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 Rochdale 0

It’s a grey, blustery Saturday in late September and despite the miserable nature of the weather there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Obviously, the normal, “traditional” Saturday of dossing about a bit, catching the train, sinking a couple of pints of fine ale and strolling on down to Portman Road is not going to happen today because of the continuing pandemic, but a fresh, new reality has taken root and after a morning of tidying my garage, involving putting up hooks and brackets on which to hang my garden furniture and my bicycle, there is now the prospect of logging onto the ifollow to watch the mighty Ipswich Town.  Today there is added excitement too as today is the first ever appearance at Portman Road of one of the Football League’s most resilient, remarkable and in most people’s eyes unsuccessful clubs, Rochdale AFC.  Rochdale’s survival as a professional football club for almost a century is simultaneously a great achievement and a story of fantastic under-achievement. No other club can boast thirty-six consecutive seasons in the fourth division or a home crowd for a league game of just 450.   That Rochdale have spent eight of the past ten seasons in the third division nevertheless makes them one of Britain’s most successful clubs, relatively speaking. As if that is not enough, Rochdale has a marvellous Victorian town hall, something it has in common with Ipswich, but it was also the birthplace of the Co-op, and Gracie Fields.

After a somewhat peculiar ‘lunch’ consisting of the remains of a bag of Gujerati Mix and leftover home-made chips that my wife Paulene didn’t want, I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually 500 millilitres) of Adnams Ease-Up IPA (two for £3 from Waitrose) whilst logging-on to the i-follow.   Amazingly, I find the ifollow very easy to set up, connecting my laptop to the television with what I can only describe as aplomb.  The only thing I have difficulty with is getting the picture to fill the whole screen because the ‘expand’ icon is hidden beneath an icon that asks me if I want to chat about the EFL;  I can think of few things I  would want to do less.  I eventually discover that by scrolling down the page the ‘expand’ icon can be uncovered. Ready for the match I take up residence in an Ikea Poang chair, with my beer carefully positioned on an occasional table next to me, just an arm’s length away.

As an experiment, today I am not wearing the blue, Ipswich Town branded ‘button neck t-shirt’ that I wore when listening to last week’s win at Bristol Rovers, when watching the game versus Wigan Athletic the week before and when listening to the game versus Bristol Rovers in the League Cup the week before that.  Today I am wearing a grey Euro 2016 t-shirt that I bought at a Carrefour hypermarket in Tinqueux just outside Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’).  I need to know if Town can win on their own, or whether my ‘button neck t-shirt’ has special powers. 

The game has not yet started and I and my fellow viewers of the ifollow are treated to a Radio Suffolk preview of Needham Market’s match versus Stratford, the reporter Nick Garnham delivers his report in the style of a 10 year old who has been asked to read out loud in class; he’s very good.  The radio broadcast returns to Portman Road and resident Radio Suffolk commentator Brenner Woolley provides a precis of Town’s season so far before his side-kick and appointed expert Mick Mills magnanimously announces that “Most of what you’ve said I totally agree with”.  Undeterred, Brenner goes on to describe the two teams’ kits; I agree totally with most of what he says but disagree with his description of Rochdale’s shirts as ‘bottle green’, they’re a shade too light for that.  The Dulux colour chart has a shade called ‘Seaweed’ which is a much better match.

On the ifollow a caption appears that shows today’s teams and I am impressed with the use of the correct diacritical marks above the a, s and y of Tomas Holy’s name, something that our own match programme doesn’t even bother to do,  and nor do I because I can’t find them on my keyboard.   Returning from the caption to the pictures of Portman Road I feel a bit seasick due to some wobbly camera work but I am soon settled by the calming voice of Mick Mills, although he does then proceed to conjure some disturbing images when, talking about the advantages of a settled team, he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson would only ever “…mess about with three or four players”.   It’s not an accusation I’d heard levelled at Sir Alex before.

The match begins with the shrill whistle of today’s referee Mr John Busby and Rochdale kick off towards the North Stand in their seaweed green shirts with black stripes, black shorts and socks.  I am peering at my tv screen looking for a fat bloke with a Teddy Boy haircut after Brenner tells us that Paul McShane is playing at the back for Rochdale, but I then remember Rochdale’s penchant for players with famous names; well, Paul Weller played five games for them back in 2004 anyway. 

Town are very quickly looking good and only Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan deny them an early lead as they contrive to balls-up a two versus two breakaway in the seventh minute.  Mick Mills is almost as quick to tell us how Town are much the better team and are dominating, before Rochdale naturally enough then begin to pass the ball around with nonchalance and Chambers and Nsiala create a complete mess at the back just two minutes later. It’s Rochdale’s Aaron Morley who then has the first shot on goal, if it can be described as such.

Brenner tells us more than once than the rain is hammering down at Portman Road but we don’t need him to tell us that actually this isn’t a bad match at all.  Oliver Hawkins has a header saved, hits a post with a shot on the turn and then has another header cleared off the goal line.  Brenner tells us again that the rain is hammering on the roof of the stand and this time I’m glad he does because it sounds like applause, as well it might.   Brenner and Mick are almost purring over some the play but at the same time talking pretty sensibly in plain English. “Dozzell, using his quick feet there” says Brenner raising the question in my mind at least of whether a player’s feet can be quicker than his legs, and how, if they could, this would genuinely bamboozle the opposition.  “They’re decent; decent footballers, Rochdale” says Mick with a third of the match gone and sounding rather surprised. 

The match continues to be worth the entrance money, if not a tenner to watch it on the ifollow, and Brenner’s detailed radio commentary is adding to my enjoyment , especially when he introduces the use of compass-points into his description pinpointing possession in one instance to “…just North of the centre circle”.  I can only think the lashing of rain and wind has stirred up some memory of the shipping forecast in his BBC radio presenter consciousness.   Speaking of the wind and rain I’m quite pleased to see that my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is being kept dry by having a George Cross endorsed with the name of someone called Aaron draped over it.  It leads me to muse on whether I’d be so happy to have my seat sub-let to a cardboard cut-out of a complete stranger, I’m not sure I would.

Half-time is approaching and still the game flows like proper football should;  and even though a number of simple looking passes are going astray the emphasis is on attacking football. “We had bodies in the box, we had Luke Chambers in there” explains Mick, as if to say “even Luke Chambers”.  The Rochdale goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a 20 yard shot from Jon Nolan, Luke Chambers “…lumps the ball into touch” and a Freddie Sears cross is cleared off the goal line before notice of a minute of added on time is given and then half-time arrives.

With peripheral vision I glimpse an endorsement of the EFL by Screwfix as I leave the room and head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and seek out a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and endeavour to create an authentic half-time experience in my own home.  I return in time to see the match stats paraded before me on the screen at least three times along with a request to report the fact to the piracy@efl.com e-mail address if I am watching this in “commercial premises”.  I wait for another caption inviting me to report the charging of a tenner to watch EFL football on the telly to the daylightrobbery@efl.com e-mail address; oddly it doesn’t appear.

Fifteen minutes pass in the blink of an eye and the football returns, but not before I enjoy the avant garde views of wanderings of the camera man and lingering shots of Paul Lambert returning to the dugout in his large, rather shapeless, black Adidas coat, yet another addition to his burgeoning match day wardrobe since last season.  I can only think that in PL’s five year contract wily Marcus Evans included an ‘all you can wear from Planet Blue’ clause in lieu of hard cash.

Addressing the important issues of the day Brenner pumps Mick for his views on football without crowds and Mick is forthright, telling us in no uncertain terms that “This is not a proper game of football”; I can’t disagree, as much as I try to pretend that it is by creating my own ‘going to the match’ fantasy world by buying a programme on-line, drinking a pre-match beer and a half-time cuppa and singing to my wife that she’s a “dirty northern bastard” (she’s actually from Portsmouth).

Mick continues in honest vein suggesting that “Freddie might be losing his job soon” as another of Freddie’s free-kicks fails to make the opposition goalkeeper do anything more than raise his eyebrows.  Freddie’s free-kick shortcomings are soon forgotten however as just a few minutes later a good passing move down the left hand side of the pitch ends with Teddy Bishop scoring at the far post.  “Yay” I shout, not standing up and sending my Poang chair skittering backwards on the tiled floor as I look for someone northern looking to make obscene hand gestures towards.   “One-nil to the Tractor Boys” I don’t sing to the tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West.’

With the game re-started after the hiatus of the goal Brenner lapses in to a momentary bout of  footballese as he tells us that Gavin Bazunu “…puts his foot through the ball”, before more helpfully adding to the mental picture of the afternoon by sketching in Paul Lambert stood in his black coat with his hands in his pockets. The Town then make another decent passing move down the left hand side of the pitch and this time Gwion Edwards scores and Town lead 2-0.  “We’ve got hold of the three points” says Mick, causing Town fans everywhere to gasp at his most blatant, brazen tempting of fate.  Here is me thinking that a two-nil lead is the worst thing to have in football, should we go for a third goal and risk conceding or sit-back and risk conceding, letting the opposition back into the game either way.   Is it such confidence that separates Mick as a former captain of Ipswich and England from us punters? 

Twenty-five minutes of normal time remain and Jon Nolan is booked for a pointless trip of an opponent, but somehow Brenner hasn’t noticed it and seeing Mr Busby with his arm raised thinks it’s Hawkins who has been shown the yellow card by BT’s misspelt mascot’s namesake.  What could he have been doing to have missed that I wonder, checking his compass; practising putting his foot through a ball? 

The remaining minutes are illuminated by a wonderful pirouette with the ball at his feet by Gwion Edwards (it can only be a matter of time before someone says he’s a Welsh wizard), a full card of substitutions and more rain “hammering” on the roof.   Substitute Flynn Downes seems to want to pick a fight with Rochdale’s Matty Lund just seconds after entering the field of play and Mick is quick to call him out.  Downes is showing himself to be the idiot that we saw before when he was sent off in a pre-season friendly at Cambridge.  Fifteen minutes now remain and Brenner tells us that it is “…good Jack Lankester is involved again, and playing football”. It would have been a tragedy if he’d returned from injury only to play water polo.  With his predilection for short vowels Brenner can’t help not mispronouncing Lankester as Lancaster; I shall be writing to the radio equivalent of Points of View. Bloody northerners.

As full-time approaches Town become more and more sluggish and sit back, it’s not something I enjoy watching. As if echoing the drop in performance on the pitch, the sound quality of the broadcast suddenly drops too, with Brenner occasionally taking on the accent of a Dalek, as happened towards the end of the Wigan Athletic game.   My mood is lightened however when in the 90th minute Rochdale’s Rathbone (sadly Oliver not Basil), volleys a shot against one of his own players; you can’t beat a bit of slapstick. 

A good 2-0 win is imminent and taking Mick’s counsel I am not worrying that the last flickering embers of the game see Town continuing to do the bare minimum.   But Brenner has to try and make the commentary interesting, although whilst trying to suggest the prospect of a Rochdale consolation, he shows that he’s mentally in the car on the way home too as he says “A little bit sloppy from Ipswich, what can Rotherham do?”  A little bit sloppy indeed Brenner. 

With five minutes of added-on time played the games ends and I reflect upon an afternoon in which I have learned that Ipswich can win without the help of my blue, button-neck ITFC branded t-shirt, although it doesn’t prove that the t-shirt doesn’t have special powers and could mean that my Euro 2016 t-shirt might also be capable of influencing results.  Oh ‘eck, as Gracie Fields might have said.

Braintree Town 1 Woking 3

 

There is something about the name Braintree that is slightly funny. Brain is quite a funny word to start with. “Is this a piece of your brain?” Basil Fawlty enquired of Mrs Richards. In a similar vein, it’s easy to say Braintree in the same the way that Mr Gumby says “Gumby” in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Try it. See?

So, it was with Pythonesque humour in mind that I travelled down the A120 before finally parking my car towards the end of the rather charmingly named Clockhouse Way, which leads to Braintree Town’s strangely named Ironmongery Direct Stadium. Ironmongery is a lovely word though, so Victorian; it’s a pity it’s paired with ‘Direct’. The company may well want to get across the idea that their products can be ordered and delivered promptly, but if your business name really counts they have left a big space in the market for a rival company called “Ironmongery Post-Haste”.
It was a little after 7 o’clock and Clockhouse Way was deserted, my only company being the smell of people’s dinners wafting from kitchen windows and extractor fans. The evidence says they eat mostly meat and gravy in Braintree, in Clockhouse Way on a Tuesday in any case; not a sniff of curry, Bolognese sauce, Bourguignon or Paella here. The houses around the north end of the stadium are like little sugar cubes, flat roofed, angular and white they date from the 1920’s and were built by the Crittall company for their workers; these houses were the prototype for the planned village of Silver End just a few miles from Braintree to the south east. The roots of Braintree Town Football Club lie in Crittall’s and the Crittall Athletic Football club.
As I rounded the corner towards the football ground I at last saw a few other would be spectators walking to the match, summoned by the glow of the flood lights. Sixteen quid lighter I was in the ground where I promptly donated another £2.50 for a programme.32763435523_29a7da7680_z Eighteen pounds and fifty pence seems a lot to watch semi-professional football I thought, even if a lot of the teams they play against in the Vanarama National League are fully professional. Oh well, I’m here now. The only food outlet in the ground is just inside the gate and I breathed in the smell of chips, vinegar and oil as I watched the teams warm up and four middle aged ladies toiled away behind me preparing their saturated fat-based fayre.

Whilst it just happens to be the name of the club’s main sponsor, The Ironmongery Direct Stadium is well named because there is a lot of metal on show here. The terraces are narrow and dominated by sturdy, tubular, orange crush barriers; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere is sheet metal fencing behind one end; the main stand (the only one with seats) is a box of steel girders and metal sheeting and on the opposite side of the ground the terrace has a long, low metal roof over it. Behind the goal at both ends of the ground even a part of the very terrace itself is made of steel. The whole place is tied together with bolts and lashings of blue and mostly orange paint; it looks a treat. Even the buckets of sand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto sprinkle on the pitch are orange,but sadly they’re made of plastic; note to self – a sales opportunity for Ironmongery Post-Haste.
I wander all around the ground before settling under the metal roof of the terrace behind the dug outs. Tonight Braintree, home of The Prodigy are playing Woking, home of The Jam. That’s Entertainment! The scene as the teams line up is a Fauvist dream with Braintree in orange shirts and blue shorts and Woking in red and white halved shirts all on a bright green pitch, made more vivid by the floodlights. The game kicks off and immediately a raucous chorus of “Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron” rattles out from under the roofed terrace from a bunch of blokes in their thirties and forties. They are a motley and shouty bunch; one of them is well over 6 feet tall and wears yellow hi-vis trousers and a vivid orange bobble hat for that ‘got here straight from work’ look. A smaller, hollow faced man sports a very straggly mullet. It’s easy to imagine this being a works outing for the men from Crittall’s foundry.
Woking start the game much better than Braintree and launch several quick and simple attacks, earning a couple of corners. With only ten minutes gone they deserve to be ahead. But the home supporters have their faith placed in top scorer Michael Cheek and his close range dribbler also earns a corner. “Come on Cheeky” is the cry from the terrace, but not in a camp way, sadly.

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Then I get to touch the ball, which is something that’s only ever happened to me twice before at a ‘big’ game like this (at Vale Park and Upton Park if you’re interested). The ball comes flying off the pitch in my direction. “Heads” shout the shouty blokes, but I just raise my right arm and in one smooth movement pat the ball down onto the terrace from where it bounces over the perimeter wall and back on to the pitch. That must’ve looked pretty cool I think. It is met by those on the terrace with the silence of disappointment that I haven’t made a prat of myself. I‘ve put my shoulder out mind, but they don’t know that.
No doubt feeling caressed and relaxed by my touch, the ball soon nestles in the Woking net courtesy of a 20 yard shot by Cheeky. “Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron go steaming in” is the new confident chant from the terrace where no one seems to notice that it sounds like a song about laundry. The Woking fans on the open terrace behind the far goal are downcast, but only temporarily as within a couple of minutes the exotically named Delano Sam-Yorke is given the simple task of tapping the ball over the Braintree goal line to equalise.
The action is frenetic and the Braintree right-back, who has the most nobbly bald head I have ever seen, hits a post for Braintree before Sam-Yorke scores again, this time a glorious shot high into the net, to give Woking the lead. From under the roof of the terrace a volley of effing and blinding escapes, along with noisy calls to “sord it aaart”.Woking are worth their lead however and have earned the applause of their supporters when it’s time to troop off for half-time into the changing room, which oddly looks a lot like a council bungalow. Meanwhile the home supporters abuse the referee angrily for perceived mis-judgements which favoured Woking.
Perusing the team sheet (free tonight because the printer is a bit ropey) the name of Woking’s No 3 Terell Thomas makes me smile as I imagine a footballing cad sporting a moustache, cravat and gap between his front teeth. I also like the surname of their No 2, Jake Caprice, although so far he seems pretty reliable. Half-time ends and the second half begins and the supporters have changed ends like the teams; this is what football should be like. I stand with some Woking fans now; visitors from a strange town, they look better fed and better dressed than the locals of Braintree. There is one very tall, upright, and rather prim looking lady stood on her own, who is very neatly attired with red and white scarf and bobble hat. I overhear a very respectable looking couple nearby whisper “Wendoline” to one another as she passes by, which being familiar with the work of Aardman Animations is exactly what I’d thought. I smirk knowingly at them and want to ask if they know Paul Weller.
Woking still look the better side, they are quick in attack whereas Braintree are ponderous and a bit aimless. When Woking score a third goal about twenty minutes before the end the Woking fans cheer very loudly, clearly relieved that they feel the result is now safe. I move along the terrace to be nearer the dugouts which are as high as the eaves of the stand. It’s an evening for coats and a man near me turns to his friend and says how glad he is he “wrapped-up warm” tonight. The Woking manager Garry Hill wears a short, dark coat over a shirt and tie and office worker trousers, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe could have just got here from a job in the city. He is animated and between encouraging shouts to his players he has a gesture driven conversation with his coach; with his wide range of hand movements if Garry Hill didn’t have that job in the city he could be a bookie at a race course. In contrast the Braintree Town manager Hakan Hayrettin OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAstays wrapped up in his massive polyester manager’s coat inside the Perspex dug-out; he barely moves and looks like he’s digesting a heavy meal. Hakan leaves the animation and shouting to a coach in a shapeless blue coat, who has Ken Dodd hair and patrols the ‘technical area’. As an aside, why does football insist on calling that oblong in front of the dug-out a ‘technical area’? What’s so technical about a rectangle of turf and a few white lines? It must have been the FA who coined the term, the same FA who based a nation’s coaching ethos on the so very technical ‘get it in the mixer’ approach of Charles Hughes.
As the game heads towards its conclusion Braintree make a host of substitutions as they seek to penetrate the Woking defence, but tonight Woking are simply too good for them. To their credit however, the Braintree supporters in the crowd of 572 mostly stay on until the bitter end and they still seem to retain the faith and will be back again on April 8th to see The Iron take on Dover Athletic.
On balance it was a good night despite the result, but tonight I particularly enjoyed the shirts of both teams, oh and also of course, I got to touch the ball.