Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

My paternal grandfather was born and grew up in the village of Cuxham, Oxfordshire, which is a bit more than 20 kilometres southeast of Oxford.  I have been told that as a boy his education was regularly interrupted by his grandfather, an itinerant clock mender with a reputation for being locked out of his house by his wife and who spent more than one night in police cells as a result of drunkenness. I might be wrong, but from what I can make out it seems my great-great grandfather would take him out of school so that he had someone on hand to get him home after a heavy session at the pub.  During World War One my grandfather was in the Royal Marines, and I believe in 1916 was on HMS Iron Duke at the battle of Jutland.   Happily, my grandfather was not one of those who died that we might live, and indeed he lived that my father might live and serve on HMS Locust on D-day. Happily again, my father also lived, and grew old, and consequently I am here to write this. My own service record is less impressive, having merely been in the cub scouts and then the sailor section of my school Combined Cadet Force; an utter waste of time for me and the teachers who dressed up as Naval officers on a Thursday afternoon, but nevertheless satisfyingly redolent of Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’.   Appropriately perhaps, I have no progeny to whom I can relay my story of living through what is generally regarded as peacetime; peace, who’s interested in that? As Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian almost said.

 I remember watching the 1970 FA Cup final on television with my grandfather, by which time he had been living on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for well over thirty years.  But despite having an appreciation of ITV’s World of Sport, being a big fan of cricket, as well as an avid reader of the Racing Post, as far as I know my grandfather never watched Oxford United or Headington United, as they were known until he was older than I am now.  Today, Oxford United play Ipswich Town at Portman Road for the twelfth time in my lifetime, and with the exception of last season’s goalless draw, which no supporter witnessed first-hand due to the Covid lockdown, I have seen every one of those fixtures, although the only one I remember particularly well is Town’s 3-2 victory in April 1986, a win which ultimately proved insufficient to relegate Oxford United instead of Town from what is now called the Premier League.

Today is a grey autumn Saturday, illuminated only by the colour of the leaves on the trees turning in different stages from greens to shades of gold, yellow and russet.  After parking my trustee Citroen C3, I follow my usual pre-match routine of Gippeswyk Park, Portman Road, where I buy a programme (£3.50), and The Arboretum pub (now called the Arbor House), which is unusually busy with diners and drinkers, only one of whom is wearing a mask.  I obtain a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and exit to the beer garden and the hoped-for safety of fresh air.  Mick soon arrives with his own pint of Suffolk Pride and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts; we talk of COP26, Covid booster vaccinations, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Indian partition, Morocco, Algeria and the Paris massacre of 1961, the ethics of holidaying in the third world and Mick’s desire to listen to ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, on the beach at Ipanema. At just after twenty to three we head for Portman Road.

With Covid vaccination credentials confirmed, I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 thanking the operator as she allows me through this portal to another world.  I arrive on the lower tier of the stand with the teams already on the pitch, Pat from Clacton tells me she and Fiona were getting worried about me. Stadium announcer, former Radio Suffolk presenter and ex-classmate of my friend Pete, Stephen Foster tells us that in honour of the dead of two World Wars there will be a minute’s silence when the referee blows his whistle.  The players link arms around the centre circle, the referee does not blow his whistle, and a lone bugler pays the last post, after which there is a ripple of applause, which doesn’t happen at the Cenotaph, and I am left a little confused, still waiting for the minute’s silence.  I recall however that we did have a silence last Saturday before the FA Cup game with Oldham Athletic and there was also one before the game at Wycombe Wanderers; there may even have been one before the EFL Cup tie versus Colchester United, but I boycotted that match because of the inclusion of Premier League Under 21 teams in the competition.  I even had my own two-minute silence when working at home on Armistice Day itself and there will be another on Remembrance Sunday.

With the normal sounds of Portman Road restored in the form of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which the Oxford fans sing along too as well, the knee is taken and the game begins; Oxford United getting first go with the ball and hoping to point it mostly at the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground.   Despite there being no clash of colours, Oxford are wearing an all black kit, possibly as a symbol of remembrance, or possibly just because their usual yellow and blue kit is in the wash.  Within 60 seconds Bersant Celina concedes the first free-kick of the match and it takes more than a minute for Town to get possession of the ball.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Oxford supporters reminding their team what colour shirts they should be wearing, and shaming whoever does their laundry. Town soon win a corner as the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a low cross blocked by Oxford’s Jordan Thornily who sounds prickly.  From the corner kick the same Town player sends a stooping header against the right-hand post of the Oxford goal.  After the glancing header and the diving header, the stooping is possibly the next best.

Oxford are looking rather good, better than Town and in the sixth minute Christian Walton is forced to make a spectacular flying save to repel a shot from Sykes who, being a fan of 1970’s BBC sitcoms, I should like to see in a front three with players called Jacques and Guyler. “They seem good at dipping the ball” says a voice behind me, “They are” says the voice in the seat next to him before a third voice makes an obscure and slightly surreal reference to oxtail soup which I don’t think anyone understands and which kills the “conversation”.

It takes thirteen minutes for the assembled Oxford supporters to ask through the medium of song “Is this a library?” which provokes a man a few rows back to shout in a distinctly middle-class voice “As if you’re used to this many working-class people in your libraries?” It’s an odd thing to shout out at a football match and betrays a curious perception of just who follows Oxford United.  In truth, to someone from Oxford’s Blackbird Leys estate the song was probably an honest enquiry.

Oxford are the better team, although unusually Town’s defence is playing alright, but after almost twenty minutes it is once again Town who come closest to scoring as a Bersant Celina shot strikes that right hand post again, leading to suspicions that the goal has been put in the wrong place and should be ten centimetres to the east. It’s an event that leads to two corners in quick succession for Town. In the Cobbold stand meanwhile the Oxford fans reveal their upper middle class, academic sensibilities that the bloke had alluded to in his library comment, with a lovely chorus of “Sit-down if you shag your mum” to the tune of Village People’s ‘Go West’.  It’s a perfect example of what Paul Weller was on about when, in The Jam’s 1979 hit ‘Eton Rifles’ he wrote the line “We were no match for their untamed wit”.

I’m not feeling good about what I‘m seeing and given past games feel sure that Town will concede a goal soon. “Tell you what,” says the bloke behind me “They’re a decent team”. “Well-drilled” says his friend introducing an appropriately military metaphor. Maintaining the theme, the Sir Bobby Robson begin to chant “Blue Army, Blue Army” but it soon fades into the grey of the afternoon as Oxford continue to dominate.  “Just not with it as a team” continues the bloke behind me, thoughtfully. “Bloody prats need to wake up” adds his accomplice cutting to the chase.

There are twelve minutes until half-time and spits of rain travel on the wind across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand.  Five minutes until half-time and Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan is booked by referee Mr Scott Oldham for trampling George Edmundson.  Brannagan waves his right arm up and down in protest and on the Oxford bench manager Karl Robinson, a man who often seems stupidly angry with the World, has evidently reacted badly to one of Mr Oldham’s decisions and is also cautioned. “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the irascible Scouser to the ‘tune’ of the Portsmouth guildhall clock chimes, and for once it’s good advice.

Although Oxford aren’t creating very many good chances, I’m still hoping for nothing more than Town making it to half-time on level terms.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing” chant the Oxford fans, annoyingly answering their own question but getting the answer right nevertheless and confirming that it hasn’t been a satisfactory half for Ipswich.  “Sing when we’re winning, We don’t even sing when we’re winning” responds Pat from Clacton with a sotto voce rendition of Guantanamera, for which the new lyrics only just about scan.  A minute of added on time is announced and before it’s over ever-present Phil who never misses a game has left his seat and headed for the facilities beneath the stand.  It’s an astonishing display of both confidence and pessimism that nothing of any importance to the result will happen in the next forty seconds, but it turns out to be well-placed, despite possibly casting a shadow of doubt over the validity of the epithet “ever-present”.

Half-time produces the usual Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar from my coat pocket, which I eat before going to speak with Ray, his son and grandson Harrison.  Ray is impressed by Oxford United, describing them as ‘honest’, which I think is football speak for hardworking but not prodigiously talented.

The football returns and from the start Town begin to play better and Oxford seem happier to sit back, perhaps hoping to ‘hit us on the break’.  Despite being quicker to the ball and having more possession than before, Town nevertheless don’t create the string of unmissable chances I had hoped to see from the team who have so far scored in every league game this season.  Kyle Edwards looks ‘dangerous’ but isn’t, Wes Burns looks tired, the oddly named Macauley Bonne is ineffective and Bursant Celina is either unable to measure a pass or is hallucinating.

When Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan goes down clutching a limb, his club’s female physio sprints across the pitch to him, her blond ponytail bobbing in the breeze. “I’d like to be a physio” says Pat from Clacton. “Ooh, just let me rub that for you” she continues, going all “Carry On”.   From afar Pat thinks the physio looks glamorous, so she zooms in on her with her camera and says in fact she’s a bit severe looking; women can be so harsh on one another sometimes. Meanwhile, I notice that George Edmundson appears to have a large varicose vein on the back of his left thigh.  The Sir Bobby Robson Stand chant something that goes “Addy-addy, addy-o, I.T.F.C” to no particular tune and then “Come On You Blues” as they connect with the improving vibe of the second-half, and full-back Bailey Clements, making his League debut, shoots wide of the far post.

Stephen Foster announces today’s attendance as 21,322, of whom 922 are a combination of professors, dons, Masters of colleges, undergraduates, assorted intellectuals and residents of the Blackbird Leys estate. “Yellows, Yellows” they chant once more in unison as their team win a sixty-sixth minute corner. Play ebbs and flows and a stonking clearance from an Oxford boot rattles the fascia of what is currently known as the Magnus Group stand. Twenty minutes remain and Wes Burns is replaced by Sone Aluko, and then Conor Chaplin usurps Kyle Edwards. It’s a change that had he asked me, I would have advised Paul Cook to make at or soon after half-time, but he didn’t ask me.

Oxford United win a succession of corners in the closing stages as they break forward with a final push for glory. Conor Chaplin shoots beyond the far post for Town and Sam Morsy receives his customary booking. Waves of drizzle sweep across the pitch, illuminated beneath the floodlight beams and the Oxford team take it in turns to fall down and stay down on the pitch clutching bodily parts.  Writhing on the wet grass may be a way to save time in the shower after the game but it’s more likely that the players are just wasting time, a tactic that fits with the joyless impression Karl Robinson creates with his angry Scouser routine.

As referee Mr Oldham stops the game for the perceived injuries, he incurs the wrath of the home support who tell him that he doesn’t know what he is doing.  It’s a shame that football isn’t more like Aussie Rules Football, a sport in which injuries are treated as the game carries on, and in which players are so tough, they only submit to treatment if they are actually missing a limb or coughing up blood.

The ninetieth minute sees Bailey Clements cautioned and the addition of five more minutes. The ball runs out at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end and the supporters within the stand await the corner kick, only for Mr Oldham, with perfect comic timing, to award a goal kick. “Lino, lino you’re a cunt” chant the gynaecologists in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and the match atmosphere either steps up a gear or descends into unpleasantness depending on your point of view.  “Oxford United, Oxford United FC, They’re the finest football team the World has ever seen” sing the professors and Blackbird Leys boys culturally appropriating the Irish folk song The Wild Rover. “Boring, Boring Oxford” chant the Ipswich supporters and the game ends.

Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood are quickly away and I’m left on my own; they will not chant “Boring Boring Oxford” as those that are left will. Leaving the pitch the Oxford players look slightly bemused by the anger of some Ipswich fans and it is true that they did try to win the match, but then they didn’t.   I contemplate what I have witnessed this afternoon and wonder what my grandfather and his grandfather would have made of it.  I don’t think they’d have been too bothered, as long as it had been an entertaining game and they could have a pint afterwards. That’s intellectuals for you.

Postscript:Ever- present Phil who nevermisses a game is keen for readers to know that he didn’t miss the end of the first half, he stood at the top of the stairs until the whistle blew.

Ipswich Town 2 Bolton Wanderers 5

This evening I shall be staying in town after the match and along with my friend Pete will be going to the Arbor House (formerly and properly known as the Arboretum) for something to eat and a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.70).  The refreshments however are a mere precursor to the main event, which will see me heading to the Ipswich Transport Museum to witness the wonderful, extraordinary, and brilliant Robyn Hitchcock (formerly of the Soft Boys) perform a selection from his repertoire of over forty years’ worth of groovy tunes.  Robyn is a particular hero of mine who first came to my notice back in 1978, a year that was an undoubted highpoint in my largely pointless existence, when a friend played me the Soft Boys single “(I want to be an) Anglepoise Lamp”.   This evening, explaining how he comes to be playing a concert in Ipswich Transport Museum, Robyn will tell of how in the summer of 1963, as a ten-year old obsessed with the Beatles and trolleybuses he glimpsed Ipswich Corporation’s trolleybus-filled Priory Heath depot from the train line that runs by on the opposite side of Cobham Road.  Robyn’s love of trolleybuses has not abated, and he will confide that playing the museum is a dream gig, and he’s right, it will be one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to.  The last time I saw Ipswich Town and Robyn Hitchcock on the same day was 17th October 1992 when in the company of Pete’s then girlfriend, now wife, Claire, I witnessed a 1-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge before Claire and I ate burgers in Wendy’s on Oxford Street and then travelled on to the Powerhaus in Islington to meet up with Pete. But today, before the pleasure must come the pain.

After three consecutive two-all home draws in League matches, I have broken out of the pattern of driving into Ipswich in my trusty Citroen C3, parking on Chantry, and trying to get a drink in the fanzone but failing.  Today I have travelled to Ipswich with the aforementioned Pete in his fourteen-year-old Ford Focus and am meeting another friend, Mick at the Greyhound for a pre-match pint of Adnam’s Southwold Bitter (formerly more simply known just as Adnam’s Bitter). I am anticipating that the break in habit will bear fruit with a first win of the season.  At the Greyhound Mick kindly buys the pints of beer, so I don’t know what they cost, but I expect they were expensive.   After three-quarters of an hour of intelligent conversation we leave the Greyhound beer garden (formerly the car park) at about twenty minutes to three and go our separate ways on Sir Alf Ramsey Way, Mick to what was the West Stand and me to what was Churchman’s after having both purchased a programme each (£3.50), so that we know the names of the players representing Town this week.  It’s a good job we do too because today we have both a new goalkeeper, Christian Walton, and a new centre-half, George Edmundson and there are three more changes to the team that last played.  I enter the ground through turnstile number fifty-nine because Pat from Clacton seems to be causing the formation of a small queue at turnstile number sixty.  Entering the ground, I chat to Kevin who I know from our time at Wivenhoe Town.

On the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, by the time I’ve drained my bladder Pat from Clacton and Fiona have taken their seats and Ray and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood are here too; Ray’s son and his grandson Harrison are absent however because, as Ray will later tell me they are at Centre-Parcs.  With both teams on the pitch and lined up, Conor Chaplin swings his leg to kick-off the match just as referee Mr Robert Madley reminds him that the teams are about to ‘take the knee’, which Conor proceeds to do, seamlessly transforming his shaping up to kick pose into a kneel as the crowd applauds and sticks it to racist knuckle-draggers everywhere.

Soon enough Chaplin begins the game and within a minute the assembled Boltonians up in the Cobbold Stand are asking “Is this a library?” through the medium of Italian opera.  “You don’t know what a library is” bawls a man somewhere behind me, sounding like the embittered voice of the person responsible for adult education in Greater Manchester.  Bolton win a corner.  The fifth minute arrives and Wes Burns brushes aside the weakling challenge of Bolton full-back Liam Gordon to put in a low cross, which the oddly named Macauley Bonne merely has to side foot into the net, which he does, to give Town a very early lead and confirm that today things will be different.  How we celebrate; the breath of life inflating our balloon-like hopes. “He’s fuckin’ superb, he is” says the coarse bloke behind me of Wes Burns. I can’t disagree, but might express the view differently.  I breathe in the smell of the lush turf as the Sir Bobby Robson stand invoke the spirit of Boney M and Christmas with their oddly un-seasonal and goodwill-free version of Mary’s Boy Child. 

A further five minutes pass, and the right hand side of the Town defence solidifies instead of gelling and Bolton’s Oladapo Afolayan sweeps the ball past Christian Walton to equalise.  The balloon of hope has burst.  “Who are ya? chant the Bolton fans repetitively, for reasons which are not clear. “Who the fuckin’ hell are you?” respond the Sir Bobby Robson stand equally repetitively and for equally obscure reasons, but whilst also possibly claiming short-lived ‘bragging rights’ by including a swear in what is usually a religious tune (Cwm Rhondda).   The Bolton support responds in turn however with what sounds like “Wanky, wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers”, although I could be wrong, and their thick Lancastrian accents may have disguised their true words beneath a layer of hot-pot, barm cakes and soot.  But there is no time to dwell on this as the eager to gloat Boltonians follow up with renditions of the generally truthful “Sing when you’re winning” and the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just small town in Norwich”.  Such is the quick-fire nature of their trawl through these songs that I half expect the PA system to announce their availability on three discs exclusive to K-tel Records via mail-order.

The Bolton fans’ jibes make the time pass quickly until their team’s next goal, in the 18th minute, which arrives courtesy of Kane Vincent-Young’s ill-advised and unnecessary attempt at a tackle in the penalty area. Eoin Doyle scores the penalty for Bolton as Christian Walton appears to dive out of the way of the ball.  Within five minutes Vincent-Young is replaced by Janoi Donacien as he has already been given a glimpse of Mr Madley’s yellow card and no longer looks like a fully functioning full-back.  Despite trailing, Town are not obviously the second-best team on the pitch and the Bolton defence is often desperate, to the extent that both Lloyd Isgrove and the delightfully Welsh Gethin Jones both have their names written down in Mr Madley’s notebook.  A third of the game has passed and once again Wes Burns decides there is nothing for it but to bustle past the full-back and send in another cross from which the oddly named Macauley Bonne can score, but Bolton’s Ricardo saves Bonne the trouble of applying the final touch and Town are level.  “E’s fuckin’ superb” says the bloke behind me of Wes Burns, just in case no one was listening after the first goal.  An hour left and we’ve already reached the usual scoreline for a home league game, at this rate we’re heading for a six-all draw. 

Hopes for a win are revived and the massively improved Sone Aluko heads over the Bolton cross-bar and also puts in a decent cross at the end of a fine move down the right. “E’s ‘aving a good game, ‘e is” says the bloke behind me of Aluko, in case we weren’t sure.  There will be three minutes of time added on, which is more than enough time to score another goal. Wes Burns once again gets down the wing to the goal line and crosses the ball for Macaulay Bonne to direct towards the goal, but his off-balance stab at the ball bounces the wrong side of the goal post.  Quickly Bolton launch the ball forward and with unsporting alacrity the ball is delivered to the feet of Oladapo Afolayan who scores what is almost a replica of his first goal with the Town defence unsure whether to gel, solidify or just melt away. For the first time this season it has become necessary to score a third goal simply to avoid defeat.

Half-time provides time to reflect on confused emotions and to talk to Ray who, as a former full-back, albeit for the YMCA in the 1970’s, has concerns about the defence and the midfield.  Our conversation fills the space between the two halves completely and the game is almost beginning again as I take my seat and I haven’t yet eaten my Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar.  Ever-present Phil says we’re going to win 5-4 and I remain hopeful too, especially as Finney and Worthington are both out for Bolton and have been for several years.  The one portent of possible doom however, is that the lead in my Ipswich Town pencil has snapped. Three minutes pass and Bolton send a ball over the top to Doyle.  Walton saves a shot from Antoni Sarcevic before the Town defence dissolves into an aqueous mess and Josh Sheehan scores a simple fourth goal.  The bloke behind me vows to leave if Bolton score again.

The bright early autumn sunshine and blue sky seem to mock me with their beauty and question what I’m doing here on such a lovely September afternoon. The attendance is announced as being 19,267 with 553 of that number being supporters of Bolton Wanderers who must be lapping up the additional Vitamin D.  Weirdly given the sunshine, at sixteen minutes past four the floodlights are turned on. “That Evans is a bag o’nails” says the bloke behind me in an unrelated and possibly surreal incident.  A minute later George Johnston scores a fifth for Bolton as the Ipswich defence gets into what Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley could justifiably call a “sixes and sevens situation.” The bloke behind me leaves as he said he would. Loud boos emanate from the mouths of some Town supporters. “It’s a shame innit” says Pat from Clacton sympathetically. “We want six” chant the Bolton supporters less sympathetically.  “We’ve got to go all-out attack now” says Pat to ever-present Phil, although the score line already suggests that if we’re not attacking we’re not doing anything else much either.

Conor Chaplin is replaced by 1960’s signing from Cambridge City Tommy Carroll.  “Is this a library?” sing the Bolton fans reprising their earlier attempts at a Verdi opera, and the oddly named Macauley Bonne hits a post with subtle re-direction of a Hayden Coulson cross.  “What I don’t understand is why he don’t bring Piggott on and play two up-top. That’s fuckin’ ignorance that is” says a voice behind me which sounds oddly like the voice that I thought had left after the fifth goal.  The answer to what he doesn’t understand is that Piggott isn’t actually on the bench.  Ignorance eh?

Town have plenty of possession now, but annoyingly Bolton appear to have gelled and we can’t find a way through.   “Over and in” says Pat from Clacton willing the ball into the Bolton net from a cross, but it’s over and out for a corner.  Soon it will be over and out full stop.  “We can see you sneaking out” chant the hot-pot munchers upstairs in the Cobbold stand, conveniently ignoring the people like me, Ray, Fiona, ever-present Phil, and Pat from Clacton who will resolutely sit in our seats until the inevitably bitter end.  A Bolton shot sails over the cross bar and lands the width of seven or eight seats and a gangway to my right. The bloke in the seat in front of me flinches and ducks away to his left, but it’s still early in the season and he clearly hasn’t gelled with his surroundings.  Seven minutes remain and in what seems like the most aimless substitution of the season so far, Wes Burns is replaced with Kayden Jackson, although I reserve the right to change that view should Wes Burns prove to have been injured.   “Kayden Jackson? We’d be better off with Gordon Jackson” I think to myself, involuntarily remembering both the 1970’s ITV series ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. Thankfully I didn’t shout it out.

In due course the final whistle sounds to the inevitable boos from those elements of the home crowd ignorant of, or unable to see the truths in the words of Rudyard Kipling’s admittedly sexist poem “If”, about attitudes to triumph and disaster.  I must admit however to preferring Lindsay Anderson’s film.   I leave the Sir Alf Ramsey stand in the company of Ray, who is heading for Fonnereau Road where his wife Roz will pick him up, whilst appropriately, given the nightmare I’ve just witnessed, I head for the car park on Elm Street.   But what do I care, the best of my day is yet to come and I know it.