Swansea’s six; it’s as if the stats are being reported by Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign.  I return to the stand to talk to Ray who confesses to being underwhelmed by the first half.

At six minutes past four the game resumes.  I laugh when Gwion Edwards stretches to head the ball by the touchline then tumbles out of sight over the perimeter wall; “well for me” to quote Mick Channon, it’s the best move of the match so far.  Happily, Gwion quickly bounces back up and plays on, but that’s the sort of entertainment end of season games need.  Minutes later Dean Gerken makes a  quite spectacular low,  diving, ‘finger-tip save’ from a Daniel James shot before the very tiny, thirty-four year old Wayne Routledge, whose shorts almost reach his calves, runs the ball over the goal line and is met with jeers and guffaws from the appreciative crowd in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.   But Wayne has a friend in fate today and within a few minutes a shot rebounds off Town’s right hand post and straight onto the turf in front of Wayne who is quick enough not to miss an open goal and Swansea are winning.

The attendance is announced as 17,247 with 557 of those being from Swansea; Collin Quaner and Kayden Jackson replace Andre Dozzell and Will Keane.  Wayne Routledge is replaced by Nathan Dyer.  “I can’t believe we’re losing again” says Pat from Clacton.  I make a sympathetic humming noise in reply, I couldn’t think of any proper words to say.   Behind Pat sit two large middle aged women. “We don’t really get the sun here, do we” says one obviously engrossed in the game, before adding “Coronation Street’s on tonight”.

Town struggle to equalise and Pat and I are a little despondent, “I don’t really enjoy coming here anymore” she says “It’s not like it used to be”.  We are Ipswich’s spoilt generation who remember the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  But Pat is already planning to renew her season ticket and might get one for her young niece too.   Of course I am going to renew mine as well as will ever-present Phi who never misses game; I’m looking forward to the big discount when the other 13, 996 sign up.  Pat takes a photograph using the 20x zoom lens on her compact Sony camera and picks out her brother stood in the North Stand, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen all afternoon. 

Time drifts by under a hazy blue sky and at last the stadium clock turns nine minutes to five.  It’s been a disappointing hour and a half of football and to add insult to injury we are forced to sit through six minutes of time added on; as if relegation wasn’t bad enough we are now all in detention.  Hopes are raised with a last minute corner and Dean Gerken leaves his goal to join in the penalty area melee at the far end; I stand up and lurch forward as if to join him too, but realise just  in time that that sort of commitment is generally frowned upon nowadays.  Little Alan Judge’s corner kick is poorly judged and sails away over everyone’s heads anyway.  Finally Mr Darren England makes a belated and vain bid for popularity by blowing the final whistle.

Normally the team does a lap of honour or appreciation around the pitch after the last game of the season, but because the last game of this season will be against Leeds United that lap is occurring today.  Having been relegated the Town players don’t want thousands of oafish Yorkshireman flicking v’s at the them and screaming at  them from the Cobbold Stand to “Fuck Off” as they wander round clutching assorted  babies and toddlers and waving nicely.   The players re-emerge from the tunnel without delay and I slavishly applaud as they drift by beyond a wall of stewards; within a couple of minutes I go home for my tea.

Kirkley & Pakefield 0 Wroxham 0


tramway hotel

Once upon a time Kirkley and Pakefield were Suffolk villages, but they are now suburbs of Lowestoft on the south side of Lake Lothing.  Up until 1931 Lowestoft Corporation ran trams down to Pakefield terminating at the appropriately named Tramway Hotel; it’s a pity they don’t still run today and if only Lowestoft was in Belgium or France or Germany they probably would.   That aside, it’s a lovely rural train ride from Ipswich to Lowestoft and then a walk of over 3 kilometres or a ten minute trip on the X2 bus and then another five minute walk to get to Walmer Road, home of Kirkley and Pakefield Football Club.  But that all takes the best part of two hours and today I’m in a hurry to get home afterwards so I am making the 60 kilometre journey up the A12 by car.  Despite the small pleasure of opening up the throttle on my trusty Citroen C3 along the dual carriageway past Wickham Market, driving is nowhere near as much fun as sitting on the train, for a start everyone else on the road either drives too fast or too slow.   Also, unless I opt to eschew normal road safety and not look where I am going there’s much less to see from a car on the A12 too, perhaps with the exception of a brief vista of beautiful Blythburgh church across the marshes.

A quick glimpse of Woodbridge Town’s floodlights and road signs pointing the way to Framlingham and Leiston are tantalising reminders of senior football in east Suffolk as I plough on up towards Lowestoft listening to BBC Radio Suffolk’s ‘Life’s a Pitch’ on the Citroen’s radio. With its mix of decades old pop music and football talk with Terry Butcher and an otherwise anonymous pre-pubescent youth known only as ‘Tractor Boy’, whose presence is never really explained,  ‘Life’s a Pitch’ is a gently weird preamble for an afternoon of football.  Speaking directly from West Bromwich where Ipswich play today, former fanzine editor Phil Hamm mixes his metaphors delightfully as he speculates on whether Ipswich’s cruel defeat to Reading last week will have “knocked the stuffing out of their sails”.

It’s a very windy early Spring day and a heavy but short shower of rain sweeps across the road as I head out of Wrentham resulting in my arrival on the edge of Lowestoft being announced with a rainbow.   Passing Pontin’s Pakefield holiday camp I leave the modern A12 at the Pakefield roundabout and head down the old one, past the splendid Tramway Hotel and then take a left turn into Walmer Road and suburbia before making a final left turn towards the Recreation Ground.

It’s about twenty past two and the main car park is full so I splash my way into the pitted, puddled field that is the overflow car park at the north end of the ground and reverse up against the hedge in a spot where I won’t risk drowning as I step out of the car.

There’s no queue to get in the ground and at  the blue kiosk that looks like it might once have served a municipal car park in the days before ‘pay and display’, I say to the grey-haired man inside “One please, and do you do a programme?” .  Apparently the programmes are in the clubhouse.  I hand over a ten pound note; entry is £6 for adults and £4 for concessions.   I take my change unthinkingly and I now realise that the man on the gate must have thought I looked like a pensioner; my Ipswich Town season ticket is taking its toll.

I head for the clubhouse, with its deep, green felt roof topped off by a cupola it resembles a village cricket pavilion; it’s probably the most characterful club house in the Eastern Counties League. 

The inside bears little relation to the outside however and the ‘Armultra Lounge’ is decked out in a trendy grey colour scheme with matching leather sofas and oak-look laminate flooring.  I see a club official with some programmes and ask him if I can buy one (£1), he begins to direct me to someone else but then very kindly just says “Here, you can have this one on me”; what a lovely bloke.  Touched with the knowledge that people being kind and generous to other people is what life’s all about I celebrate with a bacon roll (£2.30) from the food hatch in the corner of the room.  It’s a very good bacon roll too; at first I am fooled by the roll having been toasted, into thinking it’s the bacon that is crispy, but actually it is anyway. I sit at a glass table on what looks like a tractor seat on a stick and eat the bacon roll and read the programme; I resist having a beer however because sadly the hand pumps on the bar are naked and the afternoon is windy enough without the terrible burps that a chilled glass of Greene King’s East Coast IPA nitrokeg would induce.  The programme tells me that Wroxham’s Sonny Cary is a “…gifted young football”.   I search for other amusing mis-prints but can’t find any.

As 3pm approaches I venture outside but not before pausing by the door where a man is donning his coat, scarf and hat; he tells me that the main stand on the other side of the ground is the best place to watch from, because it’s out of the wind.  I thank him for this insight and tell him I suspect that is where I will end up then.  Outside, a man well into his sixties is sat on a bench with a microphone in hand announcing the teams; in the strong, gusty wind he struggles to hold onto the sheet of paper from which he is reading and the rattle of the paper in the wind competes with his voice over the PA system.  

I am already on the far side of the ground as the teams come on to the pitch behind the referee Mr Luigi Lungarella who has an impressive shock of swept back dark hair.  Handshakes follow before the Kirkley & Pakefield huddle in a moment of team togetherness and the Wroxham players stand waiting as if to say “ Oh come on. Can’t we get on with this”.  Huddling over, Wroxham, known as the Yachtsmen,  get first go with the ball kicking it in the direction of  Lowestoft town centre and the fish dock; they wear a dull change kit of white shirts with bluey-grey shorts and socks.  Kirkley and Pakefield, known for some reason as The Royals, play towards Pontin’s and far off Southwold and wear the same kit as Brantham Athletic; all blue with two diagonal white stripes across their stomachs, as if the shirts had been left lying on the pitch when it was marked out.

Wroxham settle quickly and pin The Royals back in their half, their “gifted young football”, the red-headed and slightly spindly number ten Sonny Carey has their first shot on goal, but it’s comfortably wide.   Despite most of the game taking place in the Kirkley & Pakefield half Wroxham don’t come close to scoring and in a somewhat solid way the teams are evenly matched,  which is to be expected as they are fifth and sixth in the Eastern Counties Premier League table, both  with forty-nine points but with Wroxham having a better goal difference.  The game is characterised by effort, but more so by lots of shouting; it reminds me of a windy day in a school playground.   “Squeeze, squeeze” shouts the Wroxham ‘keeper George MacRae, perhaps feeling a little left out.  “Higher, higher.  Switch” he adds, trying to get involved.  Wroxham appear to have won the first corner, only to be denied by a raised flag denoting offside.   “ We in’t had a shot on gool  yit” says an old boy, one of a half a dozen stood against the rail along from the stand.  He asks the time, it’s about twenty past three. Attention seems to wandering.  “I see Bodyshop is closing” says someone else, although it probably won’t affect his shopping habits too much.  “There’s not a lot happening here” says the old boy “Though there’s a lot of ‘em in that fuckin’ dugout”.

At last Wroxham win a corner, but they take it short and I feel a bit let down. All that waiting for a corner and then it might as well have been a throw-in.  Everyone hates short corners, don’t they?   Kirkley & Pakefield’s number five Jack Herbert is spoken to by Mr Lungarella and Wroxham keep pressing. “He in’t got a left foot” someone says of Wroxham’s Cruise Nyadzayo as he keeps trying to cut inside on the left wing.  A few minutes later Nyadzayo switches to the right.  As Wroxham threaten the penalty area the ball is booted clear; “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring” calls a voice from the stand. “What’s your name, Pike?” says another, hopelessly and irrelevantly misquoting the famous lines completely out of all context.  People laugh nevertheless.

As the game edges closer towards half-time, Kirkley and Pakefield begin to frequent the Wroxham end of the pitch a bit more.  “We got a corner, bloody hellfire, but it took us half an hour to get et” is the assessment of one local. But all of a sudden real excitement breaks out as a header is cleared off the Wroxham goal line and then a shot from Jordan Haverson is kept out of the goal with a spectacular flying save from George MacRae, before play quickly moves to the other end and Cruise Nyadzayo dribbles through before having his shot saved at close range by Adam Rix, Kirkley & Pakefield pony-tailed goalkeeper

I move along the rail and stand near a couple of Wroxham supporters “ I think it could take me a couple of years to get the kitchen sorted” says the younger of the two as Kirkley & Pakefield prepare to take  a free-kick in a dangerous looking position, before winning a second corner.  It’s the final notable action and comment of the half and I return to the club house for a pounds’ worth of tea and to catch up on the half-time scores. Ipswich are losing but the tea’s just fine.

At two minutes past four Mr Lungarella blows his whistle for the start of the second half and Wroxham’s George MaCrae shouts “Squeeze” before the last note from the referee’s whistle is scattered by the wind.  Grey clouds are heaped up behind the main stand hiding a pale, milky sun.  Rooks are nesting high in the trees beyond the club house and a golden Labrador puppy is showing a keen interest in the game as he stands on his hind legs to watch over the rail.  I think to myself what a fine back drop to the game  the water tower at the  southern end of the ground makes.

The second half is played out more evenly across both halves of the pitch rather than predominantly in one half but neither goalkeeper has to stretch himself too much with virtually every shot being blocked or speeding past  the far post, as several low crosses do also.  The ‘star’ of the second half however is the referee Mr Lungarella who succeeds in making himself  equally disliked by both teams with a catalogue of unpopular decisions and a handful of bookings for Kirkley & Pakefield players.  “It was a corner ref. Ref! Ref! That was a corner” shouts one man from within the Russell Brown Community Stand behind the goal at the Lowestoft end of the ground after a goal kick is awarded. It’s almost as if he expects the referee to say “Oh, was it? Sorry. Okay then”.   It was a corner.  At the other end of the ground a Wroxham supporter is just as perplexed. “Fuckin’ guesswork” he says of Mr Lungarella’s decisions, before asking the linesman “Have a word with him will ya?”   The linesman replies, asking if he’d like him to speak about anything in particular.

– “About the rule book”

-“Well there isn’t one is there?” says the linesman mysteriously.

Mr Lungarella saves the best  until last and his piece de resistance comes with only a few minutes remaining.  As Kirkley & Pakefield’s Miguel Lopez stoops to head the ball, Wroxham’s Harley Black attempts to kick it with the inevitable and unfortunate consequences.  As the Kirkley & Pakefield ‘keeper discusses with a Wroxham fan behind the goal it was not intentional or malicious, just an accident. But not for the first time this afternoon Mr Lungarella’s interpretation of events differs to that of most people watching and Harley Black is sent off. Happily Miguel Lopez is not hurt and after a bit of TLC from the physio he carries on to see-out the end of the game, which soon arrives.

Despite some doubts surrounding some of the referee’s decisions the game ends amicably and Mr Lungarella leaves the field unmolested with his two assistants.  Equally, despite there having been no goals, it has been a very entertaining match.  Kirkley & Pakefield Football Club exists in the shadow of Lowestoft Town, perhaps more so than Ipswich Wanderers and Whitton United exist in the shadow of Ipswich Town, because both Lowestoft clubs are non-league, but it’s a fine, friendly little club nonetheless.  I have had a grand afternoon out at Britain’s second most easterly senior football club and one day, when I am in less of a hurry, I will use the train and the bus to get here; whilst also hoping they bring back the tram.

Newmarket Town 1 Thetford Town 1

The train journey from Ipswich to Newmarket (£10.50 return with a Goldcard) takes 58 minutes to cover a distance of about 65 kilometres.  That may seem a little slow, but the train does stop at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell, Thurston , Bury St Edmunds and Kennet before arriving in the town that is the centre of the British horse racing industry, home to about 21,000 people and 3,500 horses.

Despite a little mist it’s a bright February day beneath a cloudless blue sky, the unseasonal warmth has resulted in blossom appearing on some trees.   I am in good time for the 13.20 train to Cambridge which is already waiting on platform 4B; I board through the sliding doors. I immediately feel as though I have inadvertently stepped into someone’s dining room.  At the table to my right a family of four has their picnic lunch spread out before them; sandwiches and baking foil everywhere.  They look up at me as if to say “Don’t you knock before you enter a room?”, but they can’t say it because their mouths are full of sandwich; their jaws churning like tumble driers.  I pause to decide if I want to sit at the table opposite them; I don’t think I do, they’ve stared me out; I turn left.  There are plenty of empty seats and I find another vacant table.

Behind me I hear a sound like a vacuum cleaner; it is a vacuum cleaner and it is strapped to the back of a man in a blue tabard; he looks like a one man tribute to Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd (Ghostbusters).  I am impressed that the train is being cleaned between journeys; on his back above the vacuum cleaner it says “Presentation Team”, which sounds much nicer than plain old ‘cleaner’.

I sit and enjoy the architecture of the Victorian station platform briefly before the train departs, on time. Soon out of Ipswich the train speeds through the rolling Suffolk countryside of isolated farmhouses and medieval church towers.  A warm but slightly condescending female voice announces the station stops. The floodlights of Bloomfields the home of Needham Market FC can be seen if you know where to look and the track passes next to Stowmarket Town’s Green Meadow.   Munton’s of Stowmarket announce on a large sign that they are “passionate about malt”.  There are misty silhouettes of church and cathedral towers in Bury St Edmunds and a black cat crosses the Ipswich bound track; at Thurston there are chimneys like candy twists and at Kennet a metal silo that looks like a painting by Charles Sheeler.  The landscape changes towards Newmarket;  rows of pine trees and broader, flatter downland; the chalk beneath pokes through where the soil is tilled and forms white cliffs in railway cuttings.  Surprisingly, the final approach to Newmarket is through a long tunnel.

The train is still on-time as it arrives in Newmarket, this is as far west as it’s possible to go without not being in Suffolk anymore, but Newmarket station is a massive disappointment.  There is no sense of arrival here, it’s no more than a platform and a couple of metal bus shelters.  It is hard to believe that such a wealthy, internationally known town as Newmarket should have a railway station which is, to be blunt, so crap. Apparently the original Victorian station was demolished in 1981 despite being a listed building.

Putting the squalor of British public transport behind me I make the short walk down Green Road over The Avenue and up Granary Road where I turn right through a kissing gate and across the railway line into Cricket Field Lane, the home of Newmarket Town.  I am somewhat amazed that it is still possible to walk across the railway track as increasingly the population is treated like idiots incapable of working out how not to suffer grievous injury or death from stepping out in front of moving trains.  However, a poll conducted in 2016 did reveal that 52% of people who voted were stupid.

There is no queue to get into what I imagine Bloorie.com pay to have called the Bloorie.com Stadium.  Two men have squeezed themselves into the blue metal-clad turnstile booth; I ask for “one and a programme” and hold out a twenty pound note.  The smaller and older of the two men pauses, I wonder if perhaps he hasn’t got enough change, but no, he has; he eventually asks for £8 (£7 entrance +£1 programme); he was just adding up.  His mind had “gone blank for a moment” he tells me. As the smaller man hands me my change the larger man invites me to buy two strips of tickets for the club 50/50 draw, which he explains will see half the money collected becoming prize money and the other half going to the club.  I tell him I understand and buy two strips (£2); there didn’t seem to be an option to buy just one.  My investment will come to nothing; I’ll have to write it off as a charitable contribution.

Inside the ‘stadium’ I head for the tea bar where I purchase a bacon roll (£2.50) and a cup of tea (£1.00).  As I wait for my bacon roll I watch the teams and referees warm up on the sun-lit synthetic pitch, which looks extremely neat even if it is accompanied by a rash of prohibiting signage; this is its first season.  My bacon roll is ready and I sit in the stand to eat it and to avoid having to juggle a paper plate, napkin, bacon roll and cup of tea.  The bacon is crispy.  Bland, forgettable, 21st century pop music plays over the public address system.  Today, Newmarket Town who are ninth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier league with thirty-seven points from twenty six games played face Thetford Town who are fifteenth with eight fewer points from the same number of matches played.

In time everyone disappears back inside the dressing rooms only to re-emerge as the three o’clock kick-off approaches.  The referee’s assistants are first to appear, posing in the doorway, before the away team and then the Newmarket team each form a queue and at the referee’s signal march onto the pitch to line up in front of the main stand as if for inspection and to greet one another with multiple handshakes.  Meanwhile, a short man in a blue cap uses a radio mike to introduce the match and announce the teams, and in a possible homage to John Motson he adds all sorts of extraneous detail, such as the fact that Newmarket’s Jacob Partridge is expecting his first child later this year; he’s not showing.

Thetford Town begin the game kicking towards the miserable little railway station whilst Newmarket Town play in the direction of a row of pollarded trees and the Gallops which are visible far off in the distance. 

Thetford wear all claret with odd looking sky blue rings round their shoulders, whilst Newmarket sport yellow shirts with blue shorts and blue and yellow hooped socks. I particularly like Newmarket’s socks and it is no wonder that there is an advertisement for a supplier of sock tape on the fence at the side if the pitch.  Electrical tape is good enough for most, but hooped socks deserve something special.

The game begins with the ball being played back to Thetford’s number five Jonathan Carver who hoofs it forward unceremoniously. The Newmarket goalkeeper Will Viner boots it back and it’s Carver who heads it back again, fifteen love.  The most difficult thing in football sometimes is knowing what to do with the ball from the kick-off.  Happily the game settles down into a more entertaining series of passes and moves.  Newmarket are the first to ‘get the ball down’ but soon Thetford get the idea too; it would be a shame not to make use of the flat, true surface of the synthetic pitch over which the ball almost seems to whisper as it rolls.  Newmarket earn the game’s first corner but Thetford claim the first booking as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting is clattered to the floor.  “Ref, he’s fucking injured” cries Newmarket’s goalkeeper Alex Archer helpfully as the game at first carries on.  When referee Mr Brian O’Sullivan (not a relative of deceased racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan) awards a free-kick to Thetford’s number nine Volter Rocha, Archer who is very ‘gobby’ for a man dressed from head to toe in salmon pink calls out “ He fuckin’ slipped” . 

At the other end the more soberly dressed (all grey) Thetford ‘keeper is equally vocal but restricts his advice to his own team.  “Win it, win it” he shouts and “Left shoulder Steedy;  Elliott, left shoulder” .  Meanwhile from the touchline the advice is a more positive sounding “In the hole”.  Just before twenty past three Thetford hit a post and five minutes later the impressive Volter Rocha hits a shot onto the cross-bar and the equally impressive number two Sam Bond heads in the re-bound to give Thetford the lead to cheers from the main stand.

In front of me a group of lads watch keenly. “Go on boy wonder” says one as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting pushes forward. “ That number nine rolled his ankle” says another “ Well he looks okay” is the reply.  “Yeah, but he has rolled his ankle”.  Half-time is approaching and the bespectacled linesman whose glasses make him look a little like Kevin Costner’s character in the film JFK stifles a yawn.

With the referee’s whistle I head for the bar.  I check on the half-time scores; Ipswich are winning away from home; excellent!  I order a half of Lacon’s Pale Ale (£1.70) to cautiously celebrate a job half done.  The beer is much too cold and fizzy but it has that fashionable, light, hoppy flavour. Once the rush has died down I ask the barman what has happened at Newmarket that the place now looks so much better than it did when I was last here, probably in 2014 or 2015.  Back then it looked like the National Trust might want to preserve it as an example of a slightly shabby Step Five football ground from the 1980’s.  He tells me that they sold the land behind the clubhouse for housing, which funded the synthetic pitch which is now hired out every night; this week Cambridge United have used it every day for their soccer school.  Meanwhile the club’s guests and visiting officials enjoy plates of sandwiches and fancy-cakes in a room to the side of the bar.  I look at the programme, a  glossy publication full of adverts, but with potted club histories, league tables, results and fixtures too, so a useful programme all the same; and it’s good to see which local companies help support the club.  I very much like that Tattersalls advertise their sales calendar and wonder how many of the crowd here today will be looking to buy a filly or may be a two year old at the next sale.

The second half begins promptly at four o’clock, which is good because I don’t want to miss my train at eight minutes past five.  “Come on Jockeys” shouts a large man from close to the smoking area “Come on Jocks” echoes another man.  The first action of the half sees the Newmarket goalkeeper slice the ball high over the clubhouse and out of the ground. “There goes another thirty quid” says someone.  I wander round to watch from between the dugouts. 

The two Newmarket coaches kitted out in matching blue tracksuits stand conspiratorially together.  “Come and fuckin’ get it” shouts one of them at the ‘keeper after Thetford put in a cross. “ He was behind him” shouts the ‘keeper in his own defence. “Fuck off” replies the coach.

Thetford look like they might score again and their good play belies their relatively low position in the league table; perhaps they need to play on a synthetic surface every week.  The afternoon wears on and the sun sinks lower in the sky casting long shadows of the trees behind the Thetford goal down the length of the pitch.  Spectators enjoying the warmth of the sunshine have to shield their eyes, but it’s very cool in the shade.  Substitutions are made and the man in the blue cap announces them as best he can.  “Number 17 is coming on” he tells us “… but I haven’t got a number seventeen on my teamsheet”.  Whoever number 17 is he’s got a powerful shot and he soon elicits a spectacular save from Newmarket’s Archer who because of his pink kit really does ‘leap like a salmon’.

Up in the stand Thetford supporters are encouraging their team. “On your bike ‘arry, skin ‘im son” is the advice to the alliteratively named number eleven Harry Hutt.  But Thetford fail to score again and as the game enters its last ten minutes Newmarket begin to keep the ball a bit more to themselves.   At five thirty-six an angled free-kick into the Thetford penalty area is met with a deft, flicked header from substitute and player manager, Michael Shinn.  The ball enters the top left hand corner of the goal as great goals often do.  Shinn may have one of fuller figures on the pitch today but his is a fine goal and Shinn is a fine name for a footballer, although not quite as good as that of the Newmarket number two Blake Kicks, whose surname is worthy of the Happy Families card game; up alongside Mr Bun the baker, Mr Bones the butcher and Mr Pots the painter, meet Mr Kicks the footballer.

Thetford make a final substitution, but don’t hold up the numbers to show who it is and the man in the blue cap announces “Looks like we’ve given up on the boards, so I haven’t a clue who’s come on”.  A little while later as the final whistle blows and the man in the blue cap goes to remind us all of the final score, his microphone stops working .  The final score is one-all, perhaps my least favourite score line, especially when the opposition equalises in injury time as I learn Wigan Athletic have done in their game against Ipswich.

With the sun now setting behind me I head back towards the turnstile and Cricket Field Road and reflect on what has been an entertaining match.  I like the synthetic pitch and that it doesn’t smell weirdly of rubber like others I’ve seen, in fact I don’t think it smelt at all.  This has to be the way forward for clubs like Newmarket Town, along with hooped socks.  Upwards and onwards, as I said to the barman.