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.

Brantham Athletic 0 Stowmarket Town 0

It’s a dull late January day; layer upon layer of slate grey cloud block out the sun, darkening the soft , deep browns of the claggy fields and casting the naked, leafless trees as black silhouettes. I catch the train to Manningtree from where it is just over a kilometre’s walk to the Brantham Leisure Centre, home of Brantham Athletic; the Blue Imps. At Manningtree Station the platform sign says “Manningtree for Dedham Vale”, but it doesn’t mention Brantham Athletic. Today Brantham Athletic, eighth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division play Stowmarket Town, third in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. The train is on time; a man walks by as I wait on the platform and opens a bag of crisps, a waft of artificial roast beef flavour assaults my nostrils in his wake. On the train I sit by a window, a ticket above the headrest states that the seat is reserved from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, but it’s vacant; what has happened to the person who reserved this seat? Did they miss the train? Are they getting pissed in the buffet car? The guard makes an announcement; the PA system is faulty and it sounds as if he is just talking loudly from the next carriage. The announcement does not solve the mystery.

a dull grey january day

Even on a dull January day it’s not a wholly unpleasant walk along the A137 from Manningtree station (which is actually in Lawford) over the River Stour and the marshes and meadows either side. The traffic is nasty but the scenery’s not. I take my life in my hands as I walk beneath the bridge below the railway line where there is no footway just a continuous white line to separate the would-be pedestrian from the traffic, but I survive to tell the tale. At the river, a gang of cormorants are hanging about on the mud. Over the river I am safely into Suffolk and I pass two blokes with powerful looking cameras; twitchers probably; Cattawade marshes is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I cross the old road bridge at Cattawade before walking along Factory Lane past the derelict, mostly demolished premises of ICI and then turn left up towards the Brantham leisure centre. The shingle covered car park is already pretty full and it’s only twenty minutes past two. A sign that says “Kitchen in the clubhouse” strikes me as a little odd, I wouldn’t have expected to find it in the car park. There is no turnstile, just a man in a wooden shed. I pay my entry fee (£7) and buy a programme (£1), the man in the shed meticulously crosses off two more squares on the sheet in front of him. Even now there’s a short queue to get in, they’re all from Stowmarket. I enter the club house, a flat roofed building in the style of the 1950’s or early 1960’s with plenty of windows with UPVC frames. I look towards the bar but the one hand pump has the clip turned away from public gaze, indicating that there’s no real beer here today. I should have stopped for one at the Manningtree Station Buffet instead of just looking at the art in the tunnel beneath the tracks. I buy a bacon roll (£2.50), a young woman takes my money, cooks the bacon and then serves me the roll. “Well done Lill” I hear an older woman say from within the kitchen.

I take my bacon roll outside because the smell of hot cooking oil from the kitchen is a bit unpleasant and with my thick wool jumper and coat I’m feeling rather warm, hot even. I stand on the neatly manicured grass in front of the clubhouse; the teams are warming up on the adjacent cricket pitch which makes Brantham’s a slightly unsatisfactory ‘three-sided’ football ground. More and more Stowmarket Town supporters arrive, identifiable by their black and old gold knitwear. I head for the main stand, a beautifully modest, home-made looking structure of wooden benches smoothed by Suffolk buttocks, and white painted stanchions behind a brick wall, with the words Brantham Athletic Football Club painted along the front of the lean-to roof. If sitting on the back row it’s necessary to be careful standing up so as not to bang your head; I may be 1.87m tall, but I love a low roof. “Martin” calls a voice from the back of the stand; it’s Alistair, a disillusioned Wivenhoe Town supporter. Al takes in a local match most weekends with his young daughter; she’s a real football enthusiast and she’s only about six. We talk as the teams walk onto the pitch at the club house end of the ground before lining up to shake hands and say “How are ya?”. At last the game is ready to begin and I leave Al and his daughter in the stand, partly to promote my self-image as ‘a bit of a loner’, but mostly because it’s hard to see one of the goals over the top of the somewhat outsized metal-framed ‘dug-out’, which looks like the sort of structure you might park your bike in.

Stowmarket Town get first go with the ball, their favoured direction of kicking for this first half being towards the River Stour, the marshes and the main London to Ipswich rail line, with the clubhouse behind them. Stow’ wear an unnecessary away kit of all red, but it contrasts well with Brantham’s all blue strip and together on the bright, soft green turf they form a brilliant scene beneath the grey clouds. This may be Constable Country, but it’s all gone a bit Fauvist down here at the Leisure Centre.

Stowmarket are quickly on the attack and winning a corner. “Be strong” says their coach and I almost expect him to burst into song. Behind the Brantham goal a line of Stowmarket supporters hang over the rail. “Lip-up Fatty” they call to the chunky Brantham number four, appropriately channelling the song by ‘Bad Manners’. The number four then inexpertly slices a hoofed clearance off the pitch and looks down at the pitch as if to blame a worm cast or dissident blade of grass for his mis-kick. I decide that Stow’s number 2 and captain looks like a smaller version of Marseille’s Luis Gustavo.

“Oh Stowmarket is wonderful, oh Stowmarket is wonderful” the Stow’ fans then chant, to the tune of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, going on to qualify this by describing how it is full of the body parts that only women have, as well as Stowmarket Town Football Club. It’s not something Stowmarket town council advertise on their website. Stowmarket continue to dominate possession, but Brantham are their equals. At about twenty past three referee Mr Robertson-Tant, who has a high forehead and deep set eyes, a bit like Herman Munster, airs his yellow card for the first time, booking Stow’s number ten for barging the Brantham goalkeeper. Coincidentally and fascinatingly, one of the linesmen has a pronounced widow’s peak, not unlike Eddie Munster, Herman’s only son.

This is a close game, which is a good explanation for its lack of goals although just before half past three Stow’s number seven does turn smartly as a prelude to hitting a shot against the Brantham cross-bar. With half-time approaching I stand behind the Stowmarket goal in order to be closer to the clubhouse and the tea within. I catch the last exchange of a conversation between two blokes in their twenties or early thirties about an unidentified player. “Yeah, he’s shit, well he’s not shit, but…he’s shit, int he.” This is the sort of incisive player critique that the likes of Mark Lawrenson or Garth Crooks can never hope to provide.
Half-time arrives, the floodlights flicker in to life and I seek the warmth of the clubhouse; my right hand is burning with cold because I seem to have dropped my right glove on the way the railway station; later, on my walk home I will find it on the pavement where it fell. I join the queue for a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup; the man behind me in the queue orders coffee and cheesie-chips; I don’t know why but I find cheesie-chips amusing. Despite the deepening cold I return outside; it’s too warm and noisy in the clubhouse and I’m more suitably dressed for the outdoors. In the window of the clubhouse I look at the team sheet; oddly only the players’ surname and initials are given, which seems unnecessarily formal. I take a look at the programme, there’s not much in it but I like its amateurish layout and the reference to Emiliano Sala in the Chairman’s report. I saw Sala play for Nantes against Lille a couple of years ago and have watched him numerous times on TV, I liked him a lot.
For the start of the second half I watch from the metal, prefabricated stand situated in one corner at the clubhouse end of the ground; apparently the seats were brought from Colchester United’s sadly missed old Layer Road ground. I don’t sit here long because the man behind me talks with a loud, piercing voice which hurts my ears. I return to the side of the ground by the dug outs. Stow’s number four, M Paine becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Robertson-Tant, I’m not sure why.
Stow’ continue to have the ball more of the time than Brantham. but look no more likely to score. “Stop fuckin’ dropping” shouts the Brantham manager to a defender as the game enters its last quarter and nervousness and angst begin to surface. At about half-past four Mr Robertson-Tant books G Clarke of Brantham, firstly raising his arm and flexing his wrist to point to three or four approximate locations around the pitch where Clarke had recently committed other misdemeanours; I like it when referees do that. Persistent fouling is my favourite offence for this very reason. Meanwhile the Stowmarket ‘ultras’ continue through their repertoire, rather repetitively re-living Depeche Mode’s “I just can’t get enough”. It’s almost twenty five to five and Stowmarket almost score as R Garrett receives a ball on the left, surges forward, goes wide of the challenge of the Brantham goal keeper L Avenell, but hits his shot against the base of the goal post from an acute angle.
With the game in its closing minutes I enjoy the glare of the floodlights and the deep blue darkness of the evening sky as much as the increasing anxiety of both teams’ coaches. “Watch that line, watch that line” says one of the Stowmarket coaches to the substitute J Mayhew as if he just can’t be trusted not to stray offside. He then says “Watch that line” just once more, for luck perhaps. “Brandy!” shouts the other bobble-hatted Stow’ coach to his goalkeeper C Brand, although it’s a name more suited to a porn actress, “…put a fuckin’ angle on it”, before saying “Shut it” to a Brantham supporter who passes comment. “Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” bawls the Brantham coach preferring cliché to coarseness. The final words before I move towards the exit go to the bobble-hatted Stow’ coach, “Fuck’s sake” he says.
The game ends goalless. It’s been a frustrating match, more for Stowmarket than for Brantham perhaps, but that may be just because of the weight of the combined hopes of their greater number of supporters. As I walk away across the cricket pitch towards the river the teams warm down and the Stow’ supporters wait to applaud their team from the field. I reflect upon whether watching local non-league football isn’t just the perfect way to spend a winter’s afternoon and return to the railway station, smug in the knowledge that I’ve also kept a car off the road today and helped to save the planet.

Ipswich Town 1 Rotherham United 0

January is reputedly the most miserable and depressing of months and the closer to the middle of January it gets the more miserable and depressing it becomes. The third Monday in January has been designated ‘Blue Monday’; nothing to do with The Blues of Ipswich Town but rather something to do with the pleasure and happiness of Christmas having worn off completely and the realisation for people that they are now deep in debt; the weather has something to do with it too. Today is only 12th January however, I have no debt and my Christmas was not noticeably any more happy or pleasurable than any other couple of days off work, and although the weather is grey and overcast today, I have an afternoon at Portman Road to look forward to.
My erstwhile colleague and still current friend Roly is waiting for me at the railway station, he is drinking a cup of coffee which I imagine he imagines lends him an air of sophistication. Ignoring this, I tell him how I long for the weekends when I see Town play and how I feel a curious kinship with the many species of Mayfly that live for but a few short hours. It’s a twelve carriage train so we wander down the platform away from everyone else knowing that we won’t have so far to walk to the bridge over the tracks when the train arrive at Ipswich station; every second counts in the all too brief joy of a pre-match drink and then the match. Roly fritters away some of our precious time getting a fresh twenty pound note from a cash machine, but we are soon heading for St Jude’s Tavern where we are going to meet Mick. Portman Road is busy, the ticket enquiry office bleeds out into the road with a queue of late comers taking advantage of the special offer of tickets in any part of the ground for just £12. People with nothing better to do queue for the turnstiles to open. I buy a programme (£3) from one of the portable kiosks, which always make me think of a Tardis piloted by a Dr Who played by Mick Mills, transporting us back to the 1970’s. The programme seller is unsmiling and I wonder if he and his colleagues have been instructed to no longer invite customers to “Enjoy the match”; if programme buyers are anything like many of the nasty, ignorant and rude people who seem to inhabit social media I imagine such words of goodwill are generally met with verbal abuse. How I long to live in a civilised country like France where it is impossible to even make eye contact with club employees on a match day without them wishing you “bon match”.
In St Jude’s Tavern a group of three very young looking lads with Yorkshire accents buy two Coca-Colas and a pint of lager whilst I wait to purchase two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50 a pint), which today is Cliff Quay Brewery Neptune’s Nip; Mick appears, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to bump my order up to three pints and the barman for some reason makes an un-necessary association between Neptune’s Nip and Poseidon’s penis. Roly, Mick and I sit at a table next to the young Yorkshiremen. We talk of Ipswich’s new signings and Mick is impressed at Roly’s knowledge, which he imparts with a weightiness of tone as if to say “…these are the facts, think otherwise if you wish, but I will not be held responsible.” I sit and listen and hope he gets to the bar soon because I need to drink as much as possible before the match to dull the pain. Roly buys the next round of Match Day Specials which is now Cliff Quay Brewery’s Tolly Roger (still £2.50 each). Whilst Roly is at the bar I get Mick to show me how he has so neatly tied his blue and white scarf around his neck. “It’s like a cravat” he tells me. I follow his instruction and achieve the desired look of Michael Palin in the episode of Ripping Yarns entitled ‘Golden Gordon’. The Yorkshire lads have left leaving two half glasses of Coca Cola and most of a pint of lager, very strange. I imagine they’ve gone to see if there is a rain gauge at the town hall. Before we leave I feel the solitary need to sink a further half pint of Cliff Quay Brewery Sir Roger’s Porter (£1.70), and then one of the retired gentlemen I drank with before the Millwall game on New Year’s Day comes over to say hello and remarks that I have some friends with me today. I tell him yes and that I therefore don’t need his company.
Glasses drained and returned to the bar, we negotiate the door and descend Portman Road, crossing Handford Road and joining the expanding throng of match-goers. At the turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way we walk past the end of the queues of the first block of gates to reach the second turnstile block where there are no queues; I smile to myself about how stupid people are who join the first queue they come to and surmise that they probably voted ‘leave’ too. The lady turnstile operator and I smile broadly to one another as I pass through and Mick reveals that she smiled at him too when Roly complains that his turnstile operator was miserable. He cannot understand it he tells us, explaining that he is so much younger and therefore more attractive than Mick and me.
Once inside the East of England Co-op stand bladders are emptied and we head for our seats. Because the tickets are a mere £12 each today I have traded up my usual seat with the groundlings of the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and have taken up a place with Mick in the upper tier of the East of England Co-op Stand. The view of the game is better here, but it is also somehow a little too far removed from it, as if we are watching on TV and I sense that some of the people around me will be just waiting for a convenient break in play to go and put the kettle on. It wouldn’t occur to them to shout or chant in support of the team, they truly are just spectators and nothing more.

Phil and Pat

After group photos for the family album are posed in the centre circle, the game begins with Town kicking-off with their backs towards ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton, who I can see in their usual seats in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, or Churchman’s as us people who remember the ’good old days’ call it. Town sport their usual blue and white kit despoiled by an ugly advertisement for an organisation of on-line scammers. The usual team colours of today’s opponents Rotherham United are red and white, but eschewing the opportunity to recreate the classic blue and white versus red and white Subbuteo encounter, they wear an un-necessary change kit of yellow shirts with pale blue sleeves, and pale blue shorts and socks.

insipid kit and a yellow card

Sadly Rotherham’s kit is insipid and somewhat effete; it detracts from the spectacle and speaks nothing to me of Yorkshire grit and scrap reclamation for which Rotherham is rightly famed.
The match is fast and furious and lacks finesse but unusually Ipswich have the upper hand. There is an air of expectation as a bevy of debutants (or debutantes if you prefer to see this match as a sort of ‘coming out’ ball) before the home crowd. The transfer window is open and a wind of change is blowing through Portman Road as Paul Lambert gets to choose his own players rather than just make do entirely with what he has inherited from that false Messiah, Paul Hurst.

James Collins

Outstanding in the Ipswich defence is an enormous bald-headed man by the name of James Collins; he is thirty-five years old but looks fifty, he is a colossus and carries the Ipswich rear guard on his back like Atlas, though not literally of course. If for some bizarre reason I were to make a TV adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I would cast James Collins as Jean Valjean, not Dominic West.
With only twelve minutes gone referee Mr James Linington brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Rotherham’s Zak Vyner, a man whose name is distinguished by having more than its fair share of letters from the back end of the alphabet and is worth a decent score in the brand of imaginary Scrabble in which only footballers names and not proper words are currency. It’s one of the few popular actions Mr Linington makes all afternoon, although I do approve of his choice of all-black kit; it’s what referees should wear.
A half an hour passes and Freddie Sears scampers down the left; he gets beyond the Rotherham defence and crosses the ball low to the near post. No one has control and the ball looks like it is trying to escape, but it only runs as far as new signing Will Keane, who despite the unpleasant associations of his surname and a hairstyle more becoming of the Eastern Counties League strikes a low shot into the goal. The crowd rises as one and all but the 729 Rotherham United fans in the corner of the Cobbold Stand enter a state of joyful delirium. Town lead 1-0.
It’s half-time and the toilet beckons; as I enter the ‘smallest room’ in the stadium I hear Roly giving his friend Andrew from Bury St Edmunds the benefit of his analysis of the first half; he sounds very earnest, like a bearded, Caucasian Garth Crooks; I stand next to him at the urinal and open-zippered tell him I disagree with his analysis, although in truth I hadn’t heard what he had said. I wash my hands and am amused by the words ‘Danger Electricity’ which appear on the top of the hand dryer “ Ah, the old enemy , electricity” says Roly convincingly.
The game begins again and the two blokes behind me discuss refurbishing a kitchen; “ Seriously, if you do it, I can get you a 10% discount at B&Q.” says one “ Does that include stuff already on offer?” says the other, looking a gift horse in the mouth. But I shouldn’t be surprised, these two haven’t a clue who any of the Town players are and are clearly here because the tickets are cheap. Out of the kitchen and back on the pitch the match has changed. Ipswich no longer dominate, quite the opposite in fact. They are incapable of retaining the ball for more than a few seconds and have seemingly abandoned all attempts to pass it to one another. Rotherham produce wave after wave of ineffectual attacks which are repelled by a mighty rear guard action from the Blues. This is good on one level but immensely frustrating, worrying and disappointing on another. We are making Rotherham look like Paris St Germain; lose this and they’ll be wanting to take the Eiffel Tower down for scrap.
Despite Town’s apparent ineptness, brought on in my opinion by a shortage of proper midfield players, the crowd of 20,893 remain firmly behind the team. The lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, galvanised by the Blue Action supporters group and some welcome support from a bunch of fans of Fortuna Dusseldorf, Town’s unofficial ‘twinned club’ are proving inspiring, and every now and then even people in the East of England Co-op Stand are moved to clap their hands rhythmically. The floodlights are on as darkness envelopes the town and we benefit from the atmosphere of a night match, but Town still struggle to do anything but defend. On the touchline Paul Lambert the Town manager is very active, prowling up and down the technical area and swinging his arms directorially. I suggest to Mick that he’s probably just trying to keep warm because as ever he is in black slacks and a v-necked Marks & Spencer jumper and not wearing a coat, but Mick tells me in an authentic sounding Scottish accent that this is T-shirt weather.

Mr Lambert and his 'Marks and Spencer' jumper

Mr Limington the referee awards a catalogue of free-kicks to Rotherham, most, seemingly because a Town player has simply stood too close to one from Rotherham or has given him a funny look. The crowd tell Mr Limington he doesn’t know what he’s doing although I would prefer that they had asked “Who’s the bastard in the black?” Flynn Downes replaces German debutant Collin Quaner for Town as Paul Lambert reacts to that need for a stronger midfield and the bloke behind me with the kitchen asks “Who’s that?” “ Number twenty-one” says the bloke with connections at B&Q.
Finally, after five minutes of added time and a couple of narrow escapes for Town, Mr Limington gets something right and blows the full-time whistle unleashing rapturous scenes. The Sir Bobby Robson Stand finds a bigger voice than at any time during the match and hails the winners. It is a famous victory, as any victory is in this season mostly of defeats. But whilst the win is much needed and keeps hope alive, what this match has really shown is that people still care enough to come to a game, discounted prices or not, and Suffolk is still behind its team. Whether Town escape relegation or not, if managed properly this could be the start of a renaissance for Town and a re-connection with its fan base; I bloody well hope so.