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.

Paris St Germain 6 Red Star Belgrade 1

A bit after 5 o’clock on another sunny, early autumn afternoon in Ile de France and my wife Paulene and I arrive at Meudon Val Fleury station to find that the suburban RER train service is suspended for at least two hours because someone has unfortunately been hit by a train at Champ de Mars station. The Paris St Germain versus Red Star Belgrade match in Group C of the European Champions League kicks-off at six fifty-five, which is a bit of an odd hour, and it means that a different mode of transport will be required to get to the game on time. Seasoned travellers that we are, we don’t panic, but stroll round to the front of the station and across the forecourt to the bus stop where a No 289 bus is conveniently just drawing up. In just twenty minutes this bus will take us to Porte de St Cloud, which is more or less just over the road from Parc des Princes. Our carbon footprint will be bigger courtesy of the Iveco diesel engine, but what can you do? We board the bus and validate our tickets (1.49 euros each if bought as a carnet of ten).
It’s a fun ride through the streets of western Paris and we have a driver who likes to use his horn; at one stage he leans out of his cab window to converse with the driver of a45092035431_3e911401fd_o Peugeot who has pulled across in front of him. With car drivers cowering, the bus pulls onto the cobbled surface of the Porte de St Cloud bus station and, along with a handful of blokes sporting various Paris St Germain branded attire, we alight and make the short walk to Parc des Princes. Our tickets tonight (48 euros each) are in the Paris tribune, the stand which has its back to the centre of Paris. It is a dramatic approach to the stadium as we cross a bridge over the 45092036911_0ff19c18d1_opériphérique, Paris’s inner ring road, which actually passes underneath the corner of the Paris tribune. Of all those ‘you can see the stadium from here’ moments that you get on car and rail journeys, this has to be the best. We walk past the PSG supporters’ shop (most definitely not the official club shop) with its delightful “Fuck Marseille” scarves. It’s not much past six o’clock and it’s still light, and the concrete ‘fins’ that define the silhouette of the stadium look fantastic; Parc des Princes may be over forty years old but it’s a marvellous sight, a far more exciting looking building than any stadium in Britain.
Security arrangements mean some queuing to get in, with everybody patted down by44180984635_6f060b44f6_opeople wearing what look like knitted gloves; it’s a matter of luck how quick or thorough your ‘patter’ is. My ‘patter’ is slow and thorough; Paulene’s patter may be no quicker, but as she only has to deal with women in a crowd of mostly men the queue to be patted down is shorter. This means that by the time I get to the turnstile itself, Paulene is already in the stadium. We have tickets that were sent by e-mail to Paulene and she then sent my ticket to my mobile phone, so ‘all’ I should have to do is pass the black and white patterned thingy in the e-mail beneath the electronic reader at the turnstile. But the reader doesn’t like what I place under it; it seems it needs to read the original rather than the one Paulene forwarded to me. It takes a steward to explain this to me of course and I send two desperate texts to Paulene: “I can’t get in”, “Come to the turnstiles” I plead. As my wife and carer, Paulene immediately understands and answers my call; the reader reads the ticket from her phone and I get inside the stadium. Technology and I are sworn enemies, but everything has worked out fine, until the next time.
Out of gratitude and because she asked me to I treat Paulene to a bottle of Coca Cola (2.50 44371980404_8bb98469c4_oeuros), but I decide to go thirsty because I object to buying a bottle of drink from which the cap is confiscated. I am a 58 year old adult and can be trusted with a plastic bottle top, so “shove your Coca-Cola and other topless bottled drinks where the sun doesn’t shine” is my message to PSG. I later buy a coffee (2 euros) to keep me alert against other possible infringements of my human rights. The spirit of Mai ’68 lives on.
PSG has e-mailed Paulene earlier in the day to warn that trouble was a possibility at tonight’s game from followers of Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda in Serbian), who might have dodged any efforts to segregate supporters. It seems like an admission that PSG have failed to properly control ticket sales and they also advise away supporters not to wear club colours, which surely increases the possibility for trouble by making them impossible to spot. We had heard lots of Balkan voices as we approached the stadium, but there was no sign of any antagonism between French and Serbs. Inside the stadium we find ourselves sat behind a row of blokes in their thirties or early forties who are clearly Belgrade supporters but they seem a bit like the sort of ‘youngish professionals’ you might find at a rugby match in England or in the Greyhound pub in Ipswich; two of them wear Mercedes Benz lanyards which suggests they may have wangled a trip to Paris on the back of the current motor show at Porte de Versaille.
Our seats are close to the front of the stand and in a corner, close to where the Paris45043601722_1f79f55979_o tribune ends and the Boulogne tribune begins. A wedge of Belgrade supporters are nearby to our left, behind a large net which hangs from the roof of the stadium, and a moat. More Serbians fill a batch of seats in the upper tier of the stadium, away to our right. The Auteuil end of the stadium where the bulk of the Paris Ultras are usually accommodated is completely empty tonight, presumably a sanction by UEFA for some previous transgression by the Ultras, probably the use of flares. The noise level is reduced as a result, but there is still a decent atmosphere inside the ground, but then there are still over 39,000 people here.


Pre-match entertainment includes the players’ warm-ups to a soundtrack of tunes from the ‘legendary’ Charles Aznavour, who sadly died earlier this week and some serious watering of the pitch, which reminds me of the spectacular fountains at the gardens of the palace of Versaille. I am a little surprised that PSG haven’t considered choreographing the sprinklers to a musical accompaniment. At last the overblown Champions League anthem, that rip-off of 45092131931_858bdc0502_oHandel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, strikes up and the teams line up on the pitch whilst some young people stand in a circle and shake a big circular thing; it looks to me like they are shaking the crumbs off a massive table cloth, possibly one used by UEFA officials in some lavish pre-match banquet; the comparisons with Versaille continue. Tonight PSG are wearing an all-black strip, whilst Red Star Belgrade wear red and white, looking like Stoke City from the front and Fleetwood Town from the back.
The game begins with PSG having first go with the ball and aiming in the direction of the banks of empty seats at the Auteuil end of the ground; Belgrade shoot towards the Boulogne-Billancourt end. Predictably, the first free-kick of the game, and the second, is awarded for a foul on Neymar. Backed by chants of “Red Star, Red Star” the Serbians have the first shot on goal however, as a poor header from Presnel Kimpembe is half-volleyed into the beautiful blue evening sky by Goran Causic. Belgrade look keen but translate this into committing lots of fouls. The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria are a bit too quick for them. The Belgrade number thirty-one El Fardou Ben from the Comoro Islands is very chunky, a sort of scaled down Ade Akinbayi. To begin with he looks like he might be a handful for the PSG defence, but he’s not and in the pantheon of chunky players is probably no better than former Ipswich Town superstar Martyn Waghorn.
Having weathered the early Red Star enthusiasm, Paris St Germain settle down into totally dominating possession, as is their habit. With twenty-minutes gone a free-kick is granted to PSG in a position from which it is almost inevitable Neymar will score, and he does. Two minutes later he performs a brilliant high-speed one-two with Kylian Mbappe and scores again. Mbappe is set up by Neymar but the Belgrade goal keeper Milan Borjan saves at his near post and then saves a header from Edinson Cavani. Marco Verratti is magnificent in midfield, winning the ball back almost instantly every time a move breaks down. Edinson Cavani scores the third goal just after half-past seven before a Thomas Meunier cross, or possibly even a pass, is delicately flicked in by Angel Di Maria four minutes before half-time. Paris St Germain are magnificent and I’ve seldom if ever seen the like of it before.
At half-time we feel we need a rest, not just because our collective breaths have been taken away by the sumptuous football, but also because the Serbian blokes in front of us have been stood up throughout the first-half and we need a bit of a sit-down. Whilst they go off to pay 7 euros for non-alcoholic beer in PSG branded plastic cups we can rest in relative comfort and gaze upon the green of the pitch without having to look over their neatly cut heads of hair.
The second half is soon underway however, and the Serbians return looking suspiciously at their beers. Paulene now stands by a free seat further back across the gangway because the Serbs have played musical chairs and a tall one and a shorter one have swapped places so her view is obstructed. The second-half proves even more exciting as Mbappe attacks down the left and we get to witness his remarkable speed at close quarters from which he looks even faster. But the PSG forwards and attacking midfield are so free, interchangeable and flowing that anyone can pop-up anywhere. Mbappe pops up regularly but misses every time and by the time he does score Belgrade have even had a couple of shots on target of their own. In the far corner of the ground some Paris Ultras have begun to wave banners, one says Paris, whilst a second is clearly aimed at winding up the Serbs and reads ‘Kosovo’, a part of the country that has declared independence from Serbia; although Serbia recognises the government it sees Kosovo as its own province.44171686915_83e7470fae_o
Belgrade’s Filip Stojkovic is the first player to be booked by Portuguese referee Artur Dias Soares, when he tugs at Neymar’s shirt; Stojkovic just couldn’t wait until the end of the match to claim his souvenir. Mbappe’s eventual goal is scored two minutes later with 70 minutes played, it’s a relative tap-in from a bamboozling passing move instigated by Neymar that should have resulted in a goal sooner, but previous shots were blocked. The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for the fifth goal to be scored, but any sense of shock is eclipsed four minutes later as Milan Miran scores with a fine shot for Belgrade. The Serbian fans are ecstatic and make the most of their only opportunity to celebrate this evening, which is a lesson to all football supporters of losing teams, Ipswich Town fans please take note. But not to be outdone the Paris Ultras also light four or five flares on the opposite side of the ground where the flags were, for which the club will no doubt be punished in some way by UEFA.43269643400_d3ee064df0_o
A man in a dark suit appears from the back of the stand to ask everyone to sit down as people behind can’t see. He has some success but it’s a bit late for this now and within ten minutes everyone is stood up again anyway. But we see the last ten minutes with an unobstructed view because the Serbs in front can’t take any more and leave. All that remains is for Neymar to complete his hat-trick with a second perfect free-kick over the defensive wall into the top left hand corner of Milan Borjan’s goal.
This has been the fourth time I have seen PSG at Parc des Princes and I can’t but help feeling a little disconnected from these matches, because PSG are the French version of Manchester United or Bayern Munich, and are the club who everyone except their own supporters loathes. I can’t help disliking them too because their un-earned wealth distorts and compromises the French league and Cup competitions. But I have to admit that tonight PSG have played brilliantly and produced possibly the best football I have ever seen, better even than Ipswich Town’s during the 1980-81 season. English commentators will no doubt debunk the win by saying that Red Star Belgrade are a weak side, but the brilliance of Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Rabiot, Di Maria, Meunier and Verratti just cannot be denied. This has been a fantastic evening’s football.

Ipswich Town 0 Sheffield United 1

The ‘hectic Christmas schedule’ is over and today is the first Saturday of the new year and is therefore the day of the FA Cup third round, once one of the most auspicious dates in the English football calendar. The evil Premier League and the Football Association itself have together destroyed the glory of the FA Cup, but those of us who remember it as it was can stir our memories and pretend, shutting out the horrid reality to enjoy what should be a season highlight. Forty-four years ago I recall, Ipswich played Sheffield United in the FA Cup third round, it was the first FA Cup tie I ever saw and we won 3-2 having been 2-1 down. The wonderfully named Geoff Salmons and the brilliant Tony Currie scored for Sheffield United; ‘magic’ Kevin Beattie won the game with two goals in two minutes just before half-time and super Brian Hamilton got the other one for Town; marvellous. We went on to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the next round.
The draw has in one way been good to Ipswich, giving us a home tie, but sadly it is against a team in the same Division as us, so there is no chance of a ‘Cup upset’ and no road-trip to some far off exotic, provincial town like Fleetwood or Rochdale that Town have never graced.
It is nevertheless with a spring in my step that I set off for the railway station under a pale winter sun, wrapped up against the bitter cold.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The train is three minutes late and I board it along with a bearded man in a khaki hat and camouflage jacket and a teenage boy and girl who are carrying skateboards. In the far corner of the carriage a bearded hippy in a leather jacket drinks from a tin one of those peculiar ‘ciders’ that contain fruit other than apples. The man in the camouflage jacket huddles into another corner as if trying not to be seen, but he clashes horribly with the blue moquette of the train seats.
At Colchester all these passengers leave the train except for the hippy, who once the train OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAleaves the station inexplicably moves to the other end of the carriage leaving me alone with my winter clothing and enthusiasm for the FA Cup. Arriving in Ipswich the afternoon is not as bright, there is a pall of grey cloud. Football supporters spill out of the station and across the bridge opposite, there are three swans swimming in the river below; the tide is high and all is quiet, almost serene.

 

As usual Portman Road is a curious, greasy street cafe peopled with stewards in shapeless coats policing nothing in particular. The search dog looks happy and a man searches amongst the sauce bottles by one of the hot food stands. Programmes are only £2 today, so I buy one and a man on a bike weaves past me.


In St Jude’s Tavern the usual bunch of ageing Town fans sit and discuss football whilst I buy a pint of the Match Day Special (Yeovil Brewery Company’s Star Gazer – £2) and very good it is. I am soon joined by Mick who will be accompanying me to the game. We talk about travelling through Italy, Welsh counties, Donald Trump, Andrew Graham-Dixon and football. Mick gives me the £10 he owes me for the match ticket. After another pint of Star Gazer we head down Portman Road at about twenty minutes to three and into Sir Alf Ramsey Way. There is a short queue at the turnstile for the stand formerly known as the West Stand and once inside Mick remarks on the picturesque coffee stand, painted somewhat bizarrely to look like it’s built of stone.
In the stand we use the facilities and are both amused by the sign on the hand dryers which reads ‘Danger Electricity’. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFearless as we are, and confident in our general familiarity with modern electrical appliances we use the dryers nevertheless, despite the jolting, tingling sensation it gives us. It is two minutes to three by the scoreboard clock as we take our seats, but the teams are already lined up and ready to kick-off. Town are of course wearing their traditional blue shirts and white shorts with blue socks, but I am bitterly disappointed, mortified even to see that Sheffield United are not wearing their distinctive red and white stripes with black shorts. Instead, the visiting team sport plain white shirts with black shorts, like some sort of pathetic imitation of Port Vale or Germany. What is wrong with these people? They just keep finding new ways to ruin the game.
The game begins and Ipswich, fielding a more or less full strength team, given that most of the first choice midfield is injured, start quite well. They pass the ball to one another and approach the opposition penalty area. Sadly Sheffield begin to play a little as well and after about ten minutes and it becomes apparent that Town won’t be able to just dismissively swat away their challenge, which is a pity. The game evens up and Ipswich’s early bravado dissipates a little, but it’s okay, we’re playing better than usual because we have the ball as much as the opposition do. Then, at about twenty five past three a bloke called Nathan Thomas shoots from way out into the top corner of the Ipswich net and we’re losing. Crap.
The 1,100 odd Sheffield supporters who have been shouting and singing support for theirOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA team during the preceding minutes now do so with added joy and vigour. The 10,957 odd home supporters haven’t made much noise up until now and still don’t, although their team really needs some encouragement right now. The game dribbles on to half-time as depression sets in with the majority of those in attendance. Mick and I are sat in Block Y which is in the centre of the top tier of the West Stand; normally these are the most expensive seats in the ground, they are padded and they’re brown, not blue. But the people who sit in them are as quiet and miserable as the people I usually sit with in the more modestly appointed Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, they just look better fed and sound more pleased with themselves. A Sheffield player goes down injured and requires treatment, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. I remark to Mick how back in 1974 the North Stand would have been braying “Dig a hole and fuckin’ bury him”, but now they just grumble a bit to each other. People knew how to make their own entertainment back then.
The top tiers of both the North Stand (Sir Bobby Robson Stand) and Churchman’s (Sir Alf Ramsey Stand) are closed to supporters today because of the reduced crowd due to it not

being another bloody boring League match, but an exciting FA Cup game. The club has nevertheless placed stewards amongst the rows of empty North Stand seats, and all around the ground there seem to be a lot of stewards in parts of the ground where they are the only people there. It all helps add to Portman Road’s unique atmosphere.
At half-time I use a different toilet where the hand dryers don’t carry health warnings,

before Mick and I gaze out across the practice pitch beyond a red Citroen H van towards the former municipal power station and tram shed. We marvel that local authorities once built and provided these fabulous things, but don’t comment on the Citroen. The sun is steadily setting behind the cloud and when we return to our seats the pitch is glowing gloriously from the illumination of the floodlights.
The second half begins with some rare vocal encouragement for Town from the North Stand and I realise that the Sheffield United fans must be the first away supporters this season to have witnessed a whole first half without singing “Is this a library?” I can only think they don’t have opera in Sheffield or if they do they don’t much care for Verdi. Perhaps it is a hangover from the Thatcher era when Sheffield was the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire and opera is just too patrician. But full marks to these Blades fans for being more interested in supporting their own team than berating the opposition.
The heady early minutes of the second half fade away like the taste of the half-time beers, snacks and hot beverages and the game descends into dullness. Ipswich don’t exactly play badly, they just don’t create any attempts on goal, which suggests they have misunderstood the point of the game. Sheffield on the other hand do fashion some chances but spurn them. Ipswich captain and centre-half Luke Chambers and goalkeeper Bart Bialkowski seemingly attempt to settle the result with the sorts of misjudgements that one would only expect from the most inept of youths in full-time education, but the Blades are not sharp enough to take advantage.
Apart from the noise from the Sheffielders the game is conducted in near silence, with swathes of seats completely empty it feels like a reserve game. As the contest spirals down towards its miserable conclusion the North Stand at last find a song in their dark hearts, “ We want a shot”, they chant. Having inspired themselves with their own wit they proceed to trawl through their back catalogue of scatological old favourites: “ We’re fucking shit, we’re fucking shit; we’re fucking shit” and “You’re football is shit, you’re football is shit, Mick McCarthy you’re football is shit”. It doesn’t help lighten the mood or motivate the players to do better, I can’t think why.
Oddly, the announcement of four minutes of added on time is greeted with a rare growl of enthusiasm from the crowd, but it makes no difference and there is a sense that people are just clearing their throats for the inevitable booing that greets the final whistle. Ipswich Town are once again out of the FA Cup and after the long descent from the top of the stand Mick and I bid each other farewell. Mick thanks me for getting him a ticket and he means it; he doesn’t see Town play often and although it was a poor game he has enjoyed it. Mick is a very rational man. We go our separate ways and I depart through the club car park and its array of obscenely expensive Ferraris, Mercedes Benz, Audis and Range Rovers. Humming the Buzzcocks’ ‘Fast cars’ I look back on the stadium, the dark shapes of the stands silhouetted in the beams of the floodlights; such beautiful sadness.

 

Portsmouth 0 Crewe Alexandra 1

Portsmouth is one of the smaller cities in England (Population 200,000ish) but it is also one of the best, probably the best. What other city has a port, a naval dockyard, an historic seaside resort, two piers, a ferry service, a concrete viewing tower, a hovercraft service, four tides a day and most importantly a supporters owned football club. If you don’t think those are all things worth having then you can only be a hopeless misery or from Southampton.0The upshot of this glowing first paragraph in praise of Portsmouth is to show that for footie fans a fixture at Fratton Park is wonderful thing and far better than any of the traditional long weekend attractions of away games at seaside towns such as Blackpool, Brighton or Torquay. Incidentally, why anyone would want to stay in Blackpool I cannot imagine, what a dump! A sleazy, greasy, grubby, outside toilet of a town.
Back to Portsmouth. My prelude to the match took in a Friday evening in the Meat n Barrel pub in Southsea, a trendy establishment, which felt like a Student Union bar and had a hipster-friendly décor of bare brick walls and girders, metal light shades and school canteen style tables and chairs. It made for harsh acoustics and was reminiscent of a 1980’s New York loft apartment or squat, but the beer was good, although at £3.95 a pint it needed to be. Saturday morning brought breakfast in the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower and then a trip at 4metres per second up said tower to take in the views over Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight,which are bloody marvellous. The sun shone, clouds swirled and scudded, rain fell over the English Channel and the water sparkled. It’s only the existence of Manchester United, Chelsea and Robbie Savage that stops me believing in God when confronted with such beauty.
With my soul and spirits still soaring I arrived at Fratton Park, a wonderful football ground which isn’t that much altered from when I first attended a game there in 1979. The ground’s character comes from the two lateral stands which both date from the 1920’s, the North stand is cranked towards the pitch a third of the way along and inside is a warren of steel girders and wooden floorboards perched on an earth bank. There is still an advert for Brickwood’s beers at the back of the stand, ales that haven’t been brewed for the best part of forty years, but a part of Pompey’s heritage.
My seat was in the South Stand, a similar structure in some ways to that opposite, but designed by the illustrious Archibald Leitch, ‘architect’ of football stands all across Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. One of the joys of watching Pompey is Fratton Park itself; it is a museum piece, but that only adds to the atmosphere once the stands are occupied as the noise of the crowd echoes beneath the low roof and bounces off the wooden floorboards and staircases. Not that Pompey needs helpful acoustics, because Portsmouth supporters are arguably the most passionate and loyal of any in England. What other club would get larger gates in the Fourth Division than in the Second Division; only a few thousand down on when they were in the First Division?
It was visiting Crewe Alexandra in their boring all-black away kit who started the game brightest as they strove to quell the atmosphere that had built with the approach of kick-off. But Pompey very quickly began to behave as the home team should and soon the ball stayed mostly at the Fratton end of the ground where the Crewe goalkeeper stood. But despite there being 16,810 people in the ground, the majority wearing blue, they weren’t getting behind the team like they normally do. Expectation was high, a win for Pompey and defeat for Carlisle United would see Pompey climb into 3rd place in the league table, an automatic promotion position. But that rain I’d seen over the English Channel in the morning was now over Fratton Park and seemed to dampen spirits and the supporters weren’t their usual noisy, committed selves. There was a chill breeze too which blew away the warmth of the morning’s sun. Not good. On the pitch Pompey were like a superior life form from another planet, probing and prodding the Crewe defence as if they were hicks abducted by UFO from mid-west America, but they got nowhere; the Crewe defence was unfathomable, like why those Americans chose Donald Trump as their leader.
Despite being ‘on top,’ Pompey were not really performing. Gary Roberts, the slow-paced former Ipswich Town winger was running the midfield, but up front Kyle Bennett, whose parents may be watched South Park, skipped around a lot but was ineffective showing no inclination to kick the ball at the goal. Crewe’s defenders were big blokes and Kyle has the frame of a pasty-faced teenager and a haircut which looks like he has a small fish on top of his head; he was no match for them. Meanwhile, Pompey’s former Ipswich defender Matt Clarke could only lump the ball forward aimlessly; I can’t imagine where he learned to do that. Shocking.
In the stand I was growing frustrated like my fellow spectators, but mainly because of a teenage girl and boy who kept wanting me to stand up so they could pass by and go down onto the concourse to buy coke or burgers or some such crap. The lack of space is the drawback of a 1920’s football stand; it wasn’t built for well-fed, strapping 6ft 2 inch smart arses such as me; it was built for weedy, flat capped, malnourished tuberculosis sufferers, traumatised by their experiences in the First World War . I felt conflicted. When those youths asked me to let them by I wanted to say “ No, it’s not half-time yet” but I wasn’t going to do that. I felt guilty for having such curmudgeonly thoughts, but also for not actually telling them to go back , sit down and watch the match; added to which I was an Ipswich Town season ticket holder watching Portsmouth and secretly wondering how the Towen were doing at home to Brentford. I was a seething mass of internal conflict, but fortunately it was half-time before I knew it, although there were plenty of clues with loads of other people now going downstairs to the concourse to beat the queue for the khasi, beers, teas and burgers, which are what people really go to football for after all.
Despite the relative disappointment of the first half there was still a tangible air of optimism for the second half. Pompey had had more possession and more clearly wanted to win, rather than not lose like their opponents, so surely that would count for something. Well, it didn’t. Crewe Alexandra, if anything, played a bit better and although they won a few corners and somebody fell over in the penalty area Pompey were probably less threatening towards the Crewe goal than they were in the first half. Such was their ineffectiveness, that my thoughts turned to how much Pompey centre- half Christian Burgess, with his pony tail, looked like an 18th century sailor; all he really needed was a ribbon and perhaps a tricorn hat. He could have “Mr Christian” printed on the back of his shirt like those Brazilians do who don’t play under their real names. I also mused on whether Crewe’s curly blonde-haired striker Alex Kiwomya was a relative of former Ipswich Town waif Chris Kiwomya; Wikipaedia tells us he is his nephew.
Crewe were now so much improved on their first half showing that they had the cheek to score a goal; a bout of pinball ending with a header in to a far corner of the Pompey goal which they seemed to have forgotten about. Although there was in theory plenty of time for an equaliser, the goal caused of mass exodus of Pomponians who deserted ship as if they’d got wind of an imminent torpedo attack. As large numbers made for the lifeboats Pompey continued to flounder and despite desperate substitutions their play deteriorated to the point that they could barely string two passes together. The now predictable outcome was that Crewe Alexandra emerged victorious, but I was still a trifle disturbed to hear a chorus of “What the fucking hell was that? “ from a phalanx of disgruntled Pompey fans as they headed for the exits after the final whistle.
The Pompey team had disappointed this afternoon, but unusually so had the Pompey supporters who had failed to get behind their team when they most needed it. I left Fratton Park somewhat disillusioned. Pompey is normally the antidote to miserable, moany Ipswich for me, but something had gone wrong today; I think it was perhaps that there was expectation. As a football supporter you can only ever have hope, expectation is a step too far and you will be punished for having it. Oh, but if you support Manchester United or Chelsea that is a good thing.