Ipswich Town 2 Blackpool 0

I am a little ashamed to admit it, but my record of seeing Ipswich play Blackpool is rather poor and weirdly, of the nine occasions on which I have seen Blackpool play away from home, six of them have been at Layer Road, Elm Park, Griffin Park or Fratton Park, not Portman Road.  Of course I have excuses.  Ipswich’s first nine fixtures against the Tangerines in the 1960’s and early 1970’s occurred before I attended my first game in April 1971. Town then didn’t play Blackpool at all throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s which were the years when I had the time, the money and inclination to rarely miss a game. When Town’s and Blackpool’s paths next crossed again, in the 2007/08 season, I am pleased to say I did make it to both Portman Road and Bloomfield Road; but one visit to the coastal town they forgot to close down was enough for me, and I haven’t been back since, despite the lovely trams.

In 2009 the home fixture versus Blackpool coincided rather inconveniently with my father’s funeral; I guess I could have sneaked away after the interment; he wouldn’t have minded I don’t suppose, particularly given that he was dead beneath a couple of metres of Suffolk sod, but some of the relatives and other folk left breathing might have thought it was a bit off.  Since then, due to disillusionment inspired by the appointment of Roy Keane, a four year spell on the committee of an Eastern Counties League club and then a sudden illness I have  made it to just two of the seven subsequent Portman Road fixtures.  Today therefore I am rather chuffed to even be ‘virtually’ at the game, courtesy of the ifollow and I have even ordered a programme, which I am pleased to say has arrived in this post this morning; well played Royal Mail.

The post isn’t the only good thing about today I find. It’s a beautifully grey, dank winter’s day and a pall of dull cloud hangs over the horizon as I take a walk along puddle strewn roads between sodden fields and beneath the gaunt, dripping trees.  It’s a lovely day for football.  Back in the warmth of my centrally heated home I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ of fennel tea; I awoke in the small hours with a terrible stomach ache and it feels like it might still have a grievance.  My wife Paulene is watching Troyes v Toulouse on BEINSports tv and I join her on the sofa for the top of the table Ligue 2 clash; Paulene kindly says she will forgo the second half so that I can watch the ifollow in the comfort of the living room; she’ll just sit and read.

Having left the Stade de l’Aube with second placed Toulouse enjoying a 1-0 half-time lead over first placed Troyes, I log into the ifollow in time to hear the names of today’s virtual mascots, Sheeran, Adolf and Brenner, being announced, or rather given their “Shout Out”, although thankfully no one actually shouts them out.  The mascots’ names may really have been Sebastien, Brodie and Zak, but I couldn’t say for sure and I like to think either set of names is equally plausible.  A brief excerpt of commentary follows from 2013 when a goal from the underrated but foolish Michael Chopra gave Town our last but one victory over Blackpool at Portman Road.  Finally the main event arrives, and the BBC Radio Suffolk studio hands over to “Mick Mills alongside Brenner Woolley.”

Brenner’s opening gambit is that defeat for Town this afternoon is “something that simply cannot be allowed to happen” although he doesn’t raise our hopes much as he refers to Town being “stuck in this malaise”, and I imagine a world in which Morrissey is a BBC local radio football commentator.  Brenner asks Mick what he makes of Luke Chambers being dropped from the team for today’s game.  Mick is not surprised but clearly feeling solidarity with another Town captain he admits to feeling “shameful” about it, which he shouldn’t because unless he’s not telling us something it wasnt his decision.  Mick explains how Chambers has been a “fabulous servant” and whilst he’s not a “10” each week, he’s never a “3” either, and is “…right in the middle of those”; which makes him a six and a half which is almost  on the sunny side of  solidly average.  Mick carries on with his monologue and I drift off before I am eventually shaken from my reverie by Brenner’s joyful sounding reference to a possible “Sears, Parrott partnership”.  I don’t suppose for a minute such a thing will happen and suspect Brenner simply liked the sound of those three words together, I know I did. Blackpool kick off towards Churchman’s in their “all tangerine” kit and Brenner ignores the white band across their shoulders.

It takes Brenner less than 47 seconds to use the phrase “early doors”, which is a new record; the doors are clearly getting earlier, very much Light My Fire rather than Riders on the Storm.  Brenner quickly ploughs on through his regular obsessions, telling us that Luke Woolfenden has had his haircut ; “ gone is the alice band” he says, before revealing that the ball has been given away by the  “Australian Dougal”, who sounds like a character in an antipodean version of the Magic Roundabout.

Town have started well. “A lot to like about that attack” says Mick as Myles Kenlock and the fabulously monikered and on-loan Troy Parrott link up.  Nine minutes pass. “Very little in the way of goalmouth action so far” says Brenner bringing us back down to earth.   Another Town attack flounders before getting inside the Blackpool penalty area. “Parrott lost his footing “ says Mick and childishly I laugh imagining a tropical bird falling off its perch.

“Corner kick in the rain” says Brenner coming up with what sounds like a song title as he combines commentary with a weather report.   The corner comes to nothing, but it keeps on raining.  “We’re quite strange to each other, this line-up” adds Mick having difficulty finding the right words to tell us that the Town players won’t be very familiar with each other as team mates.  As if to prove Mick’s point the play immediately becomes a little messy, “Harum scarum” is how Brenner describes it, delving into his supply of slightly archaic expressions that most people no longer use.  Myles Kenlock is booked for what Mick rightly labels an “unnecessary challenge” on Jordan Lawrence-Gabriel; Freddie Sears was covering but it was as if Kenlock had just wanted to kick Lawrence-Gabriel anyway, perhaps because of his unnecessarily extravagant surname.

The nearside of the pitch beneath the shadow of the West Stand is very wet and the ball doesn’t run freely here. “Held up in the brown ground” says Brenner finding a of saying mud without mentioning awful 1970’s pop bands.  Blackpool are now having a bit more possession and have had a couple of decent opportunities from free kicks wide on their left. As another passing move breaks down Mick resorts to helpful homily, “They often say in football the simple ball is the most difficult one” he says, but taking care not to quote his sources.

Luke Thomas shoots wide for Town after another decent passage of play.  “Blackpool have never ever won here” says Brenner, acknowledging that he is tempting fate but suggesting it’s okay if he says it very quickly, although I’m not sure that makes a difference unless fate is a bit hard of hearing.  But Mick raises our spirits with what doesn’t sound too much like faint praise “We’re close, we’re close to playing some good stuff here”.

Thirty-eight minutes have gone since kick-off; Freddie Sears has a ‘goal’ disallowed for offside after some excellent play by Troy Parrott who is living up to his name and playing like a Trojan; “Really like Parrott” says Brenner, understandably.  Mick’s only quibble with Town’s first half performance is the centre halves, of whom he says “They’re a bit easy-ozy”; it’s an expression that not even Brenner would use.  Half-time is looming, it’s the 43rd minute and Brenner gets the opportunity to say “Town get a rare first half goal” as little Alan Judge strikes the ball with the outside of his right boot from at least 20 metres out.  “Wa hey!” I shout, a little disbelievingly. But it’s true, and when half-time arrives Town are in the lead, although the ifollow half-time scoreboard still says the score is nil-nil, but I don’t expect any better of the EFL.

In the half-time break I drink another cup of fennel tea and eat a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar. I muse about how Blackpool were a top club in the late 1930’s through to the mid 1950’s and how back then their fans probably never imagined that they’d one day be playing a league fixture against Ipswich, certainly not one in the third division. Coincidentally, Town fans no doubt thought the same in about 1981.  At 16:07 the game resumes and Brenner is soon saying “That would’ve been a fabulous goal from the home team” as Freddie Sears’ shot is saved by Chris Maxwell in the Blackpool goal. From the corner it‘s a matter of “…nodded down by Woolfenden and in” from Brenner after a Blackpool player obligingly heads the ball on at the near post.  Town lead 2-0 and I’m cheering again, releasing that inner cheer which has been welling inside me in recent weeks with nowhere to go. Mick is so excited he can barely explain anything anymore “He just dinked it in to the, err empty sort of, not an empty net, but into the net, you know” he says incoherently.

Town look very good for the lead and are plainly the better team with the best players.  Brenner starts getting clever. “Here’s Parrott, dropping off the front line” he says, clearly winning a bet to get the words ‘parrot dropping’ into his commentary.  Mick meanwhile revisits his favourite lesson about the third goal being important; today he explains it succinctly and with crystal clarity, as if he’s been practicing.  Town win a corner from an errant Blackpool pass “Corner from 40 yards, love it” says Mick, revelling in Town’s dominance and almost collapsing into laughter at Blackpool’s  mistake.  Within seconds he’s as giddy as Brenner and is talking about “gymnasium football” once again, the sort of football everyone else knows as 5-a-side.

Nearly an hour has been played. Troy Parrott is fouled by Chris Maxwell, who charged out of his goal to get him, Maxwell is booked and, Brenner tells us, is wearing a “washed out light green kit”, he’s the tangerine that hasn’t ripened. From an Andre Dozzell free-kick Mark McGuinness misses the goal with a header when he should score. “Definitely, the better side, Ipswich” says Brenner, once again using his trademark sentence construction of placing the subject at the end.  Gwion Edwards replaces Luke Thomas.  “The final 27 minutes” says Brenner, adding unexpected gravity to a random, and still quite lengthy amount of remaining time.  Josh Harrop replaces Andre Dozzell and Oliver Norwood replaces Troy Parrott, whose name I will miss in Brenner’s commentary.

Twenty minutes remain. Oliver Norwood wins a corner from a low cross.   Flynn Downes has a long conversation with the referee “… as he’s entitled to do” says Brenner in an oddly defensive way.  “All very mannerly” continues Brenner, as if he would normally expect Downes to have head-butted him.  The game resumes with a “corner-kick to Ipswich in the rain” as if somehow it’s not raining on all parts of the pitch, or it’s optional whether it is taken in the rain or not.   In a slightly bizarre turn of events the referee then finds that the goal net at the North Stand end is not properly attached to the goal post; “He needs help from a handyman” explains Brenner.

Former Town player Grant Ward replaces Kenneth Dougall, who sounds like a composite of 1960’s and 70’s BBC newsreaders and Luke Garbutt, who also played for Town (on loan), replaces James Husband who was called Jimmy in the 1960’s and 1970’s and played for Everton and Luton Town.  These are Blackpool’s fourth and fifth substitutions of the game and it’s all too much for Mick “It’s hard to keep up with all this” he says playing the old duffer card, which Brenner might tell us he is entitled to do.

With seven minutes of normal time remaining Freddie Sears has a glorious chance for a third goal deflected away for a corner and then Mr Busby the referee has to be substituted because of  what looks like a pulled hamstring. “I think all the substitutions have been made” quips Mick, sharp as a tack.   The upshot is seven minutes of added on time, which passes without incident as Town continue to exercise control over the game.  Asked by Brenner for his verdict at the final whistle Mick is clearly not getting carried away, as good a performance as this was, “A result that almost keeps us in touch” he says.   Personally, I think this has been the first time we’ve played like a proper, half-decent football team all season, with everyone playing in a position that suits them. I don’t expect us to lose another game.

Crewe Alexandra 1 Ipswich Town 1

Ipswich Town had never played Crewe Alexandra in Crewe or anywhere else before 21st October 1997, and I am proud to boast that I was there that very day to witness the stultifying goalless draw that ensued.  Crewe were new to the second division back then, although they had enjoyed a brief dalliance with that most joyful of divisions where the teams are generally good, but not that good, back between 1892 and 1896.  But whilst the 1890’s were synonymous with La Belle Epoque in Paris and evidently Crewe in the middle years of the decade, these were nevertheless the days before Crewe Alexandra’s natural habitat of the Third Division North and its offspring the Third and Fourth Divisions of the Football League first saw light of day.  All this is mere pointless preamble however, because I first went to Gresty Road to see Crewe Alexandra play Halifax Town in April of 1988.  Ipswich were away at Oldham Athletic on the Saturday and my friend Steve and I travelled up the previous day in my trusty Toyota Corolla, which actually didn’t prove that trusty because the exhaust blew somewhere on the A500, requiring a pre-match visit to Kwik-Fit; to add further excitement to the occasion neither Crewe nor Halifax managed a goal that Spring Friday night. The following day Ipswich Town lost 3-1 at Boundary Park to crown a successful weekend.

Almost thirty-three years later and today of course the Ipswich Town players and their entourage are the only people travelling to Crewe and I am sat at home listening to the unfolding story of the afternoon on BBC Radio Suffolk in the company of Brenner Woolley and his sidekick Stuart Ainsley.   I decide to listen to the game with my wife Paulene rather than sit alone in the back bedroom and this means that courtesy of the magic of an earphone and the Amazon Firestick I can also watch a French Ligue 2 game;  either Troyes v Auxerre, which BT Sport would doubtless bill as the Champagne derby if it  deigned to show it, or  Toulouse versus Clermont. 

We plump for the game in Toulouse because we like Clermont Ferrand and once took a very long tram ride on a very, very hot day to visit the city’s Stade Gabriel Montpied ground, how we laugh as we fondly recall that Paulene came out in a nasty rash because of the extreme heat. I tune into BBC Radio Suffolk in time to hear some irrelevant tosh about something called the Premier League and the good news that Norwich City have not won today, although sadly they didn’t lose either. Some commentary follows from when Town last played a league game in Crewe, which was in 2006 in the years before Marcus Evans, and Alan Lee and Dean McDonald scored to give Town a 2-1 victory.

Brenner Woolley’s soothing voice arrives through the ether to bring news of the inevitable changes to the Town line-up after the latest ignominious defeat.  Brenner reveals that Freddie Sears will be playing “up top” today and that Miles Kenlock replaces Stephen Ward at left-back; he asks Stuart Ainsley what he makes of this.  “Obviously positive for Kenlock” says Stuart, stating the obvious but also reminding us of the importance of the word ‘positive’.  In modern football the ‘positives’ are something which managers look for in every losing performance.  In Ipswich’s case Paul Lambert finds so many positives in every defeat, there is no longer any need to win.

I’m not sure if my concentration doesn’t divide very well between tv and radio, but I seem to miss the actual kick off in Crewe although Brenner is quick to allay my fears that I might have missed much by quickly telling us that it’s still ‘early doors’. In Toulouse the game began an hour ago because it’s now four o’clock there and the second-half kicks off with the score at one-all.   Brenner continues to ask Stuart about changes to the Town team and what he thinks of Alan Judge’s return to the starting line-up.  “I think it’s positive” says Stuart.  As he’s not being a football manager right now he either simply can’t think of anything else to say or he is trying to develop his radio persona by means of a catch phrase.

“Playing with gloves on, the blond-haired number ten” says Brenner of Crewe’s Kirk before Stuart postulates his theory that Luke Chambers should play in the middle alongside Woolfenden or McGuinness in order to create a blend of youth and experience at the centre of the defence. “It may work better; it may not, obviously” adds Stuart, almost admitting it’s a crap idea before he’s finished telling us about it.   On the tv  meanwhile, Toulouse take the lead, scoring direct from a free-kick hit so hard by Branco Van den Boomen, who is Dutch,  that it scares the defensive wall into evasive action.

“A rare involvement for the Czech” says Brenner, presumably as Tomas Holy receives the ball, but possibly as he fills out and posts off his annual subscription to the Royal Society of British Football Commentators.  Quickly back from the post box Brenner updates us on Paul Lambert’s attire today; “Only the eyes of the town manager visible on the far side, with the beanie hat and the hoody pulled over his face”.  Getting into his groove Brenner tells us that Tomas Holy is in all black and appears “very nonchalant but very accurate” as he plays the ball out of his penalty area.

Confirming the venue for today’s match Brenner refers to somewhere called the Alexandra Stadium, which is a name that sounds very salubrious and I wonder what happened to plain old Gresty Road where Crewe used to play.  After 15 minutes Gwion Edwards has a shot which the Crewe goalkeeper has to prevent from going into the goal.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner.  It sounds like Town are doing okay. “Not a million miles away from being a good ball” says Brenner as Town almost mount an attack.  It still sounds like Town are doing okay, but then Brenner raises his voice “Blasted over the top by Mandron…..when almost certain to be 1-0 to Crewe”.    It transpires that Miles Kenlock has saved the day with a last ditch block, or a tackle, or perhaps a block and tackle. Town “…definitely weren’t playing the way they were trying to play” explains Stuart confusingly, but somehow logically too.

From what I can make out, Town soon recover from almost conceding and are still the better team. “No one’s in the middle but in it goes anyway” says Brenner of the ball as the nine Town outfield players turn finding their lone striker into a game of Where’s Wally.    Brenner then proceeds to show off his knowledge of football terminology as he describes the Crewe goalkeeper catching the ball “…on his back stick”, an odd expression,  which only makes sense if there isn’t a cross bar, which interestingly, back in the 1860’s when the game was first codified there didn’t used to be.

Twenty minutes pass. Brenner makes reference to the “pony-tailed Woolfenden” as he does most games and Stuart tells us that “The game’s gone a bit untidy”, not unlike his use of the English language in that sentence.  On tv it’s the sixty-seventh minute of the match in Toulouse and the home team score again, this time a penalty from Stijn Spierings whom Brenner would call “the other Dutchman”.  “Terrible from Beckles, not much better from Gwion Edwards” says Brenner succinctly describing third division football and he does it again as he says “Crewe’s turn for some harmless possession”.  It sounds like the game has become rather uneventful, Brenner describes it as “A little bit cat and mouse”, in which case I hope Ipswich are the cat because in my experience of play between cats and mice it usually ends with the mouse being disembowelled or having its head left on the back doorstep.  “Ipswich have sort of sat off” is Stuart’s more nuanced assessment of the state of play.

The lack of excitement in the commentary leads me to notice the geographical nature of the Crewe back four with Lancashire, Pickering and Beccles (Beckles) creating some lengthy potential passes.  Meanwhile Brenner reflects on his liking for Crewe’s Charlie Kirk “I like Kirk when he gets the ball, very easy on the eye” purrs Brenner, adding an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism to his commentary.

  With half an hour gone Crewe score, but happily the ‘goal’ is disallowed because the beautiful Kirk is offside.  Soon afterwards Miles Kenlock is booked for a lunge at Luke Murphy and Stuart speculates as to whether the wind is playing a part in the game. “Obviously you can’t tell from here” says Stuart, which is hard to contradict given that he’s 323 kilometres away in a radio studio.  His theory seems to be based on the fact that the corner flags are “blowing rapidly”. 

Beckles is booked for a foul on Sears.  “Goodness, that was awful from McGuinness” reveals Brenner of a separate incident, before back on the tv Clermont pull a goal back with a header from Jonathan Iglesias, who Brenner would probably describe as “the Uruguayan” if he was commentating on the French game .  Half-time is just a couple of minutes away and Freddie Sears shoots from some 25 metres from goal, which Brenner describes as “ambitious”.  Two minutes of additional time are announced at Crewe and four in Toulouse. The first half ends for Crewe and Ipswich and Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. “Are they playing without a number nine?” asks Stuart rhetorically “Quite possibly” is his not very conclusive answer too himself; perhaps he hasn’t noticed that Kayden Jackson isn’t even on the bench today, or perhaps he has. 

Half-time is illuminated by an espresso, a cup of tea and Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.  With the game in Toulouse over, the Firestick is switched to Serbian television where two of my favourite French clubs, Montpellier HSC and RC Lens are playing in Ligue 1; it’s a colourful spectacle with Montpellier in navy blue shirts and orange shorts and Lens in red and yellow shirts with black shorts.  So engrossed in the French game am I that I miss the first three minutes of the second half at Crewe.  Lens score with a fine shot from outside the penalty area from Cheick Doucoure who Brenner would refer to as “the Malian”. 

Almost an hour of the game has been played when Crewe score through Brenner’s favourite Charlie Kirk.  Stuart contends that Crewe do not deserve their lead but that Ipswich “Need more players up the pitch”, although one on the goal line might have been handy a minute ago.  Freddie Sears, who Stuart considers is playing well, is replaced by James Norwood and Teddy Bishop replaces Luke Thomas.  Brenner cracks a joke; “Town look to be legally obliged to play just one up front this season” he jests.  For a few minutes Town’s or rather Paul Lambert’s refusal to play two players in a forward position is the main topic of the commentary.  Teddy Bishop is then booked for cheating by referee Mr Joyce who is one of the few officials whose surname is also a woman’s first name; I bet he had a tough time at school, always being called Joyce by everyone.   “A good foul by Bishop” is Stuart’s assessment, although he might not have thought so if he had had the ‘gift’ of clairvoyance.

Aaron Drinan replaces Gwion Edwards. Paul Lambert has broken the legal agreement and within a minute Drinan scores his first goal for Town.  The scores are level and Brenner and Stuart ‘riff’ for a moment on the apparently instant impact of having two strikers on the pitch. Stuart suggests it is obvious and Brenner tells him “Don’t worry about saying the obvious on BBC Radio Suffolk”, which is astonishingly honest of him and all of a sudden I think I feel the same way about Brenner as he does about Charlie Kirk.  Charlie Kirk may be easy on the eye, but Brenner is equally easy on the ear.

The game resumes and according to Stuart, Crewe miss a “big chance” to re-take the lead when three players all go for the ball at once, just four yards from goal.  “It’s 1-1, if you’re just re-joining us again having given up at 1-0” says Brenner revealing more of his refreshing honesty.  Meanwhile “Norwood tried to Cruyff it” says Stuart, trying to invent a new verb, but simultaneously inventing a game in which you turn your favourite or least favourite players/managers/owners into verbs.    With eight minutes of normal time remaining Teddy Bishop becomes the new Kayden Jackson and bishops things or may be jacksons them by committing another foul and Joyce sends him off.  Town have eight minutes to hang on, whereas a moment ago they had eight minutes in which to score the winner.

On the tv in Montpellier it’s half time but back through the airwaves in Cheshire via St Matthews Street in Ipswich, Brenner tells of pointless and possibly dangerous bodily contortions as “Woolfenden wraps his foot around the ball”.  There will be five minutes of added on time and according to Brenner, who seems set on unnecessarily raising the tension, it’s “All hands on deck, everyone back”.  Happily from the remainder of the commentary it doesn’t sound as if the Town defence is overly stretched by Crewe and the five minutes pass quite quickly and comfortably.  With Joyce blowing her whistle for the final time Brenner asks Stuart to summarise. Stuart sighs and says “Ugh, neither team deserved to win it”.  Perhaps feeling that what he has said lacked the dressing room credibility which BBC Radio Suffolk is paying him for, Stuart repeats himself but incorrectly uses the past participle of do instead of the past tense, saying “Neither team done a lot to win the game”.  That’s better Stu mouths Brenner inaudibly, I imagine.

Happy that Town have not lost, but with a nagging sense that we should have done better I detach myself from my earpiece and turn off the radio.  I’m getting a little bored of listening to these games on the radio now, although at least there were two goals today, unlike the first two occasions when actually I went to Gresty Road; and it’s nice not to have not pay for a new exhaust too.

Ipswich Town 2 Swindon Town 3

I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was in an Ipswich which had a similar layout to the real place but all the buildings were different and weirdly the buses were like those from the 1970’s; I got on one in a shopping-centre painted chocolate brown and it unexpectedly took me up a fast road to what might have been Chantry; I got off and wandered back towards Portman Road because there was a match on.  I walked through streets of medieval, half-timbered buildings and past a pub I had never been in before where they were calling last orders, it was only two o’clock; I knew I had had a pint already but I couldn’t remember where.  That’s when I woke up.

After a welcome mid-season break which has made me feel even greater kinship with the people of France, and Germany that Brexit has tried to divorce me from, I have spent the last few days in keen anticipation of today and the match versus Swindon Town, even though it’s only on the telly, but this is the new reality to which I have become accustomed.  I even ordered a match programme yesterday (£3.50 including postage and packing), but the waking day gets off to a bad start because when I check my post it hasn’t arrived.  Kick-off today is at 5.30 so after a morning of dull, domestic normalcy and a light lunch of chorizo sausage and salad I take an afternoon walk, slipping, trudging and sliding across frosty, muddy fields, squinting into the low January sunlight and avoiding human contact.

Mud & trees

Back home, with the help of tea and biscuits I watch the FA Cup scores develop on BBC 1 where a man who looks like a bigger version of Pep Guardiola fills the air time once occupied by Grandstand and the seat left vacant by Frank Bough.  Gradually, 5.30 draws near.  I log onto the ifollow in time to catch the last three names of today’s virtual mascots, Georgia, Rory and Albi; I am reminded of Albi the racist dragon, who Bret and Jermaine sang about in episode seven of Flight of the Conchords.  There follows a compilation of the best bits from the commentary the last time Town played Swindon, which was back in January 2000, even before Flight of the Conchords was first on television. In goal for Swindon that day was Frank Talia and I amuse myself by wondering if he had a sister called Jenny.  There’s time to get a pre-match ‘pint’, if not to drink it, before kick-off and I pour a glass of Fuller’s 1845 (on offer before Christmas at £3.00 for two from Waitrose) for me, and a glass of ‘mother’s ruin’ for my wife Paulene, which she takes topped up with fizzy water.

As the players take the knee we are informed that today’s fixture is a ‘memorial match’ for everyone who has died in the last year.  Paulene chuckles and we both roll our eyes.  “What the heck is a memorial match?” asks Paulene.  It’s as if people have never died before.  What a sentimental, maudlin lot we have become.  As the handover is made from the Radio Suffolk studio to the commentary team we learn that today’s commentary will not be from Brenner Woolley, who sadly is unwell, instead Radio Suffolk have enlisted the services of former Northgate school boy Stuart Jarrold, who should by rights be enjoying his retirement; I can remember him on Anglia TV forty years ago; he must be well over seventy.  Happily Stuart’s co-commentator is still the dependable Mick Mills who will hopefully add to his record of 741 games played for Town by co-commentating on a similar number.  It was Mick’s birthday this week; he was seventy-three. With two septuagenarians at the microphone there is an undeniable hint of Last of the Summer Wine pervading the airwaves.

Stuart begins his introduction to the game assuredly and authoritatively, he’s an old pro. But then the game begins; Swindon kick off, play the ball back and Dion Conroy lumps it up field.  It is immediately clear that Stuart doesn’t recognise any of the players; he doesn’t even seem to be familiar with their names. His assuredness has departed quicker than a season ticket holder in the top tier of the Cobbold stand when we’ve just conceded a third goal with twenty minutes to go.  Just to make it clear to anyone who hadn’t picked it up from his commentary, Stuart now admits he hasn’t watched Town at all this season.  Stuart can’t tell Luke Chambers from Luke Woolfenden.  He struggles on.  Usually it’s Brenner that interrupts Mick, but today Mick has to interrupt Stuart to clarify what’s just happened.  “Was that Brett Pitman firing in a shot there?” asks Stuart sounding reasonably confident “No, it was Matt Smith” replies Mick.

The camera lingers on a man in glasses and a black hat with a dark scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face.  I can’t tell who it is.  It could be Marcus Evans, it could be Paul Lambert.  Either one of them could be forgiven for not wanting to be recognised at Portman Road.  “I can’t see Paul Lambert here” says Stuart, quite coincidentally and no doubt unaware of the picture on the tv screen.  Would Stuart even recognise Paul Lambert if he saw him?

Stuart tells us that three minutes have been played, but the figures in the corner of the tv screen suggest he is living some three minutes in the past. “Can’t see who’s taking the corner from here, can you Mick?” Mick is having to work hard today.  “Cleared by one of the Lukes” says Stuart.  Armando Dobra is fouled by Paul Caddis. “Did Caddis get a yellow card for that?” asks Stuart in the latest in a series of questions “I think he did”.   Mick resorts to saying things which Stuart can re-use in his commentary.   “Luke Chambers knocks it back to err…err… err… Luke Woolfenden” says Stuart. 

I don’t know if it’s wheeziness due to his age or just anxiety, but Stuart’s breathing is audible over the microphone.   Paulene cringes, but she’s feeling sorry for Stuart.  I am too, but I don’t let it stop me from laughing, this is what makes local radio so great. “It’s a bit aimless in the middle there Mick” says Stuart, sounding slightly incredulous that the game is as bad as it is.  Further proof, if proof were needed, that he hasn’t seen Town play previously this season.  Stuart mentions that Swindon’s Diallang Jaiyesimi had been at Norwich City.  Mick asks if he ‘came through the ranks’ there.  Unsurprisingly, Stuart doesn’t know.

It’s the 16th minute, Swindon score.  “Err, yes, it’s a goal, it’s a goal” says Stuart, sounding as unprepared as the Town defence was and as if, like them, he wasn’t really watching when it happened.  Paulene cheers, I think because Brett Pitman played for Pompey, although he didn’t score the goal,  that was our friend from Norwich City.   I look at Paulene coldly.

The game resumes. “I haven’t mentioned Judge yet, I’ve rarely seen him touch the ball” says Stuart optimistically suggesting he would recognise Judge if he did see him touch the ball.  “I’ve got to get used to these players, haven’t I” he adds, more realistically.  He is improving, a little.  “This is Emyr Huws now, tussling with the ball” says Stuart in a moment of clear vision, but also a weird use of language worthy of Brenner Woolley.  “We are beginning to sit back and watch them play” says Mick of the Ipswich players. “That’s not what we should be doing is it Mick?” says Stuart asking a question so stupid it would sound sarcastic if he hadn’t grown so childishly reliant upon Mick’s every word.

A half an hour passes. Andre Dozzell sends a brilliant pass over the top of the Swindon defence, little Alan Judge runs through but incredibly fails to score with just the Swindon ‘keeper Mark Travers to beat.  It’s a unique moment of inspiration coupled to the usual failure and frustration in an otherwise featureless first half. 

Half-time begins to loom like an oasis.  “Luke Chambers…left foots it forward” says Stuart making up a new verb.  “The last six or seven minutes seem to have dragged a bit, without a lot happening” Stuart then adds, clearly beginning to get into the feel and rhythm of Portman Road on match day.  At the end of two minutes of added time Mick provides a concise summary of the half before being cut-off by advertisements which, not being a fan of the consumer-society, I ignore, “You’ve got to say Swindon have been the better side”.

Half-time is a delicious blur of more Fuller’s 1845 and gin.

The second-half arrives all too soon and James Norwood and Flynn Downes replace Aaron Drinan, who Stuart didn’t even mention not having mentioned, and Emyr Huws.  Swindon’s Scott Twine has an early chance to double his team’s lead but doesn’t and Stuart carries on not knowing which Ipswich player is which “…..putting Jackson away, no, that’s not Jackson”.  But Town do look a bit better now, with Norwood seeing more of the ball within a few seconds than Aaron Drinan did in the whole of the first half.  It’s the 51st minute and Stuart and Mick are now honing their double act to perfection.  Little Alan Judge shoots on goal, “I thought it was going to hit the post” exclaims Stuart. “It did hit the post” explains Mick, demonstrating the value of having an expert co-commentator who has played the game at the highest level and is therefore capable of spotting the difference between the ball hitting the post and not hitting the post.

Two minutes later and Flynn Downes shows that he has settled back in to the team and receives his customary booking.  Town continue to look like they have now been given a rough outline of the aim of the game and with just over an hour of our lives wasted Kayden Jackson unexpectedly plays in an early cross which James Norwood reaches just a few metres from goal.  Showing an unimaginable level of skill Norwood slices an attempt to shoot onto a Swindon defender standing the statutory two metres away, the ball rebounds back to him and he strokes it into the goal. “We’ve scored” I utter cautiously, scarcely able to believe my eyes.  Victory must now be ours, surely; how can we not go on to win against the team second from bottom in the league who have lost five of their last six matches conceding fifteen goals in the process?

Confident, I sit back, but unfortunately so does the Town defence and together we watch Scott Twine score from about 35yards.  “It was a stupendous goal” says Stuart almost shouting with excitement and clearly scarcely able to believe that such a goal could be scored amongst what otherwise seems a pretty lamentable standard of football.  Mick is appreciative of the finish, but generally less enthusiastic than wide-eyed Stuart, citing Ipswich’s contribution by virtually “inviting” Twine to shoot.  Mick sensibly adds that it was a somewhat freakish goal too, although I would add not freakish enough to have actually been scored by Ipswich.

James Norwood harvests another booking for a pointless tug at a Swindon player before Brett Pitman appears to score a third goal for Swindon, but sadly it’s not Brett who scored it’s that bloke who played for Norwich instead.   Had it been Pitman’s goal it would have been a good goal, a deft flick no less, but instead it’s a cross that has sneaked in at the far post because everyone else misread it, a bit like the weirdly named Keanen Bennett’s goal against Shrewsbury a few weeks ago.  “It’s almost an embarrassment isn’t it?” says Stuart really getting to grips with the reality of commentating on Ipswich Town in the 21st century.

We’ve watched seventy-eight minutes now, Town trail 3-1 and Jack Lankester replaces Armando Dobra. “Will that make much difference Mick?” asks Stuart , probably having worked out by now that it won’t. But with four minutes remaining of normal time a punt forward is controlled by James Norwood who lays the ball off for little Alan Judge to score simply and unexpectedly for Town. “That came out of nothing” says Stuart,  not having yet realised that this is true of nearly every goal scored in the third division.

In the remaining minutes Mark McGuinness has a shot which might have been an equaliser if hit harder and wider of Travers in the Swindon goal and Swindon make a final substitution to eke out the dying seconds before another home defeat is confirmed.  To misquote Elton John, I guess that’s why they call us the Blues. The players must be so pleased that the supporters are once again safely locked down at home and not in Portman Road, but if any has particularly good hearing they can probably discern the boos emanating from sofas and easy chairs all across the town  as they leave the pitch.

What a disappointing afternoon it has been, but one in which Stuart Jarrold can at least feel reasonably happy that his inability to recognise Town players was matched by the Town players themselves, and that at least he had a really good excuse; unless they have all been in isolation for the past fortnight they didn’t.  For myself, I at least now understand that dream, because I can no longer recognise the Ipswich Town I knew either, but I shall be back again next week to try again.

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.