Ipswich Town 4 Charlton Athletic 0

Today is the last day of the season in the English third division, and in common with every last day of the season for about the past twenty years it doesn’t matter much if Ipswich Town play today’s game or not.  In 2019 Town had already been relegated by the time what is often thought of as this auspicious day arrived, but usually, like today, Town are becalmed in mid-table mediocrity with no fear of relegation and no hope of promotion.  Ours is the club that would confound Rudyard Kipling and his poem ‘If’; we neither meet with triumph nor disaster, so what else can we do but treat them both the same. According to Kipling they are both imposters so perhaps what we encounter is reality and may be therefore we’d better get used to it.  But of course, next season is going to be different, Keiran McKenna is the messiah and so we approach today not with dull resignation, but with hope and new found belief, even though it’s a pesky 12.30 kick-off.

The one saving grace of the early start for today’s game is that my walk down through Gippeswyk Park is enchanting, serenaded as I am with sweet birdsong and bathed with soft spring morning sunlight.  The tide is high as I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge on which a banner reads “Champions of England, back in ‘62”. The heavy stench of body sprays and perfumes falls from the open windows of the Pentahotel.  In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and a Turnstile Blue fanzine with an ‘old-fashioned’ pound coin. Reaching the Arbor House pub (formerly The Arboretum) the front door is invitingly open and having stepped inside I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) before going out back into the garden where Mick is already nursing a pint of the same fine beer along with a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.   We talk of planning permissions, Mick’s discovery that he has vertigo and what has and hasn’t happened since we last met, which seems long ago, before the Cambridge game back on 2nd April.  We are interrupted by a telephone call from Mick’s son who it transpires will be attending a four day, all expenses paid conference in Paris; it’s alright for some, although he does have to make a presentation. Checking our watches at five past twelve we decide it’s time to leave for the match; I return our glasses and the empty cup that once contained peanuts to the bar, which is also now empty.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way Mick and I part ways as he secures his bike and heads for the posh seats of the West Stand and I make for the cheap seats near the front of what used to be ‘Churchmans’. Entering the hallowed halls of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand through turnstile number 60 I thank the overweight turnstile operator and am soon stood in a row with other men before a stainless-steel trough.  The man next to me is gushing forcefully against the steel and I shuffle as far away as I can for fear of unpleasant splashback.  Washing my hands, I am greeted by Kevin who I know from our previous mutual involvement with Wivenhoe Town; he tells me how much he enjoys this blog, which is kind of him.

Up in the stand, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood are all here as I take my place between Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket.  We enjoy a few bars of Hey Jude and a red smoke bomb from the Charlton fans before at 12:31 the game begins; Ipswich having first go with the ball and facing the direction of Phil and Elwood, Pat, Fiona and me.  Bizarrely I think I hear the Charlton fans chanting “We’re the Millwall boys, making all the noise, everywhere we go”, that can’t be right, can it?  A woman sat in front of me devours an obscene looking foot long hot dog.  It’s the third minute of the match, the smell of the smoke bomb lingers and Town break; Bersant Celina to Conor Chaplin and out to Wes Burns, who shoots inaccurately and a little wildly from outside the penalty area.  With the smell of the smoke still lingering it currently seems more like Guy Fawkes night than the last match of the season, but no fireworks yet.

It’s the fifth minute and another clever pass from Conor Chaplin is meant to put Wes Burns through but he hasn’t reacted, it’s the third time already that Mr Burns has not been his usual self. A minute later and Bersant Celina does a few step overs before passing square to Tyreeq Bakinson who allows the ball to run across in front of him, looks up and then strikes it firmly into the top right- hand corner of the Charlton goal and Town lead 1-0.  As I remark to Pat from Clacton, Bakinson has been unlucky with a few shots from outside the penalty area in previous games, so it was a goal that had been coming for a while, although happily today we’ve only had to wait six minutes.

It always feels good to score early in a game, it’s almost as if the first goal is the hardest one to get.  But good things, possibly including goals, are like buses, someone probably once said and so it will prove. The twelfth minute and a through ball from the excellent Conor Chaplin sends Wes Burns clear of the Charlton defence and he hits the ball past the on-rushing Charlton goal-keeper, whose sprawling arms and legs aren’t sufficient to counter the deft use of the outside of Mr Burns’ right foot – “Excellent” as his cartoon namesake might say.  How we cheer, although it’s not enough to stop the Charlton supporters from chanting “Two-nil and you still don’t sing” as they trawl their back catalogue of late 1970’s disco hits.

Four minutes later and we think we’ve scored again as yet another through pass from Conor Chaplin, who must be carrying a slide-rule with him today allows the oddly named Macauley Bonne to ‘score,’ only for his and Conor’s work to be annulled by the raised flag of the brutal, heartless linesman.   It’s days like this when there’s nothing at stake that the attitude of ‘disgraced’ French referee Tony Chapron is required; Chapron has admitted having allowed some disallowable goals during his career because they were good goals. La Beaute 1 Actualite 0.

This is just what the last match of the season should be like and to add to the fun lots of players are slipping over on the watered wet turf, eliciting the inevitable jeers from a crowd that just loves slapstick. A slow clapping accompanies that song that includes the words Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez, Allez, I cant decide which. The joy is so infectious even people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand put their hands together and chant, albeit a little bashfully.  Above the Cobbold Stand the three flags hang limply and Charlton get a little more into the game, winning two corners, but to no effect. I am struck by the thought that Wes Burns’ hair is looking much neater today than usual and he seems to have discarded his usual head band.  Wes is pictured on the front of today’s programme all dressed up with a black tie, which incidentally needsv straightening, to receive his Players’ Player award at last Wednesday’s awards night and it looks like he may not have been home since.

More than a quarter of the match is over and as Town win a corner Pat from Clacton produces a polythene bag of sweets. “We always score when I get the sweets out” she says “Or we always used to” she adds, harking back to the ‘good old days’.  I tell her that I think the difference is we simply  always used to score in the ‘good old days’. This time the sweets don’t work, despite ever-present Phil also going all Cuban with a chorus of “Score from a corner, We’re gonna score from a corner” to the tune of ‘Guantanamera’.  At the other end, a long throw for Charlton ends with a low bouncing shot bouncing harmlessly past Christian Walton’s right hand post.

“Is this a library?” chant the Charlton supporters in the time honoured operatic fashion,  thereby creating an odd impression of the benefits  of public education in South East London.  A half an hour has passed since the game began and Town’s attacking vigour has subsided somewhat, giving way to plenty of square passing.  In a rare moment of real excitement Sam Morsy shoots past a post and then,  perhaps in an attempt at what passes as satire for south-east Londoners, the Charlton fans embark on a long passage of chanting in which they call either “We’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball” or “We’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball” according to whether or not their team has the ball. As an exercise in observation it’s not very taxing for our visitors, but it is very, very boring and after a while a little annoying. 

On the pitch meanwhile, Charlton are probably having as much if not more possession than Town as half-time approaches and they almost score when Jayden Stockley heads across goal and Christian Walton has to make a fine diving save, palming the ball away for a corner.  It’s a very good save indeed, but the best thing about it is that it interrupts the Charlton fans incessant, boring chanting about whether or not their team has the ball.  Sadly, after the corner comes to nought the chanting resumes.  Only four minutes to half-time and Town win another corner, “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Charlton choir employing Welsh religious music and seemingly becoming angrier, or at least more‘potty-mouthed’ in the process.  The last action of the half sees Conor Chaplin drop a looping header just the wrong side of the cross bar and a long passage of passing play leads to yet another aimless corner.

At half-time I speak briefly with Ray who has his wife Ros with him today; they have been enjoying pre-match hospitality in the form of a late breakfast in honour of their grandson Harrison’s 18th birthday earlier this week.  I speak with Harrison’s dad Michael and also give Harrison his birthday present, a copy of the CD ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ by the excellent Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who has provided the soundtrack to most of my adult life. Happily, Harrison will later let me know that he thinks the CD is “Brilliant”.  Meanwhile, behind us, public address compere Stephen Foster talks to true Town legend,  84 year old Ray Crawford, who was top scorer in Town’s Championship winning team of 1962 and even turned out for Charlton Athletic too a few years later.  If any other Town player ever deserves a statue it has to be Ray, Town’s all-time top scorer with 228 goals in just 354 games, no one will ever beat that. Returning to my seat,  I speak to ever-present Phil and let him know that I have e-mailed the club to suggest they paint or paper the walls inside the away supporters section to look like book shelves.  I am disappointed that I have not yet received any response other than that they will forward my e-mail to the ‘relevant department’.  I e-mailed again to ask who the ‘relevant department’ might be, but have not received a reply; they no doubt think I’m a looney.

The second half is still fresh when Charlton’s George Dobson becomes the first player to see the yellow card of the distinguished sounding referee Mr Charles Breakspear, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  A minute later as if in an act of calculated revenge Conor provides yet another precise through ball which releases the oddly named Macauley Bonne, who then delivers a low cross for Wes Burns to despatch in to the Charlton goal net for a third Town goal.  Pat from Clacton records mine and Fiona’s celebrations for posterity in the form of a digital photograph which will later appear on Facebook, as is the fashion.

“3-0 on your big day out” chant the taunting, mocking occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the south-east Londoners. Pat looks to see what she has drawn in the Clacton Supporters’ coach ‘predict the result’ draw; it’s four home goals and any number of away goals, so Pat could be in the money!   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand as if they know that Pat may yet be a winner.  The thrill of expectation is broken by Janoi Doncien tactically heading over his own cross bar before  the North Stand launch a chorus of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” as they pretend it’s Christmas and Charlton make their first substitution, with Alex Gilbey who, like both the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Kane Vincent-Young once played for Colchester United, but unlike them shares his surname with a brand of gin, being replaced by Chukwuemeka Aneke.   Janoi Donacien appears to have been injured in heading over his own cross-bar and is also replaced, by the aforementioned Kane Vincent-Young.

Less than half an hour of the season remains but Conor Chaplin continues to make incisive passes and this time Luke Woolfenden almost puts in a low cross before sending the ball high and wide from what was possibly a shot.  “3-0 and you still don’t sing” chant the Charlton fans sounding increasingly frustrated at the Town fans’ insouciance, but still enjoying a cheery late 1970’s disco vibe.  The attendance is announced as being 26,002 with 1,972 of that number being Charlton supporters.  Weirdly, some people applaud themselves for turning up, but to my right there is a sudden exclamation. “I don’t believe it” says Pat from Clacton, “The bloody dog has won it”.  The ‘it’ in this case is the Clacton Supporters’ bus guess the crowd competition, and the dog is her brother Kevin’s dog Alfie, who Pat will later worryingly refer to as her nephew.  “Does he win a lot?” asks the man with the crew cut who sits in the row between Pat and ever-present Phil.

Cameron Humphreys replaces Conor Chaplin who receives well-deserved rapturous applause and Charlton replace Conor Washington with Elliott Lee to reduce the number of Conors on the pitch from two to zero within the space of seconds. “Is this a library?” and “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Charltonites again, ploughing an all too familiar furrow, but perhaps not realising that as football stands go the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is a sort of retirement home in which many of the occupants are constantly singing “Bobby Robson’s Blue and White Army”, but in our heads.

Thirteen minutes to go and Jayden Stockley heads against the Town cross bar. Three minutes later and a shout of “Handball! ” goes up from the Charlton fans. Nobody not in a red shirt knows why but there follows thirty seconds of every touch of the ball being greeted with a call of “ Handball” from the ever sarcastic people of Ipswich.  Charlton win a corner. “Charlton, Charlton!” shout the Charlton fans, showing how supporting your team is done, but it doesn’t bring a goal so it’s not worth it, although a prone Christian Walton does have to claw the ball down to stop it entering the net.  Six minutes to go and James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne to rich applause for both players.  James Norwood has announced that this is his last game for Town; if this were a US TV Cop show he’d get shot just before the final whistle, but happily it’s not.  Returning my attention to the actual football, “We want four” I think to myself half- imagining what Portman Road crowds of old would have chanted, and as I do so Cameron Humphreys threads a Conor Chaplin-style through-ball into the path of James Norwood who, from a very oblique angle steers it into the net, possibly off the goalkeeper, for his last ever Town goal. It’s only the third time Town have scored more than three goals at home this season and the it’s the biggest end of season win I’ve witnessed since Town beat Crewe Alexandra 5-1 in April 2005.   As Town fans cheer, Charlton fans sing “We forgot you were here” and three minutes of time added on melt away into forgotten history.

As last days of the season go, this has been a really good one, despite the 12.30 kick off, but it feels like it comes with the rider that Town have to do well next season.  Personally, I’m not too bothered either way, I just like to see Town play well; if we do that and we finish eleventh again I won’t be suicidal, although may be the club’s American investors will be.  But I can afford to be complacent, I’m old enough to have seen Town win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, but the likes of Harrison and Elwood haven’t, so come on Town, do it for them.

Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 2

Back on Tuesday 8th March I erroneously believed that the glorious two-goal victory over the Imps of Lincoln City would be the last time this season that I would witness our heroes play a match under the dreamy luminous glow of the Portman Road floodlights.  But my capacity for getting things wrong is pretty much limitless, and courtesy of Sky Sports TV moving our Good Friday excursion to Rotherham to Saturday lunchtime, what should have been a relaxed end of season stroll of a game on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon has been transformed into a final, atmospheric night game.  Sky TV and its parent company Comcast may have completely ruined professional football in England with their money and meal-time kick-offs, but it is an extremely ill-wind that blows no good at all and I love a mid-week game under floodlights, even if our opponents tonight will only be third division leaders Wigan Athletic and not Real Madrid, Feijenoord or Lokomotiv Leipzig as they once would have been.

For an evening match it’s still very light as I walk down through Gippeswyk Park and along the river behind the Pentahotel, but then it is only half-past six on an April evening in the Northern Hemisphere.  The salty, pungent smell of seaweed and mud is carried on the wind and Oyster Catchers whistle like demented referees as they swoop above a group of Canada geese, ornithological reminders of Frank Yallop, Jaime Peters, Craig Forrest and Jason De Vos.  I’m heading for what was the Arboretum pub but is now the Arbor House for a pre-match pint. I stop off in Sir Alf Ramsey Way to buy a programme in the modern cashless way. “Is it working?” I ask the cheery young female programme seller. “At the moment” she replies, cheerily. ”We’d better be quick then” I say, tendering my blue plastic card. Disappointingly the sale does not transact. “I think we probably don’t take that card” says the girl letting me down gently.  “No, I don’t expect you do” I say, proffering a second blue card, “That was my season ticket”.   It’s the sort of faux pas to rival those of my dear mother, who once on a day trip to France asked a waiter if he spoke French.

At the Arboretum, or Arbor House, I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) using my bank card and sit in the garden alone. I take my programme from my jacket pocket expecting to just ‘flick through’ it, but to my surprise I end up actually reading two quite interesting pieces about Sone Aluko’s experiences playing for Nigeria and how Idris El Mizouni copes with being a professional sportsman during Ramadan.   After a half an hour of beer and contemplation I head back to Portman Road beneath the setting sun shining through pearlescent clouds. Turnstile 61 is my favoured portal tonight, it was a choice between that and No 59. The pleasant lady turnstile operator smiles me into the ground and I make for the gents where I enjoy a tinny rendition of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown before I wash my hands.   Up in the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is concealed within a blue hoody and Pat from Clacton is talking to the bloke who sits to my left and I think is from Stowmarket; they’re talking about how cold it is this evening and indeed a lazy East wind is blowing across the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, causing me to raise my collar and do up the top button of my coat.  Fiona arrives, returned from her cruise and other excursions.

With hands shaken and knees taken and applauded the game begins;  Town getting first go with the ball and pointing it mostly in the direction of the goal in front of me, Pat, Phil, Fiona and my neighbour who might be from Stowmarket and whose grandson is here with him tonight. “Everywhere we go” sing the Wigan fans up in the Cobbold stand, but I can’t quite catch what it is about everywhere they go that they want to tell us. Everywhere they go is quite nice? Everywhere they go is better than Wigan and not as nice as Ipswich?  Everywhere they go they are politely asked to leave? I may never know. As if not to be out done by the visitors, which is unusual, the Sir Bobby Robson stand breaks into the same tune but with different words, the ones that begin “Addy, Addy, Addy-O”. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a good start and it’s not even properly dark yet.   My first thoughts on the game itself are that the Wigan players all look extremely big and their all-scarlet kit stands out particularly well even if it does lack style. But the football soon chases away all thoughts of haute couture as Town embark on a first half of fine attacking football, raining in crosses from left and right from Wes Burns and Matt Penney and winning corners courtesy of Janoi Donacien and the clever passing of Conor Chaplin.

Only an announcement asking the owner of a black Ranger Rover in the Sir Alf Ramsey car park to move it breaks my concentration and I realise I never knew Sir Alf had a car park named in his honour.  The incident reminds me of when my own car achieved similar fame at Barnet, with the registration being read out over the public address system.  My car was also black, but it was a Ford Fiesta, and I didn’t have to move it, just turn the lights off. When I got back to my car after the game the battery was flat, but some friendly Barnet fans gave me a push start.  Wigan have a few moments of possession, but it ends with Town breaking swiftly with Wes Burns, who lays the ball off to the oddly named Macauley Bonne who feeds it to the overlapping Matt Penney who shoots hopelessly high and wide of the goal from 20 metres out.

This is a good game with Conor Chaplin threading more inviting passes into the box and Bersant Celina shooting into the arms of the Wigan goalkeeper and Old Testament prophet Amos.  As Amos then spills the ball from a Sam Morsy shot , a man a couple of rows behind me laughs like Goofy, the anthropomorphic Walt Disney dog. A cross curves in a graceful arc from the boot of Bersant Celina but eludes the head of the oddly named Macauley Bonne and another chorus of “Addy, Addy Addy-O” emanates from the North Stand before echoing from pockets around the ground where people seem to know the rest of the words too.  Up in the Cobbold Stand the Wigan fans sing of balm cakes, coal and canals, possibly.  A man next to the man who laughs like Goofy, laughs like a chimpanzee.

Above the North Stand roof and floodlights a smear of cloud adopts a pinkish tinge as the sun sinks down over Sproughton and a lone seagull glides above the pitch on its way back to the coast for the night. Twenty-five minutes have passed and Wigan’s Kelland Watts, whose name sounds a bit like the formal version of former Coronation Street character ‘Curly’ Watts, gets to be the first player shown the yellow card of referee Mr Will Finnie, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  Matt Penney and Bersant Celina rain in more crosses, which Wigan’s tough centre-back Jack Whatmough (pronounced Whatmuff I hope) sends out for another Town corner. “Are you working from home still?” asks Pat from Clacton of Fiona; she is.  Town are all over Wigan like a rash but just can’t score.  My neighbour from Stowmarket and I turn to one other and share how we just know that Wigan are going to go up the other end and score.

With half-time approaching Sam Morsy is shown Mr Finnie’s yellow card as a bloke called Bennett wriggles on the turf and rubs his face.  No free-kick is given to Wigan and indeed Town have a corner, during  the taking of which Mr Finnie watches intently as the miraculously recovered Bennett proceeds to give Sam Morsy a huge bear hug to prevent him from making a run towards the ball or anywhere else. Incredibly Mr Finnie evidently doesn’t consider that being hugged by an opposition player as the ball is crossed into the box is any sort of a foul, perhaps he simply thought  Bennett hadn’t seen Morsy for a long time and was understandably overcome with emotion.  From the corner, Wigan break away and Luke Woolfenden is booked for bringing down Stephen Humphrys. The free-kick leads to Wigan winning their first corner of the match; it’s the forty-fifth minute and Wigan score as Will Keane runs free and glances a header inside the far post.  We knew it would happen.

Four minutes of added on time give the Wiganers in the Cobbold Stand the opportunity to sing “We’re gonna win the league, We’re gonna the league, And they int gonna believe uz , And they int gonna believe uz” to the tune of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”,  but curiously they develop a Midlands accent as they do  so. 

Half-time begins with me booing the referee for his incompetence and then Ray stops for a chat on his way to using the facilities beneath the stand.  The football resumes at seven minutes to nine with the replacement of Matt Penney with Dominic Thompson and Pat from Clacton remarks on how Thompson receives a lot of unfair abuse from some Town supporters on social media;  but we all agree that he’s alright and we like him.  I would even go so far as to say that with his beard that sometimes looks like massive sideburns and his hair that looks like tied-back dreads (it might actually be tied-back dreads), he is easily the coolest player Town have ever had.

Town pick up where they left off about fifteen minutes ago and dominate possession whilst also sending in more crosses that are cleared. “Ole, Ole, Ole” or “Allez, Allez, Allez” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier, along with other words that I have even more difficulty deciphering and therefore don’t bother trying to; I just enjoy the noise. The fifty third minute and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar. The attendance is announced in a very jolly manner over the PA system by Stephen Foster, former Radio Suffolk presenter and school chum of my friends Ian and Pete, as 21,329 with the number of Wigan supporters in that total being 402, or as Stephen in full DJ mode pronounces it “foouur, huuuundred and twooo.”   “You’re support is fucking shit” chant the Wiganers to the ever adaptable Welsh hymn tune of Cwm Rhondda,  which in turn provokes more chimpanzee style laughter from the  bloke a couple of rows behind me.  

Back on the pitch and with an hour gone Wigan’s Callum Lang scythes down Conor Chaplin and is justly booked by the otherwise inept Mr Finnie.  Lang’s protestations of innocence are as credible as those of Boris Johnson; it was a blatant foul, but probably less cynical than our Prime Minister’s lies.  From the free-kick the ball pings about a bit in the penalty area before it falls to Conor Chaplin who makes a small clearing and pops the ball into the back of the net to equalise.   “Top of the league, your ‘avin’ a laugh” taunt the Sir Bobby Robson standers to the tune of Tom Hark, originally recorded by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes in 1958, which seems a bit harsh given that Wigan are both genuinely top of the league and, for all Town’s possession and good play, are not actually losing. But the goal has enthused the home crowd and a pledge of “Ipswich ‘til I die” is heard before James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne and then Wigan almost reclaim the lead, as Dominic Thompson inexplicably heads across his own penalty area forcing Christian Walton into two point-blank saves from the lurking Bennett.

Within four minutes Wigan are punished for missing the gift we had tried to give them as Wes Burns’ cross is headed back across the face of the correct goal by Dominic Thompson, atoning for his earlier error and an incoming Sam Morsy does a passable impression of John Wark by lashing the ball into the roof of the net.  It’s a proper goal, but foolishly and conceitedly the home crowd find it necessary once again to chant “Top of the league, you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” and go on to compound their error with more than one chorus of “Keano, Keano, What’s the score?”. It’s almost as if the crowd have forgotten that Will Keane no longer plays for us and they actually still want him to score.  What other explanation for such flagrant tempting of fate can there be?

Will Keane has already scored once and eludes the defence again to shoot at Christian Walton before the inevitable happens and with four minutes of normal time remaining he again slips all trace of marking to flick a low cross past Walton from close range.  Keane has looked mean and lean all game and much sharper than he ever did playing for Town, and when he has needed to he has made easy work of Town’s zonal ‘marking’ system.  Up in the Cobbold stand the scenes are more reminiscent of Wigan Casino  than Wigan Athletic  as the foouur, huuuundred and twooo dance and celebrate being top of the league (still) and Will Keane scoring both of his team’s goals.

The game is more even now, not only in terms of goals scored. The final whistle sees Wigan having the last laugh at being top of the league; we might have mostly outplayed them but they didn’t lose and it seems unlikely they won’t be going up as Champions,  whilst Town will be hoping Bolton and Portsmouth let us finish higher than eleventh. Some people find solace by saying that age is just a number, well perhaps so is your team’s league position, unless of course it’s bottom like Norwich’s.

 Watching your team play well is always a pleasure whatever league they’re in and tonight’s has been a marvellous match, a fitting finale to this season’s floodlit fixtures, which is just as well because courtesy of Sky TV the last game of the season is at bloody lunchtime, so we can all fast like it’s Ramadan. Bon appetit.

Ipswich Town 0 Cambridge United 1

When I first started attending Portman Road, almost exactly fifty-two years ago (April 6th1971, a goalless draw versus Everton), Cambridge United were putting the finishing touches to their first ever season in the Football League.  I remember looking out for Cambridge’s results every week and hoping they’d do well; I think I must have been excited by the idea of a new club in the Football League and the fact that they were almost local, being in the next county.  I continued to follow Cambridge’s results throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s and still recall players with memorable names and haircuts such as Brian Greenhalgh, Steve Spriggs, Steve Fallon, Brendon Batson, Alan Biley and Lindsay Smith.   Twenty years later , I had lost my youthful joie de vivre and when Town met Cambridge for the first time in a League fixture, I was much less enthused by the Cambridge United team under the management of John Beck, a man who looked and sounded uncannily like Trigger in the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses.  That Cambridge team had some talented players (Dublin, Claridge, Kimble, Fensome, Daish) but was horrible; in November they beat Town 2-1 at Portman Road and the following April held us to a draw at the Abbey Stadium; their main tactic as I recall was to keep the ball as far above the ground as possible at all times.

Today, Ipswich are playing Cambridge United in a Football League fixture at Portman Road for only the second time in fifty-two years. It’s a beautifully sunny, but desperately cold afternoon and cotton wool clouds festoon a pale blue sky, like in an imaginary art deco poster advertising day trips by rail to some chilly east coast resort.  Having been delayed by cones surrounding non-existent roadworks on the A12 at Capel St Mary, I hurry across Gippeswyk Park after parking up my trusty Citroen C3.  Two youths walk towards me across the grass.  “Alright mate?” says one, perhaps trying to impress his much taller accomplice with his cheeky enquiry of a random adult. “Yes, I’m alright mate, are you?” I reply, returning his familiarity right back at him with an enquiring raised eyebrow. 

The sound of football chants carries on the bitter north easterly wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel where Cambridge United supporters fortify themselves against the cold and their inevitable disappointment. In Portman Road, I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern, cashless way, but just like last week the technology is not working. Disappointed, but not entirely surprised, I fish for a five-pound note in my wallet and wait for my change.  Five or so minutes later, as I reach the Arboretum pub (currently known, for reasons unknown, as the Arbor House), a large Honda car draws up and out steps Ray who is being dropped off by his wife Roz. After waving to Roz and having a brief conversation with Ray , which I politely curtail as I am already late, I head into the pub and Ray heads into town to complete undisclosed errands.  Service is slow at the bar where one of the staff seems to struggle to remember which drinks he has poured and which he hasn’t; eventually I take a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) out into the beer garden where Mick is already some way through his own pint of something similar.   We talk of solar power, dizzy spells, Mick’s son continuing to work whilst suffering from Covid, cycling and Germany’s admirable, open and honest attitude towards its past.  With a little under half an hour until kick-off we leave for Portman Road after first taking our empty glasses back to the bar.

Bidding Mick farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Group West Stand, I walk to the Constantine Road entrance and then past the serried ranks of the players’ cars;  mostly black or grey Mercedes and Audi SUVs; they look like hearses . I enter the ground through turnstile 61, which I choose in preference to turnstiles 59 and 60 because Ipswich were Football League Champions in the 1961-62 season. I hope for the day when they open turnstile 62.  I thank the turnstile operator and he thanks me, but he doesn’t wish me ‘bon match’ or that I have a lovely time, and I can’t deny that I’m slightly disappointed by this. 

My first port of call inside the stand is the lavatory where the sound of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown is echoing round the tiled walls, I think the two men standing either side of me at the urinal are singing along to it, which strikes me as a little odd, but nevertheless I join in.  It’s only when the song gets to the chorus that I’m not sure if the two blokes actually were singing or if it wasn’t an aural ‘illusion’ created by lavatorial acoustics. With flies zipped up and hands washed, the teams are now on the pitch. With hellos said to Pat from Clacton and Mark, who is again in Fiona’s seat because she is on a cruise, and mental notes taken that ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood are both here, it is almost time for the game to begin.  In the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand a banner reads “Something tells me I’m into something good”, revealing an unexpected enthusiasm amongst North Standers for the hits of Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits.  I like to believe that they perhaps hope Herman of the Hermits and Hermann Hreidarsson are one and the same.

With knees taken and applauded it is a minute past three and Town kick off in their traditional blue and white kit, whilst our opponents display a regrettable lack of imagination by wearing all-black in the manner of antipodean rugby teams, old-style referees and the baddies in cowboy films.  A cloud of smoke drifts across the pitch, evidence of some pyrotechnics, the smell of which makes me think of Apocalypse Now, it must be the smell of victory.  “U’s, U’s” chant the Cambridge supporters between bouts of rhythmic clapping; ”Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, The Norwich ran away” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, seemingly confused about the time of year and who we’re playing, although to be fair it is cold enough to be Christmas. 

Two minutes in and Bersant Celina has a shot on goal, but it’s an easy catch for the Cambridge goalkeeper Dimitri Mitov.  “He might of saved it” sniggers the bloke behind me making the all too common grammatical error of using the word ‘of’  instead of ‘have’.   “Blue Army” bawls the bloke next to me, who is slumped back in his seat as if it’s part of a three-piece suite. “Ally, Ally, Ally-O, I-T-F-C, We’re the Blue Arm-y” continues my neighbour. “No Noise from the Ipswich Boys” chant the Cambridge fans re-purposing Village People’s ‘Go West’; they should be sat where I am. Five minutes later and a cross strikes Cambridge’s James Brophy on the arm; VAR might deem it a penalty if we were in the Evil Premier League, but we’re not, so we have the game’s first corner instead.

We’ve seen 14 minutes go by and Town aren’t yet into their stride, and as if to make the point Cambridge succeed in getting the ball into the Ipswich goal net. Mark and I have resolved ourselves to the crushing disappointment of going a goal behind so soon into the match when the linesman comes to our rescue; it was offside. Two minutes later and Tommy Carroll volleys a shot over the crossbar.  Town are still not dominating in the manner which we have quickly come to expect, and Cambridge have the cheek to win a free-kick from which the ball is laid back to Adam May, whose shot is deflected away for a corner and then Christian Walton athletically tips a George Williams header over the crossbar.

It’s getting on for half-past three and James Norwood successfully chases a ball over the top, but his chipped cross is to no one in particular, and then a Town corner eludes the looming head of Cameron Burgess.  As the promise of a goal subsides Pat from Clacton tells me how the Clacton supporters’ bus was pulled over by the police today near the Holiday Inn hotel, only for the policeman to board and say “Oh, you’re Ipswich”.  I like to think that he probably also mistakenly stopped a couple of coach loads of pensioners on an afternoon excursion and several buses from the Copdock Park and Ride.

With time ticking down inexorably towards half-time, Conor Chaplin’s cross is headed firmly into the arms of Mitov by Bersant Celina and a Dominic Thompson cross is hit low towards the Cambridge goal by Sam Morsy, but not hard enough to get past the goalkeeper.  At the other end of the pitch Luke Woolfenden saves possible embarrassment with a superbly timed tackle on Cambridge’s Joe Ironside as he threatens to break through on goal.  Embarrassment soon follows however as Dominic Thompson is victim of some dubious play acting by George Williams, and inexplicably James Norwood steps into the fray like some sort of deranged avenging angel and along with Sam Smith gets a personal viewing of referee Mr Craig Hicks’ yellow card.

Symptomatic of it having been a frustrating half, Town have another penalty appeal for handball rejected and a woman with a voice like a wailing banshee a couple of rows behind me launches a blistering high pitched verbal assault on the linesman.  It would be amusing if only it didn’t hurt my ears so much.  Her justification for her outburst is apparently that when someone is paid to do a job she hates to see them not do it.  Town are awarded a corner however, which is scant consolation to me, and a Conor Chaplin shot then squirms into Mitov’s arms before another Cambridge corner and three minutes of additional time.

Mark and I hope that half-time will elicit words of wisdom from Town manager Kieron McKenna, and the avalanche of goals into the Cambridge net that we were hoping for will eventually come to pass.  In the stand half-time brings a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar for me along with a chat with Ray who says he can’t see the point of peanuts if not they’re not roasted and salted; I tell him that the magic ingredient is chocolate, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

The match resumes at eight minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon diving low to his right to stop a header from Joe Ironside.  Conor Chaplin then shoots wide and this afternoon’s attendance is announced as 26,515 with 2,009 from Cambridge; the referee Mr Hicks then makes a decent attempt at tackling Sam Morsy, although Sam seems far from impressed.  Town win a corner and Wes Burns shoots wide of the right hand post and then Conor Chaplin shoots wide of the left.  Two minutes later and Ironside is awarded a free-kick for a somewhat pointless and innocuous foul by Luke Woolfenden.  The subsequent free-kick is whipped across the penalty area and rebounds off Dominic Thompson at the far post and into the goal. 

Ten minutes later and things aren’t looking up until Pat from Clacton gets out her bag of sweets. They’ve been sitting around for a week or two she tells us. Mine is one of those chewy ones that look like an extruded strip of sugar cut into bits; I’m not good at identifying flavours, but I think it’s probably raspberry, and it cheers me up as much as much as anything else other than an Ipswich goal probably could right now.  Tommy Carroll and Conor Chaplin are replaced by Sone Aluko and the oddly-named Macauley Bonne.

It’s gone half-past four and James Norwood gets Mitov to make a save and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne drops a header onto the roof of the Cambridge goal.  Matt Penney replaces Dominic Thompson to whom fate has been rather mean today.  Cambridge United win a free-kick with fifteen minutes of normal time remaining and their supporters chant “Cry in a minute, you’re gonna cry in a minute”, which may be a chant unique to them, although I think I might have heard it when a team is about to be relegated or lose a play-off tie.   The free-kick is a waste of time and no one gets tearful as predicted, although ironically the only person who might have done so was the Cambridge number 26, the cutely named Harvey Knibbs ,  who rolled around like a big baby to win the free-kick.  Janoi Doncaien is booked.  Twelve minutes remain and Sam Morsy has a shot saved by Mitov but then a major diplomatic incident breaks out all around me as Pat from Clacton complains to the bloke behind me about his and his associates relentless swearing.  Mark backs her up. The bloke behind me opines that this is an important end of season match and he’s just showing some emotion, but he doesn’t agree to stop swearing, believing it seems that the purchase of his ticket gives him certain rights to express himself by ‘effing and jeffing’ , as Pat calls it.  The screechy woman a couple of rows behind then also becomes involved before stewards are called and the bloke behind me is accused by the man who is with the screechy woman of threatening to strangle him with his own scarf.  Eventually the sweary blokes leave and peace is restored, although rather impressively I think, the bloke behind me later returns with a steward to apologise to Pat.

“Is there a fire drill, Is there a fire drill?” sing the Cambridge fans resorting to opera to serenade the departing Town supporters who have either given up on a Town goal or whose modes of transport will turn back into pumpkins if they’re not home on time.  The game peters out over the five minutes of added on time and almost inevitably Town lose, perpetuating our record of never having beaten Cambridge United in a league match, something also true of mighty Cheltenham Town.   I had expected a Town victory today, but it would not have been deserved; the team performed as if the players had all been given some disturbing news just before kick-off, as if someone had told them perhaps that large German SUVs aren’t cool and are much less environmentally friendly than smaller cars.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.

Ipswich Town 0 Cheltenham Town 0

It’s been a while since I’ve been to watch the Town at Portman Road, having forgone the last six matches thanks to the pandemic.  But it’s been a lot longer since I last saw Cheltenham Town play (7th September 2002 at Layer Road, Colchester to be precise), and it’s a lot longer still since Cheltenham Town played at Portman Road (19th March 1938 in the Southern League).  Add to the weight of history the fact that because I am not in my nineties, I have never seen Ipswich Town play Cheltenham Town at Portman Road, and you have the recipe for an evening of excitement to rival that of the last match I saw live, Town versus Barrow in the FA Cup, a truly awful goalless draw as I recall.  On days like this I don’t miss the Championship one little bit.  What’s being in the third division for if it’s not for playing the likes of Cheltenham Town?  Live for the moment and breathe as deep as you dare.

Rocking up on Anglesea Road at twenty-seven minutes to seven, I park my trusty Citroen C3 on a single yellow line and head for what I call the Arboretum pub, but the current occupiers label the Arbor House.  Eight minutes later I have hurried as quickly as I could through the bar, pausing only to mumble a request for a pint of Lacon’s ‘Jack Valentine’ (£3.80) through my face mask, and now I sit in the peace, solitude and creeping cold of the softly lit beer garden.  Amusing myself with the wonders accessible on my mobile phone I sip my beer and get into the funky groove of the righteous soul music climbing out of the plastic speaker in the corner of the garden shelter in which I’m sat. If I didn’t know I was in Ipswich I’d think I was in 1970’s Harlem as the sounds of Sir Joe Quatermain and Free Soul ((I got) so much trouble in my mind (1973)); Smokey Robinson (Baby that’s backatcha (1975)) and the Bobby “Blue” Band (Ain’t no love in the heart of the city (1974)) move my feet and my boogie body.  Beginning to feel like I’ve stepped back in time and looking forward to seeing the likes of Ian Collard, David Johnson and Colin Harper at Portman Road tonight I suddenly return to the now with the realisation that for £3.80 I could probably have bought everyone in the pub a drink or may be two in 1973, although I would have been a tad underage to have done so.

Leaving my reverie in the pub garden I head for Portman Road, my heart leaping a little as I catch a first glimpse of the glare of the floodlights in the night sky.  I approach the ground along Alderman Road to manufacture that ‘going to the match’ down terraced streets feel.  In the back of the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand supporters already in the ground appears as silhouettes on the stairs and through the plate glass windows of the concourse.  Having purchased nothing with coins of the realm for over a month I recklessly buy both a programme (£3.50) and a Turnstile Blue fanzine (£1). I walk between the rows of fumy supporters’ buses lined up opposite the old tram depot and approach the Sir Alf Ramsey stand from the Constantine Road gate, eventually returning to Portman Road through turnstile number 60. I’m back.

In the stand I reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never missed a game until he caught Covid; they’ve missed me, or at least that’s what they tell me; they’re nice like that. With seconds to go before kick-off Fiona arrives too and I say hello to the man who sits to my right, who I always imagine is older than me, but possibly isn’t.  The game begins; Town getting first go with the ball, but I am quickly struck by how disappointed I am by Cheltenham’s kit. In my mind’s eye, a phrase that reminds me of my favourite Small Faces song, I see Cheltenham Town in red and white stripes, but tonight they sport a sort of knock-off Arsenal shirt with pinstripes and a Raglan sleeve.  The Raglan sleeve incidentally is the least desirable of all the sleeves for use on a football shirt.

Aside from the shirts, the football is fast and frantic, with Wes Burns uncontrollably shooting over the cross bar from close range after five minutes, and Bersant Celina making a weaving run before dipping the ball over the cross bar not five minutes later as Town confidently dominate their sartorial inferiors. The ostentatiously bald-headed referee, Mr Andy Davies, unexpectedly makes me think of the similarly hairless, on-loan St Etienne goalkeeper Paul Bernadoni, before a man behind me with a slightly Northern or Midlands accent annoys with a laugh that sounds like Disney’s Goofy.  “Unlucky, unlucky, unlucky; keep going, keep going, keep going” says an oddly repetitive woman from behind as another Town attack comes to nought and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand show signs of life, breaking into Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, to sing as ever of ceaseless fighting despite Norwich having run away, and all apparently and mysteriously because of Boxing Day.   High up in the Cobbold Stand the Cheltenham followers reveal a lack of originality matched only by their lack of memory as they chant “We forgot, we forgot we forgot that you were here” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. With my attention back on the pitch, I can’t help but guffaw as Cheltenham’s  Reece Hutchinson hurls himself headlong to the ground in a wonderfully unconvincing attempt to cheat his way to a free-kick.  What was I thinking, staying away to avoid Covid when I could have been a part of this rich tapestry?

Ipswich’s dominance is total and is such that two of our three defenders, Janoi Donacien and Luke Woolfenden are seen exchanging forward passes within twenty-five metres of the Cheltenham goal.  Then a deep, angled Tommy Carroll cross is met with a diving header from Conor Chaplin, only for Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans to palm the ball away in front of Bersant Celina, who is taken too much by surprise to attempt to kick the ball back at the goal.  I’m just thinking how we haven’t been able to exploit Kayden Jackson’s ability to run very fast, when he suddenly breaks down the left, but when he comes to cross the ball he seems to have become over excited and at the far post the ball skids off the forehead of Conor Chaplin at such speed that it must have caused a friction burn.  It somehow feels as if everyone is just a bit too eager,  but out of the blue at the North Stand end Christian Walton fails to clear the ball successfully and his scuffed effort falls to a Cheltenham’s theatrically named Elliott Bonds, but fortunately Bonds’ left footed shot sails hopelessly high above the goal.

Town’s onslaught resumes and Cheltenham show the first sign of resorting to non-footballing tactics to relieve the pressure. “Oh, get up you wanker” says a polite sounding woman behind me as a red-shirted defender lays prostrate on the turf following a gentle collision with another bloke in a football shirt.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Cheltonians predictably in a quiet moment, and equally predictably no one responds.  Kayden Jackson delivers a slightly limp shot into the arms of Owen Evans and with the first half half-over, Town win their first corner, from which Tommy Carroll shoots impressively wide to the extent that the ball arcs away from the goal and stays on the pitch; Bersant Celina spots the unlikely trajectory and crosses the ball back into the ‘mixer’ but there’s no happy end to the incident.

 The second half of the first half plays out in a succession of Town corners and missed goal attempts.  Much of the first half football has been as exciting as it’s ever been at Portman Road in the past twenty years, but the plain truth is there has been no one to put the ball in the net.  As the half draws to a close Wes Burns turns to lash the ball back into the area in front of the goal from the by-line, but the ball strikes Hutchinson’s outstretched arm or possibly arms; VAR would doubtless have recorded the crime but instead Town are awarded another corner from which Luke Woolfenden deftly diverts a graceful header very precisely over the cross bar.

With the half-time whistle the Cheltenham players jog hastily and as one from the pitch, as if someone had just said “last one back in the changing room’s a sissy”.   By contrast Town’s players seem either less enthused, or just less sensitive to childish name calling.  It seems more likely they are lost in thought, grappling to understand how they are not two or three goals up. Forgetting about football for a bit I pop down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad.  Behind us stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster hands over his microphone to comedian and TV personality Omid Djalili, but sadly his words are completely scrambled by the hopeless public address system. Meanwhile Harrison’s dad offers me what the Tim Horton’s website enticingly describes as a ‘mini donut style cake ball’.  I am warned that it will probably taste of maple syrup; but contrarily it tastes of cinnamon. Whilst not ungrateful, and happy to ingest either cinnamon or maple syrup flavoured foodstuffs I am happy not to be offered another.

Cheltenham Town kick-off the second half by lumping the ball down field in the traditional manner.  Town soon get back to winning corners, but with much less frequency than before and somehow the speed and excitement of the first half has departed, leaving in its place mis-directed passes and an unsporting belief amongst the Cheltenham team that they could break away and score a goal of their own.   I remain full of hope, but either Town have lost their mojo or Cheltenham have worked us out.  The game descends into more of a battle with half an hour to go as Cheltenham’s Charlie Colcutt becomes the first player to enter Mr Davies’ address book for a heinous foul on Wes Burns and then the substitutions begin with Kane Vincent-Young replacing Dominic Thompson and the oddly named Macauley Bonne appearing in lieu of Kayden Jackson.  Cheltenham stopper Lewis Freestone is next to have his name etched in copper plate in baldy-Davies’s book as ten minutes later the Cheltenham number six ruthlessly chops down Conor Chaplin.

One bright spot in the second half is the announcement of the night’s attendance of 21,318, of whom 251 are supporting Cheltenham.  Pat from Clacton announces to Fiona and I that the winner of the Clacton supporters’ coach guess the crowd competition is the squirrel that steals the food from the bird table in her garden. I explain to Fiona that squirrels are very clever animals, but I didn’t know they enjoyed coach travel.

Following speed, excitement and accurate passing, enjoyment now leaves the game as Callum Wright of Cheltenham hangs about too long in a prone position on the turf and draws the vitriol of the Sir Bobby Robson stand for his trouble.  “Wanker, Wanker!” roar the lower tier to Wright’s bemusement as he is soon substituted with Aaron Ramsey.  “How could they tell?” he must be wondering to himself as he looks for hairs on the palms of his hands.  Time is running out and in desperation a chant of “Come On You Blues!” is sent out into the ever more chilly night air.  But the chant is only repeated twice more, almost as if everybody feels a bit self-conscious about shouting for any longer than that.  

The final ten minutes are miserable as Cheltenham players spend an unusual amount of time apparently suffering from cramp, something that I thought only happened in extra time in Wembley Cup finals.  Sadly, the ever-unresourceful Town fans can only think of chanting “Boring Boring, Cheltenham” rather than urging on their own team to victory by turning Portman Road into a frightening cauldron of noise.  Cheltenham do waste time, but what professional football team doesn’t when they are close to claiming a hoped for but not necessarily expected away point?  

“Come on Ipswich, score in the final second” I say to creation as the sixth minute of added on time ebbs away. But the final whistle blows, and it feels a bit like we’ve lost.  That’s the trouble with expectation, especially when you’ve not had any for a while.  Not to worry, I think I’ll still be back again next time.