Ipswich Town 0 Fleetwood Town 1

In spite of my enigmatic mix of eternal optimism and a passion for existential misery, and never having seen Fleetwood Town before, I am not overly looking forward to tonight.  It’s a bit cold and damp and there is a sad inevitability that a good number of the Portman Road crowd will be quick to moan now that Ipswich Town have embarked on a solid run of defeats made more impressive by how easily the winning goals could have been prevented.  It is without any sense of excitement or anticipation therefore that I leave work and step out into the late afternoon and its quickening rain drops.

In an effort to make a clean break from the past weeks and stop myself looking like a slimmer but greying version of Brian Wilson circa 1965, I am going to get my haircut.  As usual I take my custom to Francesco’s of St Matthew’s St, an establishment which was formerly by appointment to Sir Bobby Robson. The pleasant woman who cuts my hair tells me of a current Town player who always wore his Town tracksuit top when he came to get his haircut, but is seemingly no longer so keen to be recognised and now turns up in ‘mufti’, not that she uses that expression.  Lighter of wallet (£15.50) and head, but enlivened by a very welcome complimentary espresso coffee, I leave Francesco’s and step into a Beatles song as I start to roam, and then I’m in town.  The damp streets of down town Ipswich are largely deserted, there’s nothing doing, everything is closing, it’s like a ruin.  I’m killing time until, by way of another change to the usual pre-match ritual, I will meet Mick at the Arbor House, where we will both drink a pint of Young’s London Special (£3.80), Mick will eat Chicken Risotto whilst I eat a Scotch Egg, Halloumi Chips and Sweet Potato Fries (£10), and we will conclude our meal with a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.60) for me and a half of Shipyard American Pale Ale (£2.50) for Mick.

At about 7:15 Mick and I leave the convivial surroundings of the Arbor House and head down the hill towards Portman Road, where I stop off at one of the blue booths to buy a programme (£3.50).  I’m not sure if I get disorientated by the thought of paying £3.50 for a programme, or whether it’s just the dim, evening light but it takes me two goes to work out which window I need to go to, but at least it makes the programme seller laugh, and I laugh too ,just to make sure that he’s laughing with me and not at me.

Wishing the operator of turnstile number four a cheery thanks for letting me into the ground I make for the facilities with Mick before we take up our positions in the cheap seats between the goal and the players’ tunnel.  In front of us a crew of sailors in their ‘number ones’ hang about waiting to form an unexpected and unexplained guard of honour as the two teams enter the field.  If we were playing Portsmouth it might make some sense but Fleetwood’s seafarers are more likely to wear sou’westers, waders and thick jumpers smelling of fish than naval uniforms.

Tonight’s crowd is a bit sparse compared to recent weeks; ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, obviously, and so is Pat from Clacton, but the old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me are absent , as is the bloke with the brylcreemed hair.   Ray walks past with a pie, and when I ask what sort of pie it is he points to what  appears to be a  letter ‘C’ written on top in pastry; my guess and Ray’s is ‘C’ for chicken or perhaps, as tonight’s game is against Fleetwood, Cod,  but Pat from Clacton says she thought the ‘C’ was for something else; she doesn’t say what.  Ray looks aghast and tells me he’s glad he doesn’t have to sit next to her, I know what he means.

The match begins, Ipswich in classic blue and white trying to get the ball inside the white, wooden frame just in front of us to our right.  It is Fleetwood Town who get first go with the ball however, although visually they are disappointing wearing an insipid all pale yellow kit rather than their first kit which is red with white sleeves ,like Arsenal’s. Ipswich’s sartorial superiority sadly doesn’t seem to count for much however, and they struggle to do the things that usually help us to distinguish football from other sports such as Eton Fives, Discus and Dominoes.  The likes of Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt, Andre Dozzell and Janoi Donacien all try to cross the ball to a centre forward who I can only guess we haven’t actually signed yet, but Fleetwood’s gigantic number six Harry Souttar simply bats everything away with his head or an extended leg; if Harry Souttar was a fish he’d be a whale shark, which in case you didn’t know is the world’s largest cartilaginous fish.

There is some excitement after a quarter of an hour when Fleetwood have to make an early substitution with Ched Evans, whose name makes me think of Shed Seven, replacing Callum Connolly.  Meanwhile Mick is staring into the Cobbold stand trying to count the Fleetwood supporters, but the back of the stand is too shadowy to make it possible to tell the difference between people and seats and people who look like seats. We console ourselves with the knowledge that the attendance, including the size of the ‘Cod Army’, as Fleetwood supporters are known, will be announced later.   Soon the Sir Bobby Robson stand are chanting “ Evans, Evans, you’re a cunt” but Pat from Clacton and I can’t decide if they are singing to Ched or Marcus; we eventually settle on it being a catch all for anyone called Evans, tough as this is on choirmaster Evan Evans (known as Evans the Song) in ‘Ivor The Engine’.

Twenty eight minutes pass and Fleetwood win a corner.  It’s about now that I notice that the Fleetwood Town players bear the message ‘BES Utilities’ on the fronts of their shirts and I allow myself to ignore the difference in spelling and wonder if the former ‘Happy Monday’ has diversified into gas, water and sewerage.  Neither team has really had a shot on goal worthy of the name and whilst Ipswich are playing pretty atrociously, Fleetwood are doing their bit too  to ensure that value for money is kept to a minimum; credit where credit is due.  Whereas in many football matches what is usually described as ‘the deadlock’ is ‘broken’ by a flamboyant, audacious, cheeky, or simply consummate piece of skill ,  Ipswich have now almost perfected the complete opposite.  With forty minutes gone Ched Evans plays a one-two with someone or other not far from the half way line, which allows the spritely 31 year old to trundle past Luke Chambers, take the ball a bit too wide for a shot and then surprise us all by kicking the ball against and over the out-stretched leg of Tomas Holy and into the Ipswich goal.  As Town fans shake their heads the ecstatic Cod Army joyously leap about like salmon in the Cobbold Stand.  “You’re not famous anymore” they chant, as if that goal was responsible, whilst also challenging the song’s validity by the very fact that they’re singing it.  All fame is everlasting – discuss.

As often happens, half time soon follows an opponent’s goal to allow us to reflect, seethe or just spend a penny depending on our individual needs.  I begin my well-earned break with a look at the programme, which leads me to regret the absence from the Fleetwood team tonight of Harrison Biggins and Barry Baggley, although Billy Crellin is on the bench and though I don’t know it yet, we are destined to see him and hear his name.  I also enjoy two photos of Fleetwood manager Joey Barton, one in which he looks as if he may have just lobbed a brick at someone and another in which his chin juts out menacingly from beneath a baseball cap as he gives the evil eye to a person or persons safely out of shot. 

Having spoken again with Ray as we passed one another heading from and to the toilet, the digital clock display on the Sir Bobby Robson stand strikes 2049 and the second half begins.  Town’s losing position gives rise to the usual unwelcome commentary and advice from assorted coaches in the stands;“Look at all that fuckin’space”, “ We’ve got no one at the back”, “Second ball!”.  When Janoi Donacien misses the ball a legion of half-wits jeer because I assume they all have World Cup winning medals or at least play for Brazil and are perfect in every way and always have been.  Pat from Clacton is rightfully annoyed, “You shouldn’t boo your own players” she tells me and I agree and tell her that’s what the opposition are for.

Town are better this half, although they still can’t get past Harry Souttar and when they do Ched Evans clears off the line, or goalkeeper Alex Cairns makes a fine save; I try to think of another player whose surname is the same as the name of an Australian city, but I can’t; Derek Darwin sounds plausible but is pure fiction.  The crowd is announced as 15,678 of whom 88 are from Fleetwood and many of the home crowd turn and applaud them for their effort including me, Mick looks on slightly bemused. He has a point, such applause is a bit patronising; plucky little Fleetwood etcetera, but it might just be people trying to be nice in a world tainted by Donald Trump and Priti Patel .

Nearly half an hour remains and a chorus of “Come of You Blues” rings around the ground and then dwindles away.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Fleetwood eighty-eight and I am impressed by their volume, which I can only attribute to a diet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges for coughs and sore throats, which are manufactured by Lofthouse of Fleetwood and taste disgusting.  My father was seemingly addicted to the things, although regrettably they couldn’t stop him spending the last ten years of his life mostly hitched up to an oxygen machine.

As the game descends into its final twenty minutes, Pat from Clacton shows me her purse full of ‘lucky’ charms, which she has collected from around the world, but it seems none of them works anymore although apparently some of them used to. She’s particularly fond of one from Vietnam , which is in the form of a masturbating monkey.  Pat seemed surprised she hadn’t shown me him before, but I tell her I think I would have remembered.

I am more or less resigned to another defeat now and Pat from Clacton is too, but unlike on a Saturday she doesn’t even have a jacket potato to look forward to when she gets home, but, she tells me, she will have a Nespresso latte.  The unhappiness of sections of the crowd is growing, chants of “We want Evans Out” can be heard and this time I think it is Marcus they mean and not Ched or ‘Evans the Song’. In the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand five banners appear all bearing a word beginning with the letter U and then N.  At first I wonder if Antonio Guterres is in the house but the banners read “Unambitious”, “Underfunded”, “Underpants”, “Underachieving” and “Unacceptable” although the middle one is a bit twisted so I might have got that wrong. 

Somewhat inevitably, Ipswich do not score an equaliser and the game ends amongst much rancour and general displeasure.  The atmosphere will later be described rather predictably as ‘toxic’, a word which used to be reserved for clouds of gas, but is now applied almost exclusively to the air we breathe at Portman Road.   Mick and I stay to applaud the teams off, because, although I can’t speak for Mick , I didn’t not enjoy the game any more than I usually do when we lose, and I also have some time to kill before the next train home.

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

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

Witham Railway Station

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

The Railway pub Witham

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

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

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

Witham Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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