FC Lorient 3 FC Nantes 2

To Ipswich Town supporters like me, FC Lorient is known as the club from which the Town bought Ulrich Le Pen, a slight winger who was injured just minutes after coming on in a match against Bolton Wanderers and only ever featured in one other first team game, an FA Cup tie which I can’t remember. To the wider world Lorient is France’s second largest fishing port and home of a French submarine dockyard which grew out of the massive reinforced concrete U-Boat docks built by the Nazis during World War Two.  Sadly for Lorient, the town was mostly flattened by allied bombs as the Nazis were pushed out of France in 1944 and whilst the re-built town is well laid out with buildings in a quiet, modernist style, it doesn’t have the architectural verve of Le Havre or Amiens, or even, come to that of Plymouth and Bristol.

Today however FC Lorient host their Breton neighbours from 170 kilometres away (1hour and 51 minutes up the E60 according to Google maps) FC Nantes, but my wife Paulene and I have travelled a mere 40 kilometres from the campsite where we are staying in Carnac.  Car parking in Lorient on a Sunday is a curious affair as most of the town centre car parks are closed as is much of the town centre itself, including the tourist information office. There is plenty of street parking however with the usual restrictions being suspended. The Stade du Moustoir, home of FC Lorient is in an eminently sensible town centre location much like Ipswich’s Portman Road, and it is somewhat remarkably within 50 metres of the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and just a short walk from the main shopping streets, railway and bus stations.  The purpose in closing the car parks would seem to be to make people travel responsibly by bus, train, bike or on foot, although some parking can be pre-booked by those signing up to a car sharing scheme.

Paulene and I have arrived in Lorient in plenty of time to nab a handy street parking place.  Our short walk to the Stade de Moustoir affords a sneak preview of the stadium with the already illuminated floodlights being visible between the gaps between the buildings in nearby streets.  Near the railway station a bar has been requisitioned by visiting Nantes fans; a group of police stand a discreet distance away but there is no hint of any bad behaviour and we see many Nantes and Lorient fans walking to the stadium together.  Reaching the stadium early, we are in time to see the home team alight from their team bus wearing their horizontally striped, Breton-style jumpers or training tops. A crowd are waiting to see the players arrive and a ‘welcome arch’ has been erected as the gateway from the bus into the stadium.  The frontage of the Stade de Moustoir is clad with vertical strips of timber and looks every bit like a modern office or block of flats.  Whilst outside the ground, I get my first glimpse of the unusual club mascot, Merlux le Merlu (pretty much ‘Hakey the Hake’ in English) as he welcomes the players off the bus.

With the team in the stadium, the turnstiles open and Paulene and I enter also, but are surprised to be lectured by an officious man who tells us that we cannot take a bottle of water into the stadium, although he can exercise discretion with regard to Paulene’s bag.  Paulene had had an asthma attack as we approached the stadium and the very kind security man on the door at the club shop had arranged to get me a bottle of water for her.  I had returned to the club shop to source vital souvenirs of our visit but found that some of the items I might buy such as a mug or cuddly hake would, like the bottle of water, not be permitted in the ground.  Had I seen the e-mail the club sent me this morning I would have known that the LFP (French football league) had banned the carrying of virtually anything into football grounds this season, presumably in response to Marseille’s Dimitri Payet (known by me as the Very Hungry Caterpillar due to his ‘haircut’) getting hit on the head by a plastic bottle at Lyon last season as he went to take a corner.

Having located our seats (20 euros each) in the Tribune Credit Mutuelle de Bretagne, a quite small single tier stand with a fabulous shuttered concrete roof and light steel and glass doors redolent of a 1950’s school hall, I set off to explore and perhaps look for beer.  I am quickly amazed and overjoyed to find that I can walk right the way round this stadium through the concourses of each stand. Behind the goal, the stand has access to the club shop which is now shut to the outside world.  The concourses are regularly punctuated with a variety of food and drink outlets and the club markets these as Les Corners du Moustoir.  Having passed by the Tavarn Lancelot, I stop at the Tavarn Morgana for an organic beer called Lancelot IPA (4 euros 50), brewed by the Breton Lancelot brewery. I mainly choose this beer so that I can pronounce Lancelot with a French accent (Lon-slow), something that has never failed to amuse me ever since seeing director Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac on BBC2’s Film International one Saturday night back in the 1970’s. Having consumed my beer, I return to my seat clutching two free eight-page match programmes and a Breton flag; there were piles of them on the floor beneath the programmes with a sign urging me and everyone else to take one.

At a quarter to three a ship’s siren sounds three times and the scoreboard tells us there are fifteen minutes to go until Coup d’envoi (kick-off); the build up to the match begins.  As an opening act in the pre-match ritual an enthusiastic woman strides about the pitch in front of the main stand and sings the Breton anthem, whilst the whole crowd wave their Breton flags and club banners in a show of regional, celtic pride.  On the fabulously named Tribune B&B Hotels (B&B Hotels Stand), where the central section of the lower tier is occupied by the loudest Lorient ultras, an orange and black tifo folds down from the top tier to cover the whole stand. As the teams process onto the pitch to stand before the Ligue 1 banner and club crests, fireworks are set off on the pitch, more banners are waved and the Nantes fans, who fill the away enclosure in the corner between the Tribune Mutuelle de Bretagne and the Tribune Lorient Agglomeration wave a few flares about, making me wonder if they managed to smuggle in any bottles of water too; it’s all rather thrilling.

With the pyrotechnics and flags cleared away the game begins with Nantes getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Tribune B&B hotels.  Nantes are in their signature kit of all yellow, whilst Lorient sport their traditional orange shirts, black shorts and white socks.  The atmosphere inside the stadium is wonderful, it has all the excitement of a ‘local’ derby game, but as well as the Nantes fans in the away enclosure there are plenty of them sitting with the Lorient supporters in all four stands and there are  dads with sons, and dads with daughters, and mums and dads with whole families and every family combination, and then there are the ultras standing on their seats and singing and mostly stripped to the waist showing off their rippling beer bellies. Brittany has its own cola called Breizh Cola, and my favourite name of one of the ultras groups is Breizh Tango.

Nantes start the match better than Lorient who look a little wobbly like a new-born foal or perhaps a young hake. It’s still a bit of a shock however when in the 13th minute a Quentin Merlin corner for Nantes is headed into the Lorient net from close range at the near post by Ignatius Ganago.  I have come to this match today to support Lorient and am wearing my orange Ipswich Town shirt in solidarity, they are supposed to win, but they are losing 0-1.

Lorient are fortunately stung into action by the goal as if Nantes had been a jellyfish and just six minutes later Stephane Diarra embarks on a dribble down the right and is literally ‘hacked down’ close to the edge of the Nantes penalty area by Andrei Girotto.  It takes a little while for the free-kick to be organised, but its worth waiting for as Dango Ouattara steps up to curl the ball beautifully over the defensive wall and into the top left hand corner of a stationery Alban Lafont’s goal.  It’s a goal that will be a joy forever and the score is one all.

The football flows back and forth and Lorient have grown into the game with their pacey wide and forward players constantly threatening, but Nantes are strong and well organised.  In defence for Nantes, the huge Nicolas Pallois strides about with his shorts hitched up showing off his massive thighs, which greatly impresses Paulene.  A 33rd minute corner goes to Lorient as a Stephane Diarra shot is deflected, but a minute later Ignatius Ganago runs onto an Evann Guessand through ball; he looks way offside, but he rounds the Lorient ‘keeper Yvon Mvogo and it is not until the ball is rolling over the goal line that the linesman puts his flag up.  It’s a ludicrous piece of assistant refereeing, although we then have to wait whilst the VAR people confirm that Ganago was offside – of course he was!

As Lorient begin to look more dangerous in attack, Enzo le Fee, who after the Arthurian theme with the bar and the beer makes me think of Morgan le Fey, and the incongruously named Bonke Innocent both have shots blocked for the home team.  Dango Outtara, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso is also making some fantastic speedy runs for them too, inspiring repeated chants of “Allez Lorient, Allez Lorient” from the home crowd.  Five minutes of normal time remain in the first half and Nantes’ Moses Simon is the first player to be booked by referee Johan Hamel as he reduces Enzo Le Fee to a quivering heap on the turf with what appeared to be a well-aimed slap in the face.  The final minute of the half sees Nantes’ Ludovic Blas cut in from the right and have a decent shot tipped over the cross bar by Mvogo and then, as Lorient break way from the ensuing corner Pedro Chrivella scythes down Diarra to become the second Nantes player to have his name recorded by Monsieur Hamel.  A minute of time added-on is played and it is mi-temps (half-time).

Disappointingly mi-temp fails to offer up the spectacle of supporters attempting to toss a hake into a yoghurt pot or any similar test of skill inspired by local sponsors, but happily I am on the end of the row and close enough to the stairs to make it quickly to the toilet before pretty much anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.  Paulene takes a chance on the queues for the ‘ladies’ having subsided with a couple of minutes to go until the game begins again.  She returns late for the re-start and asks if she has missed anything, but I can’t in all honesty say she has.

The match resumes and the first action of note sees Lorient’s current top scorer Terem Moffi delight the crowd with an excellent dribble into the penalty area.  Even more impressively, he wears the number thirteen shirt.  Denis Appiah becomes the third Nantes player to be booked after fouling Moffi and then just twelve minutes into the second half Lorient boldly make two substitutions with Julian Ponceau replacing Bonke Innocent and Stephane Diarra making way for Yohan Cathine. Three minutes later and the scoreboard announces that it is the 56th minute. “Faites un Bruit” it then says (make a noise) and at least some of the crowd do so, although to be fair it’s been pretty noisy all along.  As an Ipswich supporter this apparently random entreaty to the fans across the whole ground seems like a good idea.  In this case it seems to work too, because there is some response and four minutes later a superb passing move down the Lorient left climaxes with Yoann Cathline sweeping the ball majestically into the top right-hand corner of the goal net from about 20 metres out, and Lorient lead 2-1.

Stade du Moustoir is now a cauldron of noise as Lorient fans celebrate, and like the best supporters should, Nantes fans get behind their team too, when they need it most. “Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez” echoes around from tribune to tribune and it’s hard to tell if it’s the Lorient or Nantes fans singing it, but it’s probably both.  It is certain however who is singing “Lorientaises, Lorientaises”.  With the home crowd exultant, it feels like good timing when the scoreboard announces today’s attendance with the words “Vous etes 15,081” (literally “you are 15,081”). It’s a figure close to the capacity of this ground which somehow feels and looks bigger than it is, whilst at the same time feeling compact and intimate; the orange colour scheme and all orange banks of seats doubtless help to create this effect.   “Lorient, Lorient” shout the crowd, punctuating the words with three successive claps.

Less than twenty minutes of normal time remain, and Lorient make a double substitution, replacing Moffi with Ibrahime Kone and Laurent Abergel with Adil Aouchiche, a recent signing from St Etienne.  The impact is immediate as Kone and Outtara exchange a couple of passes,  the last one of which puts Ikone through on goal with just Alban Lafont to beat, which he does, side footing the ball left-footed into the far corner of the goal.  I can’t help it, but I leap up in the air along with everyone else wearing orange.  Lorient lead 3-1.  Surely Les Merlus can’t lose now, although an iffy pass almost gives Nantes a run on goal, resulting in Julian Laporte being booked for his efforts to recover the situation, and then Kone also lunges in and is booked too.  The crowd chant “Lorientaises, Lorientaises” to celebrate their lead and to give the team an extra bit of support; and they need it as Ludovic Blas produces an excellent dribble to the edge of the box before sending a shot against the foot of the goalpost, which rebounds out and is cleared.  The Lorient supporters remain joyful and confident however, even complacent, and a Mexican Wave begins, but fortunately not many join in and it quickly peters out.

Five minutes of normal time remain and Nantes are pushing forward all the time, but without success; they don’t really seem to have the guile to get through the Lorient defence.  If Nantes are going to score they will need some luck and that is what happens as Moses Simon seemingly mis-hits a shot which trickles towards the goal, appears to hit a post, roll along the goal line and somehow goes in.  The goal is barely deserved, and Nantes only come anywhere near scoring again once more as Ignatius Ganago’s header is saved by Mvogo.   Unusually for the losing team, it is Nantes who make the late substitutions, and if it is an attempt to give the team and supporters a late fillip by increasing the amount of time added on it doesn’t work as time additionelle of just two minutes is announced.

The two minutes pass without further incident and the final whistle confirms Lorient’s win.  Paulene and I both agree that this has been a very good match and we have been impressed and a little surprised by Lorient’s slick forward play in particular.  But the whole afternoon has been wonderful, not just the football.  From the Arthurian themed, locally brewed organic beer to the mingling of home and away fans in such a fine, small but spacious stadium under warm blue skies it has been a joy to be here.  Full of happy thoughts we head for the club shop to buy that cuddly hake.

Ipswich Town 2 Barnsley 2

Barnsley FC, Wikipedia tells us, has spent more seasons in the second division than any other club. Just to prove the point I have seen Ipswich Town play Barnsley thirty times and but for one FA Cup tie all of those matches have been in the second division.  This does of course mean that Ipswich Town are also second division perennials.  Today’s fixture, therefore, is exceptional and indeed it is the first time that Ipswich and Barnsley have ever met as third division teams; what it is to live in interesting times.

In all other respects today is a normal, sunny, late summer Saturday as I make my way down through Gippeswyk Park, beneath the railway tracks and over the river to Portman Road, where, as ever, I buy a match programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless, but slightly slow manner.  Programme in hand I march on towards the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum) where both doors are open wide; I step inside and turn towards the bar. “Gary, what the hell are you doing here?” I exclaim at the unexpected sight of my friend and former work colleague, Gary stood at the bar. “I’m buying you a drink, what would you like?” is Gary’s very quick and very welcome response.  I have a pint of something for which the pump clip says “Suffolk Punch” and Gary has a pint of some lager or other, but not one of the industrial brands. We retire to the garden where Mick is already sat with a pint of what looks like Suffolk Pride.  Gary and Mick have met before but introduce themselves to one another nonetheless; it really shouldn’t but it feels to me a bit like when your wife meets a former girlfriend. 

The pub garden is alive with drinkers wearing the blue shirts of Ipswich Town, far more so than usual.  Cheerily, we talk of funerals because Gary has been to a few lately and Mick works for an undertaker. Gary tells the story of two people he knows who were concerned that they might not get a seat at a cremation which was likely to be ‘popular’ (perhaps well-attended would be a better choice of words), and so sat through the previous cremation too, just to be sure.  With our glasses drained, a bloke at the next table chain smoking and blokes at the table beyond talking far louder than is necessary, we depart a little earlier than usual for Portman Road.

Bidding farewell to Gary and Mick in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, because their season tickets are in what used to be the Pioneer stand, I carry on to the Constantine Road entrance where a man in a suit compliments me on my ‘Allez les bleus’ T-shirt as he checks my ticket. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all supported Town in French” I say to him a bit weirdly, although he seems to accept the idea.  I enter the stadium, taking the rare opportunity to use turnstile 61, which today is operated by a young woman who is very possibly the nicest looking turnstile operator I have ever seen at Portman Road.  I arrive at my seat in time to see the teams walk on to the pitch and hear them announced by former Suffolk Radio presenter Stephen Foster, who once again looks a bit like a best man, microphone in hand in his grey suit.  My attention is briefly snagged when I think I hear that the Barnsley number ten is called George Benson, but checking the handily placed scoreboard I sadly see that he’s actually called Josh Benson, but the idea was good while it lasted.  Naturally, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is already here with this son Elwood and so are Pat from Clacton and Fiona as well as the man who I think is from Stowmarket; I can see Ray and his son Michael and his son Harrison down at the front of the stand.

With knees taken and applauded Barnsley get first go with the ball as, wearing their traditional kit of red shirts, white shirts and red socks they aim the ball towards the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end. Town of course wear their traditional blue shirts and white shorts and as the teams line up it looks like a re-enactment of my childhood Continental Club Edition Subbuteo set, albeit without the strange poses of the plastic players.  Despite a high level of background noise, it takes just one minute and twenty seconds for the visiting Barnsleyites to deliver a chant of “Is this is a library?”.   Up in the Cobbold Stand there are several well filled red shirts in the away section and a bald-headed, middle-aged bloke in what looks like full kit, makes me think of Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden the PE teacher in Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Kes’.

Beside me today is a man in a bright orange hi-viz jacket emblazoned with the name of Veolia, the French waste disposal company. “Come on mate” he shouts, possibly to Freddie Ladapo as Conor Chaplin shapes up to thread a through ball beyond the enormous Barnsley defenders. “Come on, early pressure” continues my neighbour, “Pass it around, pass it around”.  He’s living every moment of his own live commentary.  A radio commentator might say that Town have started ‘on the front foot’ and by way of proof the bloke behind me announces that “ the pressure is unreal” .  The first two shots on goal however are by Barnsley players. There is a lot of jeering from the Barnsley fans and it sounds as if someone may be being ejected from the ground, around me people stand up tall and peer to their right to see what’s happening, they remind me of meerkats.

It’s the tenth minute and people rise and applaud as one in memory of a baby who has died.  On the pitch the game is interrupted by a foul and then carries on.  Neither side is exactly peppering the opposition goal with shots and the match is tense and physical; it’s engrossing but not exciting. Barnsley make an early substitution due to injury, reducing the aggregate of the numbers on their shirts by three as number 22 replaces number 25.

It’s the eighteenth minute and Wes Burns and Liam Kitching race for the ball, the enormous Kitching sticks out an arm to impede Burns and holds his shirt, Burns holds Kitching’s shirt and the linesman flags for a free-kick to Barnsley.  It’s a biased decision favouring the defender who had been first to foul, it would have been better to have made no decision at all.  “Pressure” shouts the bloke from Veolia out of the blue. Barnsley substitute, and former occasional Town player James Norwood can be seen trotting from the bench to the dressing room. “He’s injured already” says the bloke behind me. “Going for a Nando’s” says the bloke next to him.  “Come on Town, we haven’t even got out of…” bawls the bloke beside me trailing off, seemingly unable to remember what it is we haven’t even got out of.  If this was going to be a driving analogy I would guess “first gear” is what we haven’t got out of, but if this was going to be an analogy about going to bed it might be “our trousers”; admittedly however this would be an unusual analogy .

It’s the twenty seventh minute and Wes Burns is victim of over physical defending and Town have a free-kick about 20 metres from goal. Conor Chaplin steps up to send a sublime shot over the defensive wall and into the top corner of the Barnsley goal.  It’s a marvellous, beautiful goal and Town are winning. “They’ve gotta come out now” says the bloke behind me, suggesting that he believes some of the Barnsley players will now reveal that they enjoy the company of other men.

Six minutes later and following a series of Barnsley free-kicks the ball is crossed to the far post where Jack Aitchison heads it across goal and inside the far post to provide an unexpected equaliser. “It’s all gone quiet over there” chant the Barnsley fans conveniently forgetting that they are in a library, so it would be quiet wouldn’t it?  They compound their error by chanting “You’re not singing anymore” when apparently, according to their earlier chants we weren’t singing anyway.  Like ‘leave’ voters who don’t want to queue to have their passports stamped when only going ‘next door’ to Holland or France they seem to want their cake and to eat it too.

Leif Davis and Sam Morsy have shots blocked and Davis heads past the post as half-time looms.  When three minutes of added on time are announced, Barnsley’s number two Jordan Williams is sprawling on the grass. “Ha-ha” calls a Nelson Munce-like voice from somewhere behind me.   It’s been a good half of football but not a thrilling one if one inexplicably forgets Chaplin’s goal,  so the Nelson Munce soundalike has gained a higher profile in my mind than he probably deserves.

Half-time is the usual round of talking to Ray and Harrison and Michael and eating a Nature Valley Honey and Oats Crunchy bar.  Ray asks what I know about solar panels, and I tell him I have them on my roof because my mother in-law died. 

The game re-starts at two minutes past four and Christian Walton is soon making a fine save, diving to his right to ensure a decent passing and running move by Barnsley does not end with a goal.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fookin’ thing” chant the Barnsley fans in their South Yorkshire dialect. “Your support is fookin’ shit” they continue before rounding off their medley with a rendition of “Top o’ the league, your ‘avin’ a laff”.   It’s the fifty -third minute and Freddie Ladapo has an attempt cleared off the line. “Get up ya fairy” calls the man from Veolia at Luca Connell as the Barnsley player writhes about in the centre circle before being attended to by a physio. Today’s attendance is announced as being 25,001 with 613 being Tykes and Colliers from Barnsley.  On the Clacton supporters bus the winner of the guess the crowd competition is just two out, guessing 24,499, although misleadingly the guess of 25,050 gets more of the actual digits correct and therefore almost looks closer.

The game is nearly two-thirds over and Barnsley’s Callum Styles is booked for a cynical block on Wes Burns.  Barnsley win a corner. “I’m getting worried you know” admits Pat from Clacton beginning to lose her faith that Town will win this match.  “Come on Town, defend” shouts the bloke beside me giving helpful advice as the corner kick is taken.  The corner is defended as suggested and when play next stops Barnsley make another substitution, James Norwood replacing Jack Aitchison who walks off so slowly and gingerly that he looks like he might have suffered a sudden attack of diarrhoea.

The sixty-sixth minute and the Barnsley supporters think they’ve scored as the ball rattles into the side netting in front of them at the end of another decent move.  Relief and schadenfreude combine to transform the mood of Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand who are able to jeer at the stupidity of their northern neighbours.   With the game into its final quarter Town introduce mass substitutions. Stephen Foster announces that there will be three, but only tells us about Kayden Jackson replacing Freddie Ladapo and Marcus Harness replacing Tyreece John -Jules.  The forgotten substitution sees Kane Vincent-Young appear in place of Leif Davis.  As happened at Shrewsbury last week, the change quickly produces results and Wes Burns runs down the right and into the box before producing a low cross which Sam Morsy side-foots into the net.  Town lead, and are on top to the extent that three minutes later Marcus Harness scores a third, only for alleged referee Steve Martin to disallow it for reasons unknown.  Unlike his American namesake, this Steve Martin seems to be the man with no brain rather than ‘The man with two brains’ and should in future be known by the same name as Steve Martin’s dog in his 1979 film ‘The Jerk’, alternativley ‘The Jerk’ would do.

As if having an idiot for a referee is not bad enough Town soon suffer further by failing to defend a corner and allowing Barnsley’s Callum Styles, a man who according to the app on my phone is shorter than Conor Chaplin ( I think the app must be wrong) , a free header which he places just inside the far post.  If only the man from Veolia had shouted “Come on Town, defend”.  As I remark to Fiona “ I think that is what is called giving him too much time and space”.

Despite the disappointment of gifting Barnsley another equaliser Town press on for another winning goal and dominate the remaining fifteen minutes, reducing Barnsley to desperate clearances rather than considered passes out of defence.   Wolfe is booked for fouling Sam Morsy and a Wes Burns shot is pushed away for a corner by the outstretched arm of the Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins, who I like to think was named after Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sone Aluko replaces Conor Chaplin with five minutes of normal time left.  James Norwood is booked for diving and happily does nothing to suggest it was a mistake to let him go. Anderson of Barnsley is booked for kicking the ball away when a free-kick is awarded; it’s a display of bad sportsmanship and unneccessary nastiness which seems common to this team of mostly mardy millennials.  Fiona leaves early to get away for a family barbecue, despite the fire risk due to the drought, and a ridiculous eight minutes of time added on are announced.  Town win a corner from which George Edmundson heads against a post; Kane Vincent-Young sends a header towards goal, but it is kept out with a flying save; Aluko and Harness both have shots blocked.

 It’s almost five o’clock when The Jerk ends the game and walks off to the boos of the crowd, including mine.  We now expect Town to win, and only the referee and some uncharacteristically forgetful defending have prevented that today, but that’s not so unusual, and at least we didn’t lose. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose as it might say on a future T-shirt when we all start supporting Town in French.

Ipswich Town 3 MK Dons 0

The hot, late summer sun beats down on the parched grass of Gippeswyk Park as I amble towards Portman Road beneath a cloudless azure sky.  When not ambling, I stroll along, enjoying the brief shade beneath Ancaster Road bridge and making as little effort as possible to place one foot in front of the other. There is something about walking slowly on hot days that feels cool, my wide-brimmed hat and sandals no doubt help add to the impression I must give that I feel like a dude.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way an ice cream van looks a better proposition than the Butcher’s Grill, but I opt for a programme (£3.50), which I pay for in the modern cashless way. By the time I reach the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) sweat from my brow is stinging my eyes. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) preferring a lighter beer today to my usual Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride, it’s good to have the choice. In the beer garden Mick is texting me in French to tell me he is “dans le Jardin”.  It seems a long time since we were last here, but it’s just a fortnight ago.  The conversation seems to be all about me as I regale Mick with tales of my road trip to Forest Green last week and how after getting home from the match versus Bolton my wife and I booked a holiday in Brittany.  We go on to talk of the Nazi submarine docks of St Nazaire and Lorient, the giant mechanical elephants of Nantes and the neolithic stone alignments of Carnac.

It’s almost twenty to three when we leave for Portman Road and in the course of our walk Mick expresses despair at the state of the world and politics, and how the hope of the immediate post-war era and the desire for peace and co-operation forged by the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet, has all but evaporated.  Mick also regrets that he will probably not live to see how the climate crisis ends; not wanting to suffer a lingering death from de-hydration or starvation, or a sudden violent death due to a cataclysmic weather event, I think this may be a good thing, but then I can be a bit of a pessimist at times.

In sombre mood, it is almost five to three as I enter the ground through turnstile number 59 by way of a change from my usual turnstile 60. I thank the turnstile operator and he calls me ‘mate’.  By the time I take my seat the teams are on the pitch and limbering up. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here with his son Elwood and so is Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket, but Pat from Clacton is absent, she is visiting a friend she met on holiday who lives in Kent and is having a ninetieth birthday party.

The noise inside Portman Road today is fulsome, the heat and the sun seem to have invigorated the home supporters. Over the PA we get to hear just a few bars of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ before the game is ready to begin.  I don’t mind too much, as my favourite Beatles’ songs are probably Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever, but much as I want to, I can’t ever imagine the Sir Alf Ramsey stand singing “Let me take you down, cos I’m going to, Po-ortman Road, nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about, Po-ortman Road for ever”.  Knees are taken and applauded and Town kick-off towards me and Phil, Elwood and Fiona and the man who might be from Stowmarket.  The opposition today are wearing a frighteningly unimaginative kit of all red.

Town begin the game in an attacking frame of mind and within two minutes Freddie Ladapo shoots to the near post necessitating a save from the visiting goalkeeper Jamie Cumming, who unfortunately sounds like he could have a side line in pornographic films.  “Sit down if you’re standing up” is the bizarre but original Village People themed first chant from the visiting supporters. In the Sir Bobby Robson Stand Town supporters respond with an old religious number– “Care-free wherever we may be, We are the Ipswich Town FC, and we don’t give a fuck wherever we may be, cos we are the Ipswich Town FC”.  How pleased the nineteenth century American Shakers would have been to have heard that.

It’s the fifth minute and Janoi Donacien advances down the Town right, then advances a bit more, before sensibly stopping at the by-line to pull the ball back to Wes Burns, who sweeps it majestically into the visitors’ goal net. Town lead 1-0 and joy abounds, with chants of either Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez , Allez  spilling from the stands  depending on where you take your holidays.  Oh my, it’s so good to score an early goal.

Town are dominant; Sam Morsy wins a free-kick and his deflected shot is cleared off the goal line and a follow up shot saved.  In a moment of madness, the visitors win a corner but can only summon a rally of head tennis before losing possession entirely to a goal-kick.  About 12 minutes have elapsed and having gone behind, the visitors are having what we will look back on as their best spell of the game as their number 30 has the temerity to direct a header over the cross-bar after a good passing move down the Town right; alarmingly, he possibly should have scored. Normal service is soon resumed however, as Freddie Ladapo chases a punt forward and has his shot blocked to win a corner, which leads directly to another from which George Edmundson heads past the far post.

With the visitors’ goal kick I notice that their number 4 is called Tucker; I think of the characters in tv’s Citizen Smith and Grange Hill, and imagine his team mates saying “flippin’ eck Tucker” as he makes a catastrophic defensive error, sadly it doesn’t happen.

Town just attack and then attack again. Marcus Harness and Conor Chaplin play beautifully down the right and win another corner. Sam Morsy shoots wide.  The visitors’ number thirty collapses to the ground when challenged from behind as if suddenly and miraculously crippled by polio, admirably referee Mr Carl Brook just gestures to him to get up. The half is half over as stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads an obviously pre-prepared statement “The players and officials will now take the first drinks break of the afternoon”.  “How many are there going to be?” I ask Fiona a little incredulously.

The effect of the refreshment and re-hydration is almost immediate as Town win another corner and then Wes Burns runs down the right again and towards goal;  he shoots for the far corner  and his low shot is parried, but Marcus Harness is on hand to strike the rebound with just enough force and direction that it  dribbles over the  goal line and Town lead 2-0.  That was in the 27th minute and with a half an hour gone, Ipswich fans are singing “And it’s Ipswich Town, Ipswich Town FC, By far the greatest team the World has ever seen” and of course they’re not exaggerating. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me. “It is” says the bloke next to him. I don’t tell them that true Champagne football can only be played in Reims and Troyes.

The final fifteen minutes of the half sees Conor Chaplin shoot over the cross-bar and Sam Morsy’s shot steaming for the top right hand corner of the visitors’ goal before the goal keeper tips it away for yet another corner.   Christian Walton has to make a rare save with ten minutes to go until half time, but the visitors’ goalkeeper is soon working again as another Wes Burns break leads to a deep cross which is headed back for another Sam Morsy shot which is again saved.   With time ticking down to the half-time break the game quietens down a little, perhaps because the more depressive souls amongst the Sir Bobby Robson standers begin one of their funereally-paced versions of “Oh, when the Town go marching in”.  Yet another Town corner ensues however, and three minutes of time are added on,  presumably to compensate for that very formally announced drinks break.

Today there is no sign of Ray, or his son, or his grandson Harrison and so I merely stand to eat a Nature Valley Maple Syrup and Nuts Crunchy bar and flick though the programme.  Nothing really grabs my attention, although I do now know that Conor Chaplin prefers pens to pencils, Apple to both Orange and Samsung and, although I don’t know what it means or who they are, Phineas to Ferb.  It is not recorded whether he voted Remain or Leave, is in favour of the right to abortion or not, or favours nationalisation or privatisation.  Next week I shall perhaps ask if there is an alternative match programme for us grown-ups.

At 16:07 the game resumes.  The heat has been building and ever-present Phil drapes a white shirt over Elwood’s head beneath his cap.  The bloke behind me is talking about the half-time scores in the context of his fantasy football team; it sounds like his fantasy football team is Manchester City. It’s a while since I played Fantasy Football, but maybe nowadays you can opt to have your team taken over by a wealthy country with a poor human rights record which is keen to launder its global image.

On the pitch, Town produce a sweeping move that travels the length of the pitch and more corners are won before the visitors’ number eight sees Mr Brook’s yellow card for tugging desperately at Sam Morsy’s shorts.  “ We’re just too good for you, we’re just to good for you” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier channelling Guiseppe Verdi.  On the right Janoi Donacien proceeds down the wing, lays the ball back and Conor Chaplin sweeps it into the net in a majestic style reminiscent of Wes Burns, and Town lead 3-0. “Ee-I, ee-I, ee-I-o, Up the Football league we go” chant the home fans boldly predicting the situation next Spring, before reprising their version of “No nay never” which has Ipswich Town being the finest football team the world has ever seen.  As if to prove the point, another fine move follows, and whilst it ends with Freddie Lapado missing quite badly, at least he was offside so it didn’t really matter.  “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me again, clearly not having read up on the rules surrounding protected designation of origin during the half-time break.

Evidently now in party mood,  the Sir Bobby Robson Stand lower tier break into a chorus of “Stand up if you ‘ate the scum” before Stephen Foster’s voice is heard again announcing “The players and officials are now taking the second half drinks break” just in case anyone was wondering why the players were all of sudden drinking at the side of the pitch instead of playing football.  The refreshment has apparently reached the people counting the attendance too and this is announced as 23, 045 with 532 of those being visiting supporters, although in truth we’re all just visiting , no stands at Portman Road having been demolished to make way for residential flats just yet.  News arrives that Town are now top of the league with both Peterborough United and Exeter City losing.

With twenty minutes left mass substitutions are made for Town, although these can’t excuse a sudden error by Luke Woolfenden which forces Christian Walton into diving at the feet of some opposing player or other to maintain his clean sheet and give the visitors the treat of a corner. The corner however merely leads to a Town breakaway from which we earn yet another corner kick of our own.

With the game entering its last ten minutes the sun has emerged from behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and its hot rays are playing across my bare knees. Town are camped in the visitors’ half of the pitch.  “Gonna make a move in a sec” says the bloke behind me, adding “Over innit” to justify his decision. A minute later he leaves. “See ya later mate” he says to his mate. “See ya mate” says his mate.   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Town fans celebrating the very probable result,  or may be it’s  “Allez, Allez, Allez”. The visiting supporters take note and begin to drift away.   Two minutes of normal time are left and an injury to a visiting player provides a convenient opportunity for a final, unannounced drinks break. The last action of note is when George Edmundson almost emulates Rakeem Harper’s goal assist for Col U in midweek as he sends a poorly advised square ball to the edge of the Town penalty area. “Bloody Hell!” I utter in a moment of sudden panic, but happily the ball is cleared.  Five minutes of added on time are safely negotiated and Town win what has been a most enjoyable match.

Whether Town were good or the visitors were poor I don’t care, I have decided to live in the moment and not think about it; in this way I hope to remain both happy and of balanced mind, but I am looking forward to my trip next week to Shrewsbury.  Up the Town  – Ipswich that is.

Postscript

In previous seasons I have not deigned to allow the name of the club Town played today to appear at the top of the page; I have instead referred to them simply as Visitors.  Today however, I have displayed their name because Ipswich have so thoroughly outclassed and humiliated them that I thought it was a good thing to ‘out’ them.  The reason for this, if you didn’t know is that the MK Dons have no right to be in the Football League, having stolen the identity of Wimbledon FC in 2004 and moved the club to Milton Keynes. As a city of over 150,000 people Milton Keynes should probably have a Football League team, but that team should achieve that status by gaining promotion through the league pyramid as other new town clubs such Crawley Town and Stevenage have done. 

The new town programme was a utopian vision for the future of post-war Britain, and the likes of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Abercrombue who inspired and put it into practice, and were surely big footie fans themselves are doubtless spinning in their graves because of the MK Dons.  

Ipswich Town 1 Bolton Wanderers 1

Here we go again, and it’s still July.  I will admit to not looking forward to the start of the football season because as a person who seeks fulfilment in being idle I enjoy summer Saturdays with nothing much to do, and summer is still in its prime, it won’t begin to flop into autumn for another three weeks at least, that’s when the football season should begin again. But hey, how else are we going to fit in 46 league games, at least three games trying to win a pizza pan and probably no more than two or three games trying to win two cups that are inevitably destined to end up on the sideboard of one or two of the same four clubs from London and the north-west?

 Today, it is ordained that we shall play Bolton Wanderers, last season’s nemesis who along with Rotherham United were the only team to beat us both home and away, which in the week of the last episode of Neighbours I will admit, whilst in confessorial mood, was my Australian ‘soap’ of choice.   The last time Town played Bolton Wanderers on the first day of the season was in 1961, albeit at Burnden Park, and Town of course went on to win the Premier League that season, although it wasn’t called that then.  By way of yet another private confession, last night I dreamt about today’s game and how Town drew two-all after twice going ahead with the opposition equalising twice from spectacular long range shots into the top right hand corner of our goal.  I say opposition because oddly Town were playing West Ham United in my dream although they also seemed to be called Bolton Wanderers.  Even odder is that I then dreamt that I woke up and realised I had been dreaming because all I could remember of the game were the two Bolton/West Ham goals and an empty ground.  Then I really did wake up and felt a bit disorientated.

Having happily reined in my subconscious mind I have negotiated the crawling traffic of the A12 and walked across Gippeswyk Park.  At the junction of Ancaster Road and Ranelagh Road I must decide whether to turn left towards the Bobby Robson Bridge or right towards the station hotel where I will not doubt be serenaded by boozing Lancastrians in the pub garden singing the praises of barm cakes, back to back housing and cotton mills.  Seeking the quiet life as ever, I opt for the former. In Alf Ramsey Way I purchase a match day programme in the modern cashless manner which seems to take several minutes, before heading off over Civic Drive, past the enchanted Spiral car park which used to just be known as ‘the underground car park’ and up St George’s Street to the Arbour House (formerly The Arboretum) to meet Mick and discuss life over a pint of  a beer (£3.90) from the Burnt Mill brewery which the pump clip said was Japanese, I ask the  barman where it was from, “Stowmarket” he replies.  Mick’s and my conversation rambles between spotty liver disease, the quality of television pictures, Ipswich Town’s latest signings and funerals before I buy a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a packet of Fairfield’s cheese and onion crisps (£1.00) and we discuss VHS videos of Ipswich Town’s greatest moments in history and retirement.

We leave earlier than usual for Portman Road because I have a bag of six Ipswich Town VHS videos to give to a bloke called Ash from Swaffham; I have arranged to meet Ash at twenty to three by the Sir Alf Ramsey statue, but he doesn’t turn up. I ask several people stood about if they are called Ash, but none are and two people think I have asked them if they’ve got any hash.  Disappointed but not surprised, because the world is an increasingly unreliable place, I head for turnstile number 60 to begin yet another season full of hope and likely disappointment; but you never know (that’s the hope again).

Out in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his son Elwood are already here looking fresh and revived in their summer clothes, it reminds me of what the first day back at school used to feel like.  On the pitch, be-suited stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster reads out the teams looking as if he is the best man at a wedding.  Banners festoon the front of the Sir Bobby Robson stand telling us “The future is bright, the future is blue and white”; it rhymes, it must be true.  To our right is the new scoreboard, beaming messages to us like something out of Orwell’s 1984. The stadium is alive with the sound of nigh on 27,000 people and as the game begins those in the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand break inexplicably into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, with lyrics altered to tell of eternal fighting and Norwich running away, because it’s Boxing Day.  Off to my right in the Cobbold Stand, in an equally surreal vein, it sounds as if the Bolton supporters are singing “Oh wanky wanky, Wanky wanky wanky wanky Northerners.”  But my hearing isn’t what it was and Boltonians do have thick accents.

The opening minutes of the match are messy with lots of physical effort, but little discernible entertainment.  All the Bolton team appear to be about 2metres tall and there’s not a Frank Worthington amongst them. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Bolton fans.  As nice as that might be, no one takes them up on their kind offer and in a fit of pique they impolitely tell the Ipswich fans “Your support is fucking shit”, before peevishly announcing like thwarted adolescents that the large crowd is because “You’ve only come to see The Wanderers”.   Only six minutes have passed and it’s like last season never ended; clearly supporters have wasted the whole close-season and not come up with a single original new chant between the lot of them.

A frisson of excitement shoots through the home support as a punt forward forces the Bolton ‘keeper James Trafford to play sweeper for a moment. Up in the Cobbold Stand the brief roar of excitement from the home support is an excuse to unleash what passes for wit with a chant to say they had forgotten we were here. How droll.  It’s the eleventh minute and Town win a corner as a Bolton defender heads the ball out of his goalkeeper’s hands.  Lee Evans’ exotic curling corner-kick curls too much and goes disappointingly straight into touch like a metaphor for last season. It is a quarter past three and Bolton win a corner leading to Wes Burns breaking away down the right  and putting in a low cross which is blocked. Burns is looking neater and slimmer than last season suggesting to me that his call-up to the Welsh squad and access to the bright lights of Cardiff might have turned his head.

“They love a ball up the middle don’t they?” says the bloke behind me to the bloke beside him as Bolton launch an attack like a Russian missile strike.  Fortunately for Town, Bolton’s attacks are producing few goal-attempts, but they are dominating play and look generally quicker and stronger than Town for whom debutants Marcus Harness and Leif Davis are doing little other than entertain me with the thoughts that Marcus Harness sort of rhymes and that Leif is a great first name.

The first half is more than half over and all of a sudden Bolton have a penalty from which Aaron Morley scores.  Leif Davis is adjudged to have tripped some Bolton play or other who predictably makes full use of the opportunity to fall headlong to the turf whilst simultaneously looking up pleadingly at referee Mr Samuel Barrett, who is not to be confused with Samuel Beckett.  Disappointment reigns. But unusually the goal against proves a turning point in Town’s favour and for the rest of the match Ipswich are the better team.  Corners are traded as the half hour approaches and in the Town penalty area some male posturing ensues.  “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” chant the inhabitants of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and the Bolton supporters sing the same thing.  Nobody seems to know who anybody is.  It could be the result of dementia but it’s probably because third division footballers are generally not household names, with the exception of course of Town’s number 17, Ed Sheeran.   Bolton’s number three Declan John becomes the first player to be booked in a possibly not unrelated incident.

The 37th minute has arrived and another of the day’s debutants, Freddie Ladapo, has a shot deflected away for a corner which Conor Chaplin passes into the penalty area for Lee Evans to side foot into the goal net in a moment of combined thought and invention that was two steps ahead of the entire Bolton team and probably a good 27,000 other people too.  The sadness and shame of having gone behind in the first game of the season is instantly forgotten.  “ You’re not singing any more” chant the home fans to the Boltonians delving delightedly into bottomless wells of Schadenfreude.   More is to come almost, as a beautiful interchange of passes down the right between Janoi Doncaien,  Conor Chaplin, Wes Burns and Sam Morsy ends with Freddie Ladapo having a shot blocked almost as soon as it leaves his boot.

Two minutes of the half remain and having already given away a penalty on his debut, Leif Davis then makes a bid for immortality as he also becomes the first Town player of the 2022-23 season to be booked; it’s a good effort from him but no one will ever rival the appalling Town debut of Mark Fish, who funnily enough also played for Bolton Wanderers.   Three minutes of time added on are played and then it’s half-time.  I consume a Panda brand liquorice stick and talk to Ray, who tells me that his son Michael and his grandson Harrison are missing today’s game because they are respectively in Greece and Scotland.  We share our doubts over the validity of the penalty and the efficacy so far  of the left land side of the Town team. 

The game resumes at eight minutes past four with the mystifying partial rendition by the Bolton fans of Manfred Mann’s 1964 Number One hit record ‘Do-wah-diddy diddy’ (although it was originally recorded the year before by American band The Exciters).  On the field of play, things are more mundane with the usual procession of corners and stuff that you get in football matches.  It’s a little bit after a quarter past four and Trafford spectacularly tips a Lee Evans header over the cross bar; five minutes later and the first of a host of substitutions materialise with the luckless Lief and ineffective Harness being replaced by Greg Leigh (not to be confused by Prog-Rockers with Greg Lake) and Tyreece John-Jules (impossible to confuse with anyone).   An hour has gone Freddie Ladapo shoots tamely at Trafford before Leigh gets back to acrobatically head away a Bolton cross.

As the final third of the game progresses the sky begins to cloud over a little, there are flying ants taking to the air and landing on the shirt of the bloke in front of me;  seagulls circle over the Portman Road car park; it’s stiflingly warm.  It’s a dog day afternoon; I think of Al Pacino.

Ending a sequence of three ever worsening fouls, Bolton’s Conor Bradley chops down Tyreece John-Jules particularly dirtily and is booked. “You dirty Northern bastard” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers reciting possibly football’s greatest chant. “Small Town in Norwich, You’re just a small Town in Norwich” is the Boltonian’s weak response, which does little to dispel the rumours that Bradley hasn’t washed, is Northern and was conceived outside wedlock.

Both teams continue to make substitutions like they’re going out of fashion, making four each with Sone Aluko and Kayden Jackson replacing  Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo for Town.  Ipswich dominate, pinning back Bolton and making them play sardines in their own penalty area.  It’s a niggly game as both teams display their frustration at being unable to beat the other.  The crowd is announced as 26,688, and it seems wakes week has come early with 1,392 pale and pasty-faced folk from the mills and the mines making up the numbers in the Cobbold Stand.  Pat from Clacton wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus with a prediction of 26,679; she seems a little shocked but I can tell she’s excited by her win, it’s been a long time coming.

Back on the pitch Luke Woolfenden is the second Town player to be booked.  A Wes Burns header brings another corner, Sone Aluko shoots past the post and so does Tyreece John-Jules, who also has a shot saved and then in the best opportunity of the whole game Wes Burns runs deep into the penalty area before placing one of those crosses usually labelled ‘inviting’ in front of Sam Morsy.  Morsy sends Trafford the wrong way with his shot but the ball strikes the fortunate keeper’s legs and is cleared.

After six minutes of time added on the game ends.  It’s a shame not to start the season with a win, yet again, but it was a tough match against a strong team and Town did recover from going a goal behind, and on balance these are all good things.  One swallow does not make a summer seems an appropriate homily for the occasion, because every occasion needs a homily; although in this case it’s not so much a lovely, swooping, screaming swallow as a scrounging, step-sibling murdering cuckoo.

Ipswich Town 0 Cambridge United 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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