Here we go again, and it’s still July. I will admit to not looking forward to the start of the football season because as a person who seeks fulfilment in being idle I enjoy summer Saturdays with nothing much to do, and summer is still in its prime, it won’t begin to flop into autumn for another three weeks at least, that’s when the football season should begin again. But hey, how else are we going to fit in 46 league games, at least three games trying to win a pizza pan and probably no more than two or three games trying to win two cups that are inevitably destined to end up on the sideboard of one or two of the same four clubs from London and the north-west?
Today, it is ordained that we shall play Bolton Wanderers, last season’s nemesis who along with Rotherham United were the only team to beat us both home and away, which in the week of the last episode of Neighbours I will admit, whilst in confessorial mood, was my Australian ‘soap’ of choice. The last time Town played Bolton Wanderers on the first day of the season was in 1961, albeit at Burnden Park, and Town of course went on to win the Premier League that season, although it wasn’t called that then. By way of yet another private confession, last night I dreamt about today’s game and how Town drew two-all after twice going ahead with the opposition equalising twice from spectacular long range shots into the top right hand corner of our goal. I say opposition because oddly Town were playing West Ham United in my dream although they also seemed to be called Bolton Wanderers. Even odder is that I then dreamt that I woke up and realised I had been dreaming because all I could remember of the game were the two Bolton/West Ham goals and an empty ground. Then I really did wake up and felt a bit disorientated.
Having happily reined in my subconscious mind I have negotiated the crawling traffic of the A12 and walked across Gippeswyk Park. At the junction of Ancaster Road and Ranelagh Road I must decide whether to turn left towards the Bobby Robson Bridge or right towards the station hotel where I will not doubt be serenaded by boozing Lancastrians in the pub garden singing the praises of barm cakes, back to back housing and cotton mills. Seeking the quiet life as ever, I opt for the former. In Alf Ramsey Way I purchase a match day programme in the modern cashless manner which seems to take several minutes, before heading off over Civic Drive, past the enchanted Spiral car park which used to just be known as ‘the underground car park’ and up St George’s Street to the Arbour House (formerly The Arboretum) to meet Mick and discuss life over a pint of a beer (£3.90) from the Burnt Mill brewery which the pump clip said was Japanese, I ask the barman where it was from, “Stowmarket” he replies. Mick’s and my conversation rambles between spotty liver disease, the quality of television pictures, Ipswich Town’s latest signings and funerals before I buy a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a packet of Fairfield’s cheese and onion crisps (£1.00) and we discuss VHS videos of Ipswich Town’s greatest moments in history and retirement.
We leave earlier than usual for Portman Road because I have a bag of six Ipswich Town VHS videos to give to a bloke called Ash from Swaffham; I have arranged to meet Ash at twenty to three by the Sir Alf Ramsey statue, but he doesn’t turn up. I ask several people stood about if they are called Ash, but none are and two people think I have asked them if they’ve got any hash. Disappointed but not surprised, because the world is an increasingly unreliable place, I head for turnstile number 60 to begin yet another season full of hope and likely disappointment; but you never know (that’s the hope again).
Out in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his son Elwood are already here looking fresh and revived in their summer clothes, it reminds me of what the first day back at school used to feel like. On the pitch, be-suited stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster reads out the teams looking as if he is the best man at a wedding. Banners festoon the front of the Sir Bobby Robson stand telling us “The future is bright, the future is blue and white”; it rhymes, it must be true. To our right is the new scoreboard, beaming messages to us like something out of Orwell’s 1984. The stadium is alive with the sound of nigh on 27,000 people and as the game begins those in the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand break inexplicably into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, with lyrics altered to tell of eternal fighting and Norwich running away, because it’s Boxing Day. Off to my right in the Cobbold Stand, in an equally surreal vein, it sounds as if the Bolton supporters are singing “Oh wanky wanky, Wanky wanky wanky wanky Northerners.” But my hearing isn’t what it was and Boltonians do have thick accents.
The opening minutes of the match are messy with lots of physical effort, but little discernible entertainment. All the Bolton team appear to be about 2metres tall and there’s not a Frank Worthington amongst them. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Bolton fans. As nice as that might be, no one takes them up on their kind offer and in a fit of pique they impolitely tell the Ipswich fans “Your support is fucking shit”, before peevishly announcing like thwarted adolescents that the large crowd is because “You’ve only come to see The Wanderers”. Only six minutes have passed and it’s like last season never ended; clearly supporters have wasted the whole close-season and not come up with a single original new chant between the lot of them.
A frisson of excitement shoots through the home support as a punt forward forces the Bolton ‘keeper James Trafford to play sweeper for a moment. Up in the Cobbold Stand the brief roar of excitement from the home support is an excuse to unleash what passes for wit with a chant to say they had forgotten we were here. How droll. It’s the eleventh minute and Town win a corner as a Bolton defender heads the ball out of his goalkeeper’s hands. Lee Evans’ exotic curling corner-kick curls too much and goes disappointingly straight into touch like a metaphor for last season. It is a quarter past three and Bolton win a corner leading to Wes Burns breaking away down the right and putting in a low cross which is blocked. Burns is looking neater and slimmer than last season suggesting to me that his call-up to the Welsh squad and access to the bright lights of Cardiff might have turned his head.
“They love a ball up the middle don’t they?” says the bloke behind me to the bloke beside him as Bolton launch an attack like a Russian missile strike. Fortunately for Town, Bolton’s attacks are producing few goal-attempts, but they are dominating play and look generally quicker and stronger than Town for whom debutants Marcus Harness and Leif Davis are doing little other than entertain me with the thoughts that Marcus Harness sort of rhymes and that Leif is a great first name.
The first half is more than half over and all of a sudden Bolton have a penalty from which Aaron Morley scores. Leif Davis is adjudged to have tripped some Bolton play or other who predictably makes full use of the opportunity to fall headlong to the turf whilst simultaneously looking up pleadingly at referee Mr Samuel Barrett, who is not to be confused with Samuel Beckett. Disappointment reigns. But unusually the goal against proves a turning point in Town’s favour and for the rest of the match Ipswich are the better team. Corners are traded as the half hour approaches and in the Town penalty area some male posturing ensues. “Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” chant the inhabitants of the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand and the Bolton supporters sing the same thing. Nobody seems to know who anybody is. It could be the result of dementia but it’s probably because third division footballers are generally not household names, with the exception of course of Town’s number 17, Ed Sheeran. Bolton’s number three Declan John becomes the first player to be booked in a possibly not unrelated incident.
The 37th minute has arrived and another of the day’s debutants, Freddie Ladapo, has a shot deflected away for a corner which Conor Chaplin passes into the penalty area for Lee Evans to side foot into the goal net in a moment of combined thought and invention that was two steps ahead of the entire Bolton team and probably a good 27,000 other people too. The sadness and shame of having gone behind in the first game of the season is instantly forgotten. “ You’re not singing any more” chant the home fans to the Boltonians delving delightedly into bottomless wells of Schadenfreude. More is to come almost, as a beautiful interchange of passes down the right between Janoi Doncaien, Conor Chaplin, Wes Burns and Sam Morsy ends with Freddie Ladapo having a shot blocked almost as soon as it leaves his boot.
Two minutes of the half remain and having already given away a penalty on his debut, Leif Davis then makes a bid for immortality as he also becomes the first Town player of the 2022-23 season to be booked; it’s a good effort from him but no one will ever rival the appalling Town debut of Mark Fish, who funnily enough also played for Bolton Wanderers. Three minutes of time added on are played and then it’s half-time. I consume a Panda brand liquorice stick and talk to Ray, who tells me that his son Michael and his grandson Harrison are missing today’s game because they are respectively in Greece and Scotland. We share our doubts over the validity of the penalty and the efficacy so far of the left land side of the Town team.
The game resumes at eight minutes past four with the mystifying partial rendition by the Bolton fans of Manfred Mann’s 1964 Number One hit record ‘Do-wah-diddy diddy’ (although it was originally recorded the year before by American band The Exciters). On the field of play, things are more mundane with the usual procession of corners and stuff that you get in football matches. It’s a little bit after a quarter past four and Trafford spectacularly tips a Lee Evans header over the cross bar; five minutes later and the first of a host of substitutions materialise with the luckless Lief and ineffective Harness being replaced by Greg Leigh (not to be confused by Prog-Rockers with Greg Lake) and Tyreece John-Jules (impossible to confuse with anyone). An hour has gone Freddie Ladapo shoots tamely at Trafford before Leigh gets back to acrobatically head away a Bolton cross.
As the final third of the game progresses the sky begins to cloud over a little, there are flying ants taking to the air and landing on the shirt of the bloke in front of me; seagulls circle over the Portman Road car park; it’s stiflingly warm. It’s a dog day afternoon; I think of Al Pacino.
Ending a sequence of three ever worsening fouls, Bolton’s Conor Bradley chops down Tyreece John-Jules particularly dirtily and is booked. “You dirty Northern bastard” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers reciting possibly football’s greatest chant. “Small Town in Norwich, You’re just a small Town in Norwich” is the Boltonian’s weak response, which does little to dispel the rumours that Bradley hasn’t washed, is Northern and was conceived outside wedlock.
Both teams continue to make substitutions like they’re going out of fashion, making four each with Sone Aluko and Kayden Jackson replacing Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo for Town. Ipswich dominate, pinning back Bolton and making them play sardines in their own penalty area. It’s a niggly game as both teams display their frustration at being unable to beat the other. The crowd is announced as 26,688, and it seems wakes week has come early with 1,392 pale and pasty-faced folk from the mills and the mines making up the numbers in the Cobbold Stand. Pat from Clacton wins the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus with a prediction of 26,679; she seems a little shocked but I can tell she’s excited by her win, it’s been a long time coming.
Back on the pitch Luke Woolfenden is the second Town player to be booked. A Wes Burns header brings another corner, Sone Aluko shoots past the post and so does Tyreece John-Jules, who also has a shot saved and then in the best opportunity of the whole game Wes Burns runs deep into the penalty area before placing one of those crosses usually labelled ‘inviting’ in front of Sam Morsy. Morsy sends Trafford the wrong way with his shot but the ball strikes the fortunate keeper’s legs and is cleared.
After six minutes of time added on the game ends. It’s a shame not to start the season with a win, yet again, but it was a tough match against a strong team and Town did recover from going a goal behind, and on balance these are all good things. One swallow does not make a summer seems an appropriate homily for the occasion, because every occasion needs a homily; although in this case it’s not so much a lovely, swooping, screaming swallow as a scrounging, step-sibling murdering cuckoo.