For someone who had already given up travelling home and away every week to watch my team, one of the good things about the current pandemic and so-called ‘elite’ football being played behind closed-doors is that when your team plays away from home, you simply cannot go, so there is no internal debate to be had about whether or not you should travel. Equally, there is no longer that same feeling of regret or self-doubt come Saturday afternoon that you are possibly missing out on something when the decision has irrevocably been made not to go away. Today however, is not such a day, there is no chance that I would have travelled to Blackpool because it’s a long way away and it’s a dump. I have been to Blackpool twice before, once in 1989 with a girlfriend, whilst somewhat bizarrely holidaying on the Wirral and staying in a hotel that looked like the Munster’s house. That day the sun shone and we took the tram along the front, no football was involved. Then, eighteen and half years later in January 2008 I was one of a car load of four Town fans who, along with several others witnessed a one all draw at Bloomfield Road. That game has faded from memory, but the one thing I do recall is a massive, somewhat dilapidated public lavatory near the sea front; this is not a metaphor for Blackpool itself, although it could well be because I found it to be a seedy, ugly town, but the public toilet was actually quite impressive. To be fair to Blackpool it does have a decent wrought-iron lattice tower (158 metres tall), but once you’ve been to Paris (the Eiffel Tower is 300metres tall), it is easily confused with numerous phone masts.
In my experience the best thing about Blackpool is the football team’s tangerine shirt, something that first came to my notice in 1971 in the form of ten painted, moulded, plastic footballers on circular bases which I saw when I attended a Subbuteo club at school. The thought of Blackpool’s tangerine shirts still thrills me a little today as over lunch I look forward to Ipswich Town’s encounter with the collection of living, breathing footballers who currently wear them for work. It’s a cold day of showers and occasional sunshine which I have so far spent indoors, save for a brief excursion to my garage to check its leaking roof and the positioning of five plastic buckets. My wife Paulene and I eat our lunch of heated-up homemade curry, left over from last night’s dinner, and I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (500 ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for a case of eight bottles direct from Fuller’s brewery with free postage on orders over £50), which coincidentally, given its name, goes down very well with curry.
It feels grey and a little chilly in the spare bedroom today and pining for human contact I choose to listen to the match on the wireless in the living room, where I will be in the company of Paulene. With Paulene watching the Giro d’Italia cycle race on the telly I have to find an earphone because she is strangely uninterested in hearing the fortunes of the Super Blues. It’s easier to use an earphone with a smaller more portable radio and I therefore eschew the Bush TR82 today in favour of the Sony ICF-S10 portable radio. After an initial unfortunate brush with Radio Essex, I delicately adjust the dial just in time to catch the hand-over from the Radio Suffolk studio in St Matthews Street, Ipswich to Brenner Woolley at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool. Today Brenner is in the company of former Ipswich Town starlet Neil Rimmer who, whilst not exactly a Town legend or candidate for our Hall of Fame scored three times in twenty-two appearances for Town between 1985 and 1988 before he went onto play ten times as many matches for Wigan Athletic. According to Wikipedia Neil is currently manager of Ashton Town. Neil has a warm, almost mellifluous voice, perfect for radio, even if his mild scouse accent occasionally makes me think of Keith Chegwin, but that could just be me desperately trying to find humour in every situation.
Brenner helpfully tells me that Town are all in blue today and I strike up a colourful mental picture of our blue, Blackpool’s tangerine and the green of the pitch against banks of empty orange seats under a no doubt grey sky. Brenner begins his commentary, relaying that it is former Town employee Grant Ward who “gets the ball rolling” before he treats us to some decent footballese, describing Blackpool as getting to the edge of the Town area “early doors”. “Impressive stuff from the Radio Suffolk man.” he might say if he was commentating on his own commentary. According to Brenner it’s a sunny afternoon in Blackpool, so I adjust the colour and brightness in my mental picture; and it’s very blowy, either that or one of Brenner or Neil is about to tap the microphone and launch into a kind of Norman Collier impression – “testing – testing, 1-2-3”. Brenner will later say that he expects we can hear the wind around the microphone; he’s not wrong.
Unlike Mantovani or most of the musical content on Radio Suffolk, the early minutes of the game are not easy listening. “Town have yet to have the ball on the ground in the Blackpool half” says Brenner. ”We’ve got to be precise with our passing” adds Neil offering a solution to the problem and simultaneously endearing himself to Town fans with his use of the first person plural. “I think it’s all about results” says Neil explaining to Brenner what will make Town fans happy or annoyed, although Mick McCarthy might have cause to disagree, but thankfully he’s not with Neil and Brenner this afternoon.
Twelve minutes pass. “Maxwell puts his right foot right through it” says Brenner using an expression he tends to use once in every match to describe a goal kick. Brenner carries on with a bit of filler as the action subsides, “Nsiala back in his native north-west” he says, displaying a woeful knowledge of the geography of both England and the Democratic Republic of Congo; Toto was born in Kinshasa which is in the West, not the northwest of the DRC. Although Kinshasa was in Zaire when Toto was born, it has never physically moved and it seems unlikely that it’s ever been in Lancashire.
Barely have I recovered from the thought of LS Lowry’s paintings of the cotton mills of Kinshasa and its Hot Pot and Barm Cake restaurants, than “Chambers shoots – fabulous goal!” are the welcome words arriving in my earpiece through the ether. Town are a goal up courtesy of a shot that “…just about took the net away”. Paulene missed my celebration of the goal because she has nipped to the toilet, but I tell her about it when she gets back; she feigns interest perhaps because her own team Portsmouth are also winning.
The first half is half over and Brenner tells us that it’s so far so good. Ninety seconds later “Nsiala goes Route One for Ipswich” and Brenner revives memories of BBC tv’s fabulous Quiz Ball, a programme which was last aired in 1972. I think to myself how I’d like to see Quiz Ball revived; Richard Osman could host it in place of David Vine, they practically wear the same glasses. It sounds as if the goal has settled Town, although occasionally they continue to give the ball away in midfield; more than once Huws is the culprit but the defence recover well. “Gabriel back to Marvin Ekpiteta” says Brenner using the best two surnames in the Blackpool team, adding that Ekpiteta has “…come up through the pyramid”, which makes him sound like he could have been an extra in The Mummy. A move breaks down and “Again Town starting from square one” says Brenner omitting to tell us that he’s now using the system created for the very first BBC radio commentary for a match (Arsenal v Sheffield Wednesday in Division One on 22nd January 1927) whereby the pitch was divided up into eight squares and the commentator Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam described the game whilst a co-commentator said which square the ball was in; a diagram showing the football pitch divided up into squares was printed in that week’s Radio Times.
At about 3.35 Gwion Edwards runs into the Blackpool penalty area “He shoots – he scores” says Brenner and Town lead 2-0. “Again, I think it’s deserved” says Neil displaying a level of enthusiasm and positivity towards Town not often heard. “Yeah clinical from Ipswich Town” replies Brenner putting the emphasis on the word ‘Clinical’ in a way that makes him sound either sarcastic or surprised.
Three minutes later Hawkins “scoops” a chance over the cross bar but Brenner kindly adds that it was “…not quite put on a plate for him”. Neil’s audible smiles are having an effect on Brenner who reminds listeners that Neil Rimmer is with him today and goes on to refer to Neil as “…so far a lucky charm”, which sadly implies that the 2-0 score line is nothing to do with Town playing well, but all down to Neil, and that that luck may change. Other forces are at work it seems and as a Blackpool attack is broken up with a headed clearance from Town’s goalkeeper, Brenner announces “Holy’s forehead takes charge”. Equally weirdly Brenner praises the teamwork of Town saying that when Miles Kenlock has been under pressure at left-back “… a Huws, an Edwards or a Wilson has helped out.” raising questions about just how many players with these surnames we have at the club and why they are all playing at the same time.
Half-time is almost here but there is enough time for Teddy Bishop to win the ball and then “…he shoots – and oh, great goal!”. “Get this for a scoreline” say Brenner; Town lead 3-0 and it’s time for a cup of tea, although not before Brenner asks Neil for his assessment of the half and Neil says “I was very impressed” before adding “Goals change games” because clichés and football are impossible to separate.
Unplugging myself from the radio I head for the kitchen but forego a half-time snack today because I had a slice of homemade carrot cake after lunch and still feel quite full. Making a case for a return to the yellow and blue away kit of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I take my tea in a yellow and blue Ipswich Town mug, which also features the old club crest and refers to the Premier League, dating it to the 1992 to 1995 period.
The second-half coverage opens with Neil again endearing himself to Town fans by telling us that “Teams like this shouldn’t cause us any problems”. Brenner and Neil reminisce about Neil’s playing days at Ipswich and we learn that the highlight of his time with Town was his two-goals against Manchester City. Brenner feels the need to explain to ‘younger listeners’ that back then Town would often beat Manchester City, but omits to tell them that everyone did.
Blackpool win a corner. “They need a goal soon if they are going to get anything out of this game” say Brenner, unnecessarily seeing the game from the opposition’s point of view. The 57th minute arrives and Kayden Jackson replaces Oliver Hawkins. An hour has been played. “Surely a chance, and it is” and Blackpool score through Gary Madine. That’s “really disappointing” says Neil perfectly catching the zeitgeist back in Suffolk. “Have Town been guilty of sitting back?” probes Brenner turning the knife. “Yeah” says Neil, really disappointed.
There are twenty-five minutes left. “Anything could happen” Brenner tells us almost as if expecting Blackpool to score again. It seems as if a substitution is about to be made and we learn that on-loan Keanan Bennetts is possibly coming on, “Paul Lambert certainly has his arm around somebody on the far side” adds Brenner injecting a hint of scandal into proceedings. Bennetts replaces Teddy Bishop, but as good as it is for Bennetts to get a ‘run out’ for the first team , I am slightly disappointed that Paul Lambert is not combining his Saturday afternoon job with some sort of romantic tryst.
“Surely not a penalty there” says Brenner suddenly. “Well played referee” he continues having evidently realised that he needs to want Town to win. In the same vein Brenner begins to speak more quickly and with an air of excited anticipation “Bennetts cuts inside, shoots” then “Wide” in a flattened, deeper tone. Brenner and Neil are conveying the feeling that Town are responding to Blackpool having scored, Paul Lambert is clapping his hands on the far side, presumably as an act of encouragement for his team and not because he’s cold. Brenner has not said what Paul is wearing today so we are not to know if he might be cold or not.
There are ten minutes left. Brenner brings good news. “Edwards in behind Gabriel, is he going to make it four? He does”. The game is won for Ipswich, but perversely Brenner’s thoughts are with the opposition and he finds it necessary to share his supposition that Blackpool manager Neil Critchley will “…be happy with the attitude”. I’m not sure anyone back in Suffolk cares.
It’s ten to five and I realise I never drank my half-time tea. I down the still lukewarm beverage and by the time I’ve done that referee Chris Sarginson, whose name I don’t recall Brenner having mentioned, has blown his whistle for the last time this afternoon. The players, we are told, begin to “pat hands” and in my mind’s eye I see Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in tangerine shirts doing their “patty cake” routine in the “Road to” movies. Road to Blackpool would be a worthy addition to the series. After almost two hours of Radio Suffolk I can’t bear to listen to whatever follows the commentary and for me the broadcast ends with Brenner telling us that Neil will be “hanging around to take your calls”; my mind’s eye flits from musical comedy to a vision of Neil, hands in pockets loitering outside a dimly lit seafront phone box.
Four-one wins away from home are not common occurrences for any team, in the 1980-81 season when we were the best team on the planet we scored four goals away from home twice, at Coventry City and at St Etienne, so today’s result is one to treasure. Results like this however do make me want to travel away again and they highlight the sadness of football that we can’t be a part of. But I refuse to let it bother me and I am now already looking forward to next Saturday and the reunion of Brenner with Mick Mills after what seems like a geological age without a home game. Inspired by the mention of St Etienne and Blackpool Tower I shall be wearing my Allez les Bleus t-shirt.