Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 2

Back on Tuesday 8th March I erroneously believed that the glorious two-goal victory over the Imps of Lincoln City would be the last time this season that I would witness our heroes play a match under the dreamy luminous glow of the Portman Road floodlights.  But my capacity for getting things wrong is pretty much limitless, and courtesy of Sky Sports TV moving our Good Friday excursion to Rotherham to Saturday lunchtime, what should have been a relaxed end of season stroll of a game on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon has been transformed into a final, atmospheric night game.  Sky TV and its parent company Comcast may have completely ruined professional football in England with their money and meal-time kick-offs, but it is an extremely ill-wind that blows no good at all and I love a mid-week game under floodlights, even if our opponents tonight will only be third division leaders Wigan Athletic and not Real Madrid, Feijenoord or Lokomotiv Leipzig as they once would have been.

For an evening match it’s still very light as I walk down through Gippeswyk Park and along the river behind the Pentahotel, but then it is only half-past six on an April evening in the Northern Hemisphere.  The salty, pungent smell of seaweed and mud is carried on the wind and Oyster Catchers whistle like demented referees as they swoop above a group of Canada geese, ornithological reminders of Frank Yallop, Jaime Peters, Craig Forrest and Jason De Vos.  I’m heading for what was the Arboretum pub but is now the Arbor House for a pre-match pint. I stop off in Sir Alf Ramsey Way to buy a programme in the modern cashless way. “Is it working?” I ask the cheery young female programme seller. “At the moment” she replies, cheerily. ”We’d better be quick then” I say, tendering my blue plastic card. Disappointingly the sale does not transact. “I think we probably don’t take that card” says the girl letting me down gently.  “No, I don’t expect you do” I say, proffering a second blue card, “That was my season ticket”.   It’s the sort of faux pas to rival those of my dear mother, who once on a day trip to France asked a waiter if he spoke French.

At the Arboretum, or Arbor House, I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) using my bank card and sit in the garden alone. I take my programme from my jacket pocket expecting to just ‘flick through’ it, but to my surprise I end up actually reading two quite interesting pieces about Sone Aluko’s experiences playing for Nigeria and how Idris El Mizouni copes with being a professional sportsman during Ramadan.   After a half an hour of beer and contemplation I head back to Portman Road beneath the setting sun shining through pearlescent clouds. Turnstile 61 is my favoured portal tonight, it was a choice between that and No 59. The pleasant lady turnstile operator smiles me into the ground and I make for the gents where I enjoy a tinny rendition of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown before I wash my hands.   Up in the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is concealed within a blue hoody and Pat from Clacton is talking to the bloke who sits to my left and I think is from Stowmarket; they’re talking about how cold it is this evening and indeed a lazy East wind is blowing across the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, causing me to raise my collar and do up the top button of my coat.  Fiona arrives, returned from her cruise and other excursions.

With hands shaken and knees taken and applauded the game begins;  Town getting first go with the ball and pointing it mostly in the direction of the goal in front of me, Pat, Phil, Fiona and my neighbour who might be from Stowmarket and whose grandson is here with him tonight. “Everywhere we go” sing the Wigan fans up in the Cobbold stand, but I can’t quite catch what it is about everywhere they go that they want to tell us. Everywhere they go is quite nice? Everywhere they go is better than Wigan and not as nice as Ipswich?  Everywhere they go they are politely asked to leave? I may never know. As if not to be out done by the visitors, which is unusual, the Sir Bobby Robson stand breaks into the same tune but with different words, the ones that begin “Addy, Addy, Addy-O”. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a good start and it’s not even properly dark yet.   My first thoughts on the game itself are that the Wigan players all look extremely big and their all-scarlet kit stands out particularly well even if it does lack style. But the football soon chases away all thoughts of haute couture as Town embark on a first half of fine attacking football, raining in crosses from left and right from Wes Burns and Matt Penney and winning corners courtesy of Janoi Donacien and the clever passing of Conor Chaplin.

Only an announcement asking the owner of a black Ranger Rover in the Sir Alf Ramsey car park to move it breaks my concentration and I realise I never knew Sir Alf had a car park named in his honour.  The incident reminds me of when my own car achieved similar fame at Barnet, with the registration being read out over the public address system.  My car was also black, but it was a Ford Fiesta, and I didn’t have to move it, just turn the lights off. When I got back to my car after the game the battery was flat, but some friendly Barnet fans gave me a push start.  Wigan have a few moments of possession, but it ends with Town breaking swiftly with Wes Burns, who lays the ball off to the oddly named Macauley Bonne who feeds it to the overlapping Matt Penney who shoots hopelessly high and wide of the goal from 20 metres out.

This is a good game with Conor Chaplin threading more inviting passes into the box and Bersant Celina shooting into the arms of the Wigan goalkeeper and Old Testament prophet Amos.  As Amos then spills the ball from a Sam Morsy shot , a man a couple of rows behind me laughs like Goofy, the anthropomorphic Walt Disney dog. A cross curves in a graceful arc from the boot of Bersant Celina but eludes the head of the oddly named Macauley Bonne and another chorus of “Addy, Addy Addy-O” emanates from the North Stand before echoing from pockets around the ground where people seem to know the rest of the words too.  Up in the Cobbold Stand the Wigan fans sing of balm cakes, coal and canals, possibly.  A man next to the man who laughs like Goofy, laughs like a chimpanzee.

Above the North Stand roof and floodlights a smear of cloud adopts a pinkish tinge as the sun sinks down over Sproughton and a lone seagull glides above the pitch on its way back to the coast for the night. Twenty-five minutes have passed and Wigan’s Kelland Watts, whose name sounds a bit like the formal version of former Coronation Street character ‘Curly’ Watts, gets to be the first player shown the yellow card of referee Mr Will Finnie, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  Matt Penney and Bersant Celina rain in more crosses, which Wigan’s tough centre-back Jack Whatmough (pronounced Whatmuff I hope) sends out for another Town corner. “Are you working from home still?” asks Pat from Clacton of Fiona; she is.  Town are all over Wigan like a rash but just can’t score.  My neighbour from Stowmarket and I turn to one other and share how we just know that Wigan are going to go up the other end and score.

With half-time approaching Sam Morsy is shown Mr Finnie’s yellow card as a bloke called Bennett wriggles on the turf and rubs his face.  No free-kick is given to Wigan and indeed Town have a corner, during  the taking of which Mr Finnie watches intently as the miraculously recovered Bennett proceeds to give Sam Morsy a huge bear hug to prevent him from making a run towards the ball or anywhere else. Incredibly Mr Finnie evidently doesn’t consider that being hugged by an opposition player as the ball is crossed into the box is any sort of a foul, perhaps he simply thought  Bennett hadn’t seen Morsy for a long time and was understandably overcome with emotion.  From the corner, Wigan break away and Luke Woolfenden is booked for bringing down Stephen Humphrys. The free-kick leads to Wigan winning their first corner of the match; it’s the forty-fifth minute and Wigan score as Will Keane runs free and glances a header inside the far post.  We knew it would happen.

Four minutes of added on time give the Wiganers in the Cobbold Stand the opportunity to sing “We’re gonna win the league, We’re gonna the league, And they int gonna believe uz , And they int gonna believe uz” to the tune of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”,  but curiously they develop a Midlands accent as they do  so. 

Half-time begins with me booing the referee for his incompetence and then Ray stops for a chat on his way to using the facilities beneath the stand.  The football resumes at seven minutes to nine with the replacement of Matt Penney with Dominic Thompson and Pat from Clacton remarks on how Thompson receives a lot of unfair abuse from some Town supporters on social media;  but we all agree that he’s alright and we like him.  I would even go so far as to say that with his beard that sometimes looks like massive sideburns and his hair that looks like tied-back dreads (it might actually be tied-back dreads), he is easily the coolest player Town have ever had.

Town pick up where they left off about fifteen minutes ago and dominate possession whilst also sending in more crosses that are cleared. “Ole, Ole, Ole” or “Allez, Allez, Allez” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier, along with other words that I have even more difficulty deciphering and therefore don’t bother trying to; I just enjoy the noise. The fifty third minute and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar. The attendance is announced in a very jolly manner over the PA system by Stephen Foster, former Radio Suffolk presenter and school chum of my friends Ian and Pete, as 21,329 with the number of Wigan supporters in that total being 402, or as Stephen in full DJ mode pronounces it “foouur, huuuundred and twooo.”   “You’re support is fucking shit” chant the Wiganers to the ever adaptable Welsh hymn tune of Cwm Rhondda,  which in turn provokes more chimpanzee style laughter from the  bloke a couple of rows behind me.  

Back on the pitch and with an hour gone Wigan’s Callum Lang scythes down Conor Chaplin and is justly booked by the otherwise inept Mr Finnie.  Lang’s protestations of innocence are as credible as those of Boris Johnson; it was a blatant foul, but probably less cynical than our Prime Minister’s lies.  From the free-kick the ball pings about a bit in the penalty area before it falls to Conor Chaplin who makes a small clearing and pops the ball into the back of the net to equalise.   “Top of the league, your ‘avin’ a laugh” taunt the Sir Bobby Robson standers to the tune of Tom Hark, originally recorded by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes in 1958, which seems a bit harsh given that Wigan are both genuinely top of the league and, for all Town’s possession and good play, are not actually losing. But the goal has enthused the home crowd and a pledge of “Ipswich ‘til I die” is heard before James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne and then Wigan almost reclaim the lead, as Dominic Thompson inexplicably heads across his own penalty area forcing Christian Walton into two point-blank saves from the lurking Bennett.

Within four minutes Wigan are punished for missing the gift we had tried to give them as Wes Burns’ cross is headed back across the face of the correct goal by Dominic Thompson, atoning for his earlier error and an incoming Sam Morsy does a passable impression of John Wark by lashing the ball into the roof of the net.  It’s a proper goal, but foolishly and conceitedly the home crowd find it necessary once again to chant “Top of the league, you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” and go on to compound their error with more than one chorus of “Keano, Keano, What’s the score?”. It’s almost as if the crowd have forgotten that Will Keane no longer plays for us and they actually still want him to score.  What other explanation for such flagrant tempting of fate can there be?

Will Keane has already scored once and eludes the defence again to shoot at Christian Walton before the inevitable happens and with four minutes of normal time remaining he again slips all trace of marking to flick a low cross past Walton from close range.  Keane has looked mean and lean all game and much sharper than he ever did playing for Town, and when he has needed to he has made easy work of Town’s zonal ‘marking’ system.  Up in the Cobbold stand the scenes are more reminiscent of Wigan Casino  than Wigan Athletic  as the foouur, huuuundred and twooo dance and celebrate being top of the league (still) and Will Keane scoring both of his team’s goals.

The game is more even now, not only in terms of goals scored. The final whistle sees Wigan having the last laugh at being top of the league; we might have mostly outplayed them but they didn’t lose and it seems unlikely they won’t be going up as Champions,  whilst Town will be hoping Bolton and Portsmouth let us finish higher than eleventh. Some people find solace by saying that age is just a number, well perhaps so is your team’s league position, unless of course it’s bottom like Norwich’s.

 Watching your team play well is always a pleasure whatever league they’re in and tonight’s has been a marvellous match, a fitting finale to this season’s floodlit fixtures, which is just as well because courtesy of Sky TV the last game of the season is at bloody lunchtime, so we can all fast like it’s Ramadan. Bon appetit.

Ipswich Town 5 ABBA 5

The football season is over save for the silly play-offs, and now it’s the height of Spring,  and with little else to occupy him a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Eurovision Song Contest;  or maybe not.  But last week’s transmission of the bizarre, annual , musical  television ritual extravaganza was inevitably accompanied by the airing of a clip show on BBC4 of past performances by the competition’s only notable success, Abba.  I have never bought, stolen, borrowed or owned an Abba record, tape, download or CD, but I will admit to being unable to suppress a smile when I hear one played.    Equally, I couldn’t resist watching that clip show and felt rewarded when it brought back memories of a road trip I made in the summer of 1995, which took me and my then girlfriend via Parkeston Quay, DFDS Seaways ferry, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Uppsala and Sundsvall to Pitea in northern Sweden, where we stayed with my girlfriend’s pen friend and her husband.  It was a very long drive for which the soundtrack for several stages of the journey came courtesy of a CD of Abba Gold belonging to my girlfriend.

The experience of listening to Abba on that road trip has stayed with me and it led to an article in the erstwhile Ipswich Town fanzine A Load of Cobbolds.  Now, in the spirit of nostalgia inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Ipswich Town’s UEFA Cup win and  in the absence of anything better to do I have reproduced that article below, updating it to modern times where necessary:

When you’re an eleven or twelve year-old football and pop music loom large as pre-pubescent priorities.   I bought my first record (Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono) in 1971,  the same year that I started watching Ipswich Town, and I  soon began to feel that footie and pop music were somehow inextricably linked. The late Sixties and early Seventies was a time when it was easy to confuse footballers with pop stars and my two worlds satisfyingly collided.  The fashion for any bloke who aspired to being hip and trendy was an enormous thatch of hair coupled with equally vast sideburns.  Squeezed into a pair of bollock-hugging, crushed-velvet flairs and sporting a deafeningly loud shirt,  Ian Collard or Rod Belfitt might have been members of The Hollies, or Kevin Beattie a member of Nazareth.

The similarities in the appearance of pop stars and footballers subsided a bit as the Seventies wore on and sadly, sartorially Punk Rock never seemed to catch on with any footballers at all.  There were however still some startling lookalikes within the ranks of the PFA, I thought.  It could have just been my addled perception, but I always felt that Arsenal’s Frank Stapleton and Shakin’ Stevens were the same bloke.  Moving on into the 1980’s the separation at birth of Oldham Athletic’s Andy Ritchie and Jimmy Somerville was ‘well documented’ at the time, but less well-known is the fact that Roy Keane and Sinead O’Connor were also twins.

More amazing than these superficial similarities, which admittedly are largely the invention of my fevered imagination, is the very precise correlation between the success of one particular football club during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and a particular pop group.  Both were at their peak between 1973 and 1982. The football club of course was Ipswich Town and the pop group was Abba.

If you take time to trawl through the collected works of the famous Swedish songsters, as Dave Allard might have called them, you will not only enjoy a richly rewarding aural experience, but you will soon reach the conclusion that the fact that Town and Abba were both at the peak of their powers over precisely the same period of time is no coincidence.   Listen carefully to the lyrics and you will be able to trace the history of the Town’s success through that glorious era.  You will find that listening to Abba Gold (Greatest Hits) is as close to a religious experience as you can hope to get;  something akin to an Ipswich Town Dreamtime, harking back to an epoch when Portman Road was inhabited by ancestral figures of heroic proportions who possessed supernatural powers.   In the film Muriel’s Wedding the eponymous Muriel says that Abba’s songs are better than real life.  Now, as we sit in the murky depths of the third division and look back at Town’s glorious past you too will believe this is true.

As you might expect from Europe’s foremost supergroup many of the songs make reference to Town’s European campaigns of that era in the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ cups.  It is likely that it was through Town’s exploits on the continent that the talented Swedes first became Town supporters, although we were actually only drawn against Swedish opposition  once when in 1977 we met Landskrona Bois and most inconveniently The Stranglers played the Ipswich Gaumont on the very same night as the home leg.  Naturally, I missed The Stranglers concert and sadly never got a second opportunity to see them.    There is clearly a reference to Town’s UEFA Cup triumph over Lazio in the title of the number one hit ‘Mamma Mia!’, a song which also contains a lyric that suggests one of Abba had perhaps had a brief flirtation with a Town player or supporter and may explain the uncanny connection between Abba and the mighty Blues;

“Yes, I’ve been broken hearted, Blue since the day we parted.”

The moving ballad ‘Fernando’ is sung to an imaginary Spanish fan and recalls those sultry September and cooler autumn evenings when we entertained Iberian opposition from Real Madrid, Las Palmas and Barcelona.

“There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando….

Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regrets. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”

That last line referred to the fact that Town were twice drawn to play Barcelona, whilst the line  before that refers to our having lost both ties despite being confident after winning the first leg.  Another song, ‘Super Trouper’, whilst still referencing games played under floodlight, perhaps because of the lack of daylight hours in Sweden during the English football season, refers to an individual player and employs little-known Swedish rhyming slang in a thinly disguised paean to goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me shining like the sun, Smiling having fun feeling like a number one”

In the 1978 Abba hit “Take a chance on me”   the subtle Swedish Blues fans reveal the little known story of how Frans Thijssen successfully pleaded with Bobby Robson to let him join his compatriot Arnold Muhren at Portman Road and to try his luck in English football. 

Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me. If you need me let me know and I’ll be around. Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie, if you put me to the test, if you let me try”.

Although those days were such wonderful times for Town, not every song described a happy or uplifting event.  There were sad days too at Portman Road back in the Seventies and hard decisions had to be made for the good of the team.  The 1977 ‘Number One’ hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ was about the departure of former Portman Road favourite David Johnson, the one-time ‘King of Portman Road’, who left Town to join rivals Liverpool.  In the song, the reflective Scouser looks back on the good times he has had at Portman Road since his move to Town from Everton four years earlier.

  “Memories, good days, bad days, they’ll be with me, always”

David appreciates however that his recent form has not been good and in the circumstances a move is the best thing for everyone.

  “Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do, we just have to face it this time we’re through; Breaking up is never easy I know but I had to go, Knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I could do”.

Back in the Seventies, money wasn’t the driving force in football that it is today.  Nevertheless, the spending power of clubs such as Manchester United, who were able to make expensive signings virtually every season despite being rubbish, rankled with Bobby Robson and he longed to be able to make big signings for Town.  Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” was a song about his frustration. 

“In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man…  “

”All the things I could do if I had a little money…”

“Money, money, money, always sunny in a rich man’s world”

Both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’ showed something of the downside of those glory years and as we look back on those days from the fag-end of the first quarter of the miserable twenty-first century a melancholy aura pervades our memories, in part because ultimately Town failed to win the League Championship that we deserved, but perhaps also because even at the time we knew it all had to end one day, and when Bobby Robson left to manage England in 1982 we secretly knew it had.  Abba knew it too and two of their hits put these feelings in to sharp perspective.  The haunting melody of ‘Winner takes it all’ explores the pain that looking back on the good times would bring; it begins:

 “I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me now it’s history”

Abba’s last big hit ‘Thank you for the music’ is sung from the perspective of our legendary club captain Mick Mills who reminisces, having regretfully left Town for Southampton, about the joy and beauty of those days between 1973 and 1982.  If you’ve listened to the slightly dull monotone of Mick’s summaries as he sits alongside commentator Brenner Woolley on BBC Radio Suffolk, you will appreciate the opening lines to this song; 

“I’m nothing special in fact I’m a bit of a bore, If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before…”

But Mick’s talent was as full-back and captain of the greatest Ipswich Town side ever and this was the ‘music’ referred to in the title of this most moving of Abba songs.  This was a song from the heart of ‘Mr Ipswich Town’, Mick Mills, and it is truly uncanny how Mick with his blond locks and luxurious facial hair even looks like a bit like a composite of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the song’s composers.  This song is the ultimate celebration of those ten seasons at the top in which Mick thanks fate for the glorious hand he was dealt.

“I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair

I want to sing it out to everybody

What a joy, what a life, what a chance

So I say Thank You for the music

The songs I’m singing

Thank you for the joy they’re bringing…”

The songs of Abba define and encapsulate a golden period in the story of the twentieth century and the time before Thatcherism and neo-liberalism destroyed your innocence.  Abba’s songs, their success and the glory of Ipswich Town, the nicest professional football club the world had ever known did not happen together by coincidence.  The proof is in the lyrics of the songs, and shows that cosmic forces were at work.  Those of us who lived through the 1970’s were truly blessed to have experienced the music of Abba as it happened, but we are doubly blessed to have been Ipswich Town supporters too.

Thank you for the music Bobby Robson and Mick and all the lads who played for us between 1973 and 1982 , and thank you for the music Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Lille OSC 4 OGC Nice 0

It’s been a cold, grey February day in northern France; it snowed last night to add to the snow that had been lying around waiting for the next lot to fall.

It takes some effort though to imagine what it must have been like in Flanders’ fields just over a hundred years ago. But I’m born lucky, there’s no march to the front for me, just a walk from my hotel to the République/Beaux-Arts Metro station in Lille. My grandfather came to France in 1914 to fight for king and country and get hit by shrapnel; I’m here with my wife Paulene to watch Lille OSC play OGC in Nice in Conforama Ligue 1. It seems very unfair on him really, but who knows, things may change; half the population seem oblivious to the fact that the EU and the longest ever period of peace in Western Europe are not a coincidence.
Down in the Metro station at about 7:25 pm we recharge the tickets we had last time we were here back in March of last year; it’s the responsible thing to do and it saves 0.20 euros per ticket too (3.30 return instead of 3.50). Ligne 2 of Lille’s two line, driverless metro system will take us on the twelve stop journey to the end of the line at 4 Cantons Stade Pierre Mauroy in a about fifteen minutes, from where it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk through the university campus to the stadium. As metro systems go, Lille’s is the most fun of any I’ve travelled on; the rubber-tyred trains make a whizzing, whirring noise and with no driver you can sit up front and watch the tunnel and the lights of on-coming trains hurtle towards you. I’ve been on worse and more expensive funfair rides which have failed to take me anywhere near a football ground; one-nil to Lille.
The train is hot and busy with football fans and Friday night commuters; the heat aggravates Paulene’s asthma so we alight three stops early at Villeneuve d’Ascq Hotel de Ville, which is no further from the stadium than the dedicated station. This walk to the stadium takes us through the local shopping centre, but we get out and walk through outcrops of slushy snow across the car park where the air is much fresher, and more breathable. Across the car park supporters in ones and twos converge on a point in a corner by a roundabout where we join the throng of Lillois on their march to the ground. Up Rue de Versailles we head, past the Picwic toy shop, Saint Maclou flooring shop and the ubiquitous Leroy Merlin DIY store, this is the wonderful world of out of town French retailing. A number 18 bus, which we would have caught from République Beaux Arts if the Metro hadn’t been so enticing, disgorges passengers; above the front windscreen the digital display alternately reads the destination and ‘Allez LOSC’. Behind us a man and his young daughter are part of the marching crowd in their red and white scarves; the girl talks excitedly to her father; she has the endearing, soft voice that many young French children have; she sounds as if she’s lost her big white dog, Belle.

Reaching the top of Rue De Versailles, the Stade Pierre Mauroy hoves into view like a huge neon-lit slug. With its curves and strip lights it’s not immediately recognisable as a football stadium but happily it doesn’t look like a DIY store either, as it might if it was in England. It seems England and France have a different language of architecture as well a different spoken language. The French like to make a grand statement; the English would seem to like to save money.
As much as I want to visit the club shop to delight in what it has to offer, Paulene is still struggling due to her asthma so together we make our way directly to our seats. We bought our tickets on-line a month or so ago (16.65 Euros each) but there are queues at the guichets tonight with a special promotion for students, including those at the lycées (secondary schools for 15 to 18 year olds), who can get in for just five euros. Eventually there will be a crowd of 32,849 watching tonight’s match, which is also live on satellite/cable TV. Kick-off is half an hour away and we do not have to queue for our tickets to be checked, or to be ‘searched’ and patted down; it makes me and the steward smile when he pats me on the head to see if I’m hiding anything under my Ipswich Town beanie hat, I’m 1.87m tall. At every turn we are wished “Bon Match” by the polite, helpful, friendly and efficient security and gate staff. At the turnstile I collect a copy of the A4 sized, glossy and completely free match programme. On our last visit the programme had the title Reservoir Dogues, a weak and nonsensical pun on the club nickname of Les Dogues. This season the heading is ‘In The City’ above a silhouette of some Lille’s most outstanding buildings, including the Stade Mauroy. The title shows understandable civic pride and a fine appreciation of the oeuvre of The Jam. We make for our seats which are on the back row of the bottom tier of the stadium and the view is excellent, particularly given what we paid for them; about what it would cost to watch Colchester United.

With kick-off time (8:45pm) nigh Lille introduce their new signing from Belenenses the interestingly named Reinildo, possibly the only Mozambique footballer I have ever seen. Greetings for the new boy over, the teams file onto the pitch side by side and we are treated to a display of giant Roman candles and the Ligue 1 theme music; the excitement is building and in the Tribune Est (East Stand) red and white scarves are held aloft. The western end of the stadium mirrors the east and then supporters all around the ground join in as they sing the club song, somewhat weirdly to the tune of Amazing Grace. It’s impressive nonetheless and far superior to anything likely to be seen or heard from supporters of any English club nowadays.

The game begins courtesy of Lille who are aiming towards Rue de Versailles and the Auchan supermarket and are wearing their customary red shirts with navy blue sleeves and shorts. Nice kick towards the multi-storey car park behind the Tribune Ouest and wear all-white. Lille quickly take the initiative as expected of the home team; and so they should, being second in the league table behind Paris St Germain and nine points ahead of seventh placed Nice. But Nice look the better team because they are all in white like Real Madrid; it’s a kit that sets off their Cote d’Azur suntans; they also have the majestic Brazilian Dante at centre half and at number seven Allan Saint-Maximin who, with his blond dreadlocks and headband is the coolest looking player on the pitch.

With nine minutes on the scoreboard the stadium erupts into spontaneous applause for Emiliano Sala the former Nantes player lost in the English Channel due to a plane crash; it seems there is very high regard for Sala amongst supporters of all French teams and it is a very moving sixty seconds.

Nice whose first choice kit is the same as that of AC Milan continue to look good in their all-white change kit but sadly for them, Italian and Mediterranean style count for little and it’s not even five to nine before Lille’s Jonathan Bamba hares away down the left and a cross finds 19 year old Portuguese Rafael Leao with little else to do but kick the ball into the goal. The already ‘up for it’ crowd are even more ‘up for it’ as more Roman candles ejaculate white sparks behind the goals and the Lille players enjoy a group hug.

From now on the Lille supporters are in good voice, as if they weren’t already. “Lo lo, lo lo lo, lo lo-o-o, L-O-S-C” they sing and other catchy chants. At the Tribune Ouest, the two guys stood on the raised platform at the front of the stand who are conducting the ultras are joined by an older man whose long white hair makes him look worryingly like Jimmy Savile; happily however his enthusiasm for supporting Les Dogues does him credit and he waves his arms encouragingly to good effect.
The game progresses and Nice don’t look like scoring; they have some decent players but they don’t look happy to have left the Cote d’Azur to spend a cold evening near the Belgian border. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time 23 year old Ivorian Nicolas Pepe breaks away down the right; he shoots unexpectedly and the ball goes across Nice ‘keeper Walter Benitez and inside the far post. More out-sized Roman candles, more joy, more chants, less likelihood of Nice not losing this match. In front of us two ten or eleven year olds who look like they are here with their grandfathers behave annoyingly, tearing up their programmes and lobbing the screwed up fragments onto the people sat below and then jumping about aping the ultras in the Tribune Nord. “Petites merdes” I think to myself. Another boy with blond hair is constantly fed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits by his dad who at other times has the childish grin of the two petites merdes.
Half-time arrives and I ‘nip out the back’ to the buvette for an espresso coffee (2 Euros) and a hot chocolate (2 euros), although after a long wait in a not particularly long queue the hot chocolate proves to be only a lukewarm chocolate, but it is a cold night. The guy serving in the buvette immediately detects that I’m not French and asks where I’m from; I tell him England and oddly he asks me if I’m British; I tell him I’m from Ipswich just to confuse him.
I get back to my seat just in time to see the teams return for the second half. Nice manager Patrick Vieira has evidently failed to galvanise his team who remain disappointing, as perhaps one might expect from a manager who has failed to nurture the mercurial, damaged and flawed but fabulously entertaining Mario Balotelli and instead allowed him to join French Riviera rivals Olympique Marseille. The second half is like the first, but a little colder, even though the roof to the stadium is closed. When anyone opens one of the doors behind us that lead out onto the concourse there’s a helluva draft. With fifteen minutes left twenty-two year old Jonathan Bamba evades the Nice defence to score a third goal for Lille and the fireworks explode again and the ultras erupt into an orgy of flag waving. The game is won and the crowd celebrates with more songs and chants which echo across the pitch from one Tribune to another, scarves are held aloft again and then a Mexican Wave begins; I think it’s called joie de vivre, we don’t really have it in Ipswich.
The game may well be won and lost but there is more fun to come as Nice substitute Pierre Lees Melou is fouled by Lille’s Luiz Araujo. Lees Melou steps across Arujao to get the ball and catches Arajao on the leg; he collapses to the ground. Referee Jerome Miguelgorry consults the VAR and we wait; he returns to the scene of the ‘crime’, reverses his decision and shows a red card to Lees Melou, apparently for violent conduct; it all seems rather ridiculous and everyone seems a little stunned. I sense Nice just want to head back down south where it’s a good ten degrees warmer and who can blame them; sadly for them they don’t make it before Lille score a fourth goal in time added on when Loic Remy dashingly diverts a cross from Jeremy Pied past Walter Benitez with the use of his head. For Lille it’s the ideal way to end a successful evening, for Nice….well, they are past caring.
The final whistle just brings further celebrations for the Lillois as everyone salutes their team with generous applause before turning away and off into the night, filling the dark, deeply cold streets with the hum of excited conversation and hurried steps. It’s been a lot of fun.

Ipswich Town 0 Cardiff City 1

 

Tonight I am looking forward to going to the football at Portman Road despite the pall of gloom that hangs over the place; a gloom which deepened on Sunday when a Norwich City goal in the last seven seconds of added on time fooled many Ipswich fans into thinking a decent result was a terrible one.   There’s a lot of blame and a lot of disinterest weighing the place down.  But what do I care, it’s five o’clock and one of the best things in life is to leave work and go directly to the pub and that’s exactly what I am doing, along with my accomplice for the first part of the evening Roly.

Darkness is imperceptibly surrounding us as we head along Constantine Road, Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Portman Road towards St Jude’s Tavern.  It’s cold and through the eerieOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA half-light a few tiny specks of very light sleet drift and fall and sparkle in a car headlight beam.  There is activity in the football ground as stewards arrive and are detailed off for their evening duties; Zero the sniffer dog arrives at the Constantine Road gate to the ground with his handler; Zero is sans-lead, which I guess for a working dog like him is like being in civvies.  I like to think of him having his own dressing room where he changes into collar and lead and perhaps prepares for the evening with a few exercises to clear his sinuses. In Portman Road the hot food stands set up a while ago and early diners stand nearby in ones and twos, basking in the beautiful, enticing fluorescent light, which falls out into the street and as ever make me think of the paintings of Edward Hopper.

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It’s not yet 5:20 when we rock up at Jude’s and there aren’t many drinkers here yet, just the few who are seemingly always here and think they are characters in Cheers.  Roly gets me a pint of Bearstown Best Bitter (£3.20) and has a pint of Priory Mild (£3.20) himself.  We sit in a corner near the door, a location Roly chooses, perhaps because of the tilting leather-bound chair which allows him to lean back and pose questions in the manner of a TV chat show host.  Roly has a show on Ipswich Community Radio and is used to audiences of less than ten. We talk a variety of nonsense, although Roly does most of the talking because he’s nothing if not loquacious, which is perhaps why he is on the wireless.  As we finish our pints and are about to get more beer and a pie each, who should walk in to the pub but ever-present Phil who never misses a match.  Attracted by tales of the Match Day Special (£2.50) in this very blog, Phil has decided to eschew the delights of the fanzone tonight and sample cheap beer in a proper pub where none of the beer, rather than all of it, bears the name Greene King.

After introductions and an explanation of Phil’s claim to fame, I eventually fetch a pie and a pint (£5.00) each for Roly and me. I have a pint of Nethergate Suffolk Bitter and a mince and onion pie, Roly has more Priory Mild and a steak and kidney pie; I tear open a sachet of red sauce, Roly has no sauce.  I return to our table to find Roly talking at length to Phil about the 1993/94 season, which could be the last time Phil missed a game, I don’t really know.  Time passes and I have a further pint, this time the Match Day Special (£2.50), which is St Jude’s Gainsborough.  Phil leaves for the ground before Roly and I, but by and by we also head to Portman Road; Roly is meeting a friend called Andrew, a public sector worker who lives in Bury St Edmunds.

Outside, the night time now surrounds us, but it’s very cold and the chill night air feels damp.  A fine mist shrouds the Portman Road floodlights creating a scene and an atmosphere far too spectacular and evocative for this mundane second division fixture, for which only 13,205 people will bother to leave their homes.  Roly, Andrew and I meet close to the statue of Sir Alf and try hard to be humourous.  I say that if we see a game half as good as the goalless draw against Burton Albion last Saturday week, I will be happy; how we laugh.  Roly and Andrew depart for the expensive seats in the East of England Co-operative stand leaving me to saunter down Portman Road and bask in the variety of light that shines from street lamps and windows, from over doorways and from the little white programme kiosks.

 

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There are two orange plastic cones behind the statue of Sir Bobby Robson, which in the shadows deceive the eye and look like there is cloth hanging off the back of his plinth.  Why are they there? Does Sir Bobby get down off his plinth in the middle of the night and dance around joyously with one on his head as he remembers victories under floodlights over St Etienne, FC Koln, Real Madrid and Norwich?

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I am not searched as I enter the ground, although I carry a bag displaying the yellow stars of the European Union, perhaps I have diplomatic immunity.  Near the turnstiles just inside the ground a notice warns of high voltage electricity, seemingly just behind a locked door, and the sign advises that one should contact the stadium manger to gain access; I make a mental note just in case I’m feeling suicidal at half-time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I use the toilet facilities and advance through the undercroft of the stand where there are now very few people at all; there aren’t many more in the stand and swathes of empty blue seats  greet the teams, cheering and singing just like regular Ipswich fans.  The teams are ready to kick-off as I select a seat just along from Phil.   Ipswich are playing towards me, Phil and the empty seats of ‘Churchmans’, now known as the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Cardiff kick-off and are wearing the most garish, unpleasant kit I have ever seen in my entire football watching life.   Cardiff’s shirts are day-glo green and their shorts are blue; it’s a kit inspired by the heads and hands of Edward Lear’s Jumblies and “Happen what may it’s extremely wrong”.

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It takes the Cardiff City supporters of whom there are 371, just eight minutes to enquire as to whether Portman Road is a library;

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their question is met with the characteristic stony silence as if no one heard them; just once I would like 13,000 odd Ipswich supporters to put their fingers to their lips and go  SShhhh!   The first half is not surprisingly a quiet affair; Cardiff dominate in the first ten or fifteen minutes without really looking like they know what they’re doing, but then Ipswich get back at them and create openings that almost lead to something that might result in a goal; corners, crosses, shots and the like.  The most notable feature of the game however, apart from Cardiff’s hideously coloured shirts, is the size of the Cardiff players, they are to a man enormous; it’s like a team of Neanderthals against a team of Australopithicus.  Who knew Neanderthals had such poor taste in shirts?  Any way, it’s not too bad a game and Ipswich seem every bit as good as Cardiff, just shorter and better dressed.  Surely there’s more to Cardiff City’s being second in the league table than this?

Half-time brings a visit to the toilet and a then a chat with a couple of women who used to travel to away games, as I did, on a coach hired by the Clacton branch of the supporters club. I also talk to Dee and Pete with whom I used to work and then Ray, another public sector employee and former colleague, who once appeared in an Anglian Water advertisement.  Ray went to see Ipswich play at Norwich; I ask him if he has come into some money; tickets for that game cost £40. £40! I’d expect to see a World Cup final for that.  We chat and are surprised to hear America’s 1971 recording ‘Horse With No Name’ playing over the PA system, but on reflection it is an appropriately dreary  and pessimistic song for Portman Road and its passionless supporters.

The second half begins and Cardiff City are still wearing those repulsive green shirts with blue shorts; why hasn’t the little bald referee Mr Davies told them? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But then, why would the Football League let a man called Davies referee a Cardiff City match?   I have heard talk of the Welsh Mafia, or Tafia and tonight we are seeing it in action.  There is no way Ipswich will win this game.

Ipswich aren’t quite as ‘good’ as they were at the end of the first half and get a bit fed up.  When a disputed throw-in is awarded to Cardiff, Ipswich captain Luke Chambers gives a frustrated little skip and beats his arms against his sides like a petulant school girl.  Behind the thrower an advert reads ‘Ginster’s Pasties, Fill your boots’, which would make a good alternative to the half-time penalty shoot-out; how many pasties can you stuff into your shoe?  Above my head a buddleia still grows on the roof of the stand.

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When the attendance figure is announced, the Cardiff fans sing “ You’re only here for the Cardiff” , which given that it’s the lowest gate of the season isn’t saying much; if only they knew, but perhaps it was just the next song on their playlist.   But the Welsh clearly caught the late 60s early 70’s vibe of ‘Horse With No Name’ at half-time and reprise it with a blast of the Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance, singing “ All we are saying is give us a goal” .  Three minutes later, a Cardiff free-kick drops in the Ipswich penalty area, a bloke in a nasty green shirt seems to fall on top of it, possibly handling it, before standing up and kicking it in an ungainly manner into the corner of the Ipswich goal; his name is Kenneth.  It’s a crappy goal, one of the crappiest, but we know something of Mr Davies’ taste in music.

The Ipswich supporters react as usual to their team going behind with a deafening wall of silence as they contemplate how they might become any less passionate and supportive of their team. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the game enters its final fifteen minutes however, some voices briefly stir in the North Stand as the drum up the corner is occasionally heard and that old favourite “Sloop John B” is employed to celebrate that Luke Hyam is the only player in the team to have emerged from the Ipswich Town ‘Academy’: “He’s one of our own, He’s one of our own, Luke Hyam, He’s one of our own”.    Phil satirically sings “We’ve got him on loan, we’ve got him on loan, perm any one from Carter-Vickers, Callum Connolly or Bersant Celina, we’ve got him on loan”.

Having scored just twice in their last six home matches, Ipswich inevitably go one better to make it two goals in seven matches.  Equally inevitably, I hear the fading sound of boos as I skip out of the ground and run to the railway station to catch the ‘early’ train to Colchester, which I succeed in doing only to find my connecting train is cancelled.

It’s not been a terrible night’s football, some small parts of it were even quite good.  But overall it was what I believe in modern parlance is described as ‘meh’.  But I enjoyed going to the pub and seeing the pretty lights and speaking to lots of people and hearing the occasional Welsh accent, so there’s lots to be thankful for. I’ll probably come again.