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 AFC Wimbledon 2

Back in 2004 as Ipswich Town were yet again failing to win yet another play-off tie (we have won just two out of nine ties), AFC Wimbledon were winning the Combined Counties Premier Division title.  Since then, Wimbledon have continued to collect promotions and Ipswich Town haven’t, and so today we find ourselves playing the 2004 Combined Counties Premier Division Champions for a third consecutive season.  Town and the original Wimbledon, the one that famously beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, had of course met in both the Premier League and the Championship and my wife Paulene is the proud owner of a cuddly Womble in Wimbledon kit that dated from when the original club was being eaten alive; apparently when she bought it, it was the last one in the shop.

Shamefully, playing fast and loose with the future of our planet, I have again driven to the match today, still fearful of using public transport as Covid cases spiral upwards in number and the government gambles the lives of the clinically vulnerable so that money can change hands, as it does most of the time to be fair, but usually more obliquely. Parking my trusty Citroen C3 up on Chantry I stroll down through Gippeswyk Park beneath a sky of picturesquely heaped up clouds, the afternoon is warm but dull, as English summers often are.

Rocking up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way (formerly Portman Walk) at about twenty past two, I join a short queue for the Fanzone just as the steward checking tickets and Covid credential announces that the bar in the Fanzone is now closed.  Brimming with disappointment and thwarted thirst I leave the queue and hang about aimlessly for a few minutes watching the crowds and counting the number of people wearing face masks, I see four.  It really is as if most people are convinced the pandemic is over.  Quickly bored with my own company I trudge off between the supporters’ coaches artfully arranged outside the old Corporation tram depot and head for the Constantine Road gate to the ground, where I join a very short queue to show off my Covid credentials.  “Thank you Martin” says the female steward as I flash my NHS vaccination card; it seems a bit familiar of her and I wonder if we know each other; she’s one of the few people wearing a mask so I can’t properly see her face. 

On the walk from the gate to the turnstile I purchase a programme (£3.50) and join a queue for turnstile fifty-nine because of the four turnstiles on this corner of the ground (numbers 59 to 62) it’s the only one that’s open. My favourite turnstile is number 62 because when using it I feel I am paying homage to Town’s Football League winning team of 1962.  Behind me in the queue a bunch of blokes chatter like excited youths, making weak jokes and commenting on there being only one turnstile open. “Cutting costs” suggests one.  “A bit naughty if it’s nearly kick-off” says another, weirdly imagining a scenario in which he hasn’t arrived twenty minutes before the game is due to start.  Another reads out loud the sign explaining what items are prohibited from the ground. “No tools” he chuckles, prompting his accomplices to each name a tool they would have liked to bring with them starting with a blow torch.

In the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with his son Elwood, but Pat from Clacton is on holiday in Ireland and Fiona, Ray and his son and his grandson Harrison are yet to arrive.  I speak with Phil who, in the course of our conversation explains that the bar in the Fanzone closes early because people hadn’t been drinking up in time to comply with the licence.  It starts to rain.

It’s still raining when the teams come on to the pitch and after a very brief ‘taking the knee’ which is so brief it looks a bit like a curtsy, the game begins beneath a battleship grey sky. Wimbledon get first go with the ball, lumping it towards the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  For the third consecutive home league match Town’s opponents are wearing a kit of all-red; I think back to when most club’s away kit was yellow shirts and blue shorts,  except of course for Oxford United and Mansfield Town, but we never played them in the 1970’s.

Continuing the 1970’s theme the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are quickly into a rendition of Boney M’s 1978 Christmas number one ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but with lyrics altered to celebrate Ipswich singing, Norwich running away, and eternal fighting because of Boxing Day rather than the birth of the Messiah.  Just four minutes pass and Town’s Scott Fraser has the first shot on goal.  After seven minutes the weather seems to be brightening up a bit and the Wimbledon fans chant “The animals went in two by two”, which seems a bit odd given that it looks like it is about to stop raining and any plans to build an ark will have been put on hold, particularly since no one is allowed to bring tools into the ground.

With about a quarter of an hour played Wimbledon’s Alexander Woodyard is the first player to get sight of referee Mr Rock’s yellow card after he fouls Joe Piggott.  “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Wimbledon supporters somewhat coarsely and unimaginatively and then Town’s Rekeem Harper takes a shot from 18 metres or so which is easily gathered by Wimbledon goalkeeper Nik Tzanev.  The clouds are parting to reveal blue sky and as if attempting to create some sort of allegory, Town breach the Wimbledon defence and make several forays down the right flank, with Kane Vincent-Young and Wes Burns getting in a number of crosses, although none of them is met by a Town player and when one is the shot is weak.  The first half is almost half over, and Town win the game’s first corner.  “Come on you Blues” I chant, to the apparent bafflement of those around me.

Town are playing some exciting football but have little presence in the penalty area.  “Chase it, put him under pressure” shouts a voice a few rows behind me as Joe Piggott pursues a punt up field.  Another corner comes to nothing after thirty-seven minutes and the linesman with the red and yellow quartered flag minces back to the half-way line as Tzanev takes the goal kick.  As the half draws to a close a man with a loud, penetrating, and annoying voice is sharing a conversation with all those around him, although I doubt any of us want him to.  We learn that he was ‘the editor’, of what we don’t know or care, but he was “furious with himself”.  I’m not too pleased with him either, he needs to find his volume control, or just shut up.  Happily, only a minute of added time is to be played so respite soon arrives.  It’s been a pretty good half, although I can’t help feeling that although Town look good enough to be winning, somehow we haven’t really created good enough chances; perhaps it’s because we still have not ‘gelled’ yet.

Half-time involves consumption of a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and then a cupcake, which is one of a whole tray-full that Ray shares with those around him to mark the occasion of his retirement, something that is also recorded on page 55 of today’s programme.   The happy events of real-life retreat again into the shadows as the second half begins at two minutes past four and like last week there is a mysterious hush around the ground in the opening minutes, almost as if people are disappointed that the players have returned.  Within seven minutes however, Wimbledon’s William Nightingale fails to live up to the high ideals of his namesake Florence and comes closer to wounding Wes Burns rather than offering succour and from the resultant penalty kick, Joe Piggott gives Town the lead, placing his penalty in the right-hand corner of the goal as Tzanev stupidly dives to the left.  The Sir Bobby Robson stand reprises “Mary’s Boy Child” in a state of heightened ecstasy whilst the Wimbledon supporters chant “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” to the tune of Guantanamera, thereby introducing a welcome Cuban folk vibe to the afternoon, something which is often conspicuously absent from Portman Road.  William Nightingale’s name is recorded in Mr Rock’s notebook to punish him further for being so unlike Florence.

With Town ahead Portman Road rocks to Boney M and thoughts of victory, and within two minutes Wes Burns doubles Town’s lead collecting a crucial pass from Kane Vincent-Young and smacking a fine shot across Tzanev into the far top left-hand corner of the goal.  Town will surely win now after four fruitless matches; on the basis of what has happened in the previous fifty-four minutes our lead is unassailable.  Four minutes later Wimbledon win a free kick, the ball skids off the top of Luke Woolfenden’s head and is set up ideally at the far post for Wimbledon’s Ben Heneghan, whose name makes me think of Feyenoord’s Wim Van Hanegem, to head down past Vaclav Hladky and make the score 2-1.  It must be Wimbledon’s first goal attempt on target.  “Bloody hell”, I think to myself.

“I don’t rate him” says a voice sitting behind me blaming Hladky for the goal “No, I don’t” says a neighbouring, voice “I don’t see how there’s any difference between him and Holy”.  It’s a point which I will hear no lesser expert than Mick Mills echo over the airwaves of Radio Suffolk as I drive home from the match in an hour’s time.  The discussion behind me continues as Hladky launches the ball up field; “He just boots the fuckin’ ball, he don’t look for no one do ‘e?

Dissatisfaction with the goalkeeper is however balanced by satisfaction with Wes Burns, “He’s superb, he is, he’s a helluva player” and it’s true, he is playing very well today and is linking up to goal scoring effect with Kane Vincent-Young down the right.   Within ten minutes Wimbledon have made their permitted three substitutions bringing on the more exotically and lengthily named Nesta Guinness-Walker and Dapo Awokoya-Mebude for plain old Luke McCormick and Aaron Pressley and swapping the fifty percent exotic Cheye Alexander for equally exotic Jack Rudoni, both of whom sound like they may possess an Equity card.

Seventy-four minutes of the game have got up and gone and Hladky has to save a shot from Ollie Palmer giving Wimbledon a corner.  Four minutes later and a hobbling Wes Burns is replaced by Janoi Donacien and less understandably Kane Vincent-Young is replaced by Sone Aluko.   The excellent Hayden Coulson also appears to be injured and is replaced by Matthew Penney.  Vaclav Hladky is booked for time-wasting, although it looked as if he merely didn’t understand Mr Rock’s wafting hand gestures about where a free kick should be taken from.  “I can’t help falling in love with you” sing the Wimbledon supporters enigmatically.  What is it with football supporters and naff “adult orientated” popular music?

“The momentum has gone” says one of the voices behind me and then repeats the phrase, perhaps for added emphasis, but possibly because it’s true.  Wimbledon now press as they have never done before in the game, it’s as if the two teams have swapped shirts.  The Wimbledon players seem to want to score a goal whilst the Ipswich players just want to get indoors and have a shower before driving home in their sickeningly ostentatious cars.  Time added on arrives and there are six minutes of it, Fiona and I roll our eyes.   Five minutes into the additional six minutes and what we have come to think of as the inevitable happens; a Wimbledon corner is headed goalwards by Ben Heneghan, Hladky saves but doesn’t catch the ball and Jack Rudoni boots the ball over the goal line, unable to miss, even if by some freakish desire to see Ipswich win, he had wanted to.

The final whistle follows soon afterwards and predictably a number of attention seekers in the crowd of 19,051 and people who were perhaps spoiled as children boo because their team hasn’t won.  Maybe someone will buy them an ice cream on the way home to appease their bawling and moaning.  I stay to applaud the Town players from the field and see them hang their heads in disappointment.  I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but football is that sort of a game and when I get home I shall flush that cuddly Womble down the toilet.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

There are plenty of clubs throughout the Football League who could be forgiven for being envious of Ipswich Town.  Oxford United are one of them.  Oxford is a provincial city much the same size as Ipswich, and both are the biggest centres of population in otherwise rural counties, although Oxford is 25 miles closer to London.  Oxford United like Ipswich Town, came late to the professional game, but both made comparatively quick work of making their way up from non-league football to the Premier League, or First Division as it was known in happier times; taking twenty-three and sixteen seasons respectively to do so.  Oxford United lasted only three years in the First Division but Ipswich Town of course won the title at their very first attempt and in a later eighteen season stint in the division were twice runners up.  Oxford also won the League Cup, their only almost-major trophy, but Ipswich won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup.  Oxford as a city has had more than its fair share of wealthy ‘toffs’ passing through its university colleges but it was Ipswich Town that was lucky enough to benefit from the inspirational chairmanship of Old Etonian John Cobbold  who appointed Bobby Robson as manager, whereas Oxford United were bought by obese fraudster and publisher Robert Maxwell.  John Cobbold and Robert Maxwell are of course both long dead and today both clubs find themselves back in the third division struggling to relive former glories.

Sadly for Ipswich, history has no bearing on this season’s results, only on the expectations of the supporters, and viewed objectively a fixture versus Oxford United is now an even contest; actually, on current form Oxford are probably the favourites.   This, along with the fact that football is now something only seen on a television screen is the current reality, and I am resigned to it; at least I don’t live in Yemen, or Myanmar, or Texas.  Keen to make the most of what I’ve got I’ve been pottering about in my garden all morning enjoying the  sunshine and the sensation that Spring is definitely in the air. 

Rewarding myself for my pottering with a pre-match ‘pint’ of Westmalle Dubbel I sit down to watch the second half of the Coupe de France tie between Red Star St Ouen and Quevilly Rouen Metro, which is live on YouTube and should end just in time to tune in to the ifollow for the start of Town v Oxford. The score at the Stade Bauer in St Ouen (a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris) is one-all and I am rooting for Red Star who, despite not having been in Ligue 1 since 1975, are one of Europe’s coolest clubs. In the 83rd minute Johanne Akassou scores the winning goal for Red Star, rounding the Rouen ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the empty net after chasing a measured punt over the defence. Making up for a dearth of football related celebration of late I cheer loudly, clap my hands above my head and shout Yay!

Seconds after the commentator suggests there will be at least 3 minutes of added on time, the referee blows for full time with about 30 seconds of normal time still remaining according to the on-screen clock.  I linger a short while to watch the post-match back slapping and bask in the joyful radiation from the tv screen before switching to the ifollow, where the teams are already on the pitch and Brenner Woolley is explaining to BBC Radio Suffolk listeners that Oxford United are wearing all-white today, whilst their goal-keeper is a vision all in bottle green.  The game begins, and a Town team much changed from the one that rolled back the frontiers of the avant-garde versus Northampton a few days ago make unexpected early forays into the Oxford half of the pitch.  “Credit to Luke Chambers, that’s what he does” says Brenner’s co-commentator Mick Mills as the current club captain passes to the opposition and then chases back to try and atone for his error .  It seems likely that Mick is implying that effort is what typifies Chambers’ game rather than just constantly having to make up for his mistakes.

Inside three minutes the oddly named Keanan Bennetts wins the game’s first corner for Town.  “Good corner” says Mick encouragingly.  A short while later Luke Chambers lies stricken on the ground, it’s not clear if has suffered injury to his face or his leg.   “I would have hoped it was a facial, he would have got over that” says Mick , subtly but justifiably boasting that he was without doubt a more handsome club captain than the current man with his military haircut and heavy build.  A few minutes later James Norwood has a header cleared off the Oxford goal line despite having not really attempted to score.

For the first time in months the Portman Road pitch is bathed in sunlight although as Brenner is keen to tell us on more than one occasion it is a windy afternoon too.  The action today is unusually quick as Town eschew their usual “building from the back” at the pace of medieval cathedral builders and instead Tomas Holy punts the ball forward.   The result is that Oxford enjoy a majority of possession but to no particular advantage.  “By the cardboard cut outs on the far side” says Brenner, describing a   Town attack down the left rather than making a disparaging comment about the players on that side of the field. 

The game is even.  “Oxford due a tumble from grace” says Brenner either imagining a woman called Grace who enjoys the company of footballers or suggesting that Oxford United’s good run of results is bound to end soon.   “Very little between the two sides….much, much better from Ipswich Town” continues Brenner almost as if he is trying to make-up for harsh comments he might have made after Tuesday’s game.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts shoots on goal. “ He had to sort of make a save” says Mick of the Oxford goalkeeper, and sounding in unfamiliar commentating territory.

I finish my beer and am struck by how any mention of Oxford’s Brannagan and Sykes in Brenner’s commentary immediately conjure thoughts of John Wayne, Derek Guyler and Hattie Jacques.  It’s a “rather blustery Portman Road” adds Brenner channeling his inner weather presenter before saying “Town have done alright this first 18 minutes, haven’t they Mick?”  Rational man that he is,  Mick can only agree.  Oxford’s Alex Gorrin is booked for a foul on the oddly named Keanan Bennetts, although I’m a little surprised and unexpectedly disappointed that Brenner doesn’t refer to Gorrin as ‘The Spaniard’.  Mick seems sympathetic towards Gorrin believing that Bennetts , who is a bugger for doing ‘stepovers’,  falls over rather easily. “You can perform all the tricks you like but you’ve still got to be stable on your feet” says Mick wisely.

In a dull moment, of which there are nowhere near as many as usual, Brenner reveals that the last time Town scored against Oxford was twenty-two years ago (Mark Venus was our goalscoring hero); although in typical sports-hack style Brenner omits to say that last season was the first time we had played Oxford since 1998.  With almost a third of the match lost to the past, Troy Parrott’s right foot shot goes wide after what Mick describes as “ Super play”.   The game, according to Brenner is now “Finely poised” but immediately realising that he has stated the bleedin’ obvious he sensibly adds “as you would imagine given the score-line”.  Town continue to send the ball into the Oxford penalty area in a welcome departure from the tactics of recent games.  “ In comes his cross…which was horrific really” says Brenner honestly of a Keanan Bennetts effort before two minutes of added on time are played and everyone retires for a rest.  The conclusion from Brenner, ”Much improved from Town, it has to be said” and true to his word, he’s  said it.

Half-time is the usual blur of the kettle, mugs of tea and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  I return to the blue bean-bag from which I am watching today’s match in time to hear Mick reveal that he likes that the football from Town today is “simplistic”, by which I think he means we’re not pissing about with the ball at the back but are just shoving it forward.  I’m not sure if Mick ever appeared on BBC tv’s ‘Quiz Ball’ but if he had I suspect we’d have heard him say “Route One please David”.  Mick’s only disappointment with Town’s first half and indeed what he describes as “the downfall of the whole performance” is Troy Parrott’s “untidy” play, and he’s not wrong, we’re only playing with ten and a half players.

At nine minutes past four play resumes and within 20 seconds Town win a corner and then the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts shoots wide after James Norwood fails to react quickly enough with the goal wide open before him.  Oxford’s Anthony Forde,  who is not to be confused with the venerable Tony Ford who played a record 931 games for Grimsby Town and seven other clubs between 1975 and 2001,  is booked for pulling back little Alan Judge.  “That was naughty” says Mick, sounding a little like Frankie Howerd.   James Norwood then strikes the left hand post of the Oxford goal after Town exploit an intercepted pass. “ Ooohhhhhhh! “ I shout in desperation and frustration from my reclining position on the blue-bean bag.  Two minutes later Troy Parrott misses the goal from seemingly impossibly close range and I groan mournfully. “How?!” I ask rhetorically.

“Parrots all over him” says Brenner as Troy Parrott fouls an Oxford player and I imagine a pirate with feathered companions perched on both shoulders and all down both arms.  Clearly now enjoying the match Brenner says “ Then Bennetts stands on the ball” and almost dissolves onto giggles as the oddly-named player falls over.   Oxford’s Gorrin and Elliott Lee are replaced by Olamide Shodipo and James Henry; the change is clearly audible being announced over the Portman Road public address system and I wonder for whose benefit these announcements are being made.

There is less than half an hour left to play. Oxford’s Matt Taylor heads over the Town cross bar from a good position.  “ Neither side able to bring the ball down on the green stuff” says Brenner seemingly unable to recall the words grass or pitch, although it is possible that BBC rules forbid him from saying ‘grass’ in case it is interpreted as a drugs reference.  Sam Winnall replaces Matt Taylor for Oxford United, Josh Harrop replaces Ted Bishop for Town. Myles Kenlock is booked. James Norwood and the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts are replaced by Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears. “Sunday League out there” says Brenner as a succession of players from both teams fail to control the ball.

There are less than ten minutes of normal time to play and I feel an irresistible desire to close my eyes and gently drift beneath a soft welcoming blanket of sleep.  I am saved from the narcoleptic embrace by Brenner’s words; “ Lost his shoe, Dozzell” he says and my mind locks onto thoughts of what sort of shoes Andre Dozzell might be wearing. Loafers? DMs? Winkle-pickers? Stilettoes?  Brenner solves the puzzle with the words “Dozzell goes to retrieve his boot” and I realise he’s wearing wellies.

Less than five minutes remain. “Out goes the telescopic left leg of Moore” says Brenner clearly now hallucinating. A minute remains and Holy makes a good diving save as Oxford press for a winning goal in a manner that I had hoped Town would be doing.  “I think this 0-0 result is a good as we can expect today” says Mick recognising that Town have nothing left to give and that Oxford look the more likely to score.  Oxford indeed continue to push for a late victory.  “Stand by your beds, this might not be easy viewing” says a mentally drained Brenner now sounding as if he’s in a 1970’s British sitcom.  Brenner tries to redeem himself with the surreal “Parrott down on all fours” but his commentary ends with a 94th minute Oxford booking which has him referring to the guilty player  as if he had invaded a neighbouring country; “Yellow card for the aggressor, Winnall”. 

The game ends and Brenner’s inexplicably public transport–related summation is that after waiting fourteen months for a goalless draw, two come along at once.  Despite this, I have enjoyed the afternoon’s match in which pleasingly Town almost did enough to win, although of course, they didn’t.  But with commentary like Brenner’s and the continuing presence of Mick to remind us of our glorious past there is little likelihood that the likes of Oxford United will be anything but envious of Ipswich Town for years to come.

Weather /Covid – 19 1 US Boulogne/ Lyon Duchere 0

In April 2019 in a moment of brilliant optimism my wife and I bought ten crossings on Le Shuttle; they had to be used within twelve months but it was worth ‘buying in bulk’ for the discount ,and why wouldn’t we want to commit ourselves to getting away to continental Europe at least five times in the next year?  We say “Bugger Brexit”.  In April 2019 we went to Dijon, in July ,in the midst of the heatwave, we drove to Paris to spend a week looking after some friends’ dog and in September we were due to spend three weeks looking after a cat in Strasbourg.  Disappointingly, we never made it to Strasbourg; in a personalised prototype of the current global shut-down, my life was put on hold as I spent five weeks in hospital and the best part of six months recuperating.  But now I am at last repaired, and there’s a rush to use up our six remaining crossings.  At the end of January we  spent a few days in Belgium, foolishly departing early on the Saturday morning to catch Ipswich Town v Oxford United instead of staying to join the 4,423 who enjoyed KV Oostende v Sint-Truiden, and then a couple of weeks ago we arranged a long weekend in Boulogne and Calais, planned to coincide with US Boulogne’s Friday night fixture in Ligue National (the French third division) against Lyon Duchere.

Life is sweet we thought and with US Boulogne in third place it promised to be a lot of fun; but on the morning of our departure the game at the Stade de la Liberation in Boulogne is called off, supposedly because of windy weather; but all twenty games in the Ligue 1 and 2 programmes are already postponed because of Coronavirus and within a few hours the whole of the Ligue National programme is cancelled too.  To add to our disappointment we had thought we were blessed by having succeeded in booking into a hotel with free parking opposite, which is a mere 300m walk from the stadium, and this had had us fantasising about being able to comfortably stagger back from the match hi on frites and Kronenburg, fine wine and third division football.

Friday is a beautiful sunny day with Boulogne-sur-Mer looking at its best, aided perhaps by no one much being about as schools and colleges begin to close and people stay at home due to Covid-19.  We enjoy the street art on the gable ends of the town houses and telecom equipment boxes, I drink Chimay trappist ale at a street café whilst my wife drinks pastis, we walk the town ramparts and visit the cathedral crypt, I buy a postcard and we sit in the sun.  Our day ends with a pleasant meal in a small restaurant in the centre of the fortified old town.  I forget about the football but for a brief glimpse of a single floodlight pylon at the end of the road as we step from the hotel and cross into the old town. I sleep well and dream sweet dreams.

On Saturday morning the puddle of standing water on the flat roof outside our hotel room window ripples with falling rain drops.  After breakfast we will depart for Calais, but first I must give my regards to the Stade de la Liberation and head out into the fine drizzle that is coming directly off the English Channel and dropping on Boulogne-sur Mer.  Not wishing to provoke her asthma, my wife remains in our room watching the drama of the Corona virus unfold on French TV, when not looking for Les Lapins Cretins on the cartoon channel.  But I have to get a measure of what I missed last night and imagine what I might have witnessed under the beams of those four floodlights. 

The floodlights of the Stade de la Liberation peak over the roof tops around the ground, appearing between high gables and block of flats or hiding behind the spreading canopies of leafless grey trees.  A sign with an arrow says “Ribery” and points the way to a stand at the side of the pitch named after Boulogne’s famous son Franck, one of those players not greatly celebrated in England because like Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram he was always just a bit too classy for the Premier League.

The main entrance to Stade de la Liberation is on Boulevard Eurvin where I peer through the railings across the pitch past the statue of a naked woman clutching a shell and standing on a fish.  How many clubs I wonder can boast such erotic statuary combined with references to seafood, not many I’ll wager.   Smiling to myself about what they’d make of such things in Grimsby and Fleetwood I turn into Rue de Dringhen and then Rue Leo Lagrange, which run behind ‘Ribery’ whilst tantalisingly offering no views of it at all.  Another right turn takes me in to Rue du Vieil-Atre and more sitings of the floodlights and the entrances to both the ‘Kop’ and the away supporters enclosure. Stickers adorn the signage outside indicating that at least one supporter from Creteil, a south eastern suburb or banlieu of Paris, has been here and that he, or she, was well supplied with Creteil related stickers. If the ultras from other clubs have stickers it would seem that Creteil are the only visiting supporters to have ventured this far north and they either went nowhere else or had stickers to spare.

An uncovered mass of seating above a scaffolding frame looms above me as I approach the turn into Rue Hector Berlioz , another residential street that backs onto the stadium.  I like that every  French town has streets named after the same great French composers and writers and wonder why England is so different and why we choose not to remember Britten or Williams or Holst but to honour local councillors and dignitaries who no one has ever heard of and even less gives a toss about.  Between the buildings there are glimpses of the cream painted render of the art deco style Tribune ‘Honneur’ where the posh people sit; but in truth the ground is now largely hidden but for the occasional lamp of a floodlight poking over  or between the rooftops.   A few more steps up the slope between parked cars and my tour of the Stade de la Liberation is over and I find myself back on the Boulevard Eurvin.

To be honest, in my ten minute walk I’ve not seen a lot of the Stade de la Liberation ,but what I have seen has been a series of snatched, tantalising half views of bits of stands and floodlights and signs and traces of those who’ve been here before, added to which my coat, my trousers and my shoes are all a little wet.  I will now be sure to remember for posterity my visit to US Boulogne during the great pandemic of 2020, and I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I got wet watching a game that never happened, having not even got into the stadium.   But it’s of such tales of pointless folly that football legend is made and such suffering and stupidity is what following football is all about.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

Another Saturday and another football match;  having witnessed last Saturday’s victory over Burton Albion, as encouraging as it was, and having been to the mid-week game before that at Wimbledon and the Saturday match before that versus Peterborough I am feeling somewhat blasé about going to yet another game.  Today Ipswich will play Oxford United and therefore to set the mood it is with the sort of thoughtless, arrogant, complacent, condescending and contemptuous attitude associated with the most privileged people who go to the top schools and universities and end up as members of the government that I set out for the railway station. A warm, gusting wind blows me along and conifers waft and billow as I pass by.  The train is on time and I board it alone.

On the train I sit by a window, a man on the opposite side of the train slumps with his feet on the seats opposite, I give his shoes a stare worthy of Paddington bear.  “How do you think we’ll do today?” he says as he sits up and takes his feet down off the seat.  Oh crap, I think to myself, he’s seen my blue and white scarf and wants to talk about football.  As much as I like football, I hate talking football, the conversations are always the same.  This fella is one of “we need more investment” brigade.  I tell him the owner puts in 5 or 6 million quid each season and that most Championship clubs are technically insolvent, but he clearly finds facts too difficult.  I am saved when his phone goes off and he has a conversation about how he won’t be drinking much today as he was in the pub until 3 am, drinking Coronas, “I had about twelve” he says to the person on the other end of the phone “and I feel a bit fucked”.

The piazza in front of the railway station is deserted but there is a steady trickle of people sporting yellow and blue knitwear wandering up Princes Street towards the Station Hotel.  Portman Road is positively busy with people, many decked in yellow and blue. I follow a short woman and her two much shorter young children who each carry a yellow and blue back pack sporting a cartoon bull.  Disappointed that I fail to spot anyone who looks even vaguely academic, although the back-pack could be construed as school satchels, I continue on my way to St Jude’s Tavern.

In St Jude’s I find Mick looking up at the day’s beer list; together we choose Mad Dog brewery’s ‘Now in a minute’ (£3.60) of which Mick kindly buys a pint for each of us.  As he sits down Mick tells me that the barman let him have a taster because many customers thought it had an unusual taste.  It is slightly sweet, but it’s pleasant enough and reminds me a little of some of my own homebrew, on a good day.  St Jude’s Tavern is well populated today and we sit in a cramped corner of which the building seems to have several.  Our conversation includes the failings of Ipswich Town’s on-line ticket selling, the films of Sam Peckinpah, the new film of David Copperfield, not burning damp wood, avoiding air travel and Susan George, whose name I struggle to remember until Mick gives me a clue with reference to her surname being a common English regnal name, which is a bit ‘University Challenge’.  After I consume another pint of ‘Now in a minute’ and Mick has a Jameson’s whisky (£3.00) and the licensee reminds us of the time, we head off round the corner into Portman Road.

It’s about ten to three now and outside the stadium Portman Road is active with people scurrying to the turnstiles like charged particles.  “I can’t see any mortar boards or gowns” says Mick with genuine disappointment as if he really had expected Oxford fans to be a bunch of academics.  We enter the ground separately through turnstiles number five and six and after visiting the facilities beneath the stand clamber over our seats so as not disturb Pat from Clacton on the end of the row.  I wave to Ray down the front in his red kagoul and spot ever present Phil who never misses a game, who today has his young son Elwood with him, albeit an Elwood hidden beneath an anorak hood and obscured from my view slightly by the man with the heavily brylcreemed hair who sits in front of me.  With little further ado the teams emerge from the blue plastic concertina in the corner of the ground to the strains of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, a mystifying 1980’s rock anthem.  I hate rock anthems.  The PA announces that the team is being led out by the club’s community chaplain. Mick says he didn’t know we had a community chaplain; the thought seems to amuse him and he wonders if the club also has a community Imam, which is a fair question, although I thought that professional football served only mammon.

The game begins a minute late at 15:01 with Ipswich playing in the direction of Mick, me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood, ever-present Phil, Ray, his grandson Harrison and the man with the brylcreem. Today, for a reason to which I am not party, Oxford United are wearing an unnecessary change kit of white shirts with a blue and yellow diagonal stripe or sash across the chest in place of their customary yellow shirts.  Their bottom halves are covered by Oxford blue shorts and socks.  The Oxford shirts advertise the name of Singha beer from Thailand, which seems a little exotic.  I imagine a multi-lingual Oxford don having incidentally arranged the deal with the Boon Rawd Brewery whilst on a short holiday to find a Thai bride.  Ipswich wear the usual blue and white advertisement for on-line gambling and, as they so often do, begin the game sparklingly well, running down the flanks under the bright blue sky and sending in low crosses which only the Oxford defenders ever reach.   “Yellows, Yellows” bellow the 1,365 Oxonians in the Cobbold Stand who are either colour blind or are simply ignoring the pointlessly white shirts of their team.

The match is entertaining and it can only be a matter of time before Ipswich score as the ball continues either to be just out of reach Town players shaping up to shoot or to be blocked by the ubiquitous Oxford defenders.  The flags on the back of the Cobbold stand are blowing in the strong wind and seagulls hover like drones.  The visiting fans have brought an array of flags with them which are not flying but are draped over the front few rows of seats in the Cobbold Stand.  One flag, a cross of St George appears to have the words “We all live in a Oxford wonderland” printed on it; I am shocked by the poor grammar, which might not be so surprising in some backwater like Swindon or Norwich, but Oxford?

I am still enjoying the match and the football is good to watch but for the absence of shots that the Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is required to save.  The bloke behind me sounds confident and says he wouldn’t mind Town “…meeting these in the play-offs”.  In the Sir Bobby Robson stand the normally more vocal supporters in the corner (Action 1878) seem quiet today and are not displaying their banners and flags.  In the corner of the Cobbold Stand a group of Oxford fans are standing and goading Ipswich supporters in the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand.  Pat from Clacton wonders how they managed to get the seats closest to the Ipswich supporters and we decide that the Oxford ticket office must ask supporters if they are would-be hooligans who want to goad the opposition and allocate them seats accordingly.  With the price of tickets nowadays this seems fair enough.

Despite Ipswich’s dominance it’s not until nearly half past three that they win a corner and then win another as Luke Chambers’ header is deflected over the cross bar.  The corner affords a close-up of Oxford number three Josh Ruffles who seems to have quite a large head which, with his muscular upper chest gives him the look of a very big clasp nail or tack as his body tapers down to a point around his ankles.  More minutes pass and an unexpected chorus of “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” lives then dies around the ground.  Pat from Clacton offers Mick and me sweets; I have one of those green metallic looking ones which fizz with sherbet. “We’ll score now I’ve got the sweets out” says Pat “Well, that’s what used to happen”.  Town don’t score.  Pat eats a “nice piece of fudge” left over from Christmas.   “They can’t pick a pass this lot” moans the bloke behind me as Town’s Gwion Edwards misplaces a pass for the first time in the game.  Paul Lambert runs up and down his technical area excitedly in what look like deck shoes.

Town still haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time, so Oxford string a few passes together, the Ipswich defence melts away and Oxford’s number 9 the diminutive Matty Taylor scores instead.   Paul Lambert waves his arms around as if winding a huge key, which he sort of is metaphorically speaking.  Seizing their opportunity to either indulge in some half-time swatting in the event of an affirmative answer or turn up the goading quotient whilst utilising their knowledge of opera, the Oxonians sing “Is this a library?” to the tune of La donna e mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto.  “What are they singing?” asks Mick. “Is this the Bodleian?” I tell him. The game begins again but not for long as it’s time for another visit to the facilities beneath the stand and a chat with Ray.

The second half begins, the blue skies have been replaced by grey cloud.  The match proves to be one of those that has two distinct halves.  Oxford United continue to thwart Ipswich’s attempts on goal which become ever more inaccurate, but also start breaking away and threatening to score again themselves, which seems a bit cheeky. Oxford win a corner and their number fourteen Anthony Forde holds up a hand to indicate where he intends to kick it, which would seem to be onto the head of Ipswich’s nearest defender and a good yard or two from the nearest Oxford player.

It’s nearly twenty five past four and the Oxford supporters spell out the name of their club to show the benefit of a university education but on the pitch the play descends to the level of the kindergarten.   Josh Earl and Matty Taylor  push each other around and salmon pink clad referee Mr Scott Oldham, who most unusually appears to be the tallest man on the field and sports a GI haircut, has to tell them to grow up, particularly Matty Taylor who is only 176cm ( 5’9”) tall.

Seventy two minutes have passed and Pat from Clacton admits to me that she might soon start to think about the jacket potato she’ll be having for her tea.  Oxford have adopted a more spoiling approach to the game this half although only their  Marcus Browne and Town’s Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt have seen Mr Oldham’s yellow card, and  Ipswich  now begin to vent their frustration with some pointless fouls.  Pat and I look forward to the announcement of today’s attendance which we will soon learn is 19,367; the nearest in the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton coach is Calum with 19,476.  Pat is disappointed again that no one’s pet cat or fish has won the prize.

The old dears who now sit in front of me but used to sit behind me leave early; I tell them I will let them know all about the goals they are going to miss. The bloke behind me leaves.  Ipswich’s Kayden Jackson leaves at the request of Mr Oldham after he is apparently spotted stamping on an Oxford player and is shown Mr Oldham’s red card.  There is a melee down by the corner flag in front of the Oxford supporters which could have been avoided if Mr Oldham had acted more decisively and given a free-kick to Ipswich instead of Oxford and  Town’s Luke Woolfenden is booked before the game stutters to a halt and the final whistle sounds. 

 I’d like to say that Luke Chambers either accidentally or ironically produces his trademark fist pump, but he doesn’t and instead the crowd dejectedly melts away into the night, apart that is from those who stay to boo.  Ipswich drop to eighth in the third division table which means they will be happy to meet any club at all  in the play-offs.