Gillingham 3 Ipswich Town 1

In my admittedly limited experience of the place, Gillingham seems an immensely dull town, despite being pleasantly situated close to the banks of the muddy estuary of the River Medway and the Norman castle and cathedral of Rochester.  Gillingham grew from almost nothing on the back of the expansion of the Chatham Royal Naval dockyard at the end of the nineteenth century as Britain embarked on an arms race with Germany, which ultimately resulted in the carnage of World War One that in turn led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust.  The weight of history therefore hangs heavy on the terraced streets around the Priestfield Stadium.  But I guess it wasn’t Gillingham’s fault, it just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; Kent.

As if Gillingham’s culpability in the horrors of twentieth century history wasn’t enough, Gillingham Football Club and its supporters may have reason to harbour resentment against Ipswich Town.  On 30th May 1938 Ipswich Town were voted into the Football League at Gillingham’s expense.  Gillingham had been in the wrong place at the wrong time again, having finished bottom of the Third Division South just as mighty Ipswich Town were embarking on their unstoppable rise to glory.   Gillingham’s demise was only temporary however, and happily as early as 1950 they were re-elected.  But whilst Ipswich Town were Football League Champions a little more than a decade later, Gillingham simply bobbed about between the two lower divisions until the turn of the twenty-first century when for the first time they made it into the second division. 

Meanwhile, throughout the post-war period, until his retirement in the early 1980’s my father’s brother Ray worked in Chatham dockyard and lived in nearby Rainham;  on a Saturday he would watch Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium with his stepson, I think they may even have had season tickets at one time.   Fast forward nearly forty years  and my uncle Ray is long dead and this afternoon thanks to Covid-19 no one is watching at the Priestfield Stadium as Gillingham meet Ipswich Town in the third division,  but I shall be listening on the radio.

Annoyingly, today’s game kicks off at one o’clock when most civilised people are sitting down to lunch.  The only explanation I have seen for this early kick-off is that the streets of Gillingham are not safe after five pm, but I’m not sure I believe this.  I tune in to BBC Radio Suffolk just in time to hear commentator Brenner Woolley describing Kane Vincent-Young’s goal  against Gillingham last season. “ Kane Vincent -Young scores” says Brenner before continuing in typical commentator style with “He goes off to celebrate, as well he might”.   Ask yourself this, when was the last time you said “As well he might” ?

Today is significant because it is the first game for Town under the management of Paul Cook.  “Yet another new era dawns” says Brenner portentously.  To describe the managerial reigns of Paul Lambert and Paul Hurst as “eras” is in hindsight going a bit far; if we are intent on using geological terminology they were not even periods or epochs, merely ages.  Ipswich Town have had eighteen managers Brenner tells us, and Marcus Evans has appointed a third of them.   It might be appropriate therefore that today Town are playing a club whose manager shares a surname with Mr Evans, the obese and irascible Steve Evans; I like to think that they are perhaps brothers.  According to Brenner’s sidekick for the afternoon, former Town youth player Stuart Ainsley, taking the job as Ipswich Town manager is “A big opportunity for Paul Cook, one he couldn’t turn down”; Stuart makes it sound as if the alternative was being encased in concrete in the foundations of a bridge.  Incidentally, Paul Cook is Town’s first bald manager since Bill McGarry over fifty years ago.

The Ipswich Town team are first out of the changing room, we are told by Brenner, who then takes us through the two teams.  I am struck by the name of Gillingham’s number nineteen.  At first I think Brenner has said the Dane, Oliver, and that Gillingham’s centre forward is from Denmark, but no, I check on my phone and he is called Vadaine Oliver and he’s from Sheffield.  I speculate that Vadaine’s mum was a fan of fantasy novels and a quick Google reveals that although the spelling is not quite the same, Vardaine is the name of a planet in Star Trek.  I wonder to myself if his team mates call him Vado,  Vads or Daino for short.  Personally, I hope they say Vadaine in the way that Boycie said “Marleen” in the BBC tv sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

The Town team is unchanged from the last game, but for the inclusion of Josh Harrop in place of little Alan Judge who has suffered a death in his family.  Stuart tells us with regard to the team that “Everybody’s happy with the way things are”.  I am brimming with confidence in the wake of Stuart’s words and the game begins with me humming The Buzzcocks’ 1979 single “Everybody’s happy nowadays” to myself.

Brenner is quickly into his stride “The referee has seen something in the box, and has blown up his whistle” he says, conjuring an image of a referee who carries a small supply of detonators.  “Norwood back with the pink boots on that he changed at half-time on Tuesday” continues Brenner quickly providing his regular update on player footwear.  Six minutes pass and Andre Dozzell gives away a free-kick close to the edge of the Town penalty area, in what Brenner and Stuart agree is a ‘good position’.  “Totally needless” says Brenner of the foul.  The free-kick is taken; Gillingham centre-half Jack Tucker is unmarked at the far post and when the ball drops to him scores. “Tucker, one nil”. The “new era” is for the moment on hold.  Apparently, it’s Gillingham’s first goal against Town in seven games; the dawn of a “new era” for Gillingham.

Stuart launches in to an explanation of Gillingham’s tactics. “Gillingham are going to launch big diags across the pitch” he says, unleashing the previously unknown word “diags” onto the radio listeners of Suffolk.  I write it down, adding it to my list of words and phrases to use when talking about football and trying to impress.  “Town need to wake up” says Brenner honestly.  Stuart concurs, “Ipswich haven’t come out of the blocks very well in the last few minutes” he says , not quite pulling off an athletics-based analogy as he fails to understand that coming out of the blocks happens just once and not over a number of minutes,  unless the runner is glacially slow.   Brenner sums up their shared outlook, “Paul Cook won’t be impressed with what he has seen from his team so far” he says, before triumphantly adding, like the true pro that he is, the football speak coup de grace “Although it’s early doors, it has to be said”. 

Fourteen minutes are up and Stuart feels Town are fortunate not to concede a penalty as a result of a foul by Myles Kenlock.  “Looks like this game is going to be a battle, unless Town can get the ball down on the deck” says Brenner, clearly influenced by Gillingham’s proximity to the former Chatham Royal Naval dockyard.  “Tucker the goalscorer” and “The busy O’Connor” are enjoyable epithets to fall from the mouth of Brenner as Gillingham dominate the play. A Gillingham shot hits Tomas Holy’s right hand goal post. “The players just need to up their game” says Stuart, sounding frustrated.

Twenty-six minutes have passed and Town win their first corner.  With the resultant drop-kick James Norwood lingers behind Gills ‘keeper Jack Bonham, whose name makes me think of deceased Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.  “Bonham has spotted him (Norwood) in his rear view mirror” says Brenner confusingly implying that Bonham is either driving a car or wearing some sort of harness with mirrors attached to it.  For a moment I think Brenner might have forgotten he’s providing a radio commentary.  Realising his faux pas Brenner quickly resorts to ‘painting a picture’ with words in the more traditional manner as he resort to his favoured back-stop of “Dozzell, with his yellow footwear”.

Troy Parrott produces an overhead kick which narrowly misses the Gillingham goal. “One of the most unlucky he’s had so far” says Stuart of Troy’s goal attempt.  “Not seen much of the ball in this match, Josh Parrott” says Brenner, re-christening the bird-named on-loan player and at the same time putting his name at the end of the sentence to keep us in suspense over who he’s talking about.

Seven minutes until half time and Brenner raises my hopes “Clear sight of goal for Norwood” he says expectantly, but Norwood’s shot is deflected away for a corner.   Andre Dozzell takes the corner.  “Really poor, cleared by the first defender” says Brenner of the last significant incident of the half.

With the half-time whistle Brenner asks Stuart for his verdict so far. “It’s not been very good, Brenner” says Stuart; he carries on using the well-worn football phrases that all listeners to football commentary know and love. “Gillingham stamped their authority on the game”; “Big lad up front”; “Not put their foot on the ball” and then in a sudden fit of violent intent, “I’d be tempted to throw a rocket into a few of them”.

Feeling utterly despondent and somewhat confused that it’s only a quarter to two and not a quarter to four I am physically unable to put the kettle on.  A lot has been said about the impact of lockdown on people’s mental health, but no one mentions the impact of football matches not kicking off at 3 o’clock.

Returning to my radio I hear Brenner say “Confident Stuart Ainslie?”  Clearly not sounding so, but refusing to say so Stuart replies “They’ll certainly have to up their game”.  “Dozzell too deep in his own half” he explains, suggesting a way in which their game might be upped.   Play resumes. “Ipswich in a rather washed out away kit” says Brenner, painting that picture again but subliminally describing Town’s performance so far before going on to explain that he and Stuart are not in Gillingham but in the studio “…watching the telly for want of a better phrase”.  I decide that there is nothing wrong with “watching the telly” as a phrase, but it would be better to be at the game if it were possible.

Five minutes into the half and James Wilson prevents a probable second goal for Gillingham with a timely block.  “Town have never lost at Priestfield” says Brenner probably filling in his betting slip and putting £50 on Gillingham to win as he speaks.  We look a lot better team when our foot’s on the ball” says Stuart inventing the concept of a shared foot and making me think of the end of the opening titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  “Poor spectacle, it has to be said, the game so far” says Brenner producing one of his best ever back to front sentences.

Sixty five minutes have passed. “Could it be Luke Chambers? Fabulous goal” says Brenner. “It’s a huge goal, a huge goal, with Ipswich’s new tenure” says Stuart, partly repeating himself and trying to use an intelligent sounding word but making no sense. Ipswich have equalised and my hopes are raised. Three minutes later the oddly named Keanan Bennetts is replaced by Gwion Edwards, Freddie Sears replaces Josh Harrop and Flynn Downes replaces Troy Parrott.  “Am I right to fancy Ipswich to go on and win it”? asks Brenner, goading Stuart into making a foolishly optimistic prediction.  “Errr, yes” says Stuart foolishly and optimistically, and giving Brenner the answer he probably thinks he and the listeners at home want to hear.

The seventy second minute and Town win a corner which is headed away.  Freddie Sears loses the ball, Gillingham break down their right, a low cross into the penalty box and ‘Daino’ scores easily. “Poor from Town again” says Stuart. Town are losing 2-1.  Kayden Jackson replaces Andre Dozzell. “Still wouldn’t rule out Town winning this game” says Brenner with uncharacteristic optimism, as if he’s trying to curry favour with the new managerial regime.

Less than fifteen minutes of normal time remain and from a corner a Kayden Jackson header hits the cross bar.  Minutes later Jackson fouls Jack Tucker “More than happy to find himself on all fours” says Brenner slightly weirdly of Tucker and conjuring images that I didn’t want to imagine.  The ball is given away by Town again, “ it could easily have been 3-1” Gillingham still have the ball, “ a shot into the corner of the net” and Gillingham lead 3-1 thanks again to Vads.  “Self-harm from Ipswich here” says Stuart taking his co-commentary to a very dark place.  “A fair few culpable at the back” says Brenner returning the commentary to more familiar territory.  “ A really disappointing afternoon for Ipswich Town so far, it has to be said” says Brenner fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it,  before admitting that he had expected a Town win. 

Gillingham cleverly or cynically manage the remaining minutes and time added on, but it doesn’t sound as if Ipswich do very much to make them think the game isn’t already won, and indeed it is. Brenner asks Stuart for his final thoughts.  “Just didn’t turn up today” says Stuart unimaginatively. “One or two players will be looking over their shoulders with regard to their shirts” he adds, implying perhaps that some players don’t know their own names or that before he left, Paul Lambert had written uncomplimentary things in felt tip on the numbers.  Reaching for the radio off switch I hear Stuart say “May be they took this as a given today”, before immediately contradicting himself and adding “I’m sure they didn’t”, as if Brenner was sat opposite him reproachfully shaking his head from side to side.

Like Brenner, I think I had expected Town to win today, but then I expect us to win every game whether it is the beginning, the middle or the end of an era.  Slightly annoyed with myself for feeling so dejected therefore, I put away the radio and wonder what the hell I’m going to do for the rest of the afternoon. At least I don’t live in Gillingham, I think to myself , and in any case I expect we’ll win on Tuesday.

AFC Wimbledon 0 Ipswich Town 0

After six months off-work due to illness, today is my first day back, albeit for a shortened day of just six hours toil.  Keen to prove to the world and myself that this really marks a return to normal life, I am going for broke and also making my first away trip of the season, catching one of three supporters’ buses from Portman Road (£21, but half price with my Season Ticket holder’s voucher) to Kingsmeadow (aka the Cherry Red Records Stadium), Kingston, current home of AFC Wimbledon.  At the start of the season I drew up a list of six third division football grounds, of which Kingsmeadow was one, that I would be able to visit for the first time following the Town; four of those away fixtures have already passed with me in no fit state to attend, so for someone who is blissfully transported by the sight of unfamiliar arrangements of floodlight pylons, coloured polyurethane seats, corrugated sheet metal and concrete steps tonight is an opportunity not to be missed.

Leaving my office at 3pm I make the short walk to Portman Road and approach the back of the short line of three buses. I am booked on Coach Two, which as logic demands is helpfully parked in front of Coach Three and behind Coach One.   I prepare to board but stood by the door and subtly blocking my path is a stern, un-smiling woman with a clipboard and passenger list; “Surname” she says and a subversive voice in my head says “Don’t tell her Pike!”. There was a time not long ago when it was possible to travel on these supporters’ buses anonymously, but times change and football clubs seem to have become ever more controlling and paranoid. In a spirit of mild rebellion and in an attempt to inject the friendly face of humanity I give her my first name also, she eyes me suspiciously as I mount the steps into the bus acknowledging the driver with a nod and muffled greeting as I climb.

The bus is almost full with the usual misfits that travel like this and most pairs of seats are occupied by at least one person; after checking that it is not taken I settle down on the first vacant single seat I come to next to a balding, grey haired and bearded man in a blue polyester football shirt.  Within not many minutes the buses set off one by one to make the left turn onto Handford Road and the highways beyond.  As the bus slows at the Tesco roundabout at the edge of town I check my watch; we’ve been on the road for ten minutes, it seems like hours.  I know I have to take my copy of “Soccer Empire The World Cup and the Future of France” (Laurent Dubois, University of California Press 2010) from my blue cloth bag decorated with the stars of the EU flag (a 2 Euro purchase from the gift shop at the EU Parliament in Brussels )and begin to read to pass the time.

Whilst I learn of Jules Rimet, Guadeloupe and Felix Eboue the buses speed beyond the Suffolk border and on past Colchester with its football ground sitting remote and detached from the town by the A12, past dull Witham and bland Chelmsford towards the M25.  The buses bear the name Suffolk Norse on their flanks, it’s a curious moniker for a fleet of coaches, but then I see the vision of us all lined up in pairs side by side down the length of the bus and I see a longship full of Vikings, of Norsemen, albeit Vikings and Norsemen who have lost their oars. The fleet name makes sense; we are a collection of middle aged blokes led by one severe woman setting off to metaphorically rape and pillage a small corner of metropolitan Surrey. 

Darkness falls somewhere in Kent and crawling through the endless pre-war Tudorbethan suburbia of Chessington, Tolworth and New Malden, two hours and fifty minutes after leaving Ipswich, we eventually spy the floodlights of Kingsmeadow, which shine like beacons to these weary, but in my case well-read travellers.  The buses draw up in front of a parade of suburban shops and I alight as fast as good manners will allow, turning back towards the entrance to the ground where I  have arranged to meet a longstanding friend who is known as Jah on account of his love of reggae music.  Jah lives nearby in Kingston (Surrey not Jamaica) and has sourced our tickets for tonight’s game.  With handshakes and greetings out of the way I buy a match programme (£3) and we head for what is not by any means the nearest public house; however, knowledgeable of my loathing of ‘rubbish beer’ Jah has selected a pub called The Norbiton where he says the beer is ‘decent’. It’s a 15 minute walk through anonymous residential streets to The Norbiton which appears gloriously out of the gloom, light spilling from its tall Edwardian windows and beckoning us in.  Inside we meet Jeremy a friend of Jah who already nurses a pint of what looks suspiciously like lager; he buys me a pint of an Espresso Stout the exact name of which I forget, whilst Jah has a pint of Sambrooke Junction Bitter.   Jeremy is kindly providing one of our tickets.  We talk of our past, our age, of my health, of politics, of women’s football and of Jeremy’s unusually small Toyota IQ car in which we will soon travel back to Kingsmeadow. Jeremy is impressed that I have travelled all the way down from Ipswich for tonight’s game.  Part way through our conversation I realise that although I paid for my programme back at the ground and took my change (four fifty pence pieces) I never actually took the programme.  Bugger.  After Jah treats me to a second pint, this time the Junction Bitter, and has a half himself, it is about twenty-five minutes past seven and time to head for the match. I fold myself into the back of the tiny Toyota whilst Jah, who for a man who is not yet sixty years old is very inflexible, clambers into the front passenger seat.  Jeremy tells us that he usually parks the Toyota directly outside the ground, but tonight the kerbs of Kingston Road are tightly packed and no spaces can be found, and kick off is fast approaching. We drive around the block again and praise be,  in a side road just opposite the ground we find a couple of metres of tarmac between a Vauxhall and a dropped kerb into which the Toyota will fit.

It’s a matter of yards across the street to Kingsmeadow; we enter through the main entrance beneath a high metal arch that announces the name “Kingsmeadow” and spotting the programme sellers beneath  I explain how I didn’t take my programme earlier; he must have realised too as he straightaway hands me one. Around the corner on Jack Goodchild Way we meet a man called Jonathan who incidentally has a Mexican wife, but more importantly the other ‘spare’ ticket and he also hands us each a programme; together we head for the entrance to the main stand.  Entering the stadium is like walking into a social club and it is self-evident that this is very much a non-league stadium. There are no turnstiles as such but we form two orderly queues and pass our bar coded tickets beneath a scanner; looking ahead through a short tunnel beneath the stand I can see the players are already on the pitch, it’s like a snatched glimpse into another world through a magic portal.  A few steps on and we are into the stand and stood at the side of the pitch; our seats are a little to the left beyond the players tunnel which we cross in front of, in the front row behind a thickly painted blue metal crush barrier.

The illuminated scoreboard in the corner of the ground shows that we have missed the first two minutes of the match but it also confirms that we haven’t missed any goals; no real surprise there.  Our seats are within a couple of metres of the pitch and it feels like we are truly part of the game, as indeed the crowd should be.  The atmosphere in this small stand is sociable and happy, clearly everyone here is a regular; club officials, coaches and players mingle in the stand and plainly know some of the supporters, this is like being at a non-league match.  Behind me a man who shouts to the referee that he’s a muppet sounds just like a man who shouts the same thing at Coggeshall Town.

The football is unexceptional.  Ipswich, playing in red and blue with pale yellow socks towards the beautifully and exotically named Chemflow Stand, also known less interestingly as the Athletics End, pass the ball about a bit and if this was a competition to see who could pass the most and most accurately they would win, but inaccurate hoofs and hopeful punts play their part in ensuring that incisive moves are kept to the barest minimum.  The Wimbledon supporters whose team is in all blue get their kicks where they can and cheer with more enthusiasm than perhaps the players’ abilities deserve.  Architecturally Kingsmeadow is a dull little arena, but beneath the floodlights with the backdrop of a few gaunt, grey, leafless trees it springs to life.

Jah and I point and chuckle and guffaw as play after play come to naught. We observe that the referee Mr Craig Hicks has very, very neat hair and Jah mentions the recently aired TV programme Inside Number Nine.   I admit to Jah that I have often wondered about referees’ sexuality.   Mr Hicks may just be light on his feet as he tiptoes away from a tete-a-tete with an errant player and then flicks his wrist theatrically for a free-kick, after which Jah and I spontaneously raise our arms to mimic his slightly camp wrist action whilst the people behind us probably wonder about our sexuality.

“Go on Piggy” shouts Jeremy at Wimbledon number thirty-nine Joe Pigott and I tell him how much I envy Wimbledon supporters having a player they can call Piggy.  Jeremy adds to my jealousy, telling me that they also shout “Feed the Pig”.   Joe Pigott is featured on the front of the match programme. Jonathan asks if I was at the 1978 FA Cup final and seems impressed when I tell him I was.  There are very few sustained songs or chants coming from either set of supporters and Jah and I lament the loss of the great tunes of Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band which are no longer socially acceptable.  When I returned to work this morning I would have very much liked to have sung to my colleagues “Did you miss me when I was away, did you hang my picture on your wall? Did you miss me every single day? I bet you didn’t miss me at all, at all, I bet you didn’t miss me at all. Hello, Hello. It’s good to be back. It’s good to be back.”

Ipswich hit the cross bar in a moment of madness and half-time arrives, and I am in great need of a visit to the small toilet beneath the stand; it’s a cold night and those two pints are trying to get out, but first we must wait for the players to leave the pitch and the blue polythene players’ tunnel to be retracted.  This stadium is the antithesis of the theatre of dreams and it’s great because it is full of the inconveniences that reflect real life.

Relieved we return to our seats for the second half.  If the first half was unexceptional the second is exceptional for being even more unexceptional. It’s as if the players have become frustrated or bored by their inability to do anything much very successfully and have given up.  Weirdly however, it’s not the sort of game that people boo because it retains a kind of competitive tension, either side could score because they are both so inept that either one could just hand victory to the other at any moment.  Hope remains but of course our hopes are foolish.  The absence of appreciable football does at least let me appreciate the fine oak tree that stands and spreads itself behind the covered terrace opposite in which the Ipswich supporters are stood. Jah and I also enjoy the mask worn by Town’s on-loan number three Josh Earl who inspires a conversation about the TV series “My name is Earl”.  When Earl is substituted a man behind us, possibly the “You’re a Muppet ref” man attempts to riff on the problem of a masked player taking off his mask when substituted and then coming back on to the field unrecognised. If anyone laughs, they do so quietly.  Meanwhile a small knot of Ipswich supporters try to scuff-up the bonhomie that has existed for most of the match with a chant of “Who the fucking hell are you?” but it is in no way clear to whom they are addressing their song and no one seems to care.

My hands are cold but I remember I have gloves in my pocket and I put them on, but warmer hands don’t make up for the poor standard of football in the second half, nor does a half volley by Town’s Will Keane which is spectacularly kept out of the goal net by Wimbledon goalkeeper Joe Day, a name which is impressive in its economic use of syllables.  Keane’s attempt is as close as Ipswich come to scoring and the game ends with Wimbledon pretending to be the attacking team as they win a couple of corners and generally mill about threateningly in the Ipswich penalty area.  The final whistle comes as a relief to all and Wimbledon’s supporters, again displaying the pragmatism of the lower leagues, seem happy with claiming a point, realising it’s better than not existing at all.

The evening is over so quickly and I bid Jeremy, Jah and Jonathan good night before heading back to my six-wheeled golden long ship and the voyage home. I’ve had a lovely time and look forward to coming back next season.