A year ago, the 2020/21 football season began for me in my back bedroom as Town met Bristol Rovers in the League Cup via the airwaves of Radio Suffolk and the descriptive powers of Brenner Woolley and his esteemed sidekick and expert summariser Mick Mills. But fate, as fickle as it is, has taken an apparent turn for the better and today as the 2021/22 season begins I am returning to Portman Road along with 21,000 or so other souls who have so far survived the pandemic. With luck I shall never have to endure another ninety-minutes of radio commentary ever again.
As a naturally lazy person, going out again on a Saturday afternoon is something of an effort, but as ever I surprise myself with what I can achieve if I put my mind to it. At two o’clock I rock up in my trusty Citroen C3 on Chantry estate where I park before taking a brisk walk through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the London to Stowmarket main rail line, through what was once the site of Reavell’s factory and over the Sir Bobby Robson bridge to Constantine Road where I meet my friend Mick, who has made it easy for me to find him amongst the crowds by telling me through the medium of the mobile phone that he would be standing next to a pink ice-cream van. Mick, an ethical man, is true to his word; someone less like Boris Johnson I have yet to meet. Mick and I haven’t seen each other in eighteen months but our conversation is oddly brief. Neither of us seems overly keen on entering the fanzone for a beer or to experience whatever other joys it has to offer, and what with the queues to get in we decide within ten minutes to leave further socialising for another day and go our separate ways. I head off to purchase a programme (£3.50) from the nearest convenient kiosk before weaving my way between the buses and coaches of Beeston’s and Whincop as they disgorge rustic supporters from Hadleigh and Peasenhall. A programme is an essential purchase today in order to have any clue about the identity of the team. Having safely weaved my way I join a queue to have Covid credentials checked before entering the ground in Constantine Road. In the queue behind me a “well-spoken” young man seems oblivious to the pandemic and is turned away, having no proof of vaccination or negative lateral flow test. Did he really think he would be able to just turn up and get in? Apparently, he did. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 and cheerily thank the operator for letting me in. For the gatekeepers to a world of dreams and possibilities turnstile operators are much underrated and somewhat taken for granted; their replacement with automatic scanning equipment that beeps in lieu of hoping I enjoy the match is a sad loss.
Out on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I re-acquaint myself with Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game (except when games are played behind closed doors), Phil’s son Elwood and Ray. There is change however, and next to Pat from Clacton is sat Fiona, and the old dears who used to sit behind me but then sat in front of me are conspicuously absent; I do hope they’re okay. It is good to be back nevertheless, even if hardly anyone except the stewards is wearing a facemask.
From the players’ tunnel a white t-shirted and trackie-bottomed Paul Cook appears to take the crowd’s applause, he’s not a sophisticated looking man sartorially, as I guess his scouse accent foretells. The teams follow soon afterwards and before the game begins a picture of the recently deceased Paul Mariner appears on the scoreboard and we are told that there will be a minute’s applause in his memory, but before the announcer can finish his sentence or the referee can blow his whistle the applause begins; it’s a case of premature appreciation.
Applause over, the Beatles’ Hey Jude strikes up like a metaphorical post-coital cigarette; no one joins in and today’s visitors Morecambe kick-off their first ever game in the third division with a hoof up-field. For those who combine a love of decimal anniversaries and symmetry it is vaguely appropriate that Morecambe are playing Town, who sixty years ago this month began their first ever season in what I believe people now call the Premier League; Town were at Bolton, they drew 0-0. This season is also the sixtieth anniversary of Morecambe winning the Lancashire Combination league for the second time.
Not much happens to begin with. Morecambe are the first to win a corner. I enjoy the sight of a Town player with a headband, Wes Burns; historically many of the greatest footballers have had plenty of hair, Netzer, Best, Kempes, Pirlo are good examples. Less enjoyable is Morecambe’s kit, a boring all red creation with white bits at the sides of the shirts and a diagonal white band which would have been okay if it didn’t fade out like a peculiar chalky skid mark. My attention is also claimed by the Morecambe goalkeeper, Letheren, which is a suitably violent sounding surname for a man with the build of a night club bouncer.
Oddly, given the absence of anyone Spanish in either team or anyone even dressed as a matador, the North Stand break into a chorus of Ole, Ole, Ole. Perhaps I’m wrong however, and they are singing Allez. Allez, Allez to Frenchman Toumani Diagouraga who played for Town under Mick McCarthy but today is appearing for Morecambe: I guess I’ll never know. At ten past three Town are awarded a free-kick when Scott Fraser is knocked over; it’s the ninth minute of the game and some supporters attempt a half-arsed attempt at another minute’s applause for Paul Mariner, it’s an effort doomed to failure so soon after that first over eager applause. The free-kick flashes past Letheren’s right hand goal post to gasps of smothered hope from those around me.
At fourteen minutes past three Kane Vincent-Young is victim of the game’s most blatant and spectacular foul as he pushes the ball past Liam Gibson and the antediluvian looking full-back takes him down at waist height. Referee Mr Craig Hicks, who will later go all out to set himself up as an early contender for the worst referee of the season barely speaks to him. “It’s going to take quite a few games to gel” I hear Pat say to Fiona as the free-kick comes to nought. The concept of ‘gelling’ is being discussed everywhere in Ipswich right now, my only hope that when it happens it does so in the ‘coming together’ sense of the word rather than any sort of unpleasant stiffening or solidifying.
Joe Piggott stoops to head a glancing header onto the roof of the net and I wonder if he is known by his team-mates as Piggy. “Stand up if you hate the scum” chant the North Stand for no apparent reason, particularly given that they are all standing up already. Then Morecambe score through Cole Stockton but courtesy of the Ipswich defence suffering collective amnesia with regard to why they are all wearing football kit and boots. “I’m Morecambe ‘til I die” chant the 356 Lancastrians in the corner of the Cobbold Stand perhaps putting into song what they imagine the budding comic partner of Ernie Wise , John Bartholomew said when he changed his name to Eric.
Despite being behind, I’m not worried, but I quite can’t decide if it’s because I think our new team will ultimately overcome or if I no longer care. Toto Nsiala goes off injured to be replaced by Janoi Donacien and I’m struck by how unnaturally neat the hair of the linesman with the red and yellow flag is; and how he somehow reminds me of Neymar, as if Neymar had a really dull older cousin or uncle. I am shaken from my reverie by a shout of “Do ‘im, ee’s shit” from somewhere behind as Kane Vincent-Young again comes faces to face with Liam Gibson. The first half drags on past a quarter to four. “Come on Ipswich, come on Ipswich” chant what sounds like a most of the crowd, but soon both Town and Morecambe go off because it’s half time, and we still trail.
Half-time passes in a blur of conversation and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar, just like it always did. The game resumes at the ridiculously late time of nine minutes past four. Piggy soon has a shot saved and then Morecambe’s Anthony O’Connor is the first player to be booked as he sends Chaplin’s hat and cane flying. It starts to rain and I catch the lovely scent of damp air on a summer’s afternoon as the North Stand shout “Wanker, wanker, wanker” at the ever more inept Mr Hicks. Town’s left back Matthew Penney is felled by an outstretched leg but no free-kick is given provoking chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”, which I decide is also probably true of whoever cut Luke Woolfenden’s hair.
An hour has passed and then we score, Scott Fraser leathering the ball past Letheren after a one-two with Chaplin. We’ll win now won’t we? We’ve been looking by far the better team, and Morecambe have hardly been in our half. Parity lasts eleven minutes and then Luke Woolfenden, possibly momentarily paralysed by a flashback to a recent experience in a barber’s shop gives the ball away to Cole Stockton who merely has to run unopposed at the goal, drop a shoulder or two to fox Town’s latest east European goalkeeper, Vaclav Hladky, and roll the ball into the goal net. Bugger.
Pat from Clacton was right, it will take time to gel. But then we don’t panic, we just carry on as we were, showing faith in ourselves and putting in plenty of effort despite the best efforts of Mr Hicks, who proceeds in the space of six minutes to book Lee Evans, Matthew Penney and then James Norwood who replaces Piggy. The oddly named Macauley Bonne also enters the field in place of Conor “Charlie” Chaplin. But time has drifted by and we are already into the four minutes of added-on time. I admit I have given up hope and have accepted defeat; good luck to plucky little Morecambe I’m thinking in as patronising a manner as I can muster. But then James Norwood heads the ball on, the oddly named Macauley Bonne collects its and sends a fine right-footed shot beneath the sprawling Kyle Letheren and into the goal. We are probably not going to lose after all I think, and I’m right, we don’t.
It’s been a funny afternoon but an entertaining one nevertheless, an afternoon of Lee Evans, C Chaplin, Morecambe and wise words from Pat from Clacton about taking time to gel.