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.

Endocarditis 1 NHS 2

On 5th July 1948, courtesy of Clement Attlee’s Labour government the people of Britain became the recipients of a national health service which was free to all at the point of use, paid for through progressive taxation, a tax system which put into practice the ideal of citizens contributing according to their ability to do so and receiving, in this case, according to their clinical need.  No longer would sick people feel the need to shy away from seeking help from a doctor because they could not afford to do so.  My mother still remembers her mother living in fear of the cost of the doctor’s bill. The population had ‘pulled together’ during World War Two and now a new post-war age was dawning in which selfless actions for the greater good could now be put to peaceful purposes.

I benefitted from the existence of the NHS when I came into the world at the Priory Hospital in Haverfordwest in 1960 and as a child I received all the free inoculations, dental treatment and medical checks that the system provided.  Inevitably, as a child I took it for granted and given that tooth extractions and injections were included I did not see it as a good thing; the polio vaccine-laced sugar lump was scant consolation for the promise of pain the health service otherwise represented in my young mind.    As an adult I never gave much thought to the NHS because I was rarely ill, and therefore had little need to do so; I visited the Accident & Emergency (A&E) department at Ipswich’s old Anglesea Road hospital when I shut my right forefinger in the door of a Fiat 126 on men’s Wimbledon final day 1980 and then in autumn 1994 I attended the re-located A & E department at Heath Road when I chipped an ankle bone playing football; my darting run into the penalty area coming to a sudden premature halt as my ankle gave way on the uneven surface of one of the pitches up at Gainsborough Sports Centre.  But otherwise, the NHS meant little to me despite its apparently increasing profile in the national psyche, which more recently reached a crescendo in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, which almost seemed to define Britain in terms of its NHS; to be honest I thought it was going a bit far.

When Town drew at home with Sunderland on August 10th this year I was disappointed because it was a game we should have won, but I was not despondent, I wasn’t going to get ill over it. I went to work the following Monday as usual but on Tuesday morning awoke in the small hours feeling short of breath. I didn’t go to work on Tuesday because I felt lousy; a visit to my GP produced a course of Amoxycillin antibiotic to deal with a perceived chest infection. By Thursday I was no better and my wife Paulene called the doctor’s surgery, they asked me to come in but I was so short of breath by now I was barely able to walk; they said to call an ambulance.  I was admitted to Colchester hospital that afternoon; the following morning I was put into a coma. I had pneumonia, but on the following Tuesday lunchtime I travelled at speed under sirens and blue flashing lights to the specialist cardiac unit at Basildon hospital.

The following morning I had open-heart surgery to replace two valves that had been attacked by a bacterium; the pneumonia was a decoy, I actually had Endocarditis, a very rare but potentially fatal condition which infects and eats away at the endocardium (the inner lining of the heart chambers), and at the heart valves.

Town’s two-all draw at Peterborough came and went without my knowledge and then I missed the mid-week home game versus Wimbledon on 20th August, which was annoying, but my ventilator would no doubt have aggravated other supporters in the seats around me and it would have been difficult to give the team much vocal support with a bunch of tubes stuck down my throat. Being comatose however, is not necessarily a barrier to watching the Town at Portman Road,    as many season ticket holders in seats all around the ground regularly seem to prove; as animated as some Northstanders get, Portman Road cannot really be described as a cauldron of noise.  By the time Saturday came, and Town were heading ‘up north’ to Bolton Wanderers, I was out of the coma and was conscious, but sadly if predictably not fit to travel.  Judging by some of the hallucinations I was experiencing due to the pain-killing drugs I was receiving however, I doubt I would have understood what was going on even if I could have watched the game.  No one could have blamed me if the 5-0 final score in Town’s favour had seemed like just another weird imagining from my drug-addled brain. A 5-0 away win still seems a bit unlikely.

My recovery was to be a long one and one which now, almost three months later, is not yet over.  As my condition improved and I recovered from surgery I was moved out of the Critical Care Unit into a Cardiac ward.  I caught up on the results I had missed and as I continued to recover, Town continued to win, with the occasional draw just to give the other clubs a chance.  A variety of friends and neighbours swapped about my season ticket between them and sat with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, so it didn’t go to waste and Town continued to do well.

Whilst everything was rosy at Portman Road my thoughts however had begun to linger on the fact that there were eight recent days in my life of which I had no memory. What struck me was that during these eight days I had apparently come close to death and my life had ultimately been saved by the NHS.  The open heart surgery I had been given was remarkable enough, but the NHS kept giving with continuing care of the highest quality.  I was struck by just how brilliant the staff were but also how they were of so many nationalities from all around the world.  As if the ideal of a free health service wasn’t enough the NHS operates as an international melting pot of doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff, a caring combination of all races, colours and creeds, a World health organisation in the service of a single national population.  That combination of being a health service free at the point of use and its being staffed by people from all around the world makes the NHS one of, if not the most magnificent achievement of human civilisation, an international fellowship of people acting solely for good and not for profit; it is awe-inspiring and achieves what much organised religion strives for.

If I had to come up with some laboured football related analogy I would say that the NHS is the World Cup of healthcare, free to tune in to whenever you want and in an Ipswich Town context it is a Portman Road where all the gates are open all the time and the team is made up of a selection of some of our best ever players (loanees included) all of different nationalities, except there must always be two particular Dutchmen;  for example: Bialkowski, Burley, Taricco, Thijssen, Hunter, Hreidarsson, Legwinski, Muhren, Crawford, Counago, Finidi.   Subs: Begovic, Diallo, Thetis, De Vos, Chopra, Dos Santos, Peralta.   Other team selections can be made according to how brilliant or amusing you want your team to be.

But the moral of this tale is not about football; it is more important than that, it is that matters of life and death seriously are about life and death. The NHS is always there to save anyone’s life at any time and it remains free at the point of use; so please think very carefully about who you vote for on 12th December if you want that to remain the case.