It’s been a day of ‘first world’ problems, mostly car related. I didn’t get to park my planet saving Citroen e-C4 where I usually do to ensure an easy getaway after tonight’s match, at work somebody was late returning a pool car that I was booked to go out in, and a gate that was supposed to be left unlocked for me wasn’t. As if that wasn’t enough, where I did park my car was beneath a tree and I was later to find that the windscreen had been royally ‘shat upon’ by a bird, possibly one the size of an Albatross, twice.
It is with a sense of relief therefore that I leave work at about a quarter to five and in the spirit of enjoying the spice of life, which I have been told is variety, I unusually head for the bar of the Briarbank Brewery, making a short stop along the way at Out of Time Records in nearby Fore Street to check if they have any recordings by Robyn Hitchcock that I don’t already possess, they don’t. A short while later at the Briarbank I am drinking a slightly cloudy, but nevertheless tasty pint of their own Samuel Harvey VC (£4.20) and tucking into a baked potato with Coronation Chicken and dressed salad (£7.50). Sat on my own, I read tonight’s programme (£3.50), which I bought at the club shop earlier; I find it quite boring and poorly laid out, with some of the stats on page 9 and others on pages 64 and 65, when there shouldn’t even be pages 64 and 65. Also, great bloke that he is, who other than perhaps Mrs McKenna wants a two-page centre spread of Keiran? We all know what he looks like by now, don’t we? The headline to page 29 however, reads in red capital letters “Notice of Intention to Exhume”. I didn’t think that with our wealthy new owners we were that desperate for decent players and in fact it turns out we’re not, it’s because thirty-four deceased people have had their ashes sprinkled on the pitch and now the pitch is to be replaced, so they will be off with it.
With time rattling on past six o’clock, I depart from the Briarbank and take a walk across town to The Arb, because pre-match rituals must not be broken. This evening I don’t notice the empty shops, but instead all I see are the many fabulous buildings that line the town’s streets, Ipswich is one helluva of place if you want it to be. At The Arb, I select a pint of Titanic Plum Porter but don’t catch how much it cost me because I was talking to a bloke stood at the bar who I met when at work. I head for the beer garden to once again sit alone because Mick is working this evening. On a table to my right sit four well-spoken young men who are laughing about their future careers before going through a list of all the Premier league teams they think are ’shit’. To my left, three slightly older but still very young women talk about how good or poor they are at their jobs and what somebody else earns. On a table across the garden an owlish looking man sips what is probably lager. He is alone until he is joined by a very well buttoned up man with a beard and flat cap and then another bearded man, who shakes their hands, and then a grey-haired man who only drinks a half, looks like he smiles a lot and could be one of the younger bloke’s dad. The man in the flat cap calls the owlish man ‘mate’.
With my glass empty I have nothing better to do than leave for Portman Road. As I leave the bar, I do so in the company of about six other blokes all going to the match, I overtake them outside the museum and walk on at my own pace, joining the gathering crowd in the fading light of a grey evening, all of us drawn towards the towering white floodlights. At the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand I enter through turnstile 62, because that was the year Town were Premier League Champions. I miss the human contact of handing my season ticket to the turnstile operator, but this is the post-modern world.
As ever, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, the man from Stowmarket and ever-present Phil who never misses a game are all here already, it makes me feel like they’ve been saving my seat for me; of course they haven’t but I reckon they’d beat off anyone who tried to sit there. “Be loud, be proud” says stadium announcer Stephen Foster, sounding as if he’s the compere at a Gay Pride event, and he tells us that the game is always special under the lights, and it is. Behind Stephen the pitch is being irrigated by fountains of water that make me think of the FC Versailles, who are currently fifth in the French third division.
Town get first go with the ball and kick towards me, Pat, Fiona, Phil and the man from Stowmarket. Admirably, Port Vale are sporting their proper kit of white shirts and black shorts, even if the messy design on their shoulders and sleeves makes them look like the kit bag was accidentally backed over by the team bus. But I can’t not like Port Vale, the only team in the Football League named after the house where the club’s founders had met; fortunately, the bloke who lived at Chez Nous only had a very small living room.
Within 25 seconds Freddie Ladapo is flicking a header beyond the far post and I feel confident that another multi-goal extravaganza awaits. Up in the Cobbold stand however, the Port Vale fans are in good voice even if it’s hard to make out exactly what they are singing. As he takes a goal kick the Port Vale goalkeeper slips on the heavily watered turf and the home crowd cheers like we’ve scored a goal. Town are mostly in the Port Vale half, but these Valiants are packed densely in front of them, impervious to the through balls that did for those other Valiants who proved less so on Saturday. Once again, the Port Vale goalkeeper slips over to the home crowds’ cheers, and I think how he must regret his decision to wear roller skates instead of football boots, tonight of all nights.
Just six minutes have gone and Town win a corner. “Come On You Blues” chants Phil and I do too, repeatedly, but our encouragement isn’t enough. “I’ve got my big coat on tonight” says Pat, not feeling the deepening cold, but obviously aware of it. We’d already scored by this time on Saturday I foolishly can’t help thinking. “We’ve got super Kieran Mckenna, he knows exactly what we need…” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier, but some of them don’t quite manage the tricky scanning of the first line, they need to rehearse more. It’s the twelfth minute and Town are dominating but not penetrating the Port Vale force field. The Sir Bobby Robson stand resort to Mary’s Boy Child in the hope that Christmas will come early and Port Vale will gift wrap a goal, it doesn’t and they don’t. The Vale fans sing “Oh when the Whites going marching in…” and give an object lesson in how to deliver this song, starting slowly but then speeding up to add impetus and even staying with it to repeat it all over again. I attribute it to their diet of oatcakes. Then their team have a breakaway and a shot on goal which inspires chants of “Vale, Vale, Vale”, pronounced8 “Vay-al, Vay-al, Vay-al”. It’s a stirring sound of which I am quite envious.
Almost a third of the first half has left us and Nathan Broadbent dribbles towards the Vale goal only to win another corner. Phil and I chant loudly again but our support flounders on solid defending, only to be heard again as a Broadhead cross wins a further corner, which is again cleared by some big bloke in a white shirt with grubby looking shoulders. With Town’s early onslaught subsiding a bit, the home crowd are becoming quiet and thoughtful when they ought to be loud and lairy. On the touchline Kieran Mckenna has sensibly opted for his brown anorak-cum-puffa jacket tonight, he’s obviously on the same wavelength as Pat from Clacton, or they saw the same weather forecast. Another Port Vale throw-in and referee Mr Lewis remonstrates with a Port Vale player telling him to get a wriggle on. Conor Chaplin lashes a shot into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand but the crowd is quiet with the exception of the Blue Action group up the corner. When Port Vale win a corner there are just fifteen minutes left until half-time and we are treated to more lovely peels of “ Vale, Vale, Vale”.
With a Nathan Broadhead shot and yet another corner the home’s crowd’s ardour revives and chants of “Blue and White Army” and accompanying rhythmic clapping roll from stand to stand. “The crowd are nervous” Pat tells us. “Well, you are” replies Fiona. Just to lighten the mood and try to curry favour with the home crowd so we don’t all him a bastard, referee Mr Lewis books the Port Vale goalkeeper Aidan Stone for dithering too much over a goal kick. A minimum of two more minutes will be played Stephen Foster tells us, and I tell Fiona it’s a shame it looks like all the goals are going to be ‘up the other end‘ tonight. She says she doesn’t mind as long as they’re only Town goals. Then Port Vale’s oddly named Malvind Benning takes what can only have been a speculative shot and scores. Town trail 1-0 and it’s half time. Bugger.
Putting a brave face on matters I go down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison. We bemoan Town’s failure to shoot from distance, but don’t have any other complaints. We talk of our friend Val’s wedding in Las Vegas and discuss where we’ve been in the United States. Ray has been a few places, but excluding airports and the shore of a lake somewhere in the wilds of Montana I’ve only been to New York, but I ‘do’ the accent to prove it.
At seven minutes past nine the football returns, and I’m almost thrilled to hear the words “I’m Edward Ebenezer, Jeremiah Brown…” emanating from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but it doesn’t last, sadly. Nevertheless, Town are back on the attack again and win three more corners in the first seven minutes. Sixty seconds further on and Wes Burns delivers a low cross and Nathan Broadhead sweeps it majestically inside the far post beyond a stretching, diving Aiden Stone and Town have equalised. The relief of the crowd is immense, now all we want is another goal, or two, or three.
George Hirst replaces Freddie Ladapo and heads past a post with his first touch, before the teams trade corners and Conor Chaplin shoots over the cross bar for a second time. Mr Lewis seeks more Brownie points by flourishing his yellow card in the direction of Vale’s William Forrester with less tan twenty minutes to go. But Town still aren’t winning and I’m reminded of an evening almost exactly thirty-one years ago when Town needed to beat Grimsby Town to clinch promotion but could only manage a goalless draw. Stephen Foster announces tonight’s attendance as being 27,696 with 296 supporting Port Vale. It’s remarkable to think there are more people here for this match than saw the Portman Road leg of the UEFA Cup final in 1981. On the Clacton supporters bus the winner of the guess the crowd competition is the chairman, Chris with 27,960, although Stewart is nearly awarded the prize because 27,426 looks closer, but actually isn’t. Pat is disappointed that the guesses attributed to the blue tit and the squirrel in someone’s garden were sadly too high. I tell Fiona that’s the trouble with squirrels and blue tits, they over estimate things; it’s why none of the them work for the office of national statistics.
A seventy-fourth minute corner goes to waste and Pat threatens to get her figure of the masturbating monkey out of her hand-bag; it’s a lucky charm that she bought in Cambodia and apparently Town would always score when she got him out. She says she won’t show him around though, because he’s rude. We can’t tell if the monkey has anything to do with it, but Luke Woolfenden steps forward and shoots narrowly wide of the top right hand corner of the goal. Fifteen minutes remain.
Eleven minutes remain and Kyle Edwards replaces Leif Davis, and not to be outdone Port vale make a change too. Then Town are awarded a penalty. Twice in a few seconds the shout goes up from the stands for a handball and on the second shout Mr Lewis spots the chance to atone for previous sins against Ipswich Town and awards it. “Two penalties!” says the bloke behind me “and he nearly didn’t give either of them” and he ‘s right, there is an uncomfortable delay before Mr Lewis weirdly stoops and point to the penalty spot. Almost inevitably, the Port Vale players argue as staunchly as they have defended but even more weirdly Conor Chaplin is the player to get booked as we stand and wait patiently for the Port Vale players to just shut up and for Nathan Broadhead to apply the coup de grace, rifling the ball behind the left-hand post and bulging the side netting. It has to be one of the most significant penalties for Town at Portman Road in thirty years, possibly more, and the roar from the crowd says it is.
With five minutes left of normal time Janoi Doncaien replaces Nathan Broadhead to restore the defence to attack balance and the crowd sings “E-i, E-i, E-i-o, Up the Football league we go”. The sound is a roar, if only a brief one, but it is magnificent for a moment or two, as life often is. Full-time turns up and with it six minutes of added on time, and with Plymouth Argyle apparently drawing in Shropshire Ipswich are top of the league; and so the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson put the fact to music with the help of the best known work in the oeuvre of the Gap Band, the lyrically mysterious “Oops outside your head”, although if comparing the hits of 1979 it was certainly preferable to Lena Martell’s “One day at a time”. “We don’t know if we are (top of the league) yet” says the bloke behind me wisely, preferring to wait until the final whistles have blown everywhere to indulge in such boastfulness. Fiona says something about the time that was passing too quickly now passing too slowly but oddly I don’t find it so tonight and almost before I know it Mr Lewis has blown his whistle for the last time this evening and another essential three points have been won.
Thankfully perhaps, for the time being , when all the final whistles are blown, Ipswich are not top of the league; that can keep for the first weekend in May, when it really matters. For now, there is a wave around the stadium of the sort of relief and release that Pat from Clacton’s monkey could probably tell us about if he spoke and she hadn’t already made her way out to the Clacton supporters’ bus. Despite being elated I don’t linger either, hoping in vain that I will make a smart exit in my planet saving, bird-shit splattered Citroen.