Ipswich Town 0 Cambridge United 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 0 Portsmouth 0

Spring is sprung and as former Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells us, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of promotion and sneaking into the play-offs. With such thoughts in mind, I once again park up my trustee Citroen C3 in classical sounding Waller’s Grove, and tread steadily across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arboretum pub beyond, which is now known as the Arbor House.   It’s a gloriously sunny day, which sits beneath a pale blue sky, once the grey clouds have broken up.  The human contents of the Station Hotel spill out onto Burrell Road and in the pub garden Pompey fans revel in the joys of beer and life.  On Portman Road a golden Labrador sniffs for incendiaries and I buy a programme (£3.50) for the first time using cashless payment.  There are far more police about than usual, no doubt because of some strange belief that the followers of today’s opponents, Portsmouth Football Club, are somehow rowdier than your average spectator, but on Portsea Island life is lived to the full.

At the Arb’ I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and bask in the sun in the beer garden where I am soon joined by Mick. who I haven’t seen since before Christmas.  We talk of Fatty Liver Disease, Home Office funding for the housing of Afghan refugees, conversations with mutual friends, bicycles, people who still think Brexit was a good idea, Baptists, my wife’s twin aunts in Portsmouth, one of whom has sadly died and electric cars.  We don’t talk of Ukraine except to say that it makes us too angry and sad, and we simply don’t know what to say about it.  At some time after two-thirty, having finished our beers, we depart for Portman Road, Mick walking his Raleigh bicycle as we go and finally locking it up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where we head for our respective turnstiles, Mick making for the posh West Stand seats and me the cheap seats in the lower tier of what I still think of as Churchman’s.  For a second consecutive fixture there are queues at turnstiles 59 and 60, but I’m inside the stadium by ten to three giving plenty of time to use the ‘bathroom’ facilities before taking up my seat.

In the stand, Pat from Clacton is here, as is ever-present Phil who never misses a game, along with his young son Elwood.  Fiona is away on a cruise to the Canary Islands, but her seat is occupied by Mark, a long -time supporter who travels on the coach from Clacton with Pat, but usually sits in the West Stand. Curiously the seats immediately in front of me are empty today.  We will later learn that there are 25, 495 other people here too, each with their own distinct lives, hope and fears and tales to tell, and 1,986 of them are also Portsmouth supporters.

At a minute past three, after knees are taken and applauded the Town begin the game, hoping to rattle the net of the goal just a little to the right and in front of Pat, Phil, Elwood, Mark and me.  Town are back in our traditional blue shirts and white shorts after Tuesday’s flirtation with all blue, whilst Pompey are in a handsome kit of red and black halves with black shorts, it’s a kit with personal significance for me because my wife was wearing an earlier version of the shirt when I first spoke to her back in the 1990’s, and it was the shirt I spoke to her about.

“Hello, hello, we are the Pompey boys” sing the Portsmouth supporters helpfully and politely introducing themselves, as if to hold out a hand and bid us all a good afternoon.  There is a fine atmosphere inside Portman Road today courtesy of the Pompey boys (and girls) and a chorus of “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” is soon ringing out and the Sir Bobby Robson stand respond with “Oh when the Town go marching in” sung to the tempo of a funeral march and with a similar quota of joie de vivre.   It’s conceivable that the Pompey fans can’t hear the Town supporters’ dirge above the sound of their own anthem, or it could be that they can only clearly see the impassive faces of the Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but our visitors soon break into the old  favourites of away fans at Portman Road with choruses of “You’re support is fucking shit” and its intellectually superior sibling chant “ Is this a library?”.  Moving swiftly into goading mode they produce a rendition of the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just a small Town in Norwich” before finishing with “You’re supposed to be at home”. Such is the wit of football supporters. “Never heard that one before” says the bloke behind me sarcastically as I imagine that I’ve been listening to an advertisement for a compilation of football ‘s favourite chants from K-tel Records.

Twelve minutes past three and Town, who have been dominating possession, win the game’s first corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the Pompey boys and girls showing that it’s possible to vocally encourage your team when they’re defending as well as when they attack; this afternoon is proving to be an education.   The corner kick is delivered and Luke Woolfenden, looking a bit like a 1990’s Eminem with his bleached blond hair stoops and twists to somehow head the ball away from goal rather than into it.  Four minutes later and Pompey win a corner too, eliciting even more chimes.

Sam Morsy has already had to pause the game once to check on his gammy leg; a legacy (no pun intended, though it’s a pretty good one, isn’t it?) from Tuesday night’s game, but now with seventy minutes still to play, he has to be substituted by Tommy Carroll, who incidentally last played for Town against Pompey on 4th May 1968 (Town won 2-1 at Fratton Park).  Bringing on a player who would be over eighty if he was still alive unsettles the Town team and Pompey nearly score as Aiden O’Brien shoots spectacularly over the cross bar from very close range and then Luke Woolfenden gives the ball away to O’Brien who thankfully misses again, this time shooting wide of the far post.  It’s almost as if Town had been setting up O’Brien to embarrass himself. Town bounce back briefly to win a second corner but then a George Hirst shot has to be saved by Christian Walton. On the left touchline the referees assistant fits very snugly into his pale green shirt, almost as if he’s been vacuum packed.

After twenty minutes, the incidence of foul play is increasing, and O’Brien falls beautifully, arching his back in a graceful curve as he is allegedly fouled by Wes Burns.  If they ever put on Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, O’Brien has to be worth a punt for the part of Odette.  A short while later Pompey’s Louis Thompson is the first player to be shown the yellow card belonging to the largely ineffectual referee Mr Christopher Sarginson, as Wes Burns wriggles in a heap on the turf.

A third town corner is greeted with a song involving repeated Ole’s or Allez, I’m not clear which, from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but the corner kick is easily cleared at the near post.  The improbably named Mahlon Romeo then drags down Dominic Thompson and holds the ball up angrily in the air as if to say to “But look, I got the ball” when he is called out by Mr Sarginson,  who, I like to think ,tells him that he could equally have come away with the ball if he’d hit Thompson with a long plank of wood or set a dog on him, but it would still be a foul.

“Oh, great ball Bakinson” calls a sarcastic voice somewhere behind me as Janoi Donacien mistakenly passes to a Pompey player.  “Oh Shut up” says someone else, understandably frustrated by the sort of people who inexplicably seem to need a bete noire in every Town team.  Conor Chaplin has a shot blocked and with half-time nearby Cameron Burgess concedes a corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the 1,986 in the Cobbold Stand. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” answer the Sir Bobby Robson Stand revealing a level of sophistication, wit and humour which goes some way to explaining the popularity of TV’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ among much of the general population.  Entering time added on a Conor Chaplin snap shot whistles past the left hand post of the Pompey goal before Kayden Jackson runs on to a through ball and has his shot saved by Gavin Bazunu.  Jackson appears to tweak a hamstring in the process of running and shooting and troops off angrily and dejectedly to be replaced by the oddly named Macaulay Bonne whilst Town take another corner and the three minutes of added on time are played out.

Half-time brings relief and nourishment in the form of a wee and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, but unusually I do not go and talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison because Ray is somewhere up the back of the stand with his brother-in-law today.  Half-time nevertheless passes quickly and the football soon resumes along with the pattern of Ipswich possession interspersed with corner kicks and a series of crosses which carefully avoid anyone likely to divert the ball into the Pompey goal.

As Bersant Celina wins another corner, the volume of the home crowd seems to be turned up a notch as if there is either a sudden collective understanding that they can help the team, or an outbreak of collective anxiety. From a cross, subsequent to the corner kick , the ball comes out to Wes Burns, but he wellies it over-enthusiastically and high above the Pompey cross bar.  Pompey are mostly the lesser team in this contest but they retain the ability to threaten occasionally and as half past four approaches a header from Sean Raggett lands on the roof of the Town goal net and the “Play Up Pompey/ Pompey Fuck Off” duet is reprised. It took the home fans a while to think of their response to the Chimes, but now that they have they’re not missing a beat.

Pompey’s Louis Thompson is replaced by Joe Morell and Tyreeq Bakinson seems to carefully place a shot into the arms of Pompey goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu before Bersant Celina wins yet another corner, and Bakinson heads the ball into the side netting, promoting jeers from the Pompey supporters directed at those Town supporters who might have thought the net was bulging from within.  Over seventy minutes have passed and the competitive edge in the game unfortunately boils over as it appears that the Pompey manager, the never-smiling Danny Cowley, gets in Dominic Thompson’s way as he prepares to take a throw-in.  Thompson seems to over react somewhat, but Cowley makes no attempt to appease the offended wing-back and starts to come over all macho.  An unseemly melee ensues and the Sir Bobby Robson  stand are unforgiving as they announce “ Cowley, Cowley, You’re a cunt; Cowley, You’re a cunt”.  To my shame I join in with a shout of “Bugger-off back to Braintree”, but mainly because I enjoy the alliteration and find any mention of Braintree faintly amusing.

The match descends into its final ten minutes as Bersant Celina shoots wide and Tyreeq Bakinson is booked. Meanwhile Pompey swap Aiden O’Brien for the interestingly monikered Denver Hume and   I notice that their bearded Ryan Tunnicliffe has strange hair, cut into a sort of bob like a 1920’s flapper.  Pompey also replace George Hirst, whose name is satisfyingly close enough to Geoff Hurst to make me smile and his substitute is a man with two surnames, Tyler Walker. With three minutes of added on time ebbing away some folk in the home crowd begin to accuse Pompey of time wasting; there are even calls of “Boring Boring Portsmouth”, which are ridiculous and reveal how easily some people can slip into repetitive behaviour; it saves having to think.

The final whistle brings inevitable disappointment that Town haven’t won, tempered by the understanding that this has been a good match and we haven’t lost either, which we often do at home to Portsmouth.   Pat from Clacton makes a swift exit and Mark thanks me for my company;  I reciprocate before heading out into the chill of the early evening for the journey home and the thoughts of Mick Mills through the medium of BBC Radio Suffolk and the car radio.  Life is generally good, although it could sometimes be better.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

My paternal grandfather was born and grew up in the village of Cuxham, Oxfordshire, which is a bit more than 20 kilometres southeast of Oxford.  I have been told that as a boy his education was regularly interrupted by his grandfather, an itinerant clock mender with a reputation for being locked out of his house by his wife and who spent more than one night in police cells as a result of drunkenness. I might be wrong, but from what I can make out it seems my great-great grandfather would take him out of school so that he had someone on hand to get him home after a heavy session at the pub.  During World War One my grandfather was in the Royal Marines, and I believe in 1916 was on HMS Iron Duke at the battle of Jutland.   Happily, my grandfather was not one of those who died that we might live, and indeed he lived that my father might live and serve on HMS Locust on D-day. Happily again, my father also lived, and grew old, and consequently I am here to write this. My own service record is less impressive, having merely been in the cub scouts and then the sailor section of my school Combined Cadet Force; an utter waste of time for me and the teachers who dressed up as Naval officers on a Thursday afternoon, but nevertheless satisfyingly redolent of Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’.   Appropriately perhaps, I have no progeny to whom I can relay my story of living through what is generally regarded as peacetime; peace, who’s interested in that? As Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian almost said.

 I remember watching the 1970 FA Cup final on television with my grandfather, by which time he had been living on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for well over thirty years.  But despite having an appreciation of ITV’s World of Sport, being a big fan of cricket, as well as an avid reader of the Racing Post, as far as I know my grandfather never watched Oxford United or Headington United, as they were known until he was older than I am now.  Today, Oxford United play Ipswich Town at Portman Road for the twelfth time in my lifetime, and with the exception of last season’s goalless draw, which no supporter witnessed first-hand due to the Covid lockdown, I have seen every one of those fixtures, although the only one I remember particularly well is Town’s 3-2 victory in April 1986, a win which ultimately proved insufficient to relegate Oxford United instead of Town from what is now called the Premier League.

Today is a grey autumn Saturday, illuminated only by the colour of the leaves on the trees turning in different stages from greens to shades of gold, yellow and russet.  After parking my trustee Citroen C3, I follow my usual pre-match routine of Gippeswyk Park, Portman Road, where I buy a programme (£3.50), and The Arboretum pub (now called the Arbor House), which is unusually busy with diners and drinkers, only one of whom is wearing a mask.  I obtain a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and exit to the beer garden and the hoped-for safety of fresh air.  Mick soon arrives with his own pint of Suffolk Pride and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts; we talk of COP26, Covid booster vaccinations, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Indian partition, Morocco, Algeria and the Paris massacre of 1961, the ethics of holidaying in the third world and Mick’s desire to listen to ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, on the beach at Ipanema. At just after twenty to three we head for Portman Road.

With Covid vaccination credentials confirmed, I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 thanking the operator as she allows me through this portal to another world.  I arrive on the lower tier of the stand with the teams already on the pitch, Pat from Clacton tells me she and Fiona were getting worried about me. Stadium announcer, former Radio Suffolk presenter and ex-classmate of my friend Pete, Stephen Foster tells us that in honour of the dead of two World Wars there will be a minute’s silence when the referee blows his whistle.  The players link arms around the centre circle, the referee does not blow his whistle, and a lone bugler pays the last post, after which there is a ripple of applause, which doesn’t happen at the Cenotaph, and I am left a little confused, still waiting for the minute’s silence.  I recall however that we did have a silence last Saturday before the FA Cup game with Oldham Athletic and there was also one before the game at Wycombe Wanderers; there may even have been one before the EFL Cup tie versus Colchester United, but I boycotted that match because of the inclusion of Premier League Under 21 teams in the competition.  I even had my own two-minute silence when working at home on Armistice Day itself and there will be another on Remembrance Sunday.

With the normal sounds of Portman Road restored in the form of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which the Oxford fans sing along too as well, the knee is taken and the game begins; Oxford United getting first go with the ball and hoping to point it mostly at the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground.   Despite there being no clash of colours, Oxford are wearing an all black kit, possibly as a symbol of remembrance, or possibly just because their usual yellow and blue kit is in the wash.  Within 60 seconds Bersant Celina concedes the first free-kick of the match and it takes more than a minute for Town to get possession of the ball.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Oxford supporters reminding their team what colour shirts they should be wearing, and shaming whoever does their laundry. Town soon win a corner as the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a low cross blocked by Oxford’s Jordan Thornily who sounds prickly.  From the corner kick the same Town player sends a stooping header against the right-hand post of the Oxford goal.  After the glancing header and the diving header, the stooping is possibly the next best.

Oxford are looking rather good, better than Town and in the sixth minute Christian Walton is forced to make a spectacular flying save to repel a shot from Sykes who, being a fan of 1970’s BBC sitcoms, I should like to see in a front three with players called Jacques and Guyler. “They seem good at dipping the ball” says a voice behind me, “They are” says the voice in the seat next to him before a third voice makes an obscure and slightly surreal reference to oxtail soup which I don’t think anyone understands and which kills the “conversation”.

It takes thirteen minutes for the assembled Oxford supporters to ask through the medium of song “Is this a library?” which provokes a man a few rows back to shout in a distinctly middle-class voice “As if you’re used to this many working-class people in your libraries?” It’s an odd thing to shout out at a football match and betrays a curious perception of just who follows Oxford United.  In truth, to someone from Oxford’s Blackbird Leys estate the song was probably an honest enquiry.

Oxford are the better team, although unusually Town’s defence is playing alright, but after almost twenty minutes it is once again Town who come closest to scoring as a Bersant Celina shot strikes that right hand post again, leading to suspicions that the goal has been put in the wrong place and should be ten centimetres to the east. It’s an event that leads to two corners in quick succession for Town. In the Cobbold stand meanwhile the Oxford fans reveal their upper middle class, academic sensibilities that the bloke had alluded to in his library comment, with a lovely chorus of “Sit-down if you shag your mum” to the tune of Village People’s ‘Go West’.  It’s a perfect example of what Paul Weller was on about when, in The Jam’s 1979 hit ‘Eton Rifles’ he wrote the line “We were no match for their untamed wit”.

I’m not feeling good about what I‘m seeing and given past games feel sure that Town will concede a goal soon. “Tell you what,” says the bloke behind me “They’re a decent team”. “Well-drilled” says his friend introducing an appropriately military metaphor. Maintaining the theme, the Sir Bobby Robson begin to chant “Blue Army, Blue Army” but it soon fades into the grey of the afternoon as Oxford continue to dominate.  “Just not with it as a team” continues the bloke behind me, thoughtfully. “Bloody prats need to wake up” adds his accomplice cutting to the chase.

There are twelve minutes until half-time and spits of rain travel on the wind across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand.  Five minutes until half-time and Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan is booked by referee Mr Scott Oldham for trampling George Edmundson.  Brannagan waves his right arm up and down in protest and on the Oxford bench manager Karl Robinson, a man who often seems stupidly angry with the World, has evidently reacted badly to one of Mr Oldham’s decisions and is also cautioned. “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the irascible Scouser to the ‘tune’ of the Portsmouth guildhall clock chimes, and for once it’s good advice.

Although Oxford aren’t creating very many good chances, I’m still hoping for nothing more than Town making it to half-time on level terms.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing” chant the Oxford fans, annoyingly answering their own question but getting the answer right nevertheless and confirming that it hasn’t been a satisfactory half for Ipswich.  “Sing when we’re winning, We don’t even sing when we’re winning” responds Pat from Clacton with a sotto voce rendition of Guantanamera, for which the new lyrics only just about scan.  A minute of added on time is announced and before it’s over ever-present Phil who never misses a game has left his seat and headed for the facilities beneath the stand.  It’s an astonishing display of both confidence and pessimism that nothing of any importance to the result will happen in the next forty seconds, but it turns out to be well-placed, despite possibly casting a shadow of doubt over the validity of the epithet “ever-present”.

Half-time produces the usual Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar from my coat pocket, which I eat before going to speak with Ray, his son and grandson Harrison.  Ray is impressed by Oxford United, describing them as ‘honest’, which I think is football speak for hardworking but not prodigiously talented.

The football returns and from the start Town begin to play better and Oxford seem happier to sit back, perhaps hoping to ‘hit us on the break’.  Despite being quicker to the ball and having more possession than before, Town nevertheless don’t create the string of unmissable chances I had hoped to see from the team who have so far scored in every league game this season.  Kyle Edwards looks ‘dangerous’ but isn’t, Wes Burns looks tired, the oddly named Macauley Bonne is ineffective and Bursant Celina is either unable to measure a pass or is hallucinating.

When Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan goes down clutching a limb, his club’s female physio sprints across the pitch to him, her blond ponytail bobbing in the breeze. “I’d like to be a physio” says Pat from Clacton. “Ooh, just let me rub that for you” she continues, going all “Carry On”.   From afar Pat thinks the physio looks glamorous, so she zooms in on her with her camera and says in fact she’s a bit severe looking; women can be so harsh on one another sometimes. Meanwhile, I notice that George Edmundson appears to have a large varicose vein on the back of his left thigh.  The Sir Bobby Robson Stand chant something that goes “Addy-addy, addy-o, I.T.F.C” to no particular tune and then “Come On You Blues” as they connect with the improving vibe of the second-half, and full-back Bailey Clements, making his League debut, shoots wide of the far post.

Stephen Foster announces today’s attendance as 21,322, of whom 922 are a combination of professors, dons, Masters of colleges, undergraduates, assorted intellectuals and residents of the Blackbird Leys estate. “Yellows, Yellows” they chant once more in unison as their team win a sixty-sixth minute corner. Play ebbs and flows and a stonking clearance from an Oxford boot rattles the fascia of what is currently known as the Magnus Group stand. Twenty minutes remain and Wes Burns is replaced by Sone Aluko, and then Conor Chaplin usurps Kyle Edwards. It’s a change that had he asked me, I would have advised Paul Cook to make at or soon after half-time, but he didn’t ask me.

Oxford United win a succession of corners in the closing stages as they break forward with a final push for glory. Conor Chaplin shoots beyond the far post for Town and Sam Morsy receives his customary booking. Waves of drizzle sweep across the pitch, illuminated beneath the floodlight beams and the Oxford team take it in turns to fall down and stay down on the pitch clutching bodily parts.  Writhing on the wet grass may be a way to save time in the shower after the game but it’s more likely that the players are just wasting time, a tactic that fits with the joyless impression Karl Robinson creates with his angry Scouser routine.

As referee Mr Oldham stops the game for the perceived injuries, he incurs the wrath of the home support who tell him that he doesn’t know what he is doing.  It’s a shame that football isn’t more like Aussie Rules Football, a sport in which injuries are treated as the game carries on, and in which players are so tough, they only submit to treatment if they are actually missing a limb or coughing up blood.

The ninetieth minute sees Bailey Clements cautioned and the addition of five more minutes. The ball runs out at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end and the supporters within the stand await the corner kick, only for Mr Oldham, with perfect comic timing, to award a goal kick. “Lino, lino you’re a cunt” chant the gynaecologists in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and the match atmosphere either steps up a gear or descends into unpleasantness depending on your point of view.  “Oxford United, Oxford United FC, They’re the finest football team the World has ever seen” sing the professors and Blackbird Leys boys culturally appropriating the Irish folk song The Wild Rover. “Boring, Boring Oxford” chant the Ipswich supporters and the game ends.

Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood are quickly away and I’m left on my own; they will not chant “Boring Boring Oxford” as those that are left will. Leaving the pitch the Oxford players look slightly bemused by the anger of some Ipswich fans and it is true that they did try to win the match, but then they didn’t.   I contemplate what I have witnessed this afternoon and wonder what my grandfather and his grandfather would have made of it.  I don’t think they’d have been too bothered, as long as it had been an entertaining game and they could have a pint afterwards. That’s intellectuals for you.

Postscript:Ever- present Phil who nevermisses a game is keen for readers to know that he didn’t miss the end of the first half, he stood at the top of the stairs until the whistle blew.

Ipswich Town 2 Fleetwood Town 1

It’s a cool, almost cold, still, grey autumn day.  As I walk down through Gippeswyk Park a leaden pillow of cloud hangs over the town and Portman Road.  I march on through the gathering crowds, past people perched on car park railings folding foamy bread, heavy with sauce-laden sausage into their gaping mouths.  I stop only briefly to buy a programme (£3.50) and to put a coin in a collection box for an NHS charity, although I thought that’s what we paid our taxes for; I guess we’re being asked to make up the shortfall for the very wealthy and those companies like Amazon who could pay more, but choose not to because how else is their owner expected to be the richest man in the world and launch ageing actors who once played fictional astronauts into space.

At the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum), Mick is already sat at a table enjoying a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride. I toy with the thought of copying him but opt for a pint of Mauldon’s Phantom (£3.90), it occurs to me that the beer seems to increase in price by 10 pence every time I come here.  I join Mick to discuss how we’ve passed our respective weeks and other assorted issues of our times, including driving a hearse on the M25, cycling in Belgium, the Kray twins and East Suffolk County Council police houses. At twenty minutes to three we depart for Portman Road, as do the three people sat at an adjacent table, we follow them down High Street.

Mick and I bid our adieus near the turnstiles close to the corner of Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road, Mick’s seat is in the upper tier of what is now called the Magnus Group stand; I’m in the cheap seats at the bottom of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Having vouched for my being double-jabbed I enter the ground through turnstile sixty-one, which I select over turnstiles fifty-nine and sixty because 1961 was when we won the Second Division for the first time.  I make my way through the undercroft of the stand having put on my face mask, although few others have the decency to do likewise, and Ipswich has the country’s highest Covid infection rates.

The teams are walking out on to the pitch as I shuffle past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to my seat.  “We were getting worried about you” says Pat as I sit down, and in dipping my head my glasses fly off.  “You’ve every reason to be” I reply.  The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ plays and people join in with the na-na-nas. The floodlights are already on and with knees taken and applauded, at a minute past three the game begins. Town are attempting to put the ball in the goal just in front of me, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood.  In their red shirts with white sleeves Fleetwood look like a bargain basement Arsenal, and it’s good to see a team not change their kit unnecessarily just because they’re playing away from home; both teams are even wearing white shorts!

Just a minute of the game has passed and already the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away, and we will fight for evermore because of Boxing Day” as if to reiterate the often made point that Christmas seems to get earlier every year.  Town win a corner. “Come on you Blues” I bellow hopefully. “Is that Martin?” says Phil, turning round to Pat to ask a question to which he already knows the answer.

It’s early, the game is still settling down and the crowd are getting accustomed to what they are seeing before them. The referee Sam Allison is black; a voice behind me says “Uriah Rennie, innit”, a comment which unfortunately is unthinkingly racist, although I have no doubt it was not intended as such, but at least it does highlight the scarcity of black football referees despite there being a lot of black footballers.

Ten minutes pass and it looks as if Fleetwood almost score; Gerard Garner appearing from my low down, distant view to beat three players before having a shot blocked.  Four minutes later and Town have a goal disallowed as the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads in a free-kick, but is considered by the assistant referee to be have been offside. Another five minutes later and Bonne directs a free header at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, a large man who has made the double fashion faux-pas of wearing dark pants beneath his yellow shorts and displaying a distinct VPL.  Cairns is however one of the few footballers to share a surname with the name of a northern Australian city.  

The game has settled into a somewhat disappointing pattern of Town passing the ball about quite a bit, but not having any decent attempts at scoring a goal.  It’s nearly half past three and Paul Cook is gesticulating wildly from the touch line like someone directing traffic having dropped a few amphetamines.  Janoi Donacien wins Town a corner.  “Come On You Blues! Come On You Blues!” tumbles from the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a handful of people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand join in, including me. Toto Nsiala heads the corner kick over the cross bar from a position so close to the goal that it looked easier to score. 

 It’s gone half-past three and after Fleetwood’s James Hill fouls Conor Chaplin, his name becomes the first to enter Mr Allison’s notebook.  I like to think of Mr Allison amusing himself childishly by stroking his chin as if in deep thought and then writing down Hill’s first name as Jimmy.  Ten minutes until half-time and Sone Aluko has Town’s first decent shot at goal, but it goes past the post. Finally, as the half peters out Sam Morsy becomes embroiled in a contretemps with Fleetwood’s Jay Matete, as they literally wrestle each other for the ball; Morsy is clearly at fault and Matete is awarded a free-kick.  A bit like the weather, the half has been rather dull.

My half-time snack of a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar is the highlight of the afternoon since leaving the pub and Ray offers the opinion that Town haven’t done very much so far as he stops by to chat on his way to use the facilities beneath the stand.

The game resumes at four minutes past four and the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are soon singing “You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit you’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit,” which strikes me as being not very polite.  From the comments of the man next to me I think their “song” is directed at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, and I can only think that they too have spotted that you can see his pants through his yellow shorts, although I think it would probably have been more helpful to sing “Don’t wear dark pants, Don’t wear dark pants,  Don’t wear dark pants with yellow shorts, Don’t wear dark pants.”  

Cairns’ misdemeanor is soon punished however and with just four minutes played of the new half, Conor Chaplin turns outside the penalty area and sends a firm shot into the corner of the goal with, as the man next to me says, the goalkeeper “stranded”.  Clearly getting nostalgic for former glories, the Sir Bobby Robson stand erupt into a chorus of “1-0 to the Tractor Boys” to the tune of Village People’s 1979 hit ‘Go West’.  Feeling elated by taking the lead I risk sensory overload as I breathe in the smell of the damp turf. This afternoon’s attendance is announced as 20,099 with 133 of that number being from Fleetwood.  Pat from Clacton thinks she might have won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ coach and passes me the sheet containing everyone’s guesses.  Sadly, I have to break the news that her guess of 20,069 is not closer than someone else’s guess of 20,103, although to be fair to Pat her number looks a lot more like 20,099 than 20,103 does and she got five of the digits right; there has to be a field of experimental maths where what the numbers look like matters.

Back on the pitch and Wes Burns replaces Sone Aluko who is wiping his nose and has presumably either suddenly developed a heavy cold or has a nosebleed.    Meanwhile, back in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand Pat from Clacton tells us that she will be having a Marks & Spencer prawn salad for tea. 

It’s nearly half past four and Christian Walton makes a save from Ged Garner who had been allowed to dribble far too close to the goal.  From the resultant corner the ball is hit into the crowd where a man over the other side of the gangway from me calmly stands up and heads it back onto the pitch.  The last time I did that I tell Fiona and Pat from Clacton, my glasses flew off (Woodbridge Town, September 2018, FA Cup extra-preliminary round v Clapton).

Fleetwood’s Jay Matete is booked for a foul on Sam Morsy and meanwhile I count twenty-one seagulls on the cross girder above the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Town miss two chances in quick succession as first the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a shot saved by the bloke in the dark underpants and then Conor Chaplin sends a shot above the crossbar.  Attempting to create a diversion, Fleetwood replace Ged Garner with someone called Paddy Lane; it’s Penny’s brother I tell Fiona, although of course I do know that Penny Lane is really a street in Liverpool, and Paddy Lane is round the back of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

Town miss another opportunity as Wes Burns billows the net with a shot to make half the ground think he had scored, only to realise the ball had gone behind the post. Sam Morsy is eventually booked for persistent fouling with Mr Allison offering a fine mime, pointing in different directions to indicate that Morsy had committed fouls here, there, and everywhere.  Whilst Morsy receives his punishment from Mr Allison I am struck by the long shins of Fleetwood’s number nine, Callum Morton, a youth who the app on my phone says is English, although his stroppy demeanour, ginger hair and surname shared with a Greenock football club imply he is Scottish.  I have a premonition that he will score, which is based on the fact that he looks like he has the capacity to annoy.

Something happens across the other side of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and from up in the Cobbold stand comes a chorus of “We forgot, We forgot, We forgot that you were here” and I think to myself “Who said that?”.  Back on the grass and Fleetwood’s Johnson fouls Celina and is booked before Fleetwood string together an alarming number of passes prior to Town eventually clearing the ball. Less than ten minutes of normal time remain, and Lee Evans concedes a free-kick.  The Liverpudlian back street crosses the ball and the annoying youth with long shins heads the ball into the Town goal from unfeasibly close range.  What had felt like a comfortable one-nil lead isn’t any longer,j but as I said to Fiona, we hadn’t conceded a goal for almost two whole games, so it was unlikely we’d hold on much longer.  We would probably have conceded sooner or later even if we had to score it ourselves.

To the credit of the Town supporters, we don’t become over-anxious and we even raise a few chants of “Come on Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” and indulge in some rhythmic clapping.  On the pitch, Town remain patient, passing the ball back and forth waiting to prise an opening rather than just hitting and hoping or ‘getting it in the mixer’.  In the eighty-eighth minute a deep cross from Lee Evans is headed across the goal by the oddly named Macauley Bonne, it’s a decent chance; and then the game enters five minutes of added on time.  A draw wouldn’t be unexpected, but hope remains that we can win; this is a team that has scored twenty-eight times in thirteen games, an average of more than two goals a game, so we’re due another one.

It’s the ninety third minute; Fiona has had to leave early to catch a train because she’s going out this evening.  The excellent Janoi Donacien runs all the way to the goal line to knock back a deep, cross field ball; his flicked pass falls to Bersant Celina who sweeps it imperiously past the man in the dark underpants to give Town victory.  It’s the best ending to a match at Portman Road in years, possibly since Pablo Counago scored almost directly from the kick-off after Coventry had equalised in 2010.  Town did manage a near last minute win against Shrewsbury last November, but that doesn’t count because last season only happened on ifollow.

What started as a grey, dull, cold day has ended in a blaze of glory, the embers of which will glow all week long and at least until we lose again, which hopefully won’t be for ages; and just to add a barely needed coat of varnish, Norwich have lost 7-0 too.  Some days are definitely better than others.