Colchester United 2 Harrogate Town 1

It’s the first day of the second weekend in October and in the space of a week the leaves on the trees have begun to turn to shades of yellow and brown; it’s autumn and it’s cool.  I had wanted to head north to Morecambe today following Ipswich Town, but fate conspired to leave me without a car this morning and a hoped-for message that would have seen me ‘get a lift’ never arrived.  But like Ray Davies I like my football on a Saturday and so I have sought my fun elsewhere.  Local non-league football is always an attraction and Halstead Town, both Stanway Rovers and Stanway Pegasus, Little Oakley and Coggeshall United are all at home this afternoon but sticking two fingers up to the cost of living crisis I choose Colchester United versus Harrogate Town.  As some people collect vinyl records, Smurfs or infectious diseases so I collect Football League teams (well sort of) and I’ve never seen Harrogate Town.  It should be an “interesting” match, with the teams being third and fourth from bottom of the fourth division, but at least Col U should have a chance of winning.

Since Colchester United stopped running shuttle buses to their ridiculously remote stadium at Cuckoo Farm I have only been to see them there once, I used to be a regular. The Colchester United website now makes no reference to getting to the Community Stadium by public transport, the implication being that you can only get there by car, which is scandalous given the urgent need to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.   We are all doomed, but nevertheless I book a space on-line for my trusty Citroen C3 at the ‘Park and Walk’ car park (£3.00), which is over the A12 from the stadium, and make the short drive towards oblivion.   

It’s a pleasant walk from the car park beneath pale blue afternoon skies punctuated with fluffy clouds, over the roaring A12 to United Way and its vacant expanses of tarmac haunted by the ghosts of terminally delayed shuttle buses.  At the ground I visit the club shop to marvel at the pencils, mugs, cuddly toys and fridge magnets; this is Colchester’s Fitzwilliam Museum.  I pick up a programme in the shop and am pleasantly surprised to find that these are still free, “It’s like being in France” I tell the woman at the counter.  Mysteriously the cover of the programme is printed with the words “£3.00 where sold” and I wonder where that might be. Outside, I take a wander, easily resisting the temptation to pay £4.00 for a plastic cup of fizzy ‘IPA’ from the Legends Bar, although the alfresco Yogi Bear-style tables look inviting and £4.00 a pint is actually very cheap for a football ground.  Up a shaded corner sits the Harrogate Town team bus, provided by a local company with the fabulously Yorkshire name of ‘Murgatroyd’; it’s a name straight out of “Last of the Summer Wine”, and I imagine the Harrogate team running out to the theme tune at home games.

My fascination with the outside of the Community Stadium is soon exhausted and I head inside the stadium, successfully scanning my ticket and pushing through the turnstile at the third or fourth attempt; computer technology frequently succeeds in belittling me like this and I expect I shall meet my eventual demise at the hands of artificial intelligence.  I drift past the poorly patronised food stand beneath the stand, with its alluring smell of hot cooking oil and grease and find my way to my seat, which is sufficiently close to the foot of the stairs for the safety rail to be annoyingly in my field of vision.  Over the PA system, ‘Lost in music’ by Sister Sledge is followed by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ and I wonder if I’m not back at Layer Road in 1979 waiting to see Mick Packer, Steve Leslie and Trevor Lee strut their stuff.  Some of the people sat around about me look as if they would have been getting the benefit of a ticket at the concessionary price even back then.

“The teams are in the tunnel” announces the voice of the PA system excitedly to no reaction whatsoever from the crowd.  The teams soon emerge and as they line up for the usual pre-match pleasantries my view of them is almost totally obscured by the rail and the steward zealously guarding it.  Quickly, a couple of old boys sarcastically ask him if he’s going to stand there for the whole match, whilst also telling him to retreat into the stairwell, which he obligingly does; but I think he’s here to see the match as much as we are.

Colchester United get first go with the ball as the match begins and they attempt to aim at the goal closest to the town itself, which is over 3.5 kilometres away.  The U’s are wearing their traditional kit of blue and white striped shirts with white shorts and blue socks, and very smart it is too, particularly with just three broad blue stripes, although the red numbers on the backs of their shirts are mostly illegible.  Harrogate are regrettably one of the increasing number of teams that feel compelled to wear a funereal all-black away kit, despite there being no colour clash whatsoever between their yellow and black home kit and the U’s blue and white.   On the plus side, today is the first home league game for Col U’s new manager Matt Bloomfield, who joins the long list of former Ipswich Town players and managers at ‘Layer Road’, albeit that he only played one game for Town

“Col U” bang-bang-bang is the noise off to my right as the heirs to the Barside and Layer Road end get behind their team with a chant and the aid of a drum that sounds like a large cardboard box.  “Oooh, they’re in black, another bad sign and we’re kicking the wrong way” says the old bloke behind me cheerily like some soothsayer who might have told fortunes for Queen Boudicca.  “Only about bloody ten of ‘em” he continues, commenting on the Harrogate supporters in the opposite stand. “Got bloody cars in Yorkshire in’t they?”  He then proceeds to count them coming to a total of twenty-one.  Regrettably, I can’t resist doing the same and make the total twenty-five, although I don’t tell him.

“Blue and white army, de-de-de-de-dur” chant the home fans behind the goal as if they’ve either forgotten half the words or just couldn’t be bothered to think up any more.  “Hit the bloody thing” calls the old bloke behind me as Col U get into the Harrogate penalty area.  So far, so scruffy, it’s hard to  believe Col U beat Ipswich in the  League Cup earlier in the season.  “New manager’s made a difference, don’t you think” says someone behind the bloke behind me, perhaps only half in jest.  “Give him a chance, we’ve only had five minutes” says the voice of reason next to him, not quite getting the ’joke’.   “Who’s the wanker in the black” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, which is as close to wit as most football chants ever come.

When football is not of a high quality there comes a tipping point where this increases the likelihood of goals due to mistakes or ineptness, and happily this is what happens next.  A punt forward by Tom Dallison sails over the head of a Harrogate defender, who was either stood in the wrong place or didn’t jump high enough, and lands at the feet of Kwesi Appiah who is left with an unimpeded 20 odd metre run towards goal; he easily evades the Harrogate goalkeeper and runs the ball into an empty net whilst looking slightly surprised and possibly embarrassed.  Col U lead 1-0.

With Col U winning I relax and realise I haven’t seen the Col U mascot Eddie the Eagle, I hope he hasn’t succumbed to bird flu.  Col U are the better team with more attacking ideas, I hesitate to call it ‘verve’. “Go on push him” shouts the bloke next to me as Appiah chases another punt forward and the Harrogate defender who is ahead of him. Unfortunately, Appiah takes the bloke at his word and physically pushes the defender, inevitably conceding a free-kick.   The game is 25% gone and Frank Nouble heads a cross against the inside of a goal post, but it defies the laws of physics, and the angle of refraction somehow falls short of the angle of incidence and the ball stays out of the goal.  “There’s been more action in this first twenty minutes than in the whole season” says the bloke behind me sounding uncharacteristically positive.

I count the Harrogate fans again and it looks like there are thirty of them now, if they go on like this there might be forty of them by full-time; it seems unlikely though.  Perhaps aware of their swelling support, the Harrogate team begin to get something of a game together and win a corner and then another as Harrogate’s Armstrong, a bearded man with his hair tied back dangles a foot at the ball by way of an attempt on goal.   At first referee Mr Hicks give no decision and looks to his linesman. When the linesman signals goal-kick Mr Hicks awards the corner. “That’s teamwork” says the bloke next to me.

With ten minutes to go until half-time, Harrogate’s Joe Mattock has the honour of being the first player to be booked as he fouls the mouthy and theatrical Appiah.  Col U are strongest down the flanks and two minutes later a low cross from Junior Tchamadeu evades everyone in the penalty area expect Frank Nouble who is lurking beyond the far post and strikes the ball firmly into he goal to give Col U a 2-0 lead.  “Ole, Ole, Ole” chant the crowd behind the goal, simultaneously celebrating the goal and re-living holidays on the Costa Brava.

Four minutes of added on time are announced. “Where’d he get that from?” asks the bloke behind me but no one answers.  “You officials are a joke” shouts someone else when a possible handball is ignored and then Harrogate have their first shot on target, but it’s easily caught by Sam Hornby in the Col U goal.

With the half-time whistle I stand up to stretch my legs, and devour a Nature Valley Canadian Maple Syrup Crunchy bar as I check the half-time scores and discover that Ipswich are losing 1-0 at Morecambe. 

With the re-start of the game Harrogate replace Joe Mattock with Warren Burrell, I agree with the bloke beside me that Mattock had looked like he might get sent off if he wasn’t substituted, such was his enthusiasm.  Harrogate’s kick-off for the second half doesn’t show much hope for their approach as the ball is tapped back from the centre spot and then launched straight into touch as if just trying to gain distance from their own goal.  The other half-time substitute for Harrogate, Josh Falkingham fouls Appiah and quickly becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Hicks. “You dirty northern bastards” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, to my shame it’s a chant which, as someone who has never lived north of Ipswich, I have always found enjoyable.

Col U soon win another free-kick, but in the Harrogate half;  Mr Hicks sprays a line on the pitch ten yards from where the foul was given but  there is not a Harrogate player within ten yards of it. When Col U come to take the kick, they play it backwards.  “Go on boy, open your legs” cries the bloke next to me as Tchamadeu breaks forward again down the wing, I try not to look. Behind the goal the home fans have moved the choice of music in the stadium from the 1970’s to the 1980’s as they launch into a rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘I just can’t get enough’.  They switch to ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ as Mr Hicks brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Col U’s Cole Skuse.  As the sun goes down,  over half of the pitch is now in shadow and I’ve got cold hands.

Not quite an hour of the match has gone and as happened when Col U scored their first goal, a moment in which any ability a player has suddenly deserts him occurs again.  This time Hornby’s seemingly easy clearance barely leaves the ground and travels directly to Harrogate’s Daniel Grant who strides forward, and slips the ball through to Pattison who shoots the ball into the far corner of the Colchester goal, the score is 2-1.  Weirdly, the Harrogate fans do not appear to celebrate; if they do they do it quickly and quietly, but then, it might not be possible to hear them because they are so well spread throughout the away fans enclosure in groups of no more than two or three, it’s almost as if they don’t get on or are embarrassed to be seen with one another.

Harrogate win another corner from which McArdle heads over the cross-bar and then they make another pair of substitutions.  When a Harrogate player is injured and stays down he’s attended to by the physio who is a woman.  At least one person in the stand behind the goal feels it’s appropriate to produce a wolf whistle and the bloke behind me suggests that the injured player will be looking into her eyes and telling her the pain is in his groin area.  It is sobering to find there are people who still think like this.

The last twenty-five minutes of the match play out in a series of free-kicks, the occasional corner, the evening up of the number of yellow cards shown and some more substitutions, three for Col U and one for Harrogate.  Col U’s defending gets more desperate with Luke Chambers hoofing the ball inelegantly even when he doesn’t have to, like he did for Ipswich in his latter days. When Col U win a free-kick the bloke behind me suggests they bring on Freddie Sears who has already been substituted. “It’s what they do in America” he says, attempting to justify his stupid comment, with an equally stupid one. 

In the final ten minutes of normal time Luke Chambers is booked, almost wilfully it appears, and Alex Newby and Luke Hannant miss simple looking chances in quick succession that could have secured the win for Col U. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon is the nine minutes of added on time that is to be played, but this might just be because in previous years four minutes has always been what we’ve come to expect.

With the final whistle there is applause, the crowd has clearly enjoyed the win even if it wasn’t the greatest game ever played. Often however a game between two evenly matched teams will be perfectly watchable regardless of how good they are; Col U and Harrogate were evenly matched today but Col U were the better team and deserved their victory.  I head off back over the A12 to the car park and learn that Ipswich have come from behind to beat Morecambe 2-1 and all is right with the world.

Ipswich Town 3 Bristol Rovers 0

It’s the first Saturday in September and the weather has broken, although to be truthful it’s been looking a bit cracked for a while now.  Autumn approaches.  It rained overnight and whilst there are glimpses of sunshine it is straining to penetrate through the clouds and worst of all it feels cold.   But on the bright side, today sees the start of the football season and mighty Ipswich Town, the vessel in which the hopes and dreams of a good many of the people of Suffolk are invested will be playing Bristol Rovers in what I refer to as the League Cup, but the football club, media and those who don’t know any better call the Carabao Cup.  I didn’t used to know what Carabao was, I erroneously thought it was a wrongly spelt American name for a reindeer, but because of the League Cup, and thanks to Wikipedia,  I now know that it is a domestic water buffalo from the Philippines and also a drink; not a proper drink mind, like Adnams Broadside, tea, Noilly Prat, milk, red wine, Fuller’s 1845, espresso coffee, Crémant, pineapple juice, Champagne, lime cordial, Belgian Trappist beer , hot chocolate or malt whisky but something called an ‘energy drink’.   The sponsorship of football competitions is a curious thing and only adds to the feelings I have that I live as an outsider on the fringes of society, with the Milk Marketing Board being the only sponsor whose product I can honestly admit to ever having set out to purchase.

Kick-off is at three o’clock, but of course due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is not safe for a large crowd to gather and therefore no one is going to Portman Road today. Sadly, I shall be denied the joys of travelling on the trains of Greater Anglia, the pre-match pints, the quickening anticipation-filled walk down Portman Road and the click of the turnstile.  Today I will not hear the moans of the home supporters nor the witless abuse of the away supporters; I will not receive the suspicious glances of luminous stewards nor feel the soft artificial fur of Bluey and Crazee as they brush past me with their out-sized heads and weird hoof-hands; I will not become engrossed in conversation nor share see-sawing emotions with Mick, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, the old dears, Ray and his grandson Harrison, or Pat from Clacton with her bag of sweets and lucky charm, the masturbating monkey.

Not thinking of what I am missing, I enjoy a light lunch of home-made spicy carrot soup with my wife Paulene whilst resisting the temptation of a beer, despite a choice of Adnams Ghostship, Adnams Ease Up IPA, Fuller’s Bengal Lancer, Chimay, Chimay Brun, Orval, Westmalle and Faro Foudroyante from my ‘beer cupboard’.  We watch the Tour de France on the television, losing ourselves in the French countryside as an escape from the memory of lockdown. We talk and reminisce about holidays and trips to France.  It’s a quarter past three.  Flippin’ eck! The game has started and I hadn’t realised, this is what life is like without the discipline of the railway timetable to get me to the match.   I leave Paulene somewhere in the Haute Garonne and find my radio, which is already tuned to BBC Radio Suffolk, because I like a laugh.  I decided long ago that watching Town on the ifollow is not worth £10, particularly when I’ve already spent over £300 on a season ticket, so I settle down in an Ikea Poang chair in the back bedroom with Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills. Elvis Costello was right ” Radio is a sound salvation”.

Very quickly I learn that Aaron Drinan is pronounced Dry-nen and doesn’t rhyme with ‘linen’ as I previously thought it did, which I think is a useful start and then Mick Mills tells me that a half-chance for Bristol Rovers is the first time they have threatened Town’s goal so at least I can now be confident that we’re not losing.   Brenner and Mick witter on and Brenner tells me that Tomas Holy “puts his foot through the ball”; I wait for the referee to stop the game to extricate Holy’s foot, but rather confusingly the commentary carries on with Brenner describing the ball as being passed “along the deck “and I now wonder if the game has been moved from Portman Road to an oil tanker; it’s common after all for the size of such ships to be measured in terms of football pitches.   I’m still not sure of the up to date score but Brenner is hoping for a result in normal time, which implies the scores are still level and that he’s got better things to do after five o’clock than commentate on this.  The absence of any crowd noise then strikes me for the first time and I am conscious of the shouts of the players echoing through the stands left cavernous and empty.  Fittingly in all this blankness, Brenner at last reprises the score, it’s still nil-nil; I haven’t missed anything then. Phew.

Mick Mills is not a man to ever sound at all excited, but he feels moved to say that our left hand side has ‘come to life’ and produced two or three ‘moments’.  That’s what the game is all about I think to myself and am heartened to hear Mick provide balance by wishing that the right hand side of the team could do the same.  Brenner takes back control of the commentary and I learn that today Paul Lambert is wearing a big over coat, which is most unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in a black v-neck sweater; perhaps the added security of his five year contract has led him to invest in a more extensive wardrobe, but I do worry that it’s a bit early in the year for an overcoat and surely this can only provoke more abuse from his critics on social media. 

As I drift off into reverie about what is an appropriate coat for a football manager on a cool early September Saturday, Brenner announces that “Sears was not going to miss” and Town are 1-0 up.  It’s twenty-eight minutes past three, I clench my left fist and softly whisper a sibilant ‘Yes’ to myself. “It was easy to get the ball down the corridor to Sears” says Mick Mills and once again I’m a bit lost trying to imagine where I’d seen any corridors at Portman Road, except beneath the stands, and worrying that if the ball was in a corridor surely it should have been a throw-in.  I thank our lucky stars that our level of football is not subject to VAR.

With Town a goal up the game soon sounds like it has become a tad dull, or it could just be the commentary.  Mick Mills increasingly seems like a comfortably retired man in his seventies, but the I remember that he is.  Brenner meanwhile goes off piste and begins to talk about Town’s next game at home to the Arsenal Under-23 team in the now despicably compromised, credibility-lacking EFL Trophy, expressing his interest in seeing “…how good the latest crop of kids at the Emirates are”.  If he’s so interested in bleedin’ Arsenal perhaps he should clear off to BBC London.   Hopefully as annoyed as I am by Brenner’s concern about a club that isn’t Ipswich Town, Mick tries to break the mould by injecting a hint of excitement into the commentary and announces “That was a super pass from Dozzell” but he spoils it rather by pausing and then adding   “so that was good”, as if his use of the adjective “super” was in retrospect going a bit far.

I look at my watch and find that it’s approaching half time and I think I discern from the commentary that Town have a corner.  They do, and now it’s 2-0 courtesy of what Mick Mills dubs a ‘fabulous goal’ from Luke Chambers. “Luke Chambers is pretty deadly in the opposition box” says Mick leaving me to fill in the blanks that he can, on occasions, be quite deadly in his own box too.  Half-time arrives and unlike at Portman Road I don’t make an undignified dash to the khasi but stay in my seat. This is no doubt in part due to not having a bladder full of the remnants of two or more pints of beer and partly because at Portman Road I am not pleasantly paralysed through sitting on a comfortable chair.  For remaining seated I am rewarded by hearing Mick Mills refer to Aaron Drinan as Aaron Dry-nan although he instantly corrects himself to make Aaron’s surname rhyme with linen a la Brenner Woolley.  Mick goes on to tempt fate horribly by saying that he “…cannot see Bristol Rovers coming back in to this”.  I admire Mick’s forthrightness, but recent experience nevertheless leads me to offer a small prayer for him, and his opinion, despite my probable atheism.  I take a brief trip downstairs to France to bring the gospel to my Christian wife that Town are winning 2-0.  She asks if I am sure I have tuned into the right radio station.

The second half begins at the ridiculously late time of 4:06pm, and it’s not long before Mick Mills is telling me that the game has become a “…little but drab, a little bit boring”; if anyone should know about that it’s monotone Mick.  Personally, I am finding the experience of sitting in my back bedroom listening to the wireless quite exciting and probably more interesting than if I had had to fork out a tenner or so for a match ticket plus as much again for the train fare, beer and perhaps a pie, all requirements if I was to attend in person.  I am further enthralled when Brenner advises me as the ball is booted off the pitch that “…the ball is dipped in some sort of sterilizing solution when it goes in the seats over there”.  I can’t help wondering why this is necessary; who normally sits in that part of the ground? What sort of unpleasant residue have they left? Why hasn’t that corner of the ground be cleaned since last March?

Moving on, Mick Mills is providing the most enjoyable moments of the commentary and, as he did in the first half, he gives praise but then tempers it.  “That was a wonderful corner by Judge” he says before qualifying his statement by explaining “It was…………good”, once again suggesting that given time to think about it perhaps his initial assessment was a little too enthusiastic.   It’s either that or he just doesn’t know that many adjectives.  But there is no doubt that lurking beneath Mick’s inherent reticence and quietude there is a passion and he soon lets it out with the statement “There’s a lot of football in the team”.  As for Brenner he can’t help but betray a certain cynicism, no doubt borne of over fifteen years commentating on the mighty Blues; “Good play from the Blues” says Brenner, before adding with perfect timing “At the moment”.

The second half is clearly not totally thrilling, but the impression received is thankfully that Town are playing within themselves and have the measure of these “Pirates”.  The game plays on and I am guilty of paying more attention to Twitter than to Brenner and Mick as I seek to discover how the likes of Whitton United, Long Melford, Ipswich Wanderers, Stowmarket Town and Framlingham Town are getting on.  I admit I haven’t really been paying close attention to the commentary but am nevertheless surprised at four thirty-three to hear Brenner say that Town are now 3-0 up, and although I will admit to reading Twitter I wonder how I could have missed hearing the goal go in. I am left to suppose Mick’s less than excited general delivery and Brenner’s overriding interest in the Arsenal’s “kids” could explain why neither commentator had succeeded in grabbing my attention.   Fortunately, Twitter can also tell me that it was Freddie Sears who scored the third goal, in the 68th minute as well as actually showing me the first two goals and then the third as well.

Time moves on inexorably and it’s now four forty-nine, and Brenner confirms that it’s been “all over really” since Freddie Sears scored Town’s third goal, as he stifles a yawn.  Fittingly the commentary peters out a little with periods of silence punctuated with commentator clichés letting the eager listeners know that Bristol Rovers don’t have “enough left in the tank” to change the result and that Town have been “good value” for their lead.  “Three-nil, Ipswich Town” says Brenner, saving up his allocation of useful verbs and adjectives for another day, perhaps when Arsenal’s “kids” might be playing.  “Town, winding the clock down” says Mick.  “According to my watch we’re just about there” are Brenner’s final words, as if prompting the referee to blow his whistle, which miraculously he then does.

Pleased that Town have won and pleased that I can leave Brenner and Mick alone together and return downstairs to my wife, I turn off my radio.  I haven’t really had a clue what’s been going on all afternoon but I do know that Town have won a cup tie, scoring three times in the process and not conceding, even if I only noticed two of the goals and it feels as if it all happened in a far off universe, but being divorced from the proceedings the result is all that matters.  Back to reality, if not normality; a glass of beer and fish and chips for tea.  As Ray Davies of the Kinks told us in Autumn Almanac, “I like my football on a Saturday”.

“Radio, it’s a sound salvation”

Ipswich Town 0 Norwich City 1

‘I like my football on a Saturday’ sang Ray Davies in the Kinks song Autumn Almanac and it’s convenient for the purposes of this piece to believe he meant that he liked his football on the afternoon of the first day of the weekend to the exclusion of all other days. If it had scanned, Ray might have added that a smattering of mid-week evening matches during the season are fine and the occasional Friday game as well, because as every TV commentator knows the atmosphere under lights ‘is always a bit special’. But football should not be played at midday ever, and definitely not on a Sunday. To make matters worse today’s match is the ‘derby’ between Ipswich and Norwich, the most over-hyped and unpleasant fixture of the season. It is with a heavy heart full of bitterness and rancour therefore that I set off at twenty to eleven to catch the train to Ipswich to watch this match. At least I have the recent memory of sausage, bacon, eggs, mushroom, tomatoes and a few rounds of toast plus tea and coffee to sustain me and ensure I won’t need to buy any over-priced, low nutrition, grease-based lunch inside Portman Road.
It is a grey, cloudy morning but as the train hoves into view faint sunlight can just about be discerned, but it won’t last.  A few other people board the train with me and are clearly bound for Ipswich and the match. A man opposite me seems to struggle to respond to his young daughter’s questions and conversation. At Colchester a couple on Platform 4 awaiting a London bound train nuzzle up to each other and hold hands. The carriage fills up at Manningtree with an assortment of blue shirted people, mostly men. The train crosses the river, the tide is neither in nor out; if I was looking for portents, may be that would suggest the game will be drawn. A few seats away an opinionated man dominates the conversation with his fellow travellers, his piercing voice finding a pitch that cuts through the rattle and whoosh of the speeding train, or perhaps he is just shouting. Arriving at Ipswich we are welcomed by a bevy of hi-vis clad police37597036700_95b1488178_o who wait by the foot of the pedestrian bridge. Outside there are more police, and more, and more, and more. There are white police vans with mesh grilles to cover the windows, motor bikes, dogs, horses, Kevlar, helmets and batons. I thought I was travelling to a football match, but I appear to have arrived in Paris in May 1968, or Brixton in the summer of 1981.

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A long crocodile of Norwich supporters; mostly ugly blokes in their twenties and thirties, are being shepherded along the pavement across the road; they chant coarsely and leer both threateningly and gormlessly at Ipswich fans across the street, who look and behave just like them. A policeman on horseback steers an errant Norwich fan in the right direction by grabbing him by the hood of his coat and dragging him back into line. Depressed, I soldier on in to Portman Road, a young policeman asks me “Are you Sir Alf?”37806242966_834240dcea_o by which I quickly surmise he means is my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, but not before I laugh and it crosses my mind to say “No I’m not, and I don’t think you’ll find him here today, he died in 1999.” I think there is a flicker of recognition across the policeman’s face that his question was a bit daft or at best poorly framed, but I’m not completely sure. I don’t know why he picked out me to ask. Perhaps I looked a bit lost, I feel it. There are metal barriers along Portman Road to usher the Norwich people into their area of the Cobbold Stand and tables are stood before the turnstiles where bags are being searched, but no one is being patted down, so it would be possible to smuggle in a flare or smoke canister or firecracker under your coat, if that was your thing.
Inside the ground I buy a programme (£3.00), talk to a steward I used to work with and then take my seat in the stand. Someone has smuggled in a smoke canister and the acrid smell and the smoke waft up from the concourse beneath the seats. The public address system drowns out the sound of any noise football supporters might spontaneously make and the stadium announcer gives a clue to his age and catholic tastes by playing Bon Jovi and Heaven 17. The teams come onto the pitch and everyone has been given blue pieces of card to hold up to ‘turn the stadium blue’;37597139880_d54efdafd5_o(1) it doesn’t look that impressive and would look better if some bands of seats had been given white cards to hold up; at least the club has tried however. I am confident of an Ipswich win today based on the law of averages: Town having not recorded a victory in any of the last eight matches between the clubs it’s about time they did.
The game begins with a roar of enthusiasm and there are people stood up in the seats in front of me, which results in the drafting in of extra stewards. The lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey isn’t usually populated by people who would stand during a game, indeed it’s37597066870_dbc81449ee_o likely that standing to pee is as much as many of the regulars can manage. But the front of the Alf Ramsey Stand is close to the seats where the Norwich people are accommodated and therefore if you like nothing more than spending an afternoon making masturbatory gestures, gurning and telling people they are ‘scum’ and should ‘fuck off’, it’s the only place to be. There are a few chants from Ipswich supporters but very few from the Sir Alf Ramsey stand lower tier, which is more full than usual, but seemingly no more likely to burst into song in support of the team, despite its newly acquired standing contingent.
The first half is pretty even, but whilst Norwich may keep the ball for longer, Ipswich come closest to scoring. Early on Town’s Danish defender Jonas Knudsen kicks the ball very, very hard against a post of the Norwich goal; what he lacks in craft and accuracy he sometimes makes up for by kicking the ball very hard. David McGoldrick heads the ball over the goal from a free-kick when he could and should score, but this is symptomatic of an anxiety that permeates his play all afternoon.
There’s a cold wind swirling about the stadium and I have turned up the collar of my coat. At half-time I seek shelter in the space beneath the stand where the bars are doing a good trade. A large group of young men are singing, clearly not understanding that traditionally at football the singing takes place on the ’terraces’ during play. It seems that a generation or more of Ipswichians has forgotten or may be never have learned how to support their team. I wander up and down a bit and notice the large banners projecting from pillars announcing that Greene King brewery is proud to be supporting Ipswich Town, and they are no doubt proud too to know that their bland and insipid IPA bitter is being sold for £3.90 a pint.37806224896_a53532601b_o24002096988_4635c03522_o Back up in the stand one of Town’s more senior supporters tucks into a ham sandwich that he brought to the match wrapped in tin foil.
The game returns and Norwich are better than before and by a quarter past one they take the lead through James Maddison, who sounds and looks like he could be in a boy band. Maddison parades about the pitch, his floppy hair bouncing as if he is advertising L’Oreal shampoo, because today he is worth the £3million Norwich paid Coventry for him. Little Jimmy Maddison is better than anyone Ipswich have in midfield today, but of course he’s no Arnold Muhren.
Ridiculously, given the amount of time left, the goal kills the game. Norwich are better on the ball than Ipswich, they have a plan and are versed in winning 1-0 away from home. Ipswich don’t have the guile or skill; they run about, but they hit and hope too much and it will take more than the half an hour left for the law of averages to render a goal from this random approach. Naturally, the Ipswich fans are unable to help because they don’t even try. A bloke near me becomes frustrated and begins abusing the Town players. It is disappointing, but if the supporters don’t know how to support the team why should the players know how to play. The Norwich supporters have songs they all know, they are coherent like their team, and neither the Ipswich team nor its supporters has any answers.
The final whistle provides a sort of relief and I leave the ground as quickly as possible whilst some Ipswich supporters boo their own team, which no doubts adds to the Norwich people’s joy. The police presence outside the ground and on the approach to the railway station is as great as before the game. Rank upon rank of policemen and women are strung across Princes Street, a human obstacle course to the stream of fans heading to catch their trains.
It’s been a disappointing day; everything about the day has been depressing, which I guess the law of averages says has to happen sometimes. But as Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss tells us, all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Yeah, right. Keep the faith.