I remember going to Exeter as a child in the mid 1960’s. Although it was mid-August it rained and I wore a plastic mac, which was quite the fashion at the time; I held my father’s hand. I returned a little over thirty years later, again in August to see Ipswich Town and Exeter City summon up a two-goal draw in the first round of the League Cup, but this time the sun shone on a warm dog day evening. My father wasn’t with me that night. A week later, Town thrashed ‘the Grecians’ as they are mysteriously known, 5-1 in the second leg back in Ipswich.
Now it’s Spring again, and the sun is shining once more after a cloudy week of going to the dentist, visiting my mother and being amazed at the unknowable brilliance of the current Ipswich Town team, as I watched them thrash Barnsley through the wonder of the interweb. Today, Ipswich Town play Exeter City in the last home game of the season and a win will see the club promoted back to the second division. Under a pale blue sky, I trip lightly across the grass, dandelions, daisies, and occasional dog turd of Gippeswyk Park having parked up my planet-saving Citroen e-C4. In Portman Road I purchase a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and walk amongst Exeter City supporters dressed as comedy Scots. I quite like the front cover of the programme today, it features Kieran McKenna blowing a kiss, Sam Morsy staring dreamily off into the distance and Conor Chaplin doing an impression of Norman Wisdom. Around the corner in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, a haze of blue smoke sweeps towards Alderman Road rec, and a mighty throng cheers a large grey bus as it crawls past the frontage of the municipal tram depot. It’s the team bus, but it could be anyone inside behind those opaquely glazed windows. Impressed, and yet not, I head for the Arb where the front door is open, inviting me in. There is a queue at the bar, and it takes a while to get served. As I wait Mick appears from ‘out the back’ to tell me he’s just arrived and hasn’t got a drink, but has a table in the garden with Gary, who does have a drink. “Bloody Gary’s alright then” says the bald-headed man stood behind me. Eventually I emerge into the beer garden with two pints of foaming Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£8.00) and I join Mick and Gary for conversations about things so unremarkable I can’t remember them except for mention of a racist souvenir Gary saw at the airport in Mumbai, police corruption, the chairman of the BBC, a TV programme about handmade things in Japan and how good the Suffolk Pride tastes to day.
After Gary kindly buys me a further half of the deliciously fresh Suffolk Pride, a half of lager for himself and a packet of cheese and onion crisps for Mick, we talk some more and then at around twenty-five to three depart for Portman Road, finally going our separate ways somewhere in front of the statue of Alf Ramsey, as I head for the lower tier of his stand and Mick and Gary for the posh seats of the West Stand. As ever, today’s portal to another world is turnstile 62, because of 1962, where the over helpful steward seems to give me a gentle shove through when the light turns green to say my season ticket is valid.
After savouring the still not stale thrill of the blast of hot air over my wet hands from the new hand driers in the gents, I find my seat amongst Pat from Clacton, the man from Stowmarket, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood. Fiona isn’t here today due to some very badly planned prior engagement, but in her place is a large man with no hair, who Pat introduces to me as Fiona, I don’t catch his real name, but of course that could be his or her real name.
I am here in time today to cheer the teams onto the pitch and see the referee Mr Oldham snatch up the match ball from its plinth as he leads the procession between lines of banner waving children. Stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads out the teams and ever-present Phil and I bawl out the Town players surnames in the style of a French football crowd. Today I can’t help but notice Stephen Foster’s shoes, which I don’t think go with his suit. But what do I know, he is a Radio Caroline DJ, acquaintance of members of Dr Feelgood and can legitimately claim to be much more “rock and roll” than me.
After Exeter City take the knee, the game begins with Town having first go with the ball and aiming at the goal just a bit to one of side of me and Phil and Pat and Elwood and the man from Stowmarket. Town are of course in blue and white, whilst disappointingly Exeter sport a messy looking concoction of black and cerise rather than their excellent signature kit of red and white striped shirts and black shorts. I struggle to understand why a team that wears stripes would not always wear stripes, tsk.
Today, with all available tickets sold, Portman Road is quite noisy, in an everyone chattering loudly at once sort of a way and there are relatively frequent bursts of singing too from the bottom of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. It’s the third minute, a moment’s silence falls and it’s as if there’s a sudden realisation that this cannot be allowed to happen and a chorus of “ We’ve got super Kieran McKenna…” quickly strikes up, followed by a painfully slow rendition of “When the Town going marching in” which I feel compelled to speed up and so I do, trying to add a sort of New Orleans jazz feel to it. “How much have you had to drink?” asks Pat from Clacton. “I’ve only had a pint and a half” I tell her. “Of vodka” adds Fiona.
On the pitch, Town haven’t done much so far, I hope it’s not going to be one of those games where we don’t get into a rhythm. “I hope we get an early goal” says the bearded, brown-haired young man sitting between me and the man from Stowmarket. It’s the ninth minute, Sam Morsy passes to Conor Chaplin and from the edge of the penalty area he shoots and finds the corner of the net before the Exeter goalkeeper Gary Woods can blink, and Town lead 1-0. That’s a relief, and Pat takes ever-present Phil’s photo as he holds his arms aloft and roars triumphantly with everyone else.
It’s three minutes since Town scored and Exeter have Town pinned back in our half, they even win a corner. “I want us to be top” says Pat, and echoing that sentiment the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and pockets of people all around the ground sing “We’re gonna win the league, We’re gonna win the league, and they int gonna believe us, and they int gonna believe us..” in what sounds weirdly like a West Midlands accent. “We’re coming for you, We’re coming for you, Norwich City, We’re coming for you” continues the crowd, but in no particular accent this time, and Pat says she hates playing Norwich. I tell Pat I like it when we beat them.
It’s the sixteenth minute and Town break down the left, George Hirst sends the ball on to Massimo Luongo, he is inside the penalty area, he runs, he shoots, he scores. Town lead 2-0 and I had a really good view of the ball leaving Massimo’s foot, by-passing Gary Wood and striking the net. This is good. “How many more goals do we need?” I ask Pat from Clacton. “One more” she says. There’s time for some choruses of “Stand up if you’re going up” and “Ipswich Town, Ipswich Town, the finest football team the world has ever seen” and then Town are breaking down the left again, a low cross is driven towards the goal by Nathan Broadhead and George Hirst scores from close range. Pat can relax and there are still the best part of seventy minutes to play.
Six minutes later Town carve open the Exeter defence again as Wes Burns chases a through ball into the penalty area, racing the Exeter full-back Jake Caprice who has the perfect surname for someone about to give away a penalty. Nathan Broadhead scores the resultant spot-kick sending the ball high into the roof of the net to Gary Wood ‘s right as Gary foolishly dives low to his left. I can barely believe this is happening, it is not the Ipswich way, where is the pain, the doubt, the anxiety? And the moaning, why is nobody moaning? I had mushrooms with my breakfast this morning and am beginning to wonder who Ocado’s supplier is as four minutes further on two Exeter players jump for the ball and it falls to Conor Chaplin who instinctively half volleys it into the corner of the net. Stephen Foster can’t help himself and once again summons the ghost of 1940’s comedian Tommy Handley by announcing “It’s That Man Again”. Town are winning 5-0 after just 32 minutes. I had the impression after 52 years of watching Town, that I’d seen it all, but may be I hadn’t.
When with five minutes left until half-time Luke Woolfenden heads over the cross-bar it seems like it’s the first time a goal attempt from Town hasn’t resulted in a goal; two minutes later Harry Clarke shoots wide of the far post and I’m wondering what’s gone wrong. Three minutes of added on time are added on.
With half-time I go down to the front of the stand to speak with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison, and here for her traditional one game a season Ray’s wife Roz. We have nothing to say about the football except that it’s brilliant and that Exeter aren’t really bothering to defend their right-hand side. Today is Harrison’s nineteenth birthday and Ipswich Town have achieved nothing in his lifetime until today, it must feel like all his birthdays have come at once.
With the start of the second half at six minutes past four, the man from Stowmarket tells me that he thinks Town need to sharpen up for the second half, it’s the type of joke I imagine is being repeated all around the ground. Two minutes in and it seems the Town’s players didn’t get the joke and a long ball down the right sends Wes Burns into the Exeter penalty area where he lobs the ball over the advancing Gary Woods and into the Exeter goal and Town lead 6-0. Wow.
With the game already convincingly won I half expected the usual mass substitutions to be made at half-time, but there’s no need as Exeter almost score an own goal in the 53rd minute but concede a corner instead. An hour has nearly drifted into history and the more rowdy Exeter supporters at the back of the Cobbold stand have a mad five minutes as they chant “Six-nil and you still don’t sing” at the over 60s in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the less tuneful “Football in a library, do-do-do” before rounding off with the questioning “ Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?”, to which we should all answer in effete voices “Will you do?, Will you do? Will you do requests for us?”, but sadly no one does.
The hour passes and Exeter number seven, the interestingly monikered Demetri Mitchell is cautioned by the orange shirted Mr Oldham for vainly diving in a pitiful attempt at winning a penalty. A booking isn’t really enough punishment for such an offence and referees should carry a wet fish in a bag that they can slap in diving players’ faces to deliver the level of humiliation that the offence deserves. Demetri’s conduct possibly leads to his imminent substitution as Exeter plot to bring on the players capable of turning around a six-goal deficit. Two minutes later and Town have a corner and Conor Chaplin shoots over the cross bar. “Bloody useless” says Fiona.
It’s soon time for Town’s usual mass substitution, which today, in common with most days in fact, feels like an excuse for standing ovations all round. The attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 29,334 which, despite there being a whole block of vacant seats next to the Exeter supporters is oddly the largest gate of the season at Portman Road by about 250. Exeter’s away following is recorded as a very creditable 919.
Exeter win a corner. Sam Morsy plays a through ball to no one in particular. “What was that?” asks the boy behind me “It don’t matter, we’re 6-nil up” replies his dad. Pat from Clacton tells me she’s not having a jacket potato for her tea tonight, although she’s still having the usual salad with chicken and prawns. It’s because she’s not sure when she’ll get home, what with the after-match celebrations. I tell her she could do a baked potato in the microwave in about ten minutes, but Pat tells me she doesn’t own a microwave. “We’re old-fashioned” she says. The match dribbles away into nothing but noise and smiles and Christian Walton is substituted with Vaclav Hladky so that they can both get the benefit of some applause from a crowd now totally tripped out on goals and promotion.
The final whistle brings the inevitable pitch invasion despite the presence of police, ‘security’ and polite requests not to run onto the pitch. Pitch invasions have been around a long time, certainly since the days of duffle coats, National Health glasses and Alf Ramsey and there are TV pictures to prove it. Strangely, in our supposedly permissive society the ‘authorities’ seem to be becoming increasingly restrictive. The pitch invasion does however provide the memorable sight of Sam Morsy being shouldered aloft, so it isn’t all bad. The town’s most excitable youths soon return to the Sir Bobby Robson stand, whence most of them came and so I hang around for the lap of honour and the player of the year presentations. Unfortunately, when the players do re-emerge from the dressing room they are accompanied by so many wives, girlfriends, children, family members and others that it is hard to see the players themselves. The rambling, amorphous mass of humanity drifts around the pitch before stopping between the Sir Bobby Robson stand and the half-way line, and there it stays. I sing along to Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown but when the PA starts playing Queen I decide I can’t be bothered to wait any longer to see what will probably underwhelm me and I bid my farewells to my fellow ultras until August.
It has been a most memorable, remarkable afternoon, one that far outstripped my hopes for what it might be and unlike my first encounter with things Exonian it hasn’t rained and no one had to hold my hand.