It’s a beautiful walk to the railway station today. Meteorologically speaking winter began only yesterday, but today is a fine winter’s day, cold, bright and clear with a pale blue sky. Across the bare, brown, damp fields seagulls float on the gentlest breeze and in the distance a sparrowhawk hovers, there is a smudge of blue-grey cloud on the horizon.
At the railway station I meet up with a friend whose partner’s parents had, for his birthday, bought him a ‘bundle’ of six tickets for matches at Portman Road between now and the end of the season. Today’s match is the first of ‘the bundle’. A good few people board the train to Ipswich and some of them might even be going to the match like us. It’s still bright and clear as the train pulls into Ipswich pleasingly ahead of schedule. The plaza in front of the station makes for an attractive welcome to Ipswich and crossing the bridge over the river towards the town the cold and clear blue sky lend the town a feel of Scandinavia, I imagine we’re off to watch Malmo FF or GIF Sundsvall or perhaps this is an unseen episode of The Bridge.
In Portman Road it’s not yet one-thirty, a line of blokes in hi-vis jackets, one of them mysteriously manoeuvring a wheelie bin, insert metal bollards to close the road off from traffic.
Already some people are here waiting for the turnstiles to open, a woman has parked her shopping back in one entrance as if to reserve her place at the head of any possible queue. Seemingly oblivious of his hi-vis coat, a steward inside the ground looks like he is trying to hide behind the metal gates. The search dog is here searching for whatever it is that ‘the authorities’ fear people might smuggle into a mid-table, second division football fixture. There is a cameraman filming people who are just standing about, waiting. My accomplice heads for the ticket office to ‘upgrade’ his tickets. Because his partner’s father is over 65 the bundle of tickets he bought turn out to be for an over 65 too, but my accomplice, who I will call Roly because I always liked that poodle in Eastenders and it is his name, is only forty. Predictably upgrading the tickets is not simple and ‘the system’ won’t allow it today. A complimentary ticket is issued for today’s game but the guy in the ticket office takes the other five tickets and tells Roly to phone on Monday to sort it out. Like a fool Roly agrees to this and doesn’t even get a receipt. Roly has a bad feeling about this.
St Jude’s Tavern is host to the usual selection of ageing Town supporters and some slightly younger ones. We drink pints of today’s Match Day Special, which is Cliff Quay Anchor bitter (£2.00 a pint) and then my accomplice has another pint of Anchor, whilst I have a pint of Shortts Farm Skiffle (£3.40). Roly gives me a tenner he has owed me since the end of October, I feel guilty for having had to remind him about it. Because I am older than him I feel somehow like I’ve bullied him out his school dinner money. We discuss Ipswich Town and reminisce about fat players and their regrettable absence from modern professional football. Roly suggests that Ipswich’s last fat player was Ryan Stevenson, who in 2012 was signed from Hearts of Midlothian, played just eleven times, but scored the goal of the season. I had forgotten all about him, but then I’m not some sort of football nerd.
We head off to Portman Road a little bit earlier than I would usually depart because Roly wishes to buy a burger and in the car park behind the Sir Bobby Robson stand he does. His cheeseburger costs £4.00 and whilst he stands and folds it into his face I tell him of the food stand behind the Tribune Nord at Nice where the food is prepared by a short order cook and the burgers come with salad.
Back in Portman Road a man buys a programme from one of the kiosks which looks like it would make a good Tardis. There are short queues at the turnstiles. A group of Nottingham Forest fans are having their picture taken in front of the statue of Sir Bobby Robson; I like to see away fans enjoying their day out and it’s satisfying to think that Ipswich has something people want to be photographed in front of. Inside the ground a man in a red coat sells Golden Goal tickets almost apologetically and people queue for last minute ‘match essentials’.
Bored with my usual seat and the quiet brooding people who populate the seats around it, today I decide once again to sit next to the man called Phil who never misses a game. Phil’s seat is near the front of the stand in a row, which apart from Phil and a couple at the far end is completely empty. Phil has a bit of a cough today and is wrapped up well against the chill of the afternoon. The view of the intricacies of the match isn’t the best from here but the stands tower above us and there is a sense of occasion and almost of being a part of it. Bluey the mascot walks past just a few feet away pitchside, and if I were to shout abuse at him he would probably hear me, but of course I don’t, even though he looks more like a baby’s soft toy than a mascot to rally the people of Ipswich into raucous support of their team.
After the usual pleasantries, Nottingham kick-off the match. The scene looks like a basic Subbuteo set with one team in red and one in blue; sitting almost behind the Nottingham Forest goal I wish I could move their goalkeeper with a long stick. It’s a full fifty seconds before Ipswich get a touch of the ball, but when they do have it they make much more efficient use of it than Nottingham and after only seven minutes Ipswich score. Formerly beloved of Ipswich supporters for his goal scoring prowess, 34 year old Daryl Murphy very kindly commits a foul and the free-kick ultimately results in the satisfyingly alliterative but on-loan Callum Connolly scoring.
Twenty minutes pass and it’s not a bad game, probably because Ipswich are winning, but as ever the crowd aren’t really in celebratory mood. There are a few muffled chants rolling down the pitch from the lower tier of the stand formerly known as the North Stand but the majority are quiet. The 1,224 Nottingham Forest fans aren’t much noisier and I wonder if this a symptom of clubs whose best days were thirty five years ago, have the supporters just lost heart in the intervening years?
Nottingham Forest dominate possession and nearly score and then at about half past three they do score, from a precisely flighted free-kick by the wooden sounding Kieran Dowell; the beautiful game lives in its careful geometry. Eight minutes later and there is more beauty as Ipswich move the ball swiftly from one end of the field to the other and into the Nottingham goal off the head of Dominic Iorfa. In the outfall from the goal a steward approaches me and asks me to stop taking photographs, I ask why and he tells me I am not allowed to, which seems odd given all the mobile phones people are taking pictures with all around the ground. Phil is surprised, he thought the steward would caution me for being too noisy; I have been blowing a sort of sound-a-like klaxon which I bought last May from the club shop of Racing Club Lens in France. Feeling like a plane spotter in North Korea and pondering over the location of the local Gulag I then witness another beautiful goal as Nottingham equalise for a second time, this time with a volley from an acute angle by a man whose name sounds like that of an erstwhile pub chain spoken in a West Midlands accent, Tyler Walker.
Half-time soon follows and I speak with the steward and his supervisor. Photography in Premier League, Football League and Scottish League grounds is restricted to licence holders who pay for the rights to it, so in theory individuals are not permitted to take photographs with their mobile phones unless licenced, but obviously they do. The supervisor admitted that the club would not stop people taking photos with mobile phones; I was using a camera with an automatic zoom lens. Apparently Norwich City stop people taking pictures with mobile phones; it’s nice to know that Norwich City are even more mean-spirited and small-minded than Ipswich. This is all about the protection of intellectual property, but you have to ask where is the harm in individuals taking photographs at a football match. Football is supposedly the people’s game; the football authorities in their greed are simply selling us back our own game; it’s a very good reason to not watch the professional leagues at all. The revolution will not be televised.
Darkness falls and although the floodlights have been on since kick-off their glow is now visible against the night sky. Ipswich score only eight minutes into the new half as Martyn Waghorn robs a Nottingham defender and strikes the ball across the goalkeeper into the net and fourteen minutes later the Nottingham defence takes on the properties of the lace for which the city was once known and through one of the holes Bersant Celina scores from close range. Nottingham Forest do not score. Phil and I discuss whether the Nottingham Forest number 24 David Vaughan is Archie Gemmill, mainly because he has a receding hairline. The crowd make a little noise intermittently, but not much and despite a late rattling of the Ipswich cross bar by a Daryl Murphy header, which is then cleared off the goal line, it’s a fairly comfortable win for Ipswich.
The sun is long gone from the winter sky and it’s now quite cold as referee, Darren Bond, blows his whistle for the final time and having applauded the team sixteen thousand, eight hundred and eight of us disperse into the December night. It’s been a lovely winter’s day, the team I support has won, I’ve seen six beautiful goals, but I cannot be happy.