FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was.   Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up.  To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name.  But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany.  Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.

Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website.  Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes.  Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us.  Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park.  The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.

It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened.  Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium.  I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much.  Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot.  Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it.  But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.

Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal.  Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out.  Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.

People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium.  Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves.  Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.

Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares.  I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.

As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On  Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout.  Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement.  Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence.  In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig.   Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”.  A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness. 

The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.  The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.

Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out.  The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.

Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.

The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match.  The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net.  It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.

The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago.  From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again.  With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.

With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England.  The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal.  When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.

A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net.  It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit.  The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait.  The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).

The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in.  The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure.  Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle

Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset.   A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand  hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header.  The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises.  All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.

With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match.  Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations.  We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people.  This has been a truly fantastic night.

FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.

Ipswich Town 1 Oldham Athletic 1

One of the many wonderful things about supporting a football team that is in the third division is that the FA Cup begins at the beginning of November.  None of this inexorable waiting about for Advent, Christmas and then New Year to come and go. No siree, the joy of knockout football comes early to the meek who do more than just inherit the Earth, they get to chase the glory that is knockout competition football.  Of course, we have already missed out on six rounds of extra-preliminary, preliminary, and qualifying rounds, but we can’t have everything and being meek we wouldn’t want it.

Today, the transparent plastic tub that serves as the 21st century’s replacement for the Football Association’s velvet bag has paired Ipswich Town with fourth division Oldham Athletic.  This is a pairing to rival some of the worst failures ever, like a race between a Ford Edsel and a Sinclair C5, or a competition between the Enron bank and ITV digital.   Ipswich Town and Oldham Athletic, I have been told, are the least successful clubs in English professional football in the past twenty years, being the only two who have either not been promoted or not made it to any sort of match at the new Wembley Stadium.  The good thing is that this has saved us supporters a considerable amount of money on grossly over-priced tickets, match day programmes and catering, for which we should be grateful.

It’s a blustery, cloudy day and fallen leaves scuttle along the footpath as I make my way through Gippeswyk Park; the autumnal scene reminds me of some of the opening sequences of the film The Exorcist. Portman Road is very quiet, stewards in huge fluorescent orange coats, and sniffer dogs easily out number supporters outside the away fans’ entrance.  The display on the windows at the back of the Cobbold Stand tell of former FA Cup glories and the day in March 1975 when a record crowd of 38,010 filled Portman Road to see the sixth-round tie versus Leeds United. I look at my watch, it’s a quarter to two; I had already been inside the ground nearly twenty minutes by now on that day forty-six and a half years ago. I buy a programme for a knockdown price (£2.00), and  confirm to myself that I prefer this 32 page programme to the usual 68 page one, even though it costs more per page; I live in hope of an eight or twelve page edition for less than a pound.

At the Arboretum pub (currently known as the Arbour House), I choose a pint of Nethergate Augustinian Amber Ale (£3.80).  The bar is unusually full, so my pint and I decant to the safety of the beer garden, which is reassuringly more like a backyard with tables and chairs. I text Mick to tell him “Je suis dans le jardin”.  It’s not long before he joins me with a pint of beer and a cup of dry roasted peanuts.  We talk of Ipswich Town, of property development and pension funds, catching the TGV to Marseille, the buildings of Le Corbusier, the colour theory of Wassily Kandinsky and the Bauhaus, and electric cars.  A little after twenty-five to three we leave for Portman Road, bidding the barmaid goodbye as Mick places our empty glasses and the cup that no longer contains peanuts on the bar.

Our tickets today (£10 for me, £5 for Mick plus £1.50 each unavoidable donation to some parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) are for Block Y of what is now known as the Magnus Group Stand, but used to be the plain old West Stand, named simply after the compass point rather than a commercial concern called West that had paid for the privilege.  Flight upon flight of stairs take us to the dimly lit upper tier of the stand where we edge past a line of sour-faced males of indeterminate age, but over fifty, to our seats.  My guess is there won’t be much banging of drums, lighting of flares or even vocal encouragement from these people, who look more like Jesuit priests than football supporters.

Although Remembrance Sunday isn’t until next week, and there will be a minute’s silence before the game versus Oxford United next Saturday, bizarrely we have another pre-match minute’s silence today.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster tells us it is because we are in the ‘Remembrance period’ but it feels like football just likes minutes silences.  As ever the silence is strangely followed by applause, and then the game begins.  For the first forty-five minutes Town will be mostly trying to send the ball in the direction of the goal in front of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand (previously known as Churchman’s end) where in the lower tier I can make out ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton.  Later, Mick will ask me if “the lady from Essex” still comes to the games, and I will point her out to him, locating her using gangways and rows of seats like co-ordinates in a game of Battleships.   Mick spots her and Pat from Clacton is sunk. Oldham Athletic are wearing a fetching ensemble of orange shirts and black shorts with orange socks; it’s a kit that stirs memories of Town’s fifth round tie away at Bristol Rovers in the snow of February 1978; or it would if, as is the modern fashion, Oldham’s shirts didn’t look like they’d had something spilled down the front of them.

Town start the game well with Oldham’s interestingly named Dylan Fage conceding a corner within the first minute before the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a cross directly at goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler.  Within eight minutes Town lead as the oddly named Macauley Bonne’s cross sees Wes Burns do an impression of the shopkeeper in Mr Benn as suddenly, as if by magic he appears to score from very close range.  This is just the start we need; we will now surely go on to win by three or four goals to nil because Oldham Athletic are third from bottom of the fourth division and Town won 4-1 at Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday, what more convincing evidence predicting our inevitable victory could there be?  Indeed, Town continue to look the better team as the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Wes Burns both have shots blocked, but then the shots become fewer to be replaced by scores of passes back and forwards across the pitch.

Bersant Celina tries a little flick pass with the outside of his right foot, which doesn’t succeed. “You’ve got to earn the right to do that sort of thing” announces the joyless sounding man beside me to the World, presumably unaware that he is talking rubbish; you just need to get it right.  Oldham break forward and are a pass away from a shot on goal on a couple of occasions. “We’re leaving the door open” continues the joyless man, seemingly happy to be miserable.

Despite the 1-0 lead, the Portman Road crowd, which will later be announced as consisting of 437 Oldham supporters within a paltry total of 8,845, is quiet.  Where are the other 29,165 who were here in 1975?  A good number are probably no longer alive, I guess.  “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit”  chant the Oldham supporters in the Cobbold stand with predictable coarseness.  I feel like telling them that’s because some of us are dead.  Despite high hopes the FA Cup seems to have lost a little of its sparkle and it’s only twenty -five past three.  I realise that over the Cobbold Stand and across the roof tops beyond I can see the top of the Buttermarket shopping centre.  It’s the twenty seventh minute and Oldham’s number nine, the optimistic sounding Hallam Hope heads the ball just wide of the Town goal. 

Seven more unremarkable minutes pass and the sometimes not very controlled Sam Morsy is booked by referee Mr Hair, who it is to be hoped will one day referee in the Bundesliga.  Stupidly, having dropped to the ground under a challenge, Morsy grabs hold of the ball as if to award himself a free-kick.  Rightfully, Herr Hair books him for hand ball and the pointlessness of the incident mirrors the drifting aimlessness of the Town performance and its quiet backdrop; this isn’t what Cup football is meant to be like. 

After a couple of further failed goal attempts from Oldham, with four minutes left until half-time they score. Latics’ number ten, Davis Keillor-Dunn, who sounds like he could have been friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, sends a fine shot into the corner of the Town goal from about 20 metres after Toto Nsiala initially fails to deal with a ball that had been booted forward.  “How shit must you be we’re drawing 1-1” sing the Oldham supporters to the tune of Sloop John B, coincidentally showing the majestic timelessness of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds.

With half-time fast approaching Kane Vincent-Young tugs an Oldham shirt to concede a free-kick. “Stupid boy” says a man who sounds even more joyless than the man next to me but nothing like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.  I suggest to Mick that players should have their hands bound with tape to prevent them from pulling each other’s shirts; ever reasonable and practical Mick suggests they simply wear mittens.  Following a corner to Oldham, the half ends and with the exception of one man, the occupants of Row J rise and then descend the stairs to use the toilets and the catering,  or to just stand about.

As Mick and I wait for the queue to the toilet to shorten we talk of exorcism, the disappointment of the first half, the architectural splendour of the Corporation tram shed and power station in Constantine Road, and how my wife Paulene has a degree in theology.  I decide I can wait until after the game for a pee and whilst Mick joins the queue and disappears into the toilet, I am impressed by the long hair of a man standing a few metres away from me,  but die a little inside when I read in the programme that when he grows up one of today’s mascots wants to be a policeman.  More happily, the other two mascots want to be a footballer and a superhero.

Back in our seats the second half begins with the unusual replacement of both Ipswich full-backs as Janoi Donacien and Steve Penney replace Kane Vincent-Young and Cameron Burgess.  It’s a change that brings almost immediate results as a mittenless Janoi Donacien tugs an orange shirt and Herr Hair awards a penalty to Oldham.  The otherwise impressive Dylan Bahamboula steps up for Oldham to see his penalty kick saved by Christian Walton and a sudden roar fills Portman Road which belies the small number of people present.  For a few minutes the home crowd is energised and it physically feels as if we care as much we think do.  Wes Burns dashes down the wing, urged on by the crowd, but the sudden excitement is evidently too much and he propels his cross way beyond the far post and away for a goal kick.   “How much more waking up do we need?” asks the joyless soul next to me.

To an extent Town’s performance in the second half is better than that of the first.  The full-backs now on the pitch are an improvement on those they replaced and Oldham produce fewer decent chances to score.   When Connor Chaplin replaces the ineffective Kyle Edwards the link between Morsy and the front players is strengthened and another dimension is added to our attacking play, but somehow it’s still not enough.  As I tell Mick, all our players look like they got home at four o’clock this morning.

As Town’s failure to score grows roots and blossoms, the Oldham supporters gain in confidence. “Come on Oldham, Come on Oldham” they chant, giving a clue to the home fans as to what they might be doing, but we don’t twig.  The upshot with ten minutes to go is a reprise of that old favourite “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit” and who can argue, it’s no longer 1975.  Despite Oldham encouraging Town with a misplaced pass out of defence, we are unable to capitalise and the Oldham supporters are the only ones singing as they ask “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” Predictably no one dares break our vow of silence to answer their question.

As the game enters its final minutes Sone Aluko replaces our best player, Wes Burns, and Rekeem Harper replaces Lee Evans.  Encouragingly Oldham replace their best player, Dylan Bahamboula with Harry Vaughan, but nothing works and five minutes of added on time only raises hopes, but does not fulfil them.

The final whistle is blown by Herr Hair and the crowd get up from their seats showing the same level of emotion that they might if they were all on a bus and it had just reached their stop, turning away from the pitch and averting their gaze like you would if trying to avoid eye contact with a drunk.  It has been a very disappointing afternoon of FA Cup football,  and has failed on every level to live up to what the competition is supposed to be about. 

On the bright side, at least we are still in the draw for the Second Round and until we lose, the promise of glory still remains.  It’s not every year we do as well as this.

Ipswich Town 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1

Ipswich Town first played Sheffield Wednesday back in August of 1958 in a second division game at Portman Road; trolleybuses were still running in Ipswich and Sheffield still had trams the first time round.  Town of course won (2-0), as we often did before the turn of the century.   By the time I started watching Town the twentieth century had the best part of thirty years still to run, but Sheffield Wednesday were down in the third division and Town were just getting established in what has now unfortunately become the Premier League, and hence the two clubs never met, not even in the Cup.  The first time I saw Wednesday was therefore not against Ipswich at all but at Layer Road, Colchester, in September of 1979, neither team managed to score.  When I eventually did see Town play Wednesday it was at Hillsborough in September of 1984, halfway through the miner’s strike. After the 2-2 draw I was amongst Town fans who were whisked back to Sheffield Midland station at high speed in a double-decker bus escorted by police motorcycles. As we sped through the streets of Sheffield that Saturday evening, we felt unsure if we would end up at the train station or hurtling through a jeering picket line to do a strike-breaking shift at a local colliery. 

Today is a somewhat grey September Saturday morning and it feels nothing at all like thirty-seven years ago, the class struggle seems to have been lost and now both Town and Wednesday languish in the third division playing second fiddle to their loathsome local rivals. I don’t know if it has anything to do with a loss of revolutionary zeal, but my enthusiasm for today’s fixture is oddly muted, particularly given Town’s first win of the season last weekend, and as if to confirm my feelings of ennui this morning I chose to put on a pair of socks that depict Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. Nevertheless, there is never any doubt that I won’t drive to Ipswich, park up my trusty Citroen C3 on Chantry, wander down through Gippeswyk Park and search out a pre-match beer. Later as I walk up Princes Street, what I assume is a police drone hovers above and I am struck by the new views of Portman Road that have been opened up following demolition of the former Mann Egerton garage from where in 1978 my father bought the brown Triumph Dolomite in which I wooed my first girlfriend.  Having witnessed a man shouting and swearing at his friend or partner trying unsuccessfully to back a mini into a parking space, I end up at the Arbor House (properly known as the Arboretum) where I sit alone in the garden and drink a pint of Woodforde’s Kett’s Rebellion (£3.80). 

At about twenty-five minutes to three I head for Portman Road and join the crocodile of supporters descending St George’s Street from the Greyhound.  Making my way along Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road I show my Covid credentials and then enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number sixty, offering a cheery ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ to the turnstile operator as I enter the ground.  The programme seller in the driveway to the main reception has sold out so I make my way to the little shop at the far end of the stand where I buy a programme (£3.50). “Enjoy the match” says the young man behind the counter as he hands over the glossy booklet and my change from a five-pound note.  “Or bon match as they say in France”, I reply pointing to the “Allez les bleus” slogan on the front of my T-shirt as I turn away and walk into one of the metal barriers that have been set out in front of the shop, presumably to marshal the invisible throng of people over eager to buy programmes and other assorted toot.

On the lower tier of the stand Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Ray, his son and his grandson Harrison are already in their seats. Pat from Clacton arrives soon after I sit down and as the teams run out, the little band called Blue Action who now occupy Section 6 of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and wave blue and white flags, and brandish a colourful banner that reads “Uppa Towen”.  Compared to the tifos seen in the stands of Marseille or Lens, Blue Action’s effort is rather pathetic, but in the context of soporific Suffolk it’s a bloody marvel and I like it very much.  At a minute past three the game begins with Scott Fraser making first contact with the ball as Town aim to put it in the big white goal just in front of me to my right.  Within 30 seconds Sheffield Wednesday win a corner with their supporters still singing along to ‘Hey Jude’, a song which is played over the PA system with the intention of rousing the home fans, not the away ones; but it’s good to be optimistic.  Three minutes later and Town should be ahead as a simple through ball from Cameron Burgess puts the oddly named Macauley Bonne through on goal, only for Bonne to take too much time and eventually place the ball weakly against the chest of Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, a man who looks like a giant orange-flavour Lyons Maid Mivvi, sounds like a firm of accountants and can stop most shots by merely stringing his name out across the goalmouth.

Behind me two blokes debate which of Town’s two defensive midfielders is Idris El-Mizouni and which is Tommy Carroll. The louder, more assertive bloke concludes that Idris is number 25, which he is not, because that’s Tommy Carroll.  I briefly toy with the idea of turning around to point out his error, but happily his more cautious accomplice discovers the truth a short while later to save me the trouble.   Meanwhile, up in the Cobbold Stand the Sheffielders sing “Shall we sing a, Shall we sing a, Shall we sing a song for you” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda.  Nobody responds, presumably because most people are thinking to themselves “Well, they’re already singing a song, what are they on about?”.  For my part, I’m impressed by their politeness and given a choice would ask for something by Heaven 17, Pulp or the Arctic Monkeys.

Fifteen minutes have elapsed since the game started and so far not very much of note has happened. Then, Wes Burns slams the ball into the net after either the oddly named Macauley Bonne or Scott Fraser flicks the ball on to him, but Burns is, unbeknown to me and those around me, offside; we therefore stand up as one and cheer wildly only to sit down again a moment later feeling cheated and very slightly embarrassed.  To their eternal credit the Wednesdayites do not chant “You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong”, which is nice of them.

The game is close and compelling although not of particularly good quality; Sheffield are quicker to the ball and dominate possession, but fortunately their tiny ten, the wonderfully named Barry Bannan tends to overhit most of his crosses and long passes.  For Town meanwhile, the oddly named Macauley Bonne looks somewhat lonely up front on his own and I surmise that he wears the number eighteen shirt because he’s doing the work of two number nines.

“It’s gonna come innit?” announces the bloke behind me optimistically as Town waste an opportunity with Idris El-Mizouni passing to Wes Burns when he could have had a shot and Wes Burns overhitting the ensuing cross.  Then, slightly unexpectedly, we witness a Sheffield Wednesday goal instead; Dennis Adeniran becoming the first man called Dennis, with two ‘n’s like the fire engines and dust carts, to score at Portman Road in living memory, although Denis (only one ‘n’) Maffey did score for Town back in September 1947 in a 4-0 win over Southend.

The Sheffield supporters away to my right are predictably pleased and sing an incomprehensible song to the tune of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ nursery rhyme; their euphoria and short vowels rendering their words indecipherable, but for the final one which is ‘Wednesday’.   I have to admit to feeling somewhat depressed that Town have gone behind again at home and can barely remember when I last saw them comfortably win a game by three or four goals to nil, like we used to do.   There must be young supporters who are barely aware that such things ever happened or are even possible.  Pat from Clacton echoes my disappointment. “It’s a shame, isn’t it?” she says.

As if the frustration of being a goal down wasn’t enough, the referee Mr Andy Davies, whose head is conspicuously hairless, then proceeds to deny the oddly named Macauley Bonne a free-kick when his feet miraculously disappear from beneath him as he attempts to side step a Wednesday defender on the edge of the penalty box.   “You don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand employing a childish simplicity reminiscent of the school playground.  Further decisions from the increasingly inept Mr Davies go against Town and as he speaks to and perhaps compares haircuts with a clearly perplexed Paul Cook, the crowd ask “Who’s the wanker in the black?” suggesting both that they haven’t read the back pages of their programmes carefully enough and that they care not about the possibility of either of the linesmen thinking “Ooh, I hope they don’t mean me?”.

The half-time break arrives and Town still trail, I console myself with a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and a chat with Ray, who bemoans the performance of Mr Andy Davies and more controversially of Bersant Celina, who doesn’t look as fit or sharp as he might.  Not far from where Ray and I are standing former Town and Sheffield Wednesday player Shefki Kuqi appears, looking trim and very smart in a grey suit good enough for a job interview or court appearance, and takes the well-deserved applause of the whole ground.

At four minutes past four the football resumes and Town enjoy more possession, although a lot of it involves passing the ball across the field waiting for the right opening to appear.  It’s not long before Mr Davies is showing off his poor refereeing skills once again as Wednesday’s Liam Palmer is tripped on the edge of the Town penalty box.  Appearing uncertain whether the foul happened inside or outside the box, Mr Davies doesn’t give a foul at all, making it the Wednesdayites’ turn to tell him he doesn’t know what he’s doing, provoking ironic jeers from the Town supporters to which the Wednesday fans respond with a chant of “We forgot, we forgot, we forgot that you were here”. It’s easily done.

In the sixty-seventh minute Wednesday’s tiny ten, Barry Bannen, leaves the pitch as slowly as his little legs will carry him to be replaced by Callum Paterson.  Barry’s departure leaves Wednesday’s Sam Hutchinson as the only player on the pitch with particularly naff looking bleached blonde hair.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne shoots straight at Bailey Peacock-Farrell for a second time this afternoon, and then for a while substitutions seem to become the purpose of the game, as Wednesday swap seven for seventeen and Town swap Celina and Burns for Harper and Chaplin, before the oddly named Macauley Bonne has another opportunity, which this time is deflected away for a corner, and then Cameron Burgess heads wide of the goal.  For the first time this afternoon the Sheffield Wednesday support has fallen silent, although not as silent as most of the Ipswich crowd is the rest of the time .

Twelve minutes remain and as Sheffield make a rare foray forward, Idris El-Mizouni manages to fell two of them at once with a Keystone Cops style assault, which unfairly results in his being shown the yellow card by the hopeless Mr Davies, who plainly doesn’t appreciate good slapstick comedy when he sees it.  Not long afterwards Idris is replaced by Joe Piggott, but he leaves the field to appreciative and well-deserved applause having played a skilful, controlled game to be expected of a player who grew up in France.  He will be the new Zizou yet.

With the game entering its final throes, one of the seats in the row in front of me and to my left becomes occupied by what I can only describe as a gobby oik, who complains that Town are knocking the ball around like they’re winning.  He seems to know the bloke behind me and after flicking ‘v’ signs at the Sheffield supporters he turns to him seeking his approval; I’m not sure he gets it.  He doesn’t like that no one sings in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and I share his despair, but otherwise he seems a right berk and I hope he abides by his promise that he’ll watch the next game from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand.

Not much more than five minutes of normal time remain and Cheyenne Dunkley, who is even more oddly and improbably named than the oddly named Macauley Bonne, replaces Said Berahino for Wednesday.  Two minutes of normal time remain and Ipswich press for an equaliser. “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” chant an almost respectable number of the home crowd, but slightly shyly.  Ninety minutes are up and from my seat it looks like Bailey Peacock- Farrell is about to make a drop kick, but suddenly the oddly named Macauley Bonne has the ball and the Wednesday defence is in disarray, Bonne passes back across the face of goal to  Scott Fraser and Fraser sends it onto Conor Chaplin at the far post and he smashes the ball into the gaping Wednesday net! We’ve equalised! Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

Most of time added on for assorted stoppages remains and Town have the opportunity to score the winner as Rekeem Harper surges unpredictably into the penalty box,  but shoots weakly at the orange Mivvi .  The remaining time ebbs away and the game ends with no further goals, although Scott Fraser makes a final flourish in Mr Davies notebook with a cynical trip.  As the players leave the pitch a good number of people stay back to applaud their efforts.  I am pleased that we haven’t lost, because I thought we were going to, but overall, I am still a little disappointed that we haven’t played better.  As I drive home listening to Radio Suffolk, mainly for the laughs, it’s a view that I learn the legendary Mick Mills also holds, although many listeners seem to disagree.  It is very unusual for me to be disappointed with a Town performance when other Town supporters aren’t.

The first home victory of the season still remains annoyingly elusive, but heck, we’re playing bottom of the table Doncaster Rovers next, so how difficult can it be, so I’ll stay positive and try not to wear the Edvard Munch socks again.

Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

The first and second rounds of the Football League Cup are always an early season treat, a chance to play an interesting ‘lower league’ club and maybe visit a ground never visited before, in fact that was almost guaranteed back in the days of two-legged ties.  Added to that, summer isn’t over (if it has ever started) and a hot and sticky road trip precedes a balmy evening of lengthening shadows beneath a maturing, setting sun. Early season evening games are blissful, beautiful occasions and I fondly remember visits to Torquay, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Darlington, Brentford, Stockport, Bolton and Wigan.   Sadly, Ipswich Town are now one of those lower league teams, and a decade or more of abject failure has transformed cup ties from nights of wonder and joy into painful experiences to be endured like a trip to the dentist or having your car MoT’d.

Tonight, our opponents are ‘little Newport County’, a phoenix club resurrected from the one that went bust in 1988, following relegation from the fourth division.  I recall seeing the original County play out a magnificently awful goalless draw at Layer Road, Colchester in that fabulously terrible relegation season, but I also recall their glorious 2-3 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final defeat to Carl Zeiss Jena at the same time as Town were cruising past St Etienne on our way to winning the UEFA Cup.  Again, like on Saturday when Morecambe played their first ever third division game at Portman Road sixty years after Town played our first ever top division game, it is somehow fitting that Newport and Town should meet forty years after both clubs’ finest moments in European competition. I visited Newport’s old Somerton Park ground back in 1988 and could only think how their opponents from the German Democratic Republic must have been glad to get back behind the ’iron curtain’, doubtless with renewed faith that Communism was far superior to Capitalism and produced much better football stadiums, which of course it is and did, if you do it right.  Communism is a bit like sex, a great idea but best only conducted between consenting adults.

Shamefully arriving by car and not public transport because of continuing Covid induced paranoia, I park-up in West End Road car park at a little after 7 pm; the tariff is £1.00 until 8.00pm, after which it is free.  Stepping from my trusty, air-conditioned Citroen C3 the warmth of the evening air hits me unexpectedly and stirs pleasant memories of going to night matches in more exotic locations such as Beziers, Nice, Marseille and Montpellier whilst on holiday in the south of France.  Musing that the stadium catering at Portman Road probably doesn’t serve espresso coffee or cheese and ham baguettes, I stroll to the ground where there are queues at the guichets (look it up). I buy a programme (£2.50) from a booth in which the gently smiling young female programme seller seems rather heavily made-up for the occasion, but then it’s nice that she’s made the effort.  Drinking in the pre-match ambience I pass by the back of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and enter Portman Road, which is strangely quiet.  I realise later that this is because the only people occupying the Cobbold Stand tonight are the 131 from Newport, many of whom will have travelled on the six-wheeled charabanc of Watt’s Coaches, which idles by the Portman Road bus stop; I ask one of the drivers how long the journey took; “Five and a half hours” he tells me stretching out his vowel sounds with his rich, lilting and somewhat tired sounding South Walean accent, which oozes Rarebit and Eisteddfods.

Returning to Sir Alf Ramsey Way the queues for turnstiles 43 to 47 are lengthening and beginning to snake, so I head for turnstile 49 where there’s hardly anyone ahead of me at all.  Inside the ground a line of Heras fencing separates the fanzone from those of us who have passed through the turnstiles. The back of the stand is a noisy place as a disco inside a shipping container seems to be operating from a corner of the fanzone, predictably no one is dancing, and I wonder what the point of it is.   Fearing that my hearing is being damaged I head for my seat which tonight is in Block H, so lettered I will discover because at the end of the match it’s difficult to get out of, like the prisoner cell block.

As I stand and flick through my programme, kick-off comes ever closer and the PA system which successfully scrambles any spoken word delivers a medley of tunes associated with the Town.  I enjoy the anthemic Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown from the 1970’s, but cringe at the dire Singin’ the Blues of the George Burley era, which sounds as if it is performed by Vic Reeves and Suzi Quattro, and the surreal and corny Sweet Caroline.  My only pleasure is from a childish giggle provoked by the name of a Newport substitute, Evan Ovendale. 

Finally, my torture by music is ended when the teams come onto the pitch, and I’m pleased to report are warmly applauded as they ‘take the knee’.  The match kicks off; Newport pointing in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand in their traditional amber shirts and black shorts and getting first go with the ball.  Barely two minutes pass and an Armando Dobra shot strikes Newport’s right hand goal post. Within a further two minutes Newport lead.  One of Town’s many debutants, Sone Aluko needlessly concedes a free kick, from which a low cross is diverted into the net via the heel of Timmy Abraham, who rather wonderfully sounds like he should be, and indeed he is, the little brother of the Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham.

At least we probably still have 90 minutes to score a couple of goals of our own. But inevitably, given Town’s recent record in cup competitions, I have a nagging sensation that some writing is already being daubed on a wall somewhere.  Meanwhile, Armando Dobra has a shot saved and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads over the Newport cross bar.   When Newport are awarded the game’s first corner, the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you” to the taker, displaying a boastfulness of their own ignorance that is fitting in a town that voted for Brexit.

Town may be losing, but the game is nevertheless an entertaining one and despite the mostly empty stands the spectacle is enhanced by the fading daylight. With 21 minutes gone Sone Aluko claims the glory as the first player to be booked by the strangely competent referee Mr Neil Hair, or Herr Hair as he would be known if this were the Bundesliga.  Quite suddenly at about ten past eight I notice that all sunlight has gone and the ground is totally in the shade of whatever the Pioneer stand is now called.  The oddly named Macauley Bonne strikes the outside of Newport’s left-hand post with a shot and some childish banter ensues between him and the Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend, with Bonne clutching his stomach to indicate that that Townsend is not merely big-boned; you can take the boy out of Chantry High School but you can’t …etcetera.

Five minutes of the half remain, and Town produce a delightful passing move, sending the ball from Luke Woolfenden to Idris El-Mizouni (whose father incidentally drank a post-match coffee with me when AS Meudon played St Ouen L’Aumone in the Coupe de France in 2018) to Sone Aluko to Armando Dobra, whose cross is headed over by the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  There is still time for Newport’s short and dumpy, but wonderfully named and impressively numbered (he’s No 56) Aneurin Livermore to be booked, for Idris El-Mizouni to have a free kick saved, and for him to provide a deliciously whipped-in cross for the oddly named Macauley Bonne to head over the bar yet again.

Half-time brings relief from the claustrophobia of the oldest part of the stadium, as those around me leave to get refreshment; people genuinely were smaller in the 1950’s when the old West Stand was built, possibly because there was no stadium catering back then.  Tonight, I am seemingly surrounded by youths in their late teens and early twenties who are all about 2metres tall.  Two of them return with trays of chips and the game begins again.

My seat is closer to “Churchman’s” than the Bobby Robson Stand and perhaps that’s why I notice for the first time this evening that Tomas Holy is a vision in cerise, he’s quite a sight.  Five minutes pass and the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads a looping cross into the goal, the giants all around me stand as one, but I had already spotted the offside flag.  “You fat bastard” chant the North Standers, presumably at goalkeeper Townsend and not to the oddly named Macauley Bonne.

Tonight’s attendance of 6,154 is announced and a good proportion of that number applaud themselves like performing seals do after catching a fish thrown at them from a bucket.  Town’s Scott Fraser replaces Sone Aluko who looks like he knows he’s had a poor game.  “He’s weird in ‘e? He’s got funny little legs in ’e?” I hear a voice behind me say.  I think the voice is talking about Newport’s left-back Aaron Lewis, who indeed does have funny little legs; he also has hair like Grayson Perry; he’s not a bad footballer mind, and I like to think he might also be able to knock up some decent ceramics or tapestries.

Over an hour of the match has passed and a fine shot from Armando Dobra brings an equally fine flying save from the fat bastard in the Newport goal; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson replace Louie Barry and the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Newport mount a rare attack down the right and Town’s Corrie Ndaba, whose first name reminds me of the episode in series nine of The Simpsons in which Lisa becomes addicted to ringing the ‘Corey hotline’, spectacularly and miraculously slices the ball into the arms of Tomas Holy who is stood behind him.

With the match in the final twenty minutes Newport players twice clear the ball off their own goal line in the space of a few seconds and James Norwood heads a decent cross from Bailey Clements over the bar in a manner which I had thought was the preserve of the oddly named Macauley Bonne.  Just a short while later Norwood begins to limp and then leaves the field of play to be replaced by no one at all because we’ve used all our substitutes.  The bloke next to me doesn’t notice for a further few minutes that we are down to ten men and when he does, he thinks we’ve had someone sent off; “What happened?” he asks; and I thought I was guilty of not paying attention.

Newport’s shaven headed forty-two-year-old, Kevin Ellison is substituted and hobbles off, clearly attempting to eke out the remaining time in a way which doesn’t involve football being played. “Get off you old git” I bawl at him despite being almost twenty years his senior. I’m not sure what came over me, although these West Standers seem rather dull and need livening up.  Unfortunately, Ellison and his team win the day with their time-wasting ways and despite five minutes of added on time Ipswich fail to score, and so once again leave the League Cup at the earliest opportunity, leaving Newport County and the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Barrow and Oldham Athletic to seek the sort of glory we can only dream of.

Despite the result it’s been an enjoyable match, with some fine performances from young players, particularly Bailey Clements, Idris El-Mizouni and Cameron Humphreys. As I stand helplessly waiting to get out of the slowly clearing stand, I applaud Newport and their intrepid supporters and reassure myself by believing that although the score reads as another Cup defeat I have simply witnessed the birth pangs of a Grand Projet that will one day see us reach the next round.