Ipswich Town 1 Sheffield United 1

The first time I saw Ipswich Town play Sheffield United was in April 1972; the result was a goalless draw but I remember the game not just because Sheffield had a character from Beatrix Potter playing for them (Len Badger), but because it was also the first time I had suffered the pain, shock and hurt of seeing a Town player sent-off. The late Colin Harper was that Town player; he had protested too much to the evil Gordon Kew who had awarded a penalty to Sheffield United; but Colin laughed last as Laurie Sivell saved the kick, because back then right was on our side, sometimes. At the end of the game the pitch was pelted with cushions by spectators in the West Stand who were aiming at Mr Kew and his police escort. It is now hard to believe that such passion could be shown by people in what is probably Portman Road’s most comatose of stands. The up-shot of this reminiscence however, is the admission that I have never much liked Sheffield United.

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But today is a beautiful, bright winter’s day and it’s almost Christmas, so in the spirit of goodwill towards all men it would be very bad manners not to put my ill-will towards The Blades on hold. Feeling better for that loving feeling I arrive at the railway station to find that the 12:57 to Ipswich is delayed by six minutes due to ‘signalling problems’. I text my wife Paulene because she likes to know of all the small misfortunes that befall me and because she likes to have her already low opinion of Greater Anglia railways reinforced whenever possible. Paulene texts me back with a series of emojis; her interpretation of potential ‘signalling problems’.

simplicity creations

As I wait for the train I enjoy the low winter sun; on the railway platform a sign advertises the services of The Samaritans, they are “in my corner” should I need them; but I’m not a boxing fan and the words don’t really work as a footballing analogy. The arrival of the train soon shakes me from my reverie. I sit on the grey moquette by a window and look about the carriage. The face of an ugly old woman with a big nose leers down at me from a poster advertising Simplicity Cremations, their strapline being ‘making funerals less of an undertaking’. I’m not sure when humour became ‘a thing’ in advertising for undertakers; I think of an alternative strapline with more of an accent on the ‘simple’ cremation “Light the blue touch paper and retire”. It is interesting that an undertaker would think that train passengers’ thoughts should turn to their own deaths, although when delays are really bad I guess people do begin to wonder if they will ever make it home and therefore begin to make plans.

christmas club shop display

Arriving at Ipswich there are two Christmas trees on the railway station concourse and two policemen guard the doors. A string of lights fail to make the Station Hotel look very festive; I hurry on towards Portman Road where there is little festive feel but for one steward in a red and white hat. For a reason I find hard to explain I buy a programme in the club shop, but it was worth it to see the display of Christmas themed soft toys and assorted tat.

Round the corner in Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to hear the Salvation Army band strike up with ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. Beginning to feel a lot as if it’s Christmas I head for St Jude’s Tavern to enjoy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which today is Maldon Brewing Co’s ‘Five Gold Rings’. I sit and read the programme, occasionally joining in with the conversation of the match-day regulars who are sat around the table next to me. I enjoyed the Match Day Special but variety is the spice of life and from my second journey to the bar I return with a pint of Maldon’s ‘Winter’s Ale’ (£3.20) and finally I drink a half of Earl Soham Brewery’s ‘Sir Roger’s Porter’ (£1.70). Glass drained I walk down Portman Road with one of the St Jude’s regulars with who I had been sitting, I think his name is Ian; he is a bald man who currently has a limp, I discover that like me he has a penchant for French and Belgian football. I silently envy him his visits to Royal Antwerp and Aalst.
Portman Road is not overly busy, it’s close enough to 3 o’clock for most people to be already inside the stadium and by now only those who have struggled against Christmas crapulence to leave the pub are making their way through the turnstiles. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile No3 and bid the operator a cheery Christmas greeting. I make my way, via the gents, to my seat next to Elwood and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just in front of Pat from Clacton. I ask Pat if she enjoyed Tina Turner The Musical, which she went to see yesterday, in London. She did; although it was the understudy who played Tina. I hand a Christmas card to Elwood, to give to his dad, who tells him to put it in their bag.
The game begins with Ipswich as ever in their blue and white kit, which this season has sadly been tainted by the ugly logo of an organisation peddling on-line gambling. Without good reason, unless they are showing solidarity with France’s gilets jaunes, Sheffield United eschew their proper colours of red and white striped shirts and black shorts in favour of luminous yellow shirts with black shorts. I keep a look out for piles of burning tyres and pallets but fortunately there are none to be seen as Town get the ball rolling towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood. Another good afternoon’s work from Zero the sniffer dog.

“Oh when the Reds, Go marching in” sing the Yorkshiremen in the Cobbold Stand “Hark, now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” is the riposte from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and I wonder if the Salvation Army have been co-opted into the Blue Action supporters group. The football is fast and furious but it’s Sheffield who are fastest. Town may have to bide their time this afternoon, Sheffield United look quite good despite their poor choice of shirts. In the Sheffield corner of the Cobbold Stand the Okey Cokey breaks out and all around the stadium is a sprinkling of Santas and people dressed as elves. At seventeen minutes past three Sheffield United ‘score’ but the ‘goal’ is disallowed, something to do with a breach of the offside rule it would seem. “Down with the Wednesday, you’re going down with the Wednesday” sing the Sheffielders, presumably not to their own team, although if not it doesn’t seem a very charitable thing to sing, given the time of year.
It’s almost twenty five past three when Town at last have a goal attempt of their own as a cross from the right is met by the head of Ellis Harrison, a man who until today I did not realise had such impressive calf muscles. The header is caught easily by the Sheffield goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Six minutes later a deep cross from Town’s Gwion Edwards drops into the edge of the Sheffield penalty area, Freddie Sears is running onto it, there is an audible gasp of expectation from the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but Henderson gets there first, giving him cause to dance and sing. Town then win a corner; Luke Chambers launches himself towards the goal like a human missile and heads the ball solidly into the roof of the net. The ‘goal’ however is disallowed by referee Mr Woolmer. “What the hell was wrong with it?” calls the old boy behind me, showing admirable bias towards his team. Unfortunately, the human missile took out a few too many Sheffield players in the course of its rather flat trajectory.
Having disallowed a ‘goal’ Mr Woolmer seemingly develops a taste for enraging the home crowd and awards a free-kick against Ellis Harrison when it’s likely he was the player who was fouled and when Town are heading towards the Sheffield goal. The crowd is at once energised. “Who’s the wanker in the black?” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand in a rare display of unified voice. I volunteer the information that the wanker in the black is Mr Andy Woolmer, a short balding man who every other step has to skip or jump to keep up with the longer strides of his assistants as they walk on and off the pitch…like Private Baldric on the opening credits of Blackadder Goes Forth. This is the fourth consecutive home match for which Town have been given a ‘short ref’. I think its about time we had a lanky one.


Perhaps it is just Ipswich’s good fortune, perhaps the Sheffield players are unnerved by the better than usual vocal support for Ipswich or by the use of the word ‘wanker; perhaps they have heard about the cushion throwing incident in 1972, but they proceed to muck up several passes leaving Ellis Harrison with a run on goal and space to shoot. Ellis shoots, Ellis scores. I get a perfect end on view of the ball swerving wonderfully inside the netting just behind the goal post; it’s a thing of beauty, it’s bloody marvellous. Joy abounds.
There are eight minutes until half time. “I hope we get to half-time without…..” says the old boy behind me, his voice trailing off as if he cannot bear to utter the words to complete the sentence. Half-time arrives and Town are still winning. It has been a struggle but in the last ten minutes we came good, in part thanks to the diminutive Mr Woolmer’s ability to stir up the supporters with his abject refereeing.
I visit the gents, I talk to Ray and hand him a Christmas card; a very small brass band play Christmas Carols in the centre of the pitch. On the concourse below the stand what looks like a soil pipe is decorated with a twist of blue lights, some rather feeble strings of lights dangle from the roof and a Christmas tree decorates the entrance to the upstairs hospitality area. The stadium announcer tells us that the Premier League half-time scores will be on the scoreboard, “should you wish to see them”, which I think is a nicely condescending touch, richly deserved by those who do wish to see them.
All is well until the second half begins and within a minute Sheffield equalise through Billy Sharp a man who despite his thirty-two years has a name which will forever sound like he’s a young scamp of an eleven year old who’s just stepped out of a Barry Hines novel. He should perhaps call himself Bill or William now he’s a bit older. “Well, we’re gonna see plenty of the ball this half then” remarks the old boy behind me looking on the bright side, sort of.
It turns out that whilst we do see quite a lot of the ball being passed between the gilets jaunes in our half of the pitch, they don’t manage to create many certain chances to score and Dean Gerken makes hardly any saves; far, far fewer saves than he did against Wigan last week. Sheffield’s dominance of possession leaves the Ipswich crowd quiet for long periods but no one moans to fill the void. Everyone outside that one corner of the Cobbold Stand is of course hoping for another Town goal, but a draw will be alright. The crowd is announced as 17.942 (1,292 from Sheffield) which is pretty good for a Second Division team bottom of the league on the Saturday before Christmas, and shows that people do still care and still believe that relegation will be avoided. At twenty-five to five a chorus of “Come On Ipswich, Come on Ipswich ” ringing around much of the ground is strong enough to prove the point.

Mr Andy Woolmer

This is an enjoyable game and the old dear behind me is getting her kicks from Mr Woolmer’s lack of height, “I don’t know how he can see the fouls, he int tall enough is he?” she says before querying how he can manage to measure out ten yards at a free-kick with “… his little legs”. Happily for those of us satisfied with a draw, only three minutes of added time are called and whilst Mr Woolmer books Jordan Spence and gives Sheffield United a free-kick just outside the penalty area in that time, his efforts to let Sheffield score come to nought. The game ends and a warm applause flows from the stands. “That was bloody brilliant” says the old boy behind me getting a bit carried away with it all. I wait to applaud the team from the field and of course boo the referee. If I had had a cushion I doubt I would have hurled it at Mr Woolmer, possibly because we didn’t lose, but probably because I’m quite mild-mannered really. It’s odd that we think we live in a more liberal society than we did in 1972, but hurling a mere soft cushion would probably see me tracked down and banned for life from Portman Road now.
It has been a grand afternoon at Portman Road and Town are well worth their point against a superior team. We seem to be successfully assuming the role of plucky underdog, which in a league rammed full of Premier League pretenders will allow us a wry smile come the end of the season when only three of them get what they wished for…..and of course they should be careful of what that is. As for Town, we’re bottom of the league at Christmas, but I’m happy……or as happy as one can be.

Meudon AS 0 St Ouen L’Aumone AS 2

Today is the last day of September, my wife Paulene and I are staying in Meudon on the edge of Paris and having enjoyed both professional Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 football in the past week and a bit, watching both Paris FC and Paris St Germain, this afternoon we are getting down with the French equivalent of ‘non-league’. Not much more than ten minutes away by car at the Stade Georges Millandy in Meudon Le Foret (twenty minutes by bus service No 289) is a Coupe de France fourth round tie between Meudon AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 3 and St Ouen L’Aumone AS of the Ile de Paris regional league Division 1. These leagues are the 6th and 8th levels of the French football league ladder, although probably not directly comparable to those levels in the English non-league ‘pyramid’.
The parking at the local community sports centre, where the match is to take place is full, so we park our Citroen C3 around the corner in Rue Georges Millandy between large blocks of modern apartments. We are not sure exactly where we are going, but the Federation Football Francais (FFF, the French Football Association) website says this is the where the match is taking place and having walked through a corridor in a sports hall we find ourselves next to an artificial football pitch. There is no turnstile and watching this match is free. A bunch of blokes in tracksuits sit outside a portacabin eating baguettes and drinking coffee. In my exquisite school boy French I ask if this is this is where the Coupe de France game is taking place at 2.30; I am relieved to learn that it is and flattered that the man I speak to recognises the Ipswich Town crest on my T-shirt. I explain that I am a fan and not from the club itself, but we both quickly make the connection that Ipswich’s Under 18 player Idris El Mazouni is from Meudon. I will later discover that I have been talking to Idris’s dad.
The Stade Georges Millandy is not a stadium as we might understand it in Britain because it has no stands, it’s just a 3G synthetic pitch with dugouts and a metal fence, overlooked by five or six large, shiny white apartment blocks.

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It wouldn’t make the grade for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League, although in truth the playing facilities are better than at most clubs in that league. It seems quite new, is in good condition and is the sort of installation that a town the size of Ipswich should probably have at least ten of. Given that these pitches are not cheap to install it is doubly impressive that the surface extends beyond the actual pitch to the area around it, with a mini pitch and goals in the space behind one goal. A game (possibly Under 15s) is

just finishing with a penalty shoot-out and I return to the portacabin, which is a sort of club house and buvette, to get two cups of green tea and a Kit-Kat (all 1 euro each); the tea is poured from a huge pot. On one wall is a large array of trophies won by all age groups within the club.

Paulene and I wander around the pitch as we drink our tea and I scoff Kit-Kat trying to remember why Nestle products were boycotted and if they still should be; too late now I have become complicit in their multi-national nastiness. It is a beautiful, bright sunny 45013661531_f3c54472c1_oafternoon beneath a clear blue sky and the gaze of those shiny apartment blocks, which cast no shadows on one another or the pitch; this has to be how Le Corbusier imagined La Ville Radieuse.

 

A man in a loosely belted gabardine raincoat appears; if he was wearing a trilby hat he could have stepped from a 1940’s film. He sports a bright arm band which adds to the look, but in a slightly sinister manner; he is however the délègue principal, the FFF official who 43201967200_10152fe2e5_owill oversee this afternoon’s game from the side lines. Out of the blue one of the spectators walks up to me and shakes my hand. In due course the two teams emerge from their respective changing rooms and walk through the metal gate onto the pitch before lining up side by side, then in a line before shaking hands. Introductions between the referee and players and délègue principal are made all-round, before the game kicks off about five minutes late (it was advertised as a 14:30 kick–off) with St Ouen having first go with the ball, aiming at the goal in front of the buvette. Meudon kick in the general direction of far off Stade Charlety and the 13th Arrondissement. St Ouen wear an all-green kit, whilst Meudon are all in red; neither club has its club crest on its shirts but instead bear the logo of the FFF with its cockerel.

St Ouen quickly win a free-kick as their tricky number nine goes down under a challenge; he gets up to send a neat free-kick over the red wall of Meudon, but into the arms of the very young looking Meudon goalkeeper, who strangely is one of the smallest players on the pitch, a sort of French Laurie Sivell. It is also St Ouen who have the second serious goal attempt, again a free-kick, but this time firmly hit from a wide position by their number ten. Once again the goalkeeper, whose blond hair may not be its original30077406907_10dcb243ea_o(1) colour, saves, batting the ball away for the first of five corners that St Ouen will win this half. Most of these corners are either poorly taken or all the St Ouen players are waiting for the ball in the wrong places.
Meudon are very competitive and the game is played at a fast pace with the emphasis on passing rather than just getting the ball forward by the fastest route. Meudon come close to scoring a bit before three o’clock as their huge number eleven breaks through on the left. The St Ouen goalkeeper, who incidentally reminds me of St Etienne ‘keeper Stephane Ruffier on account of his designer stubble and very short dark hair, and is possibly the second smallest on the pitch dives at his feet. The ball rebounds to the Meudon number seven whose goal-bound shot is headed away at improbably close range.
Meudon seem to be growing in confidence and their number ten does a few feints and jinks over the ball like a footballing Michael Jackson (Bubbles’ friend, not the one who played for Tranmere and Shrewsbury) might have done. There are a few jeers and within the next twenty seconds his ankles are swept away from beneath him by the St Ouen number three as he goes to dribble down the right touchline. It’s one of those situations that some people would try to excuse by saying that number ten had been ‘disrespectful’, but that’s just a modern buzzword, a sort of false political correctness and it is tosh; I blame Eastenders. Football is a game of skill and dumping someone on their bum shows little ‘respect’ itself. Referee Monsieur Charly Legendre doesn’t see fit to book anyone either way.
The coaches on the side lines are animated, “Parlez –vous” one calls urging his players to talk to one another. The St Ouen coach, a portly man in his fifties sports a fine mullet and43201968530_160c2105a2_o has the look of Maradona about him. The Meudon coach becomes involved in a prolonged discussion with the linesman Mefa Bakayoko about an offside or a free-kick which has been and gone and so no longer matters. On the field the St Ouen number ten sends a free-kick solidly over the cross bar whilst Meudon’s number six comes as close as anyone else with a long range shot that goes wide. St Ouen’s number nine is proving industrious and creates a couple of shots for himself one of which is well saved and Meudon replace their number three with substitute number thirteen. Half-time arrives and Paulene and I look back on a good but slightly frustrating forty-five minutes, which was too tight to be really entertaining. I head for the buvette to get a bottle of water (1 euro).
During the half-time break we stand about and as a man walks by he shouts “Ipswich!”. We could do with that sort of enthusiasm at Portman Road. As I stand I enjoy the44294420204_39f8378ac4_o contents of the many balconies that overlook the pitch from the surrounding apartments. Bikes, mattresses, plants and drying clothes decorate the bright white buildings and on one corner is a tricolour, perhaps left over from the summer’s World Cup win. As the afternoon wears on more people seem to arrive to watch the game and by the end I estimate that at least one-hundred people are here.
The délègue principal oversees the away team leaving their dressing room by a side door to the sports centre building and heads back to the pitch still wearing his gabardine raincoat, although it’s a warm afternoon; he is perhaps the anti-thesis of the banker in The Beatles’ Penny Lane and also feels as if he’s in a play, or a British TV sitcom. The bearded referee begins the game again and St Ouen soon win their sixth and seventh corners of the game, although in between their number eleven also shoots over the cross bar. At about four o’clock the St Ouen number eleven breaks forward through the middle, stretching the Meudon defence before playing a through ball to number ten who slips the ball inside the near post past the ‘blond’ goalkeeper; St Ouen lead 1-0.
They may be losing and disappointed to be doing so, but Meudon still pose a threat and a good run and cross from number eleven meets the thigh of number seven just a few yards out, but he can’t direct the ball past the goal keeper. The first booking of the game goes to Meudon’s number two and the game enters a tetchy stage where it seems it could flare up at any moment. As at most French football matches I have seen where this happens however, there are only outbreaks of animated discussion between the players, but the referee stands back and let’s this carry on. It’s a civilised approach which may reflect the character of a country that has produced far more philosophers than England has produced ‘World Class’ footballers.
St Ouen are buoyed by their goal and their bearded number three controls a ball beautifully on his chest before advancing down the flank. The lads watching near us jeer at his skill and nickname him Fekir, and they’re right to do so because he does vaguely resemble the French international. But Meudon are not beaten yet and the large number eleven strides past a couple of St Ouen players before playing a through ball to number twelve who either wasn’t paying attention or the pass wasn’t as good as it looked. Paulene and I belatedly realise that the number twelve has replaced the number seven, who we had thought was Meudon’s best player.
St Ouen almost score a second goal as their number nine diverts a cross from ‘Fekir’ the wrong side of the post from close range, but the game is becoming more scrappy and there are more fouls. The Meudon number ten spends more time than most not being upright. St Ouen win an eighth corner and as a passage of play ends Monsieur Legendre calls over Meudon’s number nine and ‘Fekir’ and books them for a mystery offence that neither Paulene or I saw. It is now gone half past four and we are witnessing time added on as St Ouen’s number eight runs down the right and then pulls the ball back across the penalty area for substitute number fourteen to side foot beyond the small, blond goalkeeper into the far corner of the goal.  St Ouen L’Aumone AS is the name that will go into the draw for the 5th round of the Coupe de France.
It’s been a reasonable game although not an exciting one in terms of goalmouth action. We turn to leave and Paulene notices a man with an Ipswich Town crest on his coat; I speak to him and it turns out he is the father of a second player from Meudon AS who is now in Ipswich Town’s Under 18 squad, Lounes Fodil. 44294397894_dca5642a04_oLounes’s dad, who is called Mustapha (apologies if the spelling is wrong) is a lovely bloke and is genuinely pleased to meet us and invites us for a coffee in the buvette. Our conversation probably isn’t the best as neither our French nor Mustapha’s English are fully fluent, but Mustapha gets across his philosophy of football; it’s a game of skill and intelligence not brute strength. He’s been to Portman Road and has noticed the glum atmosphere, which he attributes to the dull football. Whilst we are at the buvette some of the players come in for post-match drinks and snacks, one of them (I think it might have been the big number eleven or the captain) tells me Lounes is a good player. I tell him that’s good news because Ipswich Town really needs some good players; before he leaves he shakes my hand. The man who I first spoke to when we arrived comes to the bar counter and gets out his mobile phone before showing us a montage of clips of Idris El Mizouni playing for the Under 18’s, this is when I discover that this is Idris’s dad.
After a good half an hour or more we have to leave and walk from the ground with Mustapha who leaves us his phone number and invites us round to eat; sadly Paulene’s food intolerances and allergies will make that too complicated. We thank Mustapha and say how good it has been to meet him. Hopefully we will see him again.

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