Ipswich Town 0 Newport County 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swindon Town 1 Ipswich Town 2

 Swindon is by far the largest town in Wiltshire and is also home to the only Football League team in the county.  I like Swindon.  Despite being a long way from the coast, there is something a bit like Ipswich about it, particularly with its relationship to the county in which it is situated. Salisbury and Bury St Edmunds have their cathedrals, but whilst historically the locals there were poncing about singing psalms and reciting canticles Ipswich and Swindon folk were getting their hands dirty making stuff, or at least they were until the forces of international capitalism did for them.  Like Ipswich, Swindon is one of those rare, unpretentiously provincial towns that’s a decent size, is a respectable distance from London but isn’t ‘Up North’;  it’s like Northampton, Shrewsbury, Newport and, if you don’t count Staffordshire as ‘Up North’, Burton On Trent.    Added to that it’s got a Magic Roundabout, is only 20 kilometres or so from groovy places like Avebury stone circle (bigger and therefore better than Stone Henge) , Silbury Hill  and the Uffington white horse hill figure, and is home of the hard to pigeon-hole band XTC, although sadly they split up about fifteen years ago.  More recently, Swindon Town is the team supported by Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe in the wonderful BBC comedy series “This Country”.  Swindon also still has its own local brewery, Arkell’s, which has been fulfilling the town’s beer needs since 1843.

I first saw Ipswich Town play at the County Ground, Swindon in December 1987.  Fresh from having failed to return to the First Division at the first attempt the previous season, Town played newly promoted Swindon Town and lost 4-2 after initially coming back to equalise from 2-0 down at half-time.  Mark Brennan and David Lowe scored for Town and Ian Cranson also scored, but for Swindon, with a spectacular header.   I didn’t remember any of that, I had to look it up, but having had my memory jogged I do recall that the game also saw the debut for Town of the least successful of our Dutch imports, the less than  legendary Ulrich Wilson, on loan from FC Twente.  Since then Swindon has mostly been a lovely day out, with four wins in our last four visits, although we’ve not been round theirs now since the turn of the century, which is another reason why I would have been looking forward to today’s fixture.

Spared a 3 hour, 275 kilometre trip along the motorways of southern England I nevertheless still rock-up late at the on-switch of my retro-style Bush radio, which is already primed in a state of preparedness being perpetually tuned-in to BBC Radio Suffolk.   It’s as if I’ve only just pushed through the turnstile after hurriedly finishing my last pre-match pint of Arkell’s 3B, as at almost 3 o’clock I am greeted with the news that alongside Brenner Woolley today is former Town player Ian Atkins. Despite his having played over ninety games for Town, some as captain, I always think of Atkins as one of the most inelegant players I’ve ever seen play for Town; he’d get in today’s team mind.  As Brenner Woolley sets the scene and tells us that Swindon are wearing red shirts, white shorts and red socks I can hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s  rip-off of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ blaring out from the County Ground’s public address system.  With the common man still absent from its stands and concourses I wonder to myself to whom Swindon Town are playing this little burst of populist Prog-Rock.  I’m as partial to a bit of Prog-Rock as the next grammar school boy born in the 1950’s or early 60’s, but as grand entry music for the players at a football match I would place ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ somewhere up close to “The boys are back in Town” in the league table of all-time naffness.  Give me “Entry of the Gladiators” or the Toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen every time.

How embarrassing

“It’s Teddy Bishop, going to be kicking off” announces Brenner and the game begins.  Somewhat inevitably Brenner’s commentary for now is obsessed with Town’s having failed to score a goal in over ten hours.  “Goals change games” says Ian revealing his  Birmingham accent. Well duh.  The game begins well for Town as you would hope against a team who have already been relegated after only forty-four games and have conceded eighty-four goals.  “Dozzell’s had a very good start at the moment” says Ian cautiously.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner with the same note of caution borne from bitter experience as Town win the game’s first corner.  “Swindon….they’re letting Northampton play”  adds Ian, already confused about which game he’s watching.

Inevitably, there is something of an end of season feel to the game, what with it being the end of the season and Brenner is soon indulging in playful commentator-speak. “ …bit of a school-boy error, Dobra” says the BBC man triumphantly.  Ian meanwhile soon reveals the contents of his own locker of sayings to fall-back on when your vocabulary has otherwise been exhausted.  Ian’s stock phrase is “to be fair”, which, to be fair, seems innocuous enough but it’s also largely unnecessary. “…leaving the space to attack, to be fair” is Ian’s first use of the phrase and he follows this up with “… this is where they had a little bit of a problem against Northampton, to be fair”.

Meanwhile, Brenner entertains us as he always does. “Payne, who’s sprung to life in the last few moments” says Brenner summoning, in my mind at least, a vision of some sort of resurrection,  before he then says “It’s Norwood with his pink boots who’s been penalised” leading me to wonder if the referee has awarded a free-kick against Norwood because of the colour of his boots; I wouldn’t be wholly against the  idea.  The game moves on and Brenner is soon tempting fate as he loves to do, telling us that “Swindon have never doubled Ipswich in a league season”.  It’s the sixteenth minute and fate is nearly tempted; “Pitman inside the area” says Brenner with rising excitement “…puts it past the post”.  Brenner confides that he was convinced Brett Pitman was going to score, and having heard his agitated commentary of the incident, it’s hard not to believe him.

Ipswich win a second corner; it comes to nothing.  “Dobra up on all fours, now ready to continue” says Brenner making it sound as if Town’s number 36 does actually scamper about the pitch as if he were a quadruped.  Nearly a quarter of the game has passed; “Town under pressure” is the latest assessment from Brenner.  Ian’s view is that Town are giving the ball away because they’re not strong enough to hold off challenges from Swindon players.

With the game into its second quarter Brenner starts feeling oddly compelled to say things:  “Jaiyesimi actually did very little against Ipswich a few weeks ago, it has to be said.” “Swindon the better side at the moment in this game, it has to be said”.  “Still Camp not had a save to make, it has to be said”.  It’s as if we’ve now reached a point in the game where Brenner can no longer carry on unless he gets these things off  his chest. It’s either that or he now feels that his audience has been listening long enough to be able to stand these harsh truths without bursting into tears.  I feel myself welling -up a little but pull through.

Five minutes later and things look up.  “Saved by Camp; are Ipswich Town ever going to score another goal?” asks Brenner after an “Almighty chance for Town” sees Camp divert a shot from Teddy Bishop, who is through with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.   As Brenner has told us in previous games “Paul Cook, screaming his heart out”, which as any cardiologist will tell you is not advisable. Shaken perhaps by hearing a grown man scream, Brenner seems to panic and when Swindon’s Christopher Missilou under hits a ball he tells us that “The Frenchman didn’t have enough air on that pass”.  It’s an odd description of what you’d normally expect a commentator of Brenner ‘s experience to call a ‘hospital pass’, added to which Missilou is Congolese, not French.

Armando Dobra shoots wide. “Dobra’s head is in his hands” says Brenner with such conviction that I half expect him to confirm that yes, Dobra’s head has actually come off and is in his hands.  A James Norwood shot is saved by Lee camp and Mark McGuinness heads the ensuing corner kick over the cross-bar.  It’s evident that Town are continuing to attack and Brenner is in positive mood. “Kane Vincent-Young over-hits that cross, but quite a lot” says Brenner trying to play down the full-back’s error. The same player then has a header saved by Camp “ I thought he was going to score there, Young” says Brenner, deceiving himself once again.  Ian assesses Vincent Young’s forays forward, “…like a wing-back, to be fair”.

With Town sounding like they are creating chances, the mystery remains why they have not scored and Ian enlightens us by telling us that what Town are missing is “someone of real presence in the box who can upset defenders”.  It’s an analysis that suggests to me that over the summer we should sign either a sort of Joan Rivers character capable of reducing defenders to tears or just put a ‘big bloke up front’.

“It’s now eleven hours without a goal” announces Brenner polishing the glass on his stop watch, but his words soon lose their meaning as “ Bishop goes down inside the box, the referee says penalty” and I somehow imagine the referee Mr Johnson turning in the direction of Brenner up in the stand and mouthing the word “penalty” to him .   “Please James, do not miss this opportunity” implores Brenner.  Norwood scores, “…the goal-drought is over” confirms Brenner.  “He deserves his goal at the moment” adds Ian introducing the slightly tantalising possibility that he might not deserve his goal later on and suggesting possibly that Ian believes undeserving players should have their goals taken away from them.  There then follows some blokey banter about Paul Cook having said he would do a lap of honour if Town scored. “Typical scally” says Ian “saying they’re going to do something and not doing it”.  I will admit to being a little surprised by Ian’s comments and can only think he is unaware of the risk of becoming the subject of a Liverpudlian version of a fatwa.

The first half ends with a chance for Gwion Edwards to double Town’s goal tally. “ Edwards shoots!” says Brenner excitedly “ …and the flag’s up” he continues with well-practised resignation.  Brenner asks Ian what he made of the first half. “A bit like a practice game” says Ian honestly.  “They’ve had chances that the players have missed” he adds un-controversially.  Ian’s advice for the second half, which sounds a bit like an extract from an instruction manual for something purchased in an Ann Summers shop is  “Rather than just sit on it, go and enjoy it”

Half-time is the familiar blur of kettle, tea and Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  For the second-half I am joined by my wife Paulene who, as I listen to the wireless through my earpiece will be watching the Ligue 1 game between Paris St Germain and Racing Club de Lens on the telly.  As I re-join the broadcast from BBC Radio Suffolk Brenner ‘advertises’ his forthcoming commentaries and explains that he will once again be with Ian for Tuesday’s match at Shrewsbury. “ Is that basically because Mills’ car doesn’t go to the other side of Colchester?” asks Ian, evidently still in banter mode and also daring to take Mick Mills’ name in vain.

As far as I can make out from the commentary the second half is much like the first. “Comes to Downes” calls out Brenner with rising excitement “…who skies it”.  Ian begins to add “ at this level” to the end of most of his explanations of what Town need to be doing. Nearly an hour has passed since kick-off.  “…gives it back to Norwood, Norwood prods it in, Ipswich now lead Swindon 2-0” exclaims Brenner. “He’s tucked that ball away well” adds Ian, whose analysis has otherwise increasingly come to depend on the phrase “bodies in the box”.

Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop. “He looks like a nice little footballer” says Ian of Teddy, when asked for his opinion of the departing player’s contribution.  But it quickly transpires that Ian doesn’t really think there is a place for nice little footballers “at this level.” Brenner meanwhile advises us that it’s a case of “Town getting the job done, for what it’s worth”.  More substitutions follow. “Harrop and Bennetts both coming on to play a bit more football” is Brenner’s reassuring statement before they replace Edwards and Dobra.  As a rule it’s best when the substitutes come on to play football rather than just paint over the white lines or do a  bit of weeding.  Ian’s assessment of Edwards and Dobra is that they have “Been lively, without ever having any end product”; I believe it’s what seasoned commentators and sports hacks call ‘flattering to deceive’.

Less than twenty minutes of the basic ninety minutes remain. “Goodness me” says Brenner channelling Peter Sellers, almost. “Terrible goal-keeping from David Cornell” exclaims Brenner and Brett Pitman scores.  I had sort of hoped Pitman would score, I liked him as a player at Town; my impression is that managers don’t think he runs about enough; perhaps he doesn’t , but he still scores goals, which is what forwards are supposed to do.  “A Sunday league howler – no disrespect to the Sunday league by the way” says Ian of Cornell’s error and for some reason affording a respect to the Sunday league that he previously hadn’t afforded Scousers or Mick Mills.

A couple more minutes pass. “Surely a penalty, it’s a penalty” cries Brenner unable to contain his excitement as Troy Parrott is fouled.    James Norwood steps up to claim his hat-trick.  “Forward he comes, he’s missed it, unbelievable” says Brenner of a situation which in reality is all too believable.   The only good thing to come of the incident is Ian’s lugubrious West Midland’s pronunciation of Parrott.

“Kenlock’s had a decent game” says Ian generously. “Town holding on for a win” says Brenner and meanwhile Neymar puts Paris St Germain one-nil up at the Parc des Princes.  News arrives on BBC Radio Suffolk of scores in other matches; Peterborough United have pulled back to trail two-three having been three-nil down. “Well, some excitement there in that game” says Brenner with a hint of jealousy.   Perhaps losing his enthusiasm Brenner mis-pronounces the surname of Swindon’s Tom Broadbent, so it sounds like Broadband. Flynn Downes is booked for a foul. “That’s like a booking for the team” explains Ian, but strangely he doesn’t say “to be fair”.

The final minutes of the game drift away. “Typical end of season game” says Ian. There is still occasional excitement. “Fabulous defending from Woolfenden” says Brenner one minute, and then “lovely little ball to Parrott in the area!” says Brenner expectantly the next.  “ …ball up in the air, Parrott goes after it” continues Brenner and I imagine a blur of brightly coloured feathers taking flight.  The first half ends in Paris.  “You’d like to think they can see this one out, you’d like to think” says Brenner half-repeating himself for no apparent reason.  Time added on runs out. “There is the full-time whistle, at the ninth time of asking Paul Cook get his first away win” concludes Brenner.

Mentally exhausted, I switch off the radio and prepare to turn my attention to the game in Paris.  Later, I will journey down to the south of France courtesy of FFF tv to watch FC Sete, who have scored just twenty-eight goals in thirty-one games (a goals per game record even worse than  Ipswich’s)  beat  Orleans 1-0 and secure their place in the French third division.  Finally, this evening, to complete my  virtual tour of some of my favourite places I will tune in to watch Lille versus Nice in French Ligue 1, it’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do driving back along the M4.

Plymouth Argyle 1 Ipswich Town 2

I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I have only ever been to Home Park, the sensibly named home of Plymouth Argyle, twice.  The first occasion was in August 1987 for an evening fixture, when after a seemingly interminable coach journey from Portman Road I witnessed a goalless draw.   Then, at the start of 2005 I returned, this time by car, to enjoy a 2-1 victory courtesy of Darren Currie as Town went top of the league but, as ever, ultimately failed to achieve promotion.  My memories of Plymouth therefore are on the whole not disagreeable, although if the city has memories of me they might not all be as positive. My very first visit to the city of Plymouth was in the summer of 1966 when on a family holiday. My father was in the Royal Navy and serving on HMS Tiger at the time and the ship happened to be in Plymouth dockyard; he took us aboard and I vomited on the wardroom carpet.  Given that the eleven thousand ton cruiser was in harbour I can’t blame sea sickness, it was more a surfeit of free peanuts from what I remember.

Today, I have not eaten any peanuts but for a pre-match snack enjoy a handful of Nairn’s ‘naturally nutritious’ rough oatcakes with some Cheddar and Port Salut cheese. My pre-match ‘pint’ is a 440 ml can of Brewdog Double Punk, today’s offering from my beer advent calendar; a different beer every day until Christmas.  Feeling sociable, perhaps because the beer has alcohol by volume of 8.2%, and having half an eye on Troyes v Paris FC in French Ligue 2, which my wife Paulene is watching on tv using an Amazon Firestick, I settle down on the two-seater blue leather sofa in the living room.  With a plastic earpiece in place I tune into Radio Suffolk on my Sony 310 transistor radio in time to hear the tail end of a pre-match summary of this afternoon’s encounter between Stowmarket Town and Eynesbury in the FA Vase.  My attention is grabbed by the fact that former Ipswich Town starlet and Bermudan international Reggie Lambe is appearing for Stowmarket.  Reggie Lambe has always retained a high profile in my football memory, possibly not because of his on-field exploits so much as the fact that he sounds like he could also be a cuddly character from an undiscovered episode of Watch with Mother.

The reportage from Home Park begins with a replay of commentary from 2008 in which commentator Brenner Woolley became very excited about two goals from Owen Garvan and one from Kevin Lisbie; as well he might.  After reference to the 976 kilometre round trip from Ipswich, although Brenner archaically quotes the distance in miles, we are introduced to the glorious West Country burr of this afternoon’s co-commentator Marcus Stewart; in the week that David Prowse died it seems a fitting tribute.  Brenner sarcastically speaks of the receding sound of the ‘loudest PA system in the country’ as Town’s goalkeeper, who he refers to as “Dai” Cornell, leads the Town team on to the pitch.  Marcus Stewart meanwhile says that it is time for everyone to “get onside and support the club and get behind the club”.  I will admit that I did not know that as well as being closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent, it is also possible to be offside by not being behind the club.

Very quickly Marcus tells us that he is going to put his “head on the block” as he predicts that there will be goals in this game.  I can’t help feeling that he is sounding hopeful when he suggests that if he is wrong it might be the last time he is asked to ‘appear’ on Radio Suffolk.  The opening minutes of the game sound entertaining as Brenner relays to us that there is “Good play from Town”, that Home Park is “sunny but blowy” and that “Woolfenden seems to have had a haircut”.   “Wrong decision” says Marcus in the assertive style of tv’s Kirtan Mucklowe as an Argyle player picks the wrong pass.  The commentary briefly takes the form of a conversation “Very open, Marcus” says Brenner. “End to end” replies Marcus, who a short while later provides some interesting tactical analysis about full-backs having more time on the ball when playing against a 4-3-3 formation, and being able to push forward.    Brenner meanwhile talks up the promise of goals for Town against Plymouth. “Only Swindon and Burton have conceded more goals” he says.  It’s a fact that shows Brenner has been assiduous in his research again, but personally I just love to hear the names of un-related English provincial towns in the same sentence; it makes me think of railway lines and town halls, local papers and building societies.

The thirteenth minute passes and seemingly out of not very much Plymouth score through Luke Jephcott.  “Good finish in terms of build-up play” says Marcus a little confusingly “ Plymouth again pinging the ball around” he adds.  Disappointed that what had sounded like a reasonable start to the game has taken the familiar wrong turn I take a mouthful of my beer, which because of its alcoholic strength has lived beyond it’s original ‘pre-match pint’ billing.  “Mmmm” I say to Paulene “This is a very fruity beer”.  What sort of fruit?” she asks.  Caught off guard by this question I make up something   “Oh, just a generic sort of fruit” I say, but she demands more detail. “Pineapple, banana?” She asks. “Yes” I reply “and apple, pear, mango, raspberry, kiwi fruit, lychee”.  “What about grapes, cherries and star fruit?” asks Paulene. “Yes”, I say “and strawberry, tomato, orange”.  “Melon, plum, papaya?” asks Paulene, “Yeah, and cranberry, blackberry, damson, even a hint of brazil nut.” 

Our listing of the world’s fruits is interrupted as I hear Brenner say “any fixture at the moment seems to be tricky for Ipswich” before mentioning “mitigating factors”.   Then all of a sudden Kayden Jackson is through on goal. “No excuses, should be 1-1” says Brenner as Kayden is tackled “We’ll be looking back on that through very painful eyes” continues Brenner, all too easily imagining the scenario in which Town fail to score and adding un-diagnosed medical problems to the mix for good measure.  “Just as he cocked his leg to take the shot – good defending” adds Marcus trying to describe what happened, but making Jackson sound a bit like a dog beneath a lamp post.

Despite the current score line I remain optimistic.  “Ward invited to come forward” says Brenner of Town’s left-back , creating an image in my head of Plymouth players ushering Ward along or handing him little cards with RSVP on the bottom.   Brenner soon engages Marcus in conversation again, “Jephcott’s a strong boy isn’t he Marcus?”  “Like a little bulldog” replies Marcus clearly still trying to develop his canine analogies.  Despite a lull in play around half past three which forces Brenner into telling us that there is very little happening, the consensus between the two commentators seems to be that it’s an entertaining game.  “ Town don’t look like a team short on confidence” says Brenner before unleashing a combination of stats upon the listeners about how many wins Town have had in the past five games (one) and how many points they’ve taken from the past ten games (nine).   The criticism remains implied, but Brenner is careful to explain that this is a “…very young Ipswich Town side” and “needs must at the moment”.

Half-time arrives at fourteen minutes to four and Marcus repeats that “There is goals in this game” which he has found “thoroughly entertaining”.  It’s left to Brenner to encourage me to return for the second half, “This game could be anything.  There could be a comeback for Ipswich Town, or it could be 3-0 to Plymouth”.  As insightful summaries go it fits well into either of the “Hedging one’s bets” or the “Why the hell are you asking me?” categories.

I enjoy a half-time of putting the kettle on, shutting and locking the garage door, drawing the blinds and closing the curtains.  Troyes have beaten Paris FC 2-1 with Paris having a spectacular volleyed ‘goal’ in the seventh minute of time added-on disallowed for dangerous play (jeu dangereux).  Troyes replace Paris FC at the top of Ligue 2 on goal difference and Paulene re-tunes the Amazon Firestick for the Ligue 1 game at Parc Roazhon between Stade Rennais and Racing Club de Lens.  I reflect that Home Park is only 402 kilometres from Rennes by sea and road, which is almost 90 kilometres closer than it is to Portman Road. 

Carelessly, I miss the re-start at Home Park and re-join the game just as little Alan Judge makes a “suicidal pass”, which almost gives Luke Jephcott a second goal.  Brenner moves on to speak of Newport County, Cheltenham Town and Exeter City all doing well in the fourth division this season and the prospect of further trips west next season,  clearly suggesting he has already given up on hopes of Town being promoted. “Cambridge would be a nice short trip” he adds, adopting the outlook of the Radio Suffolk accountant.

It doesn’t sound like Town are having many shots on goal ,but the game remains open and Brenner is moved to tell us that “ There is still no way of knowing what the full-time score will be”, which is frankly somewhat obvious unless he has access to some sort of Old Mother Woolley figure who has a crystal ball.  “Strong young lads” says Brenner of Jephcott and McGuinness, introducing an unexpected frisson of homo-eroticism as the game enters its final 25 minutes.  Jack Lankester and Brett McGavin are replaced by the weirdly named Keanan Bennetts,  and Oliver Hawkins.

It’s the seventieth minute and I am told that Plymouth’s Danny Mayor has “kicked the feet away” from Town’s Armando Dobra, a player who is Albanian and whose name incidentally rhymes with Enver Hoxha the former Communist leader of Albania.  Mayor is booked for a second time in the match and is therefore sent off.  Quickly following on, former Town player Frank Nouble is booked also, but only for the first time; “Getting a yellow card for verbals” says Brenner , incorrectly using the word ‘verbals’, which actually refers to different forms of verbs rather than bad language; we should expect the BBC’s broadcasters to know this sort of thing.  Marcus or Brenner, I’m not sure which, now tells us that against ten men we are going to have a lot of the ball, we just have to do something with it.   Seconds later, Paulene cheers as over in France Lens take the lead through eighteen year old Arnaud Kalimuendo Muinga and then in what is turning out to be a very busy three minutes Town take those words about doing something with the ball to heart and equalise. “Nolan shoots, he scores says Brenner succinctly.  “A great volley” confirms Marcus.  Within a minute I am hearing Brenner say “Hawkins chests it down and Jackson scores” and Town lead 2-1.  “Yay” I shout from my reclining position on the blue leather sofa.  This is the most fun I’ve had since last February.

To add to my enjoyment Brenner tells me that the 1800 Plymouth fans who have been allowed into the ground are “really aggravated” and in the background I hear them bawling and moaning in a real life version of people in supporters groups on the interweb.  The final fifteen minutes and injury time pass in a parade of observations from Brenner and Marcus.  “ … keep playing forward like they ‘ave been doing” is Marcus’s recipe for success as he turns up his West Countryness a notch . “ Ill-discipline from Watts” says Brenner revelling in another booking for a Plymouth player. “Fans getting disgruntled” adds Marcus picking up Brenner’s theme before sounding a note of caution with “Dangerous times now”.   Marcus’s voice is becoming increasingly gravelly, as if he’s been chain smoking Woodbines and slugging whisky all afternoon; he sounds like a Somerset Jimmy Durante.

It is evident that Plymouth are succeeding in getting back into the game. “Decent effort on goal from Hardy” says Brenner before ramping up the tension and pessimism with “This‘ll be a massive disappointment if Town draw this one”.   He carries on in similar vein by validating those listeners surprised that Town aren’t losing with “Town ahead; if you lost faith earlier in the game and thought here we go again”.   It doesn’t get any better; “Plymouth close – over the bar” and “Not pleasant viewing at the moment” before Brenner perhaps tries to lighten the mood with “Two players with similar pinkie-orange footwear on the far side” as full-time approaches.  The pretty-much statutory four minutes of additional time will be added.  The four minutes pass and Town win.

I am elated. After foolishly depressing myself by reading the ‘opinions’ of people on social media in the wake of two recent defeats and a draw, I am now ecstatic that Town have won and this afternoon I feel like I have travelled to Plymouth and back, played the match and wilfully thrown up on the wardroom carpet of every warship in Plymouth harbour.

Perhaps Town will lose again next Saturday, perhaps they won’t, but that’s what football teams do, they win, they lose and they draw and the margins between those three outcomes are small.  This season Ipswich Town have won more than we have lost, today we won, life is sweet.

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has

Witham Railway Station

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

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I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

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railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

Witham Town

As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

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On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

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I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

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arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

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by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

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With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve, past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

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