Another Saturday, another football match at the end of another week, another few hours from which to extract fleeting pleasure, one hopes. That is the nature of life, it’s what makes it bearable unless of course you are lucky enough to be constantly in awe and wonder of everything around you and struggle not to stand with mouth agape at the multitude of different arrangements of atoms and molecules before us and of which we are of course just a tiny part. All this, and football too.
The vanquishing of Burton Albion is the source of today’s hopeful pleasure for many; it’s a fixture that reminds us of life’s elixir, beer. Historically, Burton-On-Trent was Britain’s beer brewing capital and it would be nice to think that in the same way that Grimsby Town once made gifts of boxes of fish to their opponents, so Burton Albion donate crates of beer to the needy wherever they go. Perhaps in the past, when Burton was the epicentre of responsible drinking they did, it would perhaps help to explain the demise of Burton Albion’s predecessors Burton Swifts and Burton United. Burton Swifts were members of the inaugural Football League Division Two back in 1892 when Ipswich Town were still mucking about playing nothing but friendlies when not getting knocked out of the Suffolk Senior Cup and the FA Cup respectively by the public schoolboys of Framlingham College and Old Westminsters. The beautifully named Swifts lasted until 1901, when due to failing finances they merged with Burton Wanderers to become the boringly but accurately named Burton United. The new club lasted in the Football League until 1907 when they finished bottom of the table and were voted out. It would take well over a century for Burton Albion to get the town back into the Football League, although they didn’t start trying until 1950.
My mind teeming with thoughts of football history, the nature of existence and beer, I park up my planet saving Citroen e-C4 and step out across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road football ground. The streets around the ground are quieter than they have been before recent games, but there are still people sitting out in the cold enjoying grilled meat products and leaning on Sir Alf Ramsey’s plinth to eat chips. I stop at one of the blue booths where I dream of one day of buying an ice cream as well as a programme. Today, I must make do with just the programme (£3.50), which I pay for in the modern cashless way. I carry on to ‘the Arb’ past the spiral car park, which I would like to see become one of Ipswich’s many listed buildings. On the steps nearby I overtake a man and a woman who possess two of the largest heads of hair I ever seen in Ipswich; the style is hippie rather than beehive, although either makes a good match with the 1960’s car park.
At ‘the Arb’ I invest in a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.59 with 10% Camra discount), but only because the Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride has reached the end of the barrel. I retire to the beer garden and sit in the shelter between a man reading a book whilst eating from a piece of slate, and a family of three. I sip my beer and read the programme, intrigued that Lincoln City have only lost seven games but are fourteenth in the table. I begin to read a five page interview with Harry Clarke, but to my shame lose interest at the end of page three; in my defence however, I have read “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust. Mick rescues me from the pages of the programme and after collecting a pint from a new barrel of Suffolk Pride, he joins me. Barely has our conversation got on to the usual subject of death before Gary unexpectedly arrives carrying a pint of lager. We continue to talk of death, sciatica, terminal illness, TV programmes we always watch (I always record Sgorio on S4C), and a friend of Mick’s who has a lifelong collection of football and speedway programmes, which he keeps in a shed. When his friend dies, says Mick, he expects his wife will just throw them all away. None of us consider that his wife might die first. Filled with bonhomie by the joy of pre-match conversation, I return to the bar to buy a half of Lager 43 for Gary, a single blended whisky for Mick and a pint of Suffolk Pride for myself; I casually pay for the drinks having no idea of the cost.
At some time around twenty to three we depart for the ground, going our separate ways in what used to be Portman Walk. The portentous turnstile 62 sees me safely into the ground and once in the stand I edge past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to my seat next but one to the man from Stowmarket and a couple of rows behind ever-present Phil who never misses a game, although his young son Elwood isn’t here today. As former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster reads out the Town team, Phil and I shout out their surnames like a French football crowd would and hope everyone else will join in, but they don’t. Phil remains optimistic that everyone will have ‘got with the programme’ by the time of the play-off final at Wembley.
After some boisterous “Na-na-nas” and re-wording of The Beatles ‘Hey Jude,’ the game begins, and Town get first go with the ball , heading for the goal at the far end of the ground from me and my band of crazy Ultras. Town are as ever wearing blue shirts and white shorts, but sadly Burton have decided to forego their proper kit of yellow and black and have instead opted to appear disguised as every other dull, anonymous team that ever played an away match, and they wear all-black; it feels like they’re not really interested in being Burton Albion, they might as well give us the points now. In their yellow shirts and black shorts the referee and his assistants look more like Burton Albion than Burton Albion do.
It takes a while for any football to break out and it’s the team in black who win the first corner of the game, neither with nor against the run of play, but following a poor kick by Christian Walton. “Blue Army, Blue Army” shout the home crowd after the corner leads to Town breaking away with Conor Chaplin whose deep cross is easily claimed by the goalkeeper. “Pushing high, in’t they” says the bloke behind me of the away team, and he’s right, they are putting Town players under pressure as they attempt to pass the ball about at the back; this should be creating gaps in the middle of the pitch for Town to exploit, but mysteriously the gaps are not appearing. Ten minutes have disappeared into the past and whoever this away team are, they win another corner.
The twelfth minute, and Freddie Ladapo impersonates Pele. The ball is played high towards him, he’s going to jump for it, but then doesn’t and instead turns and chases it as it sails over his marker’s head. It’s a piece of inventiveness that’s worth a goal, but the referee, Mr Boyeson, has no soul and soon awards a spurious free-kick to the opposition. To celebrate the first sixth of the game passing Harry Clarke gets booked. “If you can’t get the ball get the player, it’s what they’re taught” says the bloke behind me and Harry Clarke holds up his hands as if to say “It’s a fair cop guv’nor” . It’s a booking that underlines the fact that the away team, whoever they might be in their mysterious all-black kit, has so far had the best of the game, although they have not once come close to even threatening to score a goal.
If Clarke’s booking was a meaningless 1-0 to the opposition, then Town quickly equalise, as two minutes later Nathan Broadhead is scythed down by Jasper Moon, who sounds as if he has escaped from a novel. “ He can’t get it out quick enough” says the bloke behind me excitedly as Mr Boyeson reaches for his yellow card and indeed the referee would appear to enjoy this part of his Saturday job. A minute later Mr Boyeson is at it again and it’s as much as he can do not smile widely as Freddie Ladapo is tripped by John Brayford who swept back receding hair has me asking myself whether he looks most like Ray Reardon or Jack Nicholson.
The match is almost imperceptibly swinging Town’s way and Freddie Ladapo produces Town’s first shot on goal sending the ball beyond the far post. “ Ole, Ole, Ole” chant what used to be the North Stand and spits of swirling drizzle are being blown into the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. Town win their first corner which is sent straight into touch as if we didn’t really want it. Twenty-seven minutes are up and Wes Burns shoots over the cross bar. Four minutes later and Conor Chaplin turns, shoots and scores as he so often does, despite Town apparently not having a 20-goal-a-season striker, and Town lead 1-0. That’s a relief.
The bloke behind me says something about the game changing now Town have scored, and clearly he is on as good a form as the team today as once again he’s proved right. An injury to Wes Burns allows time for both teams to gather by the dug outs for a remedial coaching class and drinks party, and it’s Town that benefit most. When play resumes Harry Clarke heads off down the right flank, passes to Wes Burns who crosses low for Nathan Broadhead to put Town two-nil up. Even from the far end of the pitch it’s a thing of grace and beauty.
Another visiting player is booked for fouling Conor Chaplin and then in an act of clear revenge Conor slips the ball to Freddie Ladapo to score Town’s third goal. Unlikely events notwithstanding, Town have won the match in the space of ten minutes and despite not having the mythical forty-goal a season striker, and they are still the division’s top scorers. Fear amongst Town supporters remains however and as the final minutes of the half and four minutes of added on time are played out there are desperate shout of “Get rid of it” whenever Christian Walton has the ball at his feet.
With the half time whistle I watch Mr Boyeson leave the pitch zealously holding the match ball, before venting some pre-match beer and chatting with Ray and his grandson Harrison who wants to hear all about the Robyn Hitchcock concert I went to in London last Saturday at the Alexandra palace theatre. I tell him it was fab because it was. Ray lets me know that he and his wife Ros have decided to help save the planet too and get solar panels fitted, and we laugh about the Tory government and how Rishi Sunak tells us with an almost straight face that Northern Ireland will benefit from something wonderful and new due to unique access to EU markets.
The football resumes at six minutes past four and, as with the Morecambe match a few weeks ago, the fear is that we’ve had our fun for the afternoon, and although logic predicts a 6-0 win, in all likelihood there won’t be any more goals because half-time cups of tea are laced with beta blockers and regret. This proves to be only partly correct however, as within a minute Massimo Luongo launches a curving shot wide of the post after Wes Burns runs down the wing and lays it back to him, then the all-purpose visiting team even dare to shoot past the post too; our post, not theirs.
The fun continues as Wes Burns again makes hay on the right pulling back the ball again , this time for Conor Chaplin to not score the fourth goal. “Blue and White Army” shouts the bloke behind me unable to contain himself, but then Cameron Burgess makes a superb ‘last-ditch’ tackle after Luke Woolfenden is all too easily turned by someone in black shirt and shorts. Town concede another corner and then a number of throw ins which the opposition cunningly employ as attacking moves in the absence of proper passing football.
An hour has passed and Ray Reardon is substituted, Christian Walton makes a low diving save and the team in black win three successive corners. Three Canada Geese fly over in tight formation and from another long throw the ball pings about the Town box like we’re suddenly watching Bagatelle or the Pinball Wizard. Mr Boyeson indulges himself with a final yellow card for the afternoon as Nathan Broadhead is fouled by Conor Shaughnessy and a pigeon lands on the cross bar of the goal at the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand end of the ground. The pigeon remains unmoved as Nathan Broadhead sends a curling shot narrowly passed the angle of the post and cross bar with a bit more than twenty minutes still to play. Two minutes later, and Town lead 4-0 as Leif Davis sets up Conor Chaplin and his shot catches a slight deflection to take it past the goalkeeper.
The game is now as good as over and the mass substitutions can begin, not to affect the result, but just so fewer people feel left out. First to go are Broadhead, Chaplin and Ladapo who have all been excellent. The clock ticks down further towards going home time and today’s attendance is announced as 25,003, with 147 of that number turning up from Burton-On-Trent to watch a team who based on their boring away kit might have been from anywhere. The crowd applauds itself and the travellers from Burton, who I like to think blush a little in the face of this show of affection. On the Clacton supporters’ bus the winner of the ‘guess the crowd’ competition is just forty-five out with an estimate of 24,958. Ten minutes of normal time remain and Leif Davis requires treatment leading to another opportunity for remedial coaching on the touchline, but it’s too late for that and Burton are left to just guzzle their isotonic drinks and regret their choice of kit. Davis is replaced Janoi Donacien and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand sing what sounds like “Bluey, Bluey, you’re a cunt” at the cuddly and permanently startled looking Town mascot, striking the only unseemly note of an otherwise pleasant afternoon’s football. Bluey reacts playfully as if the crowd are merely chanting something like “Bluey, Bluey, you’re a one”. Perhaps they are and it’s me who is coarse and reliant on sexual swearwords to amuse myself.
Despite the stoppage for the injury to Leif Davis, and both teams making the utmost of available substitutes, the fourth official sensibly calculates that only three minutes of additional time should be played, what’s the point of playing more. It’s been a lot of fun, but no one wants to stay here past five o’clock and the final whistle brings the final joyful release of the afternoon before we all head off into the deepening gloom of a damp, grey Ipswich evening.