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.