Spring is sprung and as former Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells us, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of promotion and sneaking into the play-offs. With such thoughts in mind, I once again park up my trustee Citroen C3 in classical sounding Waller’s Grove, and tread steadily across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arboretum pub beyond, which is now known as the Arbor House. It’s a gloriously sunny day, which sits beneath a pale blue sky, once the grey clouds have broken up. The human contents of the Station Hotel spill out onto Burrell Road and in the pub garden Pompey fans revel in the joys of beer and life. On Portman Road a golden Labrador sniffs for incendiaries and I buy a programme (£3.50) for the first time using cashless payment. There are far more police about than usual, no doubt because of some strange belief that the followers of today’s opponents, Portsmouth Football Club, are somehow rowdier than your average spectator, but on Portsea Island life is lived to the full.
At the Arb’ I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and bask in the sun in the beer garden where I am soon joined by Mick. who I haven’t seen since before Christmas. We talk of Fatty Liver Disease, Home Office funding for the housing of Afghan refugees, conversations with mutual friends, bicycles, people who still think Brexit was a good idea, Baptists, my wife’s twin aunts in Portsmouth, one of whom has sadly died and electric cars. We don’t talk of Ukraine except to say that it makes us too angry and sad, and we simply don’t know what to say about it. At some time after two-thirty, having finished our beers, we depart for Portman Road, Mick walking his Raleigh bicycle as we go and finally locking it up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where we head for our respective turnstiles, Mick making for the posh West Stand seats and me the cheap seats in the lower tier of what I still think of as Churchman’s. For a second consecutive fixture there are queues at turnstiles 59 and 60, but I’m inside the stadium by ten to three giving plenty of time to use the ‘bathroom’ facilities before taking up my seat.
In the stand, Pat from Clacton is here, as is ever-present Phil who never misses a game, along with his young son Elwood. Fiona is away on a cruise to the Canary Islands, but her seat is occupied by Mark, a long -time supporter who travels on the coach from Clacton with Pat, but usually sits in the West Stand. Curiously the seats immediately in front of me are empty today. We will later learn that there are 25, 495 other people here too, each with their own distinct lives, hope and fears and tales to tell, and 1,986 of them are also Portsmouth supporters.
At a minute past three, after knees are taken and applauded the Town begin the game, hoping to rattle the net of the goal just a little to the right and in front of Pat, Phil, Elwood, Mark and me. Town are back in our traditional blue shirts and white shorts after Tuesday’s flirtation with all blue, whilst Pompey are in a handsome kit of red and black halves with black shorts, it’s a kit with personal significance for me because my wife was wearing an earlier version of the shirt when I first spoke to her back in the 1990’s, and it was the shirt I spoke to her about.
“Hello, hello, we are the Pompey boys” sing the Portsmouth supporters helpfully and politely introducing themselves, as if to hold out a hand and bid us all a good afternoon. There is a fine atmosphere inside Portman Road today courtesy of the Pompey boys (and girls) and a chorus of “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” is soon ringing out and the Sir Bobby Robson stand respond with “Oh when the Town go marching in” sung to the tempo of a funeral march and with a similar quota of joie de vivre. It’s conceivable that the Pompey fans can’t hear the Town supporters’ dirge above the sound of their own anthem, or it could be that they can only clearly see the impassive faces of the Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but our visitors soon break into the old favourites of away fans at Portman Road with choruses of “You’re support is fucking shit” and its intellectually superior sibling chant “ Is this a library?”. Moving swiftly into goading mode they produce a rendition of the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just a small Town in Norwich” before finishing with “You’re supposed to be at home”. Such is the wit of football supporters. “Never heard that one before” says the bloke behind me sarcastically as I imagine that I’ve been listening to an advertisement for a compilation of football ‘s favourite chants from K-tel Records.
Twelve minutes past three and Town, who have been dominating possession, win the game’s first corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the Pompey boys and girls showing that it’s possible to vocally encourage your team when they’re defending as well as when they attack; this afternoon is proving to be an education. The corner kick is delivered and Luke Woolfenden, looking a bit like a 1990’s Eminem with his bleached blond hair stoops and twists to somehow head the ball away from goal rather than into it. Four minutes later and Pompey win a corner too, eliciting even more chimes.
Sam Morsy has already had to pause the game once to check on his gammy leg; a legacy (no pun intended, though it’s a pretty good one, isn’t it?) from Tuesday night’s game, but now with seventy minutes still to play, he has to be substituted by Tommy Carroll, who incidentally last played for Town against Pompey on 4th May 1968 (Town won 2-1 at Fratton Park). Bringing on a player who would be over eighty if he was still alive unsettles the Town team and Pompey nearly score as Aiden O’Brien shoots spectacularly over the cross bar from very close range and then Luke Woolfenden gives the ball away to O’Brien who thankfully misses again, this time shooting wide of the far post. It’s almost as if Town had been setting up O’Brien to embarrass himself. Town bounce back briefly to win a second corner but then a George Hirst shot has to be saved by Christian Walton. On the left touchline the referees assistant fits very snugly into his pale green shirt, almost as if he’s been vacuum packed.
After twenty minutes, the incidence of foul play is increasing, and O’Brien falls beautifully, arching his back in a graceful curve as he is allegedly fouled by Wes Burns. If they ever put on Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, O’Brien has to be worth a punt for the part of Odette. A short while later Pompey’s Louis Thompson is the first player to be shown the yellow card belonging to the largely ineffectual referee Mr Christopher Sarginson, as Wes Burns wriggles in a heap on the turf.
A third town corner is greeted with a song involving repeated Ole’s or Allez, I’m not clear which, from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but the corner kick is easily cleared at the near post. The improbably named Mahlon Romeo then drags down Dominic Thompson and holds the ball up angrily in the air as if to say to “But look, I got the ball” when he is called out by Mr Sarginson, who, I like to think ,tells him that he could equally have come away with the ball if he’d hit Thompson with a long plank of wood or set a dog on him, but it would still be a foul.
“Oh, great ball Bakinson” calls a sarcastic voice somewhere behind me as Janoi Donacien mistakenly passes to a Pompey player. “Oh Shut up” says someone else, understandably frustrated by the sort of people who inexplicably seem to need a bete noire in every Town team. Conor Chaplin has a shot blocked and with half-time nearby Cameron Burgess concedes a corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the 1,986 in the Cobbold Stand. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” answer the Sir Bobby Robson Stand revealing a level of sophistication, wit and humour which goes some way to explaining the popularity of TV’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ among much of the general population. Entering time added on a Conor Chaplin snap shot whistles past the left hand post of the Pompey goal before Kayden Jackson runs on to a through ball and has his shot saved by Gavin Bazunu. Jackson appears to tweak a hamstring in the process of running and shooting and troops off angrily and dejectedly to be replaced by the oddly named Macaulay Bonne whilst Town take another corner and the three minutes of added on time are played out.
Half-time brings relief and nourishment in the form of a wee and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, but unusually I do not go and talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison because Ray is somewhere up the back of the stand with his brother-in-law today. Half-time nevertheless passes quickly and the football soon resumes along with the pattern of Ipswich possession interspersed with corner kicks and a series of crosses which carefully avoid anyone likely to divert the ball into the Pompey goal.
As Bersant Celina wins another corner, the volume of the home crowd seems to be turned up a notch as if there is either a sudden collective understanding that they can help the team, or an outbreak of collective anxiety. From a cross, subsequent to the corner kick , the ball comes out to Wes Burns, but he wellies it over-enthusiastically and high above the Pompey cross bar. Pompey are mostly the lesser team in this contest but they retain the ability to threaten occasionally and as half past four approaches a header from Sean Raggett lands on the roof of the Town goal net and the “Play Up Pompey/ Pompey Fuck Off” duet is reprised. It took the home fans a while to think of their response to the Chimes, but now that they have they’re not missing a beat.
Pompey’s Louis Thompson is replaced by Joe Morell and Tyreeq Bakinson seems to carefully place a shot into the arms of Pompey goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu before Bersant Celina wins yet another corner, and Bakinson heads the ball into the side netting, promoting jeers from the Pompey supporters directed at those Town supporters who might have thought the net was bulging from within. Over seventy minutes have passed and the competitive edge in the game unfortunately boils over as it appears that the Pompey manager, the never-smiling Danny Cowley, gets in Dominic Thompson’s way as he prepares to take a throw-in. Thompson seems to over react somewhat, but Cowley makes no attempt to appease the offended wing-back and starts to come over all macho. An unseemly melee ensues and the Sir Bobby Robson stand are unforgiving as they announce “ Cowley, Cowley, You’re a cunt; Cowley, You’re a cunt”. To my shame I join in with a shout of “Bugger-off back to Braintree”, but mainly because I enjoy the alliteration and find any mention of Braintree faintly amusing.
The match descends into its final ten minutes as Bersant Celina shoots wide and Tyreeq Bakinson is booked. Meanwhile Pompey swap Aiden O’Brien for the interestingly monikered Denver Hume and I notice that their bearded Ryan Tunnicliffe has strange hair, cut into a sort of bob like a 1920’s flapper. Pompey also replace George Hirst, whose name is satisfyingly close enough to Geoff Hurst to make me smile and his substitute is a man with two surnames, Tyler Walker. With three minutes of added on time ebbing away some folk in the home crowd begin to accuse Pompey of time wasting; there are even calls of “Boring Boring Portsmouth”, which are ridiculous and reveal how easily some people can slip into repetitive behaviour; it saves having to think.
The final whistle brings inevitable disappointment that Town haven’t won, tempered by the understanding that this has been a good match and we haven’t lost either, which we often do at home to Portsmouth. Pat from Clacton makes a swift exit and Mark thanks me for my company; I reciprocate before heading out into the chill of the early evening for the journey home and the thoughts of Mick Mills through the medium of BBC Radio Suffolk and the car radio. Life is generally good, although it could sometimes be better.