Ipswich Town 2 AFC Wimbledon 2

Back in 2004 as Ipswich Town were yet again failing to win yet another play-off tie (we have won just two out of nine ties), AFC Wimbledon were winning the Combined Counties Premier Division title.  Since then, Wimbledon have continued to collect promotions and Ipswich Town haven’t, and so today we find ourselves playing the 2004 Combined Counties Premier Division Champions for a third consecutive season.  Town and the original Wimbledon, the one that famously beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, had of course met in both the Premier League and the Championship and my wife Paulene is the proud owner of a cuddly Womble in Wimbledon kit that dated from when the original club was being eaten alive; apparently when she bought it, it was the last one in the shop.

Shamefully, playing fast and loose with the future of our planet, I have again driven to the match today, still fearful of using public transport as Covid cases spiral upwards in number and the government gambles the lives of the clinically vulnerable so that money can change hands, as it does most of the time to be fair, but usually more obliquely. Parking my trusty Citroen C3 up on Chantry I stroll down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a sky of picturesquely heaped up clouds, the afternoon is warm but dull, as English summers often are.

Rocking up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk) at about twenty past two, I join a short queue for the Fanzone just as the steward checking tickets and Covid credential announces that the bar in the Fanzone is now closed.  Brimming with disappointment and thwarted thirst I leave the queue and hang about aimlessly for a few minutes watching the crowds and counting the number of people wearing face masks, I see four.  It really is as if most people are convinced the pandemic is over.  Quickly bored with my own company I trudge off between the supporters’ coaches artfully arranged outside the old Corporation tram depot and head for the Constantine Road gate to the ground, where I join a very short queue to show off my Covid credentials.  “Thank you Martin” says the female steward as I flash my NHS vaccination card; it seems a bit familiar of her and I wonder if we know each other; she’s one of the few people wearing a mask so I can’t properly see her face. 

On the walk from the gate to the turnstile I purchase a programme (£3.50) and join a queue for turnstile fifty-nine because of the four turnstiles on this corner of the ground (numbers 59 to 62) it’s the only one that’s open. My favourite turnstile is number 62 because when using it I feel I am paying homage to Town’s Football League winning team of 1962.  Behind me in the queue a bunch of blokes chatter like excited youths, making weak jokes and commenting on there being only one turnstile open. “Cutting costs” suggests one.  “A bit naughty if it’s nearly kick-off” says another, weirdly imagining a scenario in which he hasn’t arrived twenty minutes before the game is due to start.  Another reads out loud the sign explaining what items are prohibited from the ground. “No tools” he chuckles, prompting his accomplices to each name a tool they would have liked to bring with them starting with a blow torch.

In the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with his son Elwood, but Pat from Clacton is on holiday in Ireland and Fiona, Ray and his son and his grandson Harrison are yet to arrive.  I speak with Phil who, in the course of our conversation explains that the bar in the Fanzone closes early because people hadn’t been drinking up in time to comply with the licence.  It starts to rain.

It’s still raining when the teams come on to the pitch and after a very brief ‘taking the knee’ which is so brief it looks a bit like a curtsy, the game begins beneath a battleship grey sky. Wimbledon get first go with the ball, lumping it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  For the third consecutive home league match Town’s opponents are wearing a kit of all-red; I think back to when most club’s away kit was yellow shirts and blue shorts,  except of course for Oxford United and Mansfield Town, but we never played them in the 1970’s.

Continuing the 1970’s theme the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are quickly into a rendition of Boney M’s 1978 Christmas number one ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but with lyrics altered to celebrate Ipswich singing, Norwich running away, and eternal fighting because of Boxing Day rather than the birth of the Messiah.  Just four minutes pass and Town’s Scott Fraser has the first shot on goal.  After seven minutes the weather seems to be brightening up a bit and the Wimbledon fans chant “The animals went in two by two”, which seems a bit odd given that it looks like it is about to stop raining and any plans to build an ark will have been put on hold, particularly since no one is allowed to bring tools into the ground.

With about a quarter of an hour played Wimbledon’s Alexander Woodyard is the first player to get sight of referee Mr Rock’s yellow card after he fouls Joe Piggott.  “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Wimbledon supporters somewhat coarsely and unimaginatively and then Town’s Rekeem Harper takes a shot from 18 metres or so which is easily gathered by Wimbledon goalkeeper Nik Tzanev.  The clouds are parting to reveal blue sky and as if attempting to create some sort of allegory, Town breach the Wimbledon defence and make several forays down the right flank, with Kane Vincent-Young and Wes Burns getting in a number of crosses, although none of them is met by a Town player and when one is the shot is weak.  The first half is almost half over, and Town win the game’s first corner.  “Come on you Blues” I chant, to the apparent bafflement of those around me.

Town are playing some exciting football but have little presence in the penalty area.  “Chase it, put him under pressure” shouts a voice a few rows behind me as Joe Piggott pursues a punt up field.  Another corner comes to nothing after thirty-seven minutes and the linesman with the red and yellow quartered flag minces back to the half-way line as Tzanev takes the goal kick.  As the half draws to a close a man with a loud, penetrating, and annoying voice is sharing a conversation with all those around him, although I doubt any of us want him to.  We learn that he was ‘the editor’, of what we don’t know or care, but he was “furious with himself”.  I’m not too pleased with him either, he needs to find his volume control, or just shut up.  Happily, only a minute of added time is to be played so respite soon arrives.  It’s been a pretty good half, although I can’t help feeling that although Town look good enough to be winning, somehow we haven’t really created good enough chances; perhaps it’s because we still have not ‘gelled’ yet.

Half-time involves consumption of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and then a cupcake, which is one of a whole tray-full that Ray shares with those around him to mark the occasion of his retirement, something that is also recorded on page 55 of today’s programme.   The happy events of real-life retreat again into the shadows as the second half begins at two minutes past four and like last week there is a mysterious hush around the ground in the opening minutes, almost as if people are disappointed that the players have returned.  Within seven minutes however, Wimbledon’s William Nightingale fails to live up to the high ideals of his namesake Florence and comes closer to wounding Wes Burns rather than offering succour and from the resultant penalty kick, Joe Piggott gives Town the lead, placing his penalty in the right-hand corner of the goal as Tzanev stupidly dives to the left.  The Sir Bobby Robson stand reprises “Mary’s Boy Child” in a state of heightened ecstasy whilst the Wimbledon supporters chant “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” to the tune of Guantanamera, thereby introducing a welcome Cuban folk vibe to the afternoon, something which is often conspicuously absent from Portman Road.  William Nightingale’s name is recorded in Mr Rock’s notebook to punish him further for being so unlike Florence.

With Town ahead Portman Road rocks to Boney M and thoughts of victory, and within two minutes Wes Burns doubles Town’s lead collecting a crucial pass from Kane Vincent-Young and smacking a fine shot across Tzanev into the far top left-hand corner of the goal.  Town will surely win now after four fruitless matches; on the basis of what has happened in the previous fifty-four minutes our lead is unassailable.  Four minutes later Wimbledon win a free kick, the ball skids off the top of Luke Woolfenden’s head and is set up ideally at the far post for Wimbledon’s Ben Heneghan, whose name makes me think of Feyenoord’s Wim Van Hanegem, to head down past Vaclav Hladky and make the score 2-1.  It must be Wimbledon’s first goal attempt on target.  “Bloody hell”, I think to myself.

“I don’t rate him” says a voice sitting behind me blaming Hladky for the goal “No, I don’t” says a neighbouring, voice “I don’t see how there’s any difference between him and Holy”.  It’s a point which I will hear no lesser expert than Mick Mills echo over the airwaves of Radio Suffolk as I drive home from the match in an hour’s time.  The discussion behind me continues as Hladky launches the ball up field; “He just boots the fuckin’ ball, he don’t look for no one do ‘e?

Dissatisfaction with the goalkeeper is however balanced by satisfaction with Wes Burns, “He’s superb, he is, he’s a helluva player” and it’s true, he is playing very well today and is linking up to goal scoring effect with Kane Vincent-Young down the right.   Within ten minutes Wimbledon have made their permitted three substitutions bringing on the more exotically and lengthily named Nesta Guinness-Walker and Dapo Awokoya-Mebude for plain old Luke McCormick and Aaron Pressley and swapping the fifty percent exotic Cheye Alexander for equally exotic Jack Rudoni, both of whom sound like they may possess an Equity card.

Seventy-four minutes of the game have got up and gone and Hladky has to save a shot from Ollie Palmer giving Wimbledon a corner.  Four minutes later and a hobbling Wes Burns is replaced by Janoi Donacien and less understandably Kane Vincent-Young is replaced by Sone Aluko.   The excellent Hayden Coulson also appears to be injured and is replaced by Matthew Penney.  Vaclav Hladky is booked for time-wasting, although it looked as if he merely didn’t understand Mr Rock’s wafting hand gestures about where a free kick should be taken from.  “I can’t help falling in love with you” sing the Wimbledon supporters enigmatically.  What is it with football supporters and naff “adult orientated” popular music?

“The momentum has gone” says one of the voices behind me and then repeats the phrase, perhaps for added emphasis, but possibly because it’s true.  Wimbledon now press as they have never done before in the game, it’s as if the two teams have swapped shirts.  The Wimbledon players seem to want to score a goal whilst the Ipswich players just want to get indoors and have a shower before driving home in their sickeningly ostentatious cars.  Time added on arrives and there are six minutes of it, Fiona and I roll our eyes.   Five minutes into the additional six minutes and what we have come to think of as the inevitable happens; a Wimbledon corner is headed goalwards by Ben Heneghan, Hladky saves but doesn’t catch the ball and Jack Rudoni boots the ball over the goal line, unable to miss, even if by some freakish desire to see Ipswich win, he had wanted to.

The final whistle follows soon afterwards and predictably a number of attention seekers in the crowd of 19,051 and people who were perhaps spoiled as children boo because their team hasn’t won.  Maybe someone will buy them an ice cream on the way home to appease their bawling and moaning.  I stay to applaud the Town players from the field and see them hang their heads in disappointment.  I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but football is that sort of a game and when I get home I shall flush that cuddly Womble down the toilet.

Ipswich Town 5 ABBA 5

The football season is over save for the silly play-offs, and now it’s the height of Spring,  and with little else to occupy him a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Eurovision Song Contest;  or maybe not.  But last week’s transmission of the bizarre, annual , musical  television ritual extravaganza was inevitably accompanied by the airing of a clip show on BBC4 of past performances by the competition’s only notable success, Abba.  I have never bought, stolen, borrowed or owned an Abba record, tape, download or CD, but I will admit to being unable to suppress a smile when I hear one played.    Equally, I couldn’t resist watching that clip show and felt rewarded when it brought back memories of a road trip I made in the summer of 1995, which took me and my then girlfriend via Parkeston Quay, DFDS Seaways ferry, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Uppsala and Sundsvall to Pitea in northern Sweden, where we stayed with my girlfriend’s pen friend and her husband.  It was a very long drive for which the soundtrack for several stages of the journey came courtesy of a CD of Abba Gold belonging to my girlfriend.

The experience of listening to Abba on that road trip has stayed with me and it led to an article in the erstwhile Ipswich Town fanzine A Load of Cobbolds.  Now, in the spirit of nostalgia inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Ipswich Town’s UEFA Cup win and  in the absence of anything better to do I have reproduced that article below, updating it to modern times where necessary:

When you’re an eleven or twelve year-old football and pop music loom large as pre-pubescent priorities.   I bought my first record (Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono) in 1971,  the same year that I started watching Ipswich Town, and I  soon began to feel that footie and pop music were somehow inextricably linked. The late Sixties and early Seventies was a time when it was easy to confuse footballers with pop stars and my two worlds satisfyingly collided.  The fashion for any bloke who aspired to being hip and trendy was an enormous thatch of hair coupled with equally vast sideburns.  Squeezed into a pair of bollock-hugging, crushed-velvet flairs and sporting a deafeningly loud shirt,  Ian Collard or Rod Belfitt might have been members of The Hollies, or Kevin Beattie a member of Nazareth.

The similarities in the appearance of pop stars and footballers subsided a bit as the Seventies wore on and sadly, sartorially Punk Rock never seemed to catch on with any footballers at all.  There were however still some startling lookalikes within the ranks of the PFA, I thought.  It could have just been my addled perception, but I always felt that Arsenal’s Frank Stapleton and Shakin’ Stevens were the same bloke.  Moving on into the 1980’s the separation at birth of Oldham Athletic’s Andy Ritchie and Jimmy Somerville was ‘well documented’ at the time, but less well-known is the fact that Roy Keane and Sinead O’Connor were also twins.

More amazing than these superficial similarities, which admittedly are largely the invention of my fevered imagination, is the very precise correlation between the success of one particular football club during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and a particular pop group.  Both were at their peak between 1973 and 1982. The football club of course was Ipswich Town and the pop group was Abba.

If you take time to trawl through the collected works of the famous Swedish songsters, as Dave Allard might have called them, you will not only enjoy a richly rewarding aural experience, but you will soon reach the conclusion that the fact that Town and Abba were both at the peak of their powers over precisely the same period of time is no coincidence.   Listen carefully to the lyrics and you will be able to trace the history of the Town’s success through that glorious era.  You will find that listening to Abba Gold (Greatest Hits) is as close to a religious experience as you can hope to get;  something akin to an Ipswich Town Dreamtime, harking back to an epoch when Portman Road was inhabited by ancestral figures of heroic proportions who possessed supernatural powers.   In the film Muriel’s Wedding the eponymous Muriel says that Abba’s songs are better than real life.  Now, as we sit in the murky depths of the third division and look back at Town’s glorious past you too will believe this is true.

As you might expect from Europe’s foremost supergroup many of the songs make reference to Town’s European campaigns of that era in the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ cups.  It is likely that it was through Town’s exploits on the continent that the talented Swedes first became Town supporters, although we were actually only drawn against Swedish opposition  once when in 1977 we met Landskrona Bois and most inconveniently The Stranglers played the Ipswich Gaumont on the very same night as the home leg.  Naturally, I missed The Stranglers concert and sadly never got a second opportunity to see them.    There is clearly a reference to Town’s UEFA Cup triumph over Lazio in the title of the number one hit ‘Mamma Mia!’, a song which also contains a lyric that suggests one of Abba had perhaps had a brief flirtation with a Town player or supporter and may explain the uncanny connection between Abba and the mighty Blues;

“Yes, I’ve been broken hearted, Blue since the day we parted.”

The moving ballad ‘Fernando’ is sung to an imaginary Spanish fan and recalls those sultry September and cooler autumn evenings when we entertained Iberian opposition from Real Madrid, Las Palmas and Barcelona.

“There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando….

Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regrets. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”

That last line referred to the fact that Town were twice drawn to play Barcelona, whilst the line  before that refers to our having lost both ties despite being confident after winning the first leg.  Another song, ‘Super Trouper’, whilst still referencing games played under floodlight, perhaps because of the lack of daylight hours in Sweden during the English football season, refers to an individual player and employs little-known Swedish rhyming slang in a thinly disguised paean to goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me shining like the sun, Smiling having fun feeling like a number one”

In the 1978 Abba hit “Take a chance on me”   the subtle Swedish Blues fans reveal the little known story of how Frans Thijssen successfully pleaded with Bobby Robson to let him join his compatriot Arnold Muhren at Portman Road and to try his luck in English football. 

Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me. If you need me let me know and I’ll be around. Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie, if you put me to the test, if you let me try”.

Although those days were such wonderful times for Town, not every song described a happy or uplifting event.  There were sad days too at Portman Road back in the Seventies and hard decisions had to be made for the good of the team.  The 1977 ‘Number One’ hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ was about the departure of former Portman Road favourite David Johnson, the one-time ‘King of Portman Road’, who left Town to join rivals Liverpool.  In the song, the reflective Scouser looks back on the good times he has had at Portman Road since his move to Town from Everton four years earlier.

  “Memories, good days, bad days, they’ll be with me, always”

David appreciates however that his recent form has not been good and in the circumstances a move is the best thing for everyone.

  “Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do, we just have to face it this time we’re through; Breaking up is never easy I know but I had to go, Knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I could do”.

Back in the Seventies, money wasn’t the driving force in football that it is today.  Nevertheless, the spending power of clubs such as Manchester United, who were able to make expensive signings virtually every season despite being rubbish, rankled with Bobby Robson and he longed to be able to make big signings for Town.  Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” was a song about his frustration. 

“In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man…  “

”All the things I could do if I had a little money…”

“Money, money, money, always sunny in a rich man’s world”

Both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’ showed something of the downside of those glory years and as we look back on those days from the fag-end of the first quarter of the miserable twenty-first century a melancholy aura pervades our memories, in part because ultimately Town failed to win the League Championship that we deserved, but perhaps also because even at the time we knew it all had to end one day, and when Bobby Robson left to manage England in 1982 we secretly knew it had.  Abba knew it too and two of their hits put these feelings in to sharp perspective.  The haunting melody of ‘Winner takes it all’ explores the pain that looking back on the good times would bring; it begins:

 “I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me now it’s history”

Abba’s last big hit ‘Thank you for the music’ is sung from the perspective of our legendary club captain Mick Mills who reminisces, having regretfully left Town for Southampton, about the joy and beauty of those days between 1973 and 1982.  If you’ve listened to the slightly dull monotone of Mick’s summaries as he sits alongside commentator Brenner Woolley on BBC Radio Suffolk, you will appreciate the opening lines to this song; 

“I’m nothing special in fact I’m a bit of a bore, If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before…”

But Mick’s talent was as full-back and captain of the greatest Ipswich Town side ever and this was the ‘music’ referred to in the title of this most moving of Abba songs.  This was a song from the heart of ‘Mr Ipswich Town’, Mick Mills, and it is truly uncanny how Mick with his blond locks and luxurious facial hair even looks like a bit like a composite of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the song’s composers.  This song is the ultimate celebration of those ten seasons at the top in which Mick thanks fate for the glorious hand he was dealt.

“I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair

I want to sing it out to everybody

What a joy, what a life, what a chance

So I say Thank You for the music

The songs I’m singing

Thank you for the joy they’re bringing…”

The songs of Abba define and encapsulate a golden period in the story of the twentieth century and the time before Thatcherism and neo-liberalism destroyed your innocence.  Abba’s songs, their success and the glory of Ipswich Town, the nicest professional football club the world had ever known did not happen together by coincidence.  The proof is in the lyrics of the songs, and shows that cosmic forces were at work.  Those of us who lived through the 1970’s were truly blessed to have experienced the music of Abba as it happened, but we are doubly blessed to have been Ipswich Town supporters too.

Thank you for the music Bobby Robson and Mick and all the lads who played for us between 1973 and 1982 , and thank you for the music Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.

Montpellier Hérault SC 0 Paris St Germain 0

Having arrived on holiday in Languedoc on Monday, on Tuesday tickets for this match went on general sale. With no secure internet connection acquiring tickets required a forty-five minute drive to Montpellier, to the Odysseum complex just off the A9 motorway where Montpellier Hérault SC has its’ club shop. Joining the queue outside in the blazing sun at about 12:15 we emerged from the shop clutching a pair of 35 euro tickets at about 13:45. By the time we had reached the front of the queue the only tickets left had been in the upper tiers of the stands behind each goal. We chose seats in the Tribune Petite Camargue above the Montpellier Ultras at the opposite end of the Stade de la Mosson to the Paris St Germain supporters.
Two weeks and four days later we park up in the dedicated football car park near the37399307972_eb9bb2373d_o park and ride tram station in Mosson, or La Paillade as it is colloquially known. It costs just 2 euros to park. It’s early, not much after 3 o’clock and the game won’t kick off until 5 pm. We dawdle out of the car park towards the stadium enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I am supporting Montpellier today because like a lot of football supporters I despise clubs like Chelsea, Billericay Town and Salford City that are bankrolled by people with too much money. But also I first saw Montpellier in 2011 against PSG (they lost 0-3) and followed their results for the rest of that season, in which they ended up winning the Ligue 1 title. I like their navy blue and orange kit too and added to which Montpellier is a very attractive and exciting city. The upshot is today I am wearing a Montpellier Hérault SC t-shirt, and as we cross the car park I exchange glances with a PSG fan who is stood with two women under the shade of a tree enjoying a snack and a drink. He rolls his eyes at my T-shirt and smiles and so I decide to stop and try and talk with him. Happily neither his English nor my French are so inadequate that we can’t make ourselves understood to one another. I tell him that I really support Ipswich Town and he rolls his eyes again, although he agrees that they had a good team a long time ago; he believes that Chelsea and Liverpool are okay, but then I’d expect as much from the sort of person who supports France’s most hated club. My wife tells him her team is Portsmouth, which he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it ‘Ports-moose’. He is in his fifties, a scruffy looking bloke in a denim jacket with a beard and long hair; he and his wife and daughter live in Béziers but he is a PSG ultra; he grew up in Paris and his dad took him to watch PSG at the Parc des Princes as a boy. Having both shared our deep disappointment over Brexit (every German, Belgian and Frenchman I have spoken to seems as upset as me) and probably exhausted our respective vocabularies in each other’s language we wish one another well and my wife and I carry on towards the stadium.
There is a lot of hanging about going on because the road to the stadium is closed off. But there are a number of gazebos selling food and beer to help while away the wait.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A blacked out Mercedes minivan is guided through the road block behind two police motor cycles and an army of policemen look on, some in full Kevlar riot gear, one or two with sub-machine guns, including one who looks a bit like the late John Le Mesurier.37397661451_31eb220131_o Later we learn that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the game and it is likely it was him in the Mercedes.
Eventually, having enjoyed a beer in the shade of some trees we are allowed through the barriers and approach Stade de la Mosson at about twenty to four. Unusually perhaps for a stadium that was used in the 1998 World Cup, Stade Mosson is not particularly spectacular looking; in fact it is a fairly basic cantilever roofed design, which forms an angular horseshoe around three sides of the pitch. The steel stanchions from which the roof hangs are painted in the club colours of orange and blue. It does have one striking looking stand however,

a triple decker with a massive top tier but no roof, supported on streamlined, sloping concrete legs. Bizarrely however, the top tier is closed; something to do with the club’s average attendances and its licence from the French Football Federation, which is explained on the website, but I don’t quite follow.
There is a mobile club shop out in the road and a bar run by one of the ultra groups is built into the back of a stand by the roadside. After the usual pat down we enter the stadium and entering the stand pick up one of the glossy, A5 size, 28 page and free match day programmes entitled ‘L’Echo de la Mosson’, which are left in cardboard boxes at the top of the stairs. I buy another beer (4.50 euros but this price includes a club–branded reusable plastic 500ml ‘glass’).37399326532_c0479ae95c_o The guy who serves me at the buvette instantly detects that I am not French but sees my Montpellier T-shirt and so I explain that I dislike PSG; not as much as he does he replies.
It’s a good view from our backless plastic seats and we watch the players warm up. The PSG players are roundly booed as they come onto the field. We watch the stands fill up and are interested by the eclectic mix of spectators. Montpellierians tend to be keener on rugby than football and the average attendance at Stade de la Mosson last season was only 12,356, although the team were mostly struggling, finishing fifteenth out of twenty in Ligue 1. It is inevitable that there are a lot of people here today who probably rarely come to Mosson; many will have been drawn by the anticipated presence of Neymar, the world’s most ludicrously expensive footballer. Fortunately for the club, the tickets sold out long before PSG announced their squad would be minus Neymar. There are many families here but also a group of four young women who seem to be dressed more for a night out rather than a football match; they perhaps want to look their best for PSG and its millionaires. A happy looking man works hard up and down the aisles and staircases selling packets of cacahuètes andOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA crisps from a tray; I buy a packet of the locally made crisps (2 euros) which are in a plain bag which carries no branding whatsoever, very good they are too.
Before the teams come on to the field there is a display of flag waving and then with much fanfare and the playing of the Ligue 1 theme music the teams take to the field led by Monsieur Clément Turpin possibly Europe’s finest current referee.

Montpellier wear an all navy blue kit with orange names and numbers on the back; oddly but fashionably the shoulders are a different colour too, a sort of burgundy. Paris St Germain wear an all yellow kit and they remind me of Leeds United of the 1970’s, not just because of the kit but because of how obvious it is that everybody in the ground except their own supporters loathes them. Like in most countries there is much antipathy between the regions and the capital in France, but Montpellier is deep in the south of the country just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and that dislike of all things Parisian is even greater down here.

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The game begins, Montpellier kicking towards the Tribune Petite Camargue, and predictably PSG don’t let go of the ball; they pass it around effortlessly and endlessly but Montpellier are not going to be a pushover, they chase and they tackle and every success is cheered wildly by the fiercely partisan home crowd. A couple of bangers are let off to our right somewhere and a fire cracker burns in the PSG goalmouth down in front of us. PSG’s Brazilian defender Marquinos is booked after just twelve minutes and the home supporters cheer like a goal has been scored; to please them that bit more PSG’s Italian hard-man Thiago Motta has a free-kick awarded against him and seems to hurt himself in the process of committing the foul.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
There is a lot of football being played in this game, PSG are great to watch. There is the incredible speed and quickness of thought of Kylian MbappéOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, the sheer presence of the rugged Edinson CavaniOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the elegance of Adrien Rabiot with his pre-Raphaelite looks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The atmosphere is intoxicating with constant noise from both sets of ultras; the PSG fans ceaselessly waving flags and banners at the far end;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a short while before half-time the PSG fans together raise their scarves aloft as English fans once did. The perpetual threat of a possible goal from PSG at any time is its own form of excitement, enhanced by the tension of 20,000 of us willing it not to happen. But as PSG go on longer without scoring, Montpellier get more into the game and come forward; there is a belief that they could grab a goal themselves which only adds to the churn of emotions, hopes and fears.
Half-time brings respite and a visit to the ‘toilette’, which is a bit dark and a little grim but there’s no queue, unlike for ‘the ladies where as is often the case there just aren’t enough cubicles. The bars are busy so I return to my seat to enjoy the scene and the warmth of this beautiful bright, late September afternoon. Looking out across the pitch it is plain to see that it isn’t in a very good condition; it is almost bare in places and if they don’t win PSG can always use that as an excuse.
As the second half begins the Tribune Minervois behind the far goal now casts a shadow over the penalty area at that end. The same pattern of play resumes with PSG dominating possession of the ball. The Montpellier defence is playing brilliantly however, and their captain, 40 year old Brazilian, Vittorino Hilton,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a veteran of the 2012 title winning side is outstanding. At different times both Mbappé and Cavani look sure to score but don’t, but now Montpellier also get the opportunity to spurn chances. As much as most of us in the ground would love Montpellier to score, it is enough that PSG do not. For the impartial, if that is possible in this atmosphere, or for journalists, this game is probably not the best and indeed the following week’s France Football magazine will only give it 8 marks out of 20 in its summary of matches, although no match will get a mark higher than 14. But football matches are not just about the football. On 74 minutes the whole crowd breaks out into applause for Louis Nicollin the wealthy industrialist and former chairman of Montpellier Hérault SC who died on his 74th birthday during the summer. Nicollin was a legend in Montpellier and across France having led the club from the regional amateur leagues in the early 1970’s to Ligue 1 in the space of just eight years. Nicollin was affectionately known as ‘Loulou’ and this name adorns the team shirts this season and that plastic cup that I drank my beer from before the game. Despite the divisions between the ultras of Montpellier and PSG, Loulou succeeds in uniting them.
By now the shadow of the Tribune Minervois has lengthened to shroud the whole pitch and the four minutes of added on time are a final test, creating a terminal tension which explodes with joy and relief and pride with Monsieur Turpin’s final whistle. This has been a fantastic afternoon, a classic example of the underdog winning through, one of the very best things in football. As much as people love to hate clubs like PSG the pantomime villain has his place and if he didn’t exist he would need to be invented…as indeed he has been.

 

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Debenham Leisure Centre FC 1 Framlingham Town 4

A journey through the Suffolk countryside on a bright, sunny and unseasonably warm early April afternoon is the lovely prelude to this game, this local derby. Unfortunately, whilst it is easy enough to get to Debenham on a bus for 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, it is not possible to get back again unless you live in Mendlesham or somewhere on the bus route between the two villages. The upshot is that I have had to drive to the Debenham Leisure Centre, and if you do the same, rather than say walk several miles across the fields from Framlingham or Diss, I would recommend getting here in good time because the car park can get full up.
Debenham Leisure Centre FCOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA was founded as recently as 1991 and it is odd that a largish village like Debenham should have to wait so long to have a football club, then when it did happen the club name should include the words Leisure Centre. But in the comparatively short space of 26 years they have progressed as far as the Eastern Counties Premier League, although they currently reside in the First Division, which is step six of the non-league pyramid, or Division Ten if ‘The Championship’ is Division Two.
A yellow and black sign in the car park announces that this is where the football club, known as the Hornets, hang out, but there is no turnstile into the ‘stadium’ and you have to work out that the access is through the leisure centre itself. But once inside it’s still not clear where to go; there are two choices, through the leisure centre bar or down a short corridor which appears to lead to the outside, which if my memory of other football grounds isn’t failing me is where the match is likely to be played. Using logic I opt for the corridor and of course I am wrong and a gentleman older than me appears like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to ask if I will be watching the match. I am advised that entry is through the bar and he can’t understand why people try to get in the way that I tried to. May be because they can’t understand which way they are supposed to enter I venture. But there is a sign he says. But does it say which way to go I ask. As mysteriously as he appeared he disappears and I find myself in the bar where my accomplice, who I have not mentioned up until now, buys me a pint of cask Speckled Hen in a plastic cup.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Surprisingly perhaps and all credit to the leisure centre staff for this, it tastes pretty darn good. Pints in hand we pay our £5 entry fee to a friendly man with a pint mug full of banknotes who is stood behind a table, and I also purchase a copy of the impressively cheap match programme33948024985_c1fb66a745_o (50p).
We sit outside in the sun at a circular wooden picnic table. A grey-haired man in some sort of commemorative Liverpool shirt brings us bright orange wrist bands to wear,33817958691_1bcae0aa48_o to show that we have paid to watch the game. Apparently the football club has a problem with people watching the matches without paying; this is because there are so many ways into the ground which are unchecked. I will later find what seems to be a public footpath crossing the site which confirms that this club is on a hiding to nothing. After a little while a couple in their late sixties or early seventies sit opposite. The man reads his programme behind his sunglasses and sups a beer. The woman tells him a couple of times that she is enjoying her cup of coffee; “It’s nice sitting here in the sun” she says, but her comment provokes nothing, nothing but silence, it is as if her words had never been uttered. No affirmation, no contradiction, nothing. Another man arrives and says something bland about football and the two men have a conversation. Her cup drained, the woman says how much she enjoyed her coffee, “I suppose you’ll want another one at half-time then” says the man.
A little while later a rounded man walks past our table to the main block of the leisure centre carrying two large jugs of a yellow/orange liquid. Making our own entertainment my accomplice and I earnestly tell each other that under new FA doping rules everyone in both teams must be tested for drug use. At this level of course that is prohibitively expensive so each team is tested in one go, hence a single jug of yellow liquid from each. It’s a team game after all. How we laugh at our own joke.

Time moves on and it’s nearly 3 o’clock; time to take up a position by the rail to watch the match. The Friend’s Meadow ground or Maitland’s as it was formerly known is a basic but neat ground with a small pre-fabricated

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stand containing seats straddling the halfway line and a concrete path around the rest of the perimeter. The dugouts are opposite the stand and there is a sturdy post and rail fence around the pitch with a number of advertisement boards attached to it, bearing the names of assorted local plumbers, builders and hairdressers. Behind one goal is a small mound, a grassy knoll, behind that, bushes, a hedge, a field, a tractor. There is a regimented line of poplars some 80 yards beyond the far side of the pitch with a hedge beneath. Daisies and dandelions are beginning to bloom on the mound and on the pitch.

At last it’s 3 pm and Framlingham Town, wearing their kit of green and white hoops kick off towards the council houses at the edge of Debenham. About a quarter past three Framlingham score a goal, not undeservedly because they have been much the better team, quicker and brighter, they pass the ball whereas Debenham in their black-sleeved yellow shirts are slow, less skilful and dull by comparison. The Debenham number 11 seems unable to approach a Framlingham player without fouling him and is spoken to by the short referee, Mr Willmore.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The number 11 doesn’t look very contrite and predictably when he fouls again, the referee brandishes a yellow card in his general direction. A full-faced bearded man leaning on the rail pleads the number 11’s case. “What was that for? That was piss poor” He opines, adding that he hopes the referee is going to be consistent, which is an odd wish given that he is apparently getting his decisions wrong.

The sun beats down as best it can in April forcing my accomplice to make use of his hoodie to protect his delicate northern European complexion. Framlingham continue to be the better team. Debenham just boot the ball forward for their forwards to run after; “Foot race” shouts the bearded man. What other sort of race is there in a football match? A horse race, slow-bicycle race? Let’s kick racism out of football. At about twenty five to four the Debenham number two tackles over-enthusiastically and is booked. From the ensuing free-kick the ball is crossed and after a pass or two, Framlingham, score a second goal, a volley, spectacular of course as all volleys are. The bearded man questions the linesman about the referee’s decision and very helpfully the linesman tells him about the use of excessive force and not being in control when tackling. The bearded man doesn’t recognise this as a thing in football and the linesman tells him that there is an assessor stood near him who can explain and he in turn helpfully tells the bearded man about what you can’t do in the ‘modern game’. The bearded man is unimpressed and moans about making the game ‘non-contact’ and it not being like it was when he played.

About five minutes later Framlingham score yet again just to make a point and soon it is half-time. I and my accomplices, for a second friend has joined me during the first half, head for the tea bar. I buy a soft roll for £2 and a pounds worth of tea in a mug with a handle,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA which is much more civilised than a plastic or polystyrene cup. I have to take the roll outside to a barbecue where another lady gives me a sausage to complete my hot dog The two ladies indoors serving the tea and rolls fight over who gets the three pounds. Later, I speculate as to whether in the same way that some people get into the game without paying, others might bring their own soft roll in order to bag a free hot dog.

For the start of the second half we stand on the grassy knoll, which is a surprisingly good vantage point, although it’s slightly in the shade so it’s a bit cool and eventually we settle at the side of the goal now being defended by Debenham and their bulky goalkeeper, who is a vision in baby blue,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA but doesn’t cast a shadow over us despite his size. After their abject first half display Debenham have made three substitutions with the clumsy number 11 being one of them. Debenham look all the better for their mugs of half-time isotonic tea and their substitutes’ ‘fresh legs’ and attitude, and after just nine minutes of play are awarded a penalty, which is scored by their centre-forward whose first name is Paris. Debenham continue to spend time in the Framlingham half, but their hopes are dealt a severe blow when their pony-tailed substitute falls over and is accused by Framlingham players of diving. Jabbing of fingers ensues before a look of shock crosses the referee’s face and he brandishes his red card at the pony-tailed substitute, apparently for threatening behaviour towards his accusers from Framlingham.

Debenham’s hopes are pretty much dashed and whilst the game begins to meander, there is an unexpected outburst of frustration when following a foul by a Framlingham player the Debenham captain suddenly bawls “when are you going to do something ref!”  The referee looks a little taken aback. After a Debenham player generously heads the ball into his own goal to give Framlingham a fourth goal, the game enters the final ten minutes. Aware of much shouting from the managers we move closer to the ‘technical areas’ and witness a Framlingham substitute having a wee up against the back wall of the dug-out before going on; possibly a superstition or may be that second cup of tea at half-time was a mistake. Interestingly there is a high fence between the dug outs which could easily ‘hide’ a urinal if necessary.

Framlingham have a lot of young players on the field and the coach or manager or whatever he is provides plenty of words of encouragement. Mystifyingly I hear him several times shout “Call him Will” then surmise that he is actually shouting “Call him, Will”. Meanwhile the Debenham manager has a less positive vibe about him and is bemoaning his team’s luck for which he blames the referee. He complains that they should have had a penalty and then complains that the penalty they did score shouldn’t have been a penalty, which on balance seems a fairly pointless complaint.

Eventually time is called and there is some applause, but not a lot from the 128 people who were counted as having paid and those who possibly didn’t. A bit miserable of people not to applaud the effort; these players aren’t being paid fortunes to do this, not here anyway. The crowd drifts away and in making our exit we complete a circuit of the ground, barely stopping to admire some graffiti which looks a bit ‘urban’ and out of place in rural Suffolk.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not a bad afternoon’s entertainment for a fiver.