Ipswich Town 1 Fleetwood Town 1

Back in the late 1960’s when Ipswich were climbing out of the second division and I was at primary school, I would walk home for lunch most days except on a Friday when, having checked with the head cook, who conveniently was my mother’s cousin, that fish and chips was on the menu, I would stay for a ‘school dinner’.  Like a lot of people of I’ve always liked fish and chips and for lunch today I had a polystyrene box of cod and chips with mushy peas at the Suffolk County Council canteen.  As much as I like fish and chips however, and savour those first few delicious mouths full, by the time I get to the end the batter on the fish and the oil on the chips is beginning to get the better of me; I feel a bit bloated and in a couple of hours it’s going to repeat on me.

Tonight, in a second bout of Friday night football at Portman Road in the space of six weeks, Ipswich Town are playing Fleetwood Town, from the Lancashire fishing port probably once responsible for most of the cod dished up on Fridays in East Suffolk primary schools.  The game has been moved to Friday because there is little hope that most people will be boycotting the Qatar World Cup, and had England qualified for the last sixteen by finishing second in their group, they would have been playing on Saturday afternoon.  Football at three o’clock on a grey winter’s afternoon is great, but an evening match under the bright white glow of the floodlights is always a beautiful thing; it seems to heighten and enhance the usual match day sensations a bit like listening to The Beatles’ best album Revolver whilst sucking on a sherbet fountain or having smoked something illicit.  A night game also provides the opportunity to go straight from work to the pub, which is really living.

I cross the Cornhill as the town hall clock strikes six o’clock and hit “The Arb” as I have decided to call the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum), no more than ten minutes later, seconds after Mick has phoned me to tell me he is already there, and is thinking that sitting out in the beer garden on what is a cold and intermittently drizzly and blowy December evening might be an overly hardy thing to do.  I point out that we are going to be sitting outside watching football for the best part of two hours anyway. Mick concedes that this is a fair point.  Ultimately, fate dictates that there is nowhere left to sit inside the building and so, having ordered a pint of Lacon’s Encore and a mushroom and chestnut burger with sweet potato fries for Mick and a pint of Tindall’s Ditchingham Dam (£4.10) and  a scotch egg (£4.00) for me, we step outside again into the beer garden,  where we are warded off sitting at one table by an elderly man who says he has reserved it for his family. When the man’s family do arrive, they all sit at the table he’s sat at.  The man then causes confusion by trying to accept an order for a full-stack burger and a half-stack burger with fries which aren’t his.  He manages to eat a chip before his family arrives from the bar and points out that they have only just ordered the food so it is unlikely to be here already; the food is quickly whisked away to the rightful diners.

As usual, our conversation is diverse and as usual includes death, as we speak of the demise a day or two ago of his former partner’s 20-year-old cat Archie, and how long ago it was that I had my dog Alfie put down.  Lightening up matters, I tell Mick that yesterday I had an electric charging point installed at my house and Mick tells me that his now deceased father once had an affair with the village post mistress.  Time passes quickly as we eat our food and then I buy a Dalwhinnie single malt whisky for Mick and a pint of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog for me (£8.90).  Unhappily the Nog is on the turn, so I swap it for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride.

By the time we come to leave, we are the only people left in the beer garden, but we carry on our conversation as we head purposefully and full of expectation to the ground.  Crossing the Portman Road car park, I tell Mick of Decimus Burton the nineteenth century architect who planned the centre of Fleetwood and built the North Euston Hotel as a staging post for rail travellers on the way from London to Scotland, expecting that railway lines would not be able to cross the Lake District and that journeys would continue by steam ship. 

Mick and I part in what was Portman Walk where he enters the Magnus west stand and  I proceed to turnstile 61, the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the delights within.   Kick-off is imminent as I take my seat in the company of ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona, and the man from Stowmarket. But Pat from Clacton is still wheezing having had covid and is staying home to watch the game on the interweb; Elwood is not here either.  Stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads out the teams, introducing Fleetwood as the Cod Army and the game begins with Ipswich getting first go with the ball and unusually for the first half, they are aiming at the goal at the Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground.   Town are rightly in our traditional blue and white whilst Fleetwood are impersonating Arsenal, or Stade de Reims if you are in France and Rotherham United if in South Yorkshire.  Quickly Town are on the attack, win a corner, have a Conor Chaplin shot blocked, have a Freddie Ladapo shot saved and then score from very close range as Luke Woolfenden appears heroically at the far post; the game is less than two minutes old.  As Fiona says,  almost complaining, we haven’t really got ourselves settled in yet, and in all the unexpectedly early excitement we forget to take a photo of ever-present Phil celebrating the goal to send to Pat from Clacton.

In the row behind me someone has missed the kick-off. “Did you see the goal?” he asks. “Some of us got here on time” is the answer, “I’ve been here since the Buxton game”.   For the benefit of someone who missed the goal it is described as an eighteen-yard pile-driver.  A goal up, Town continue to be the better team.  Fleetwood briefly break away in a moment of confusion and the ball drifts past Christian Walton’s far post before Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo hit shots straight at the Fleetwood goalkeeper whose first name is the same as Homer Simpson’s middle name, which I’d like to say is appropriate because they’re both big and yellow, but sadly it’s not true as the goalkeeper is wearing green.   Drizzle sweeps across the pitch and into the front of the stand and people sat at the front are offered transparent ponchos, which could be quite alluring on the right people in the right circumstances.

Freddie Ladapo forces a fine save from the goalkeeper and Fiona says “Quick, you can get your photo taken with Bluey” as the Town mascot moves amongst his people behind us.  Only 20 minutes have gone and Fleetwood substitute Penny’s brother Paddy Lane with Nora’s brother Dan Batty before referee Mr Sam Purkiss, who sounds a bit like he could be a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel, makes an appalling decision.   Wes Burns and Fleetwood’s Josh Earl both slide in on the wet turf to claim a loose ball, Burns gets to it first and races away, but Earl stays down on the ground and Burns is booked.  At this moment I take a strong dislike towards Purkiss and it’s not long before I’m turning to Fiona and asking if she would agree that he looks a bit like Matt Hancock MP.

The crowd had been in good voice when Town dominated and looked likely to batter the ‘Cod Army’, but they quieten down as Fleetwood have a spell of possession before the zeitgeist amongst the home crowd switches again to positivity and the occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand chant “Blue and White Amy, Blue and White Army”, at least three times.   Town are worth another goal, but Fleetwood are taking an increasingly physical approach to play and the worst example is when Kyle Edwards is scythed down, but the Hancock lookalike referee doesn’t even give a foul, when a caution for the Edwards’ assailant looked the only possible outcome. 

Four minutes of time added on are announced by Stephen Foster and when Conor Chaplin is given a free-kick after being fouled, the decision is met with ironic cheers from the stands.   Town win a final corner of the half, but it comes to nought and at twenty-five to nine the first forty-five minutes of the game finish.  “You don’t know what you’re doing” chants the young bloke in front of me at Hancock’s double as he passes by and a bloke a few rows behind rants furiously and possibly in a foreign language whilst I boo enthusiastically. I love a good boo at the referee, especially when he looks like a former member of the Cabinet, and even more when he seems bent enough to be one.

After a short pause to calm myself down after all that booing, I take a trip to the front of the stand to speak with Harrison and his dad Michael.  Michael’s dad Ray is away on holiday, cruising somewhere in the Azores.  Harrison tells me he has now heard Robyn Hitchcock’s new album ‘Shufflemania’ on Spotify and his review is positive; I’m not sure I could have spoken with him again if it hadn’t been.  We speak of the World Cup, although I haven’t been watching it, and Michael makes the very good point that this World Cup doesn’t seem like a World Cup because it’s not summertime, and so there is still real Ipswich Town-based football to occupy our minds and to leave the house for.

At seven minutes to nine the game resumes and it’s Fleetwood who are the team who mostly have the ball at their feet, which isn’t what we’ve come to expect at all.  Faintly heard chants carry on the wind from the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand where the small, loyal band of Fleetwood fans are sat, no doubt sucking on Fisherman Friends lozenges to lubricate their vocal chords.  The easterly breeze that buffets the flags on the roof of the stand whispers something about a red and white army. 

“Filthy fucker” bawls a bloke from somewhere behind me as Josh Earl floors Conor Chaplin at thigh height and inevitably Mr Purkiss doesn’t think the foul worthy of a booking. “Shit referee, shit referee” is the verdict of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand before they simultaneously clear their minds of such negativity and worries about cultural appropriation with a burst of “I-pswi-ch To-wn, Ipswich To-wn FC, They’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” to the tune of the Irish Rover.   They must be in the mood for traditional music tonight as a short while later they’re trudging their way through the dirge version of “When the Town go marching in”, sounding like they’ve learnt it by listening to a 45 rpm record being played at 33 rpm.

Fleetwood are the better team this half without ever having a decent attempt on goal, a bit like they’re being managed by Paul Lambert.  Kyle Edwards is replaced by Kayden Jackson, and Fleetwood’s Dan Batty vainly dives in the penalty area, perhaps to test out just how bad a referee Mr Purkiss is; bad, but thankfully not that bad.  For his trouble Batty is serenaded with a chorus of “Who the fuck, Who the fuck, Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” by the Sir Bobby Robson stand.

Despite not playing very well at all in the second half, Ipswich nevertheless retain the ability to make one match-winning opportunity and with thirteen minutes of normal time remaining Sam Morsy moves forward and passes wide to Wes Burns who releases an overlapping Janoi Donacien and his low cross from the goal line is met by Cameron Humphreys, who bounces the ball wide of the goal.  I clutch the sides of my head like the bloke in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’.  John Wark would have scored, Tommy Miller would have scored, Matt Holland would have scored; but that was then and this is now, I don’t know why I mentioned it.

Smothering our regrets, Stephen Foster delivers tonight’s attendance figure which is 22,801, of whom a stonking 66 are from Fleetwood, although the bloke behind me doesn’t think there are that many and I will admit to having tried to count them and I came up with barely fifty. It seems that about sixteen ‘Codheads’, for that is what natives of Fleetwood  are known as, have gone AWOL, caught in a net somewhere perhaps, or victims of diminishing fish stocks.

Ten minutes to go and Freddie Ladapo makes way for the rangy Gassan Ahadme.  “This is fucking embarrassing  ,I tell ya” says the bloke behind me as Mr Purkiss makes another characteristic non-decision when Conor Chaplin is pushed over from behind.  But at least Fleetwood don’t look like scoring, even though they are still the ones with the ball at their feet most of the time.  They can pass, but they don’t create any chances, although one goal line clearance has been needed.

Town make their final substitutions and for Fleetwood Dan Batty suffers the ignominy of being a substitute who is substituted. There will be six minutes of added on time and for five of them the same pattern continues. It’s a bit frustrating that Town don’t seem able to keep the ball themselves, when we’re usually so good at it, but it seems pretty safe letting Fleetwood have it because if they don’t shoot they wont score and if we don’t have the ball Fleetwood can’t attempt limb threatening tackles that they won’t get punished for.   Then Cian Hayes seems to realise there is no time left to do anything but shoot, so he strides forward a couple of paces and does so, it’s not a great shot, it shouldn’t be a worry, but it hits someone and arcs up and over Christian Walton onto the far post, off which it deflects into the goal in exactly the way that Town shots that hit posts never seem to.  Fleetwood have equalised.

It’s not much of a consolation, but as the Fleetwood players celebrate wildly there’s one who goes too far, and it happens to be Josh Earl who is sent off by the hopeless Mr Purkiss, perhaps in a mis-guided attempt to atone for his earlier leniency.  Enough time remains for Purkiss to wave away appeals for what seems from the nearby Sir Alf Ramsey Stand like a clear penalty as Kayden Jackson looks to be barged over, but that’s all the time there is, and the appeals are still being heard as Purkiss blows the final whistle.

As I leave the ground I see the disappointment etched on supporters faces.  What had started out like cod and chips with that delicious first mouthful of an early goal has ended like cod and chips, feeling a bit bloated and uncomfortable and knowing it’s going to repeat on me.

Ipswich Town 1 Cheltenham Town 1

In the final scenes of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If’, the central character Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and his nameless girlfriend launch a machine gun attack on the parents, teachers and governors at a school speech day.  The scene was filmed at Cheltenham College and it’s one of my favourite scenes in one of my favourite films; Wikipedia tells us that ‘If’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969 and in 1999 the British Film Institute ranked it as the 12th greatest British film of all time.  As if that association with such a great film is not enough kudos for Cheltenham, it also has a football team that has never lost to Ipswich Town. Today Ipswich Town and Cheltenham Town meet at Portman Road for only the second time in recorded history.  I don’t know it yet, but later today I’m going to feel like Mick Travis.

In north Essex it has been a stupendously dull morning, both still and depressingly grey, like November days should be. It’s only when I approach Ipswich that a diffuse yellow light begins to filter through the grimness and then bright sunshine bursts from a clear blue sky like a metaphor for the end of the working week and the arrival of Saturday, heralding a match at Portman Road.  Before the game I visit my mother and we reminisce about all manner of things from years ago and she tells me how her grandfather, Sam Scarff, an agricultural labourer from Needham Market, enrolled with a friend for evening classes, joined the police and rose to the rank of inspector in the Met’ before retiring to become a game-keeper in Shotley; his friend became a police commissioner, and I thought social mobility was a 1960’s thing.

Leaving my mother with her memories, I drive across town and park up on Chantry. The streets are busy with people in football-supporting attire. I walk across the wet grass of Gippeswyk Park and marvel at how lush and green the turf now is compared to how dried up, brown and withered it was on the first day of the football season three months ago.  In Sir Alf Ramsey way I attempt to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner, but the technology isn’t working today.  I laugh and hand over a five pound note to the somewhat miserable and overweight looking youth in the programme booth.  The Arbor House, formerly known as The Arboretum, is busy with pre-match drinkers, but I am served quite quickly and order a pint of Nethergate Complete Howler (£4.00). I head for the garden where Mick is already sat at a table with a pint of a dark beer from the Grain brewery which he’s not very keen on, I take a sip and agree that it’s not exactly moreish, but then the Grain brewery is located in Norfolk, albeit with an IP postcode.  Before long Roly joins us and proceeds to dominate the conversation, mainly because he seems to have the ability to talk without drawing breath, which means a polite person like me can’t get a word in edgeways, not that I have much to say.  We, by which I mean mostly Roly, talk of local council chief executives, Roly’s five-year-old daughter Lottie, primary schools on the Essex Suffolk border and the performances of Town player Dom Ball.  Between twenty-five and twenty to three we leave via the back gate of the beer garden and head for Portman Road.  I bid Mick and Roly farewell by the turnstiles to the Magnus Stand, formerly known as the West Stand.  We speak briefly of when we will next meet; it will be for the five o’clock kick off v Buxton in the FA Cup on Sunday 26th November.   I won’t be going to the mid-week game versus Portsmouth as I am boycotting the Papa John’s EFL Trophy, not because I have anything against oily, takeaway pizza, but because I think the competition has been debased by the inclusion of Evil Premier League under-21 teams.  I am particularly looking forward to not going to Wembley should Town make it to the final, when I will blow a metaphorical raspberry to all those people who believe that anyone boycotting the competition will automatically abandon their principles if Town get to the final.  Such beliefs help explain why we have a Tory government.

Most unusually, today there is a queue at the turnstiles for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand which are accessed from Constantine Road, but quite soon an extra turnstile opens up (No61) and a cheerful man presents bar codes to a screen and I pass through the portal to another world.  That pint of beer has already found its way to the exit and from the gents beneath the stand I hear stadium announcer Stephen Foster reading the team line-ups from the scoreboard in his best local radio DJ voice.  I arrive at my seat just as a minute’s silence begins for Armistice day, although that was actually yesterday.  Oddly, the Football Association have decided not to cancel the fixtures today as they did when they felt they couldn’t trust football crowds to observe a minute’s silence for the death of Queen Elizabeth back in September.  The minute’s silence is of course observed perfectly. Stephen Foster reads from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem ‘For the Fallen’ and the last post is played exquisitely, even if it does slightly spoil the solemnity and dignity of the moment to then be told by Stephen Foster that Jon Holden who played it is a member of the Co-op East of England Brass Band.  It’s probably just me, but I can’t help sniggering a little at any mention of the Co-op.

After a fly-past by a couple of Army helicopters, and a brief burst of ‘Hey Jude’, the game begins with Town getting first go with the ball and kicking towards me , Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket.  Town are thankfully back to wearing their blue shirts and white shorts after the all-black aberration against Derby, whilst Cheltenham Town are wearing red shirts and shorts with their ruddiness off-set by white socks and a white pin-stripe on their shirt fronts.  Quickly, Portman Road sounds in good voice as the altered version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ in which she eternally fights Norwich on Boxing Day rings around the ground.  On the touchline, Town manager Kieran McKenna is looking stylish, if a little drab in a black jacket and trousers with a plain jumper, which I at first think is beige but then think is grey; perhaps it’s taupe?

From the start Ipswich dominate and it feels as if everyone, from the supporters to the players really wants to win this match. We all remember the life-denying, spirit crushing goalless draw against Cheltenham from last season and that’s our inspiration to see Town give these upstarts, better known for their poncey Regency spa a sound thrashing.   Crosses rain into the Cheltenham penalty area and although one from Conor Chaplin goes a bit off course and strikes Wes Burns in the throat Sam Morsy soon has the first shot on goal and then from a corner Luke Woolfenden hooks the ball into the goal from close range and Town lead 1-0.  Woolfenden runs off sucking his thumb with the ball up his jumper and ever-present Phil mentions something about the birth of wolf cubs; I suggest he has simply discovered the joy of sucking his thumb. 

More corners and crosses follow and I chant “Come On You Blues” and so does Phil, but no one else does.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of you singing” announces Pat from Clacton, sort of singing herself, which is ironic.  Janoi Donacien strides forward into a rare bit of space and pulls the ball back to Marcus Harness; the Cheltenham defence is rent open like a tin of corned beef on which the key has broken half-way round and it’s been necessary to open both ends with a tin-opener to get the meat out. Harness must score, but somehow the ball strikes the under-side of the cross bar as if deflected away from the goal net by some invisible force…either that or Harness made a hash of it.

There are more corners to Ipswich, loads of them, and Phil and I keep chanting “Come On You Blues” vainly hoping someone will join in with us. We change to the simpler “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” but the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand aren’t moved.  I think to myself that I might as well be singing in French and so I do “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” I chant; Fiona says I’ve gone too far. On the pitch Janoi Donacien is hurt and is replaced by Kane Vincent-Young and the ball skims of the top of Cheltenham number six Lewis Freestone’s head as if he was a man who had applied too much brylcreem to his hair.  Another cross and Leif Davis precisely places a carefully controlled header over the Cheltenham cross bar.  Within a minute Cheltenham equalise as Ryan Broom sweeps forward and shoots at Christian Walton who somehow cannot stop the ball squirming around or under or through him onto the goal.  It might have been the brylcreem on the ball.  It will prove to be Cheltenham’s only real shot of the game and up in the Cobbold stand a knot of about twenty excited youths jump around and wave their arms about like bookies on a race course or idiots trying to fly.

Disappointing as that equaliser is, Town press on, although not quite as well as before.  When the Cheltenham goalkeeper parries a low Marcus Harness cross out to Cameron Humphreys, somehow the ball comes straight back to him.  Two minutes of added on time are announced very noisily by Stephen Foster, as if he’d turned the PA system up to eleven. “Speak Up” says Pat from Clacton.   I applaud Town off the field with the half-time whistle and go and talk with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison.  I ask Harrison if he has got the new Robyn Hitchcock album ‘Shufflemania’ yet, he says he may get it for Christmas as he looks at his dad.

The match resumes at six minutes past four and a chorus of ‘Blue and White Army’ briefly rolls around the stands, not exactly like thunder. On the stroke of the 53rd minute the crowd rises for a minute’s applause in memory of Supporters’ Club Chairman Martin Swallow who died at the end of October.  A lone seagull floats above the pitch; no doubt someone would think it poignant. 

With Cheltenham confined to their half of the pitch due to constant Ipswich possession, this is the sort of game where every moment lost through a Cheltenham player sitting on the grass or receiving treatment is going to be attributed to time-wasting, and so it proves. Referee Mr Eltringham, a man with ‘ten to two’ feet, books the Cheltenham goalkeeper as a warning shot to his team-mates in this regard and in all fairness, they do not break the game up as much as they did in the goalless game last season, but it’s not enough to stop the bloke behind me from saying “He’s gotta be one of the worst fuckin’ refs we’ve ‘ad down here”.   When Cheltenham players do receive treatment their physio runs on with a huge bag and what looks like a small surf board; with a blonde wig and high cut one piece swim suit he could have doubled for Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. 

“Over and in” says Pat from Clacton in the time-honoured fashion, but it never happens. Marcus Harness heads carefully past the post in the same way Leif Davis headed over the bar in the first half, Wes Burns and Marcus Harness are replaced by Kayden Jackson and Kyle Edwards, but it makes little difference.  Chances come and inevitably go as if there is no possible way to get a ball across the line between the two goalposts.  The crowd is announced as 25,400 including 175 from Cheltenham; it’s the smallest away following at any Ipswich match this season; so more credit to those who did bother.  “Here for Cheltenham, you’re only here for the Cheltenham” they sing which I guess they are, and on the Clacton supporters coach Chris wins the prize with his guess of 25,444; Pat is disappointed that so few pet animals have been attributed guesses this week.

With time slipping away, the gloom of the late autumn evening descends along with a seasonal mist which softly shrouds the floodlights. “There’s nothing wrong with, there’s nothing wrong with you” chant the North Stand appropriating some Verdi opera as another Cheltenham player takes a breather by sitting on the turf.  The final minute arrives and Panutche Camara replaces Conor Chaplin. There will be at least seven minutes of additional time which is time enough for Camara to strike a shot against the inside of a goal post; again, the ball of course stays out of the goal rather than deflecting into it. All too soon the final whistle is blown and for a second time this year Cheltenham Town have clung on to a point at Portman Road with resolute defending and huge dollops of luck.  With defending like this and the ball having such an aversion to crossing their goal line, it seems odd that Cheltenham Town have ever lost a match.

“Frustrating” says the man from Stowmarket as he edges past me to the exit “Yes, but we’ve seen it all before, just a few weeks ago” I reply, re-living the pain of the match versus Lincoln.  But my comment hides my disappointment and beneath my reasonable exterior irrational thoughts and questions swirl in a maelstrom of post-match angst and anger; how can Ipswich Town be so much better than the opposition but still not beat them? Is Ipswich Town somehow cursed?  Where is there a high roof from which a sniper could shoot freely and indiscriminately?

Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 0

I have been in the office, where I now work just one day a week, since eight o’clock this morning and it’s now half past four in the afternoon.  I have wasted enough of my day just existing and accumulating the means to continue my shallow, feckless Western lifestyle, now it’s time to live and be shallow and feckless.  I check my mobile telephone. At 16:12 I received a message from Pat from Clacton. Pat tells me she was joking last week when she told me she would not be at the match tonight, but then proceeds to tell me she won’t be at the match tonight.  Pat says she’s still suffering the after-effects of Covid, which apparently includes heavy breathing. As much as watching a football match with a 1968 vintage Jane Birkin appeals to me, it’s probably best for Pat that she stays in Clacton tonight.  The good news however is that Pat won £51.25 playing whist whilst on holiday in Great Yarmouth, but the real point of the message, I think, is to ask me to photograph ever-present Phil who never misses a game when he celebrates Town having scored a goal.  Pat from Clacton always photographs ever-present Phil when he celebrates a Town goal at Portman Road, it’s a ritual like a state funeral or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Tonight, Town are playing Derby County in a third division fixture, something that has never ever happened before in this universe, like Boris Johnson telling the truth.  If casually asked how many times I had seen Derby County play I would have guessed at a mere fifteen or sixteen. In fact, I have discovered that Derby County are one of twenty professional clubs I’ve seen play over thirty times.  Despite two League Championships, Brian Clough and Robert Maxwell, Derby County have seemingly made little impression on me, perhaps because of their anonymous monochrome kit or their uninteresting out of town stadium which has meant I know little of Derby itself. What is Derby famous for? Rolls Royce engines and East Midlands airport?  Still without answers to these questions time passes and a little short of two hours after receiving Pat from Clacton’s text message I walk through the front door of the Arbor House formerly the Arboretum pub; it’s heaving with Friday night revellers. I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£4.00) and a Scotch egg (£4.50) and retire to the beer garden to wait for my Scotch egg and the arrival of Mick.  As the evening light recedes into darkness I struggle to read the programme (£3.50) I had bought earlier in the club shop after I left work, but this is partly because the programme is hopelessly dull too, despite its rainbow colours on the front page, which also features an un-flattering cartoon image of George Edmundson in which he looks uncannily like Kryten from the BBC TV comedy series Red Dwarf.

By the time Mick arrives I’ve eaten my Scotch egg and am amusing myself with a private mobile phone-based exhibition of the photos from my holiday in Brittany whilst unavoidably hearing the conversation of the middle-aged couples on the next table which concerns whether they would go to a concert by Ed Sheeran at Portman Road. The consensus seems to be that they would go “just to say they’d seen him”.   It seems to me a bit like flushing a couple of fifty-pound notes down the khasi.  Over by the window to the gents’ toilet two old boys, possibly on their way to, or from, a ‘Tarts and Tramps’ fancy dress party shuffle in, one wears a floppy hat and talks loudly about the range of beers at the Moon and Mushroom pub in Swilland, whilst the other sounds like he’s growling.

When Mick arrives he buys us both pints of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride plus a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps, which pleasingly have only travelled from Wormingford near Colchester, some 33 kilometres away.  Our conversation this evening is punctuated with laughter as we discuss burials and the disposal of people’s ashes and how people seem to have become strangely sentimental lately.  With kick-off not until 8 o’clock this evening, courtesy of Sky TV’s broadcasting schedule, we have more time than usual to laugh about such things and don’t notice everyone else leaving for the match and it’s closer to kick-off than usual when we eventually leave, making a sharp exit through the back gate.

Portman Road and Sir Alf Ramsey Way are less busy than usual when we arrive because most people are already inside the ground.  As I hasten through the turnstiles, I can hear former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster ‘giving it large’ as he reads out the team line-ups in his archetypal radio DJ manner; he sounds even more Tony Blackburn than usual tonight, no doubt for the benefit of Sky TV. By the time I take my seat next but one to the man from Stowmarket, the teams are on the pitch, and the Town team are forming a collaborative huddle preparing to start the match.  It’s Town who get first go with the ball I think, I’m not really paying attention yet as I get to grips with seeing Ipswich wearing all black and Derby in maroon or burgundy shirts and white shorts.  I imagine Derby think they look exotic like AS Roma or Sparta Prague, but they remind me of Northampton Town.  As for the Ipswich team, they look like Johnny Cash, though I guess that’s preferable to looking like Ed Sheeran.

With the start of the game come the chants from both sets of supporters, Derby transporting us back to the 1970’s by repeating “Derby, Derby, Derby” over and over again to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’, just like Town fans used to chant “Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” in that run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1975, the year Derby last won what I believe is now called the Premier League.  “Score in a minute, we’re gonna score in a minute” continue the Derbeians less nostalgically but more optimistically.  “Addy, Addy, Addy-O” add the Town fans from what in 1975 was the North Stand, and there are even a few chants of the same from the top of what was the West Stand.  It’s a sign that the stadium must be as good as full to capacity.

 A young bloke with a beard sits himself down in Pat from Clacton’s seat. I give him a look like Paddington Bear. “Is this seat free” he asks a little nervously. “Well, there’s no one sitting there tonight” I tell him in a voice that’s as close as I can get to sounding like a Suffolk Johnny Cash.  He smiles broadly.  I think I’ve put him at his ease.  On the pitch the play is frenetic, with both teams trying to play neat, passing football but frequently interrupting one another. Sam Morsy is booked after just ten minutes for a foul on the wonderfully named Lewis Dobbin. Ipswich have more success at getting close to their opponents’ goal and win three early corners, George Edmundson heads wide and Tyreece John-Jules clearly dives in the penalty area having won a few free-kicks already elsewhere.  I thought it was an obvious dive; the way he had already established eye-contact with referee as he fell gave it away, a bit like a Labrador staring at you as you eat your dinner.  He should be told to leave any desire to cheat in North London where it belongs, or Kieran McKenna will write to his mum.

“Come on Dorby” comes the chant from the Cobbold Stand and I think I detect a hint of a Midlands accent. Soon the away support are riffing on a familiar theme,  “Football in a library, de-de-dur” is followed by “No noise from the Tractor Boys” and “Shall we sing a song for you” as the youth of Derby vainly goad the pensioners and families in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, who stoically wait for Town to take the lead before thinking about whether they might start to clap or break a smile.  But the ground has gone a little quiet, they’re right.

The half is half over and Derby equalise in the competition to see who can have most players booked as  the name of James Chester is recorded in referee Mr Swabey’s notebook.   The game is almost a third over before Derby win their first corner.  “Are you alright mate?” says the bloke behind me to his son, who answers “Yeah”.   My view of the pitch is temporarily blocked as the people in front all stand up to let pass someone, who I guess couldn’t wait thirteen minutes until half-time for a pee.  A chant of “Blue and White Army” builds quickly and then falls away just as soon.  I notice that Derby have no sponsor’s name on their shirts.  “Peter Sykes, please contact the nearest steward” announces the voice of Stephen Foster.  I look but can’t see anyone approaching their nearest steward. It’s not that the game isn’t holding my attention, it is, and it is unpredictable, but the goalkeepers could have made hammocks from their goal nets and it wouldn’t really have mattered.  Perhaps to relieve his own boredom, Derby ‘keeper Joe Wildsmith gestures wildly at the linesman for not flagging Kayden Jackson offside.  The linesman predictably ignores the wild Wildsmith,  but would probably secretly like to give him ‘the finger’.   The half ends with hopes of a goal as Town win a free-kick on the edge of the Derby penalty box.  Children at the front of the stand prepare to video the event with their mobile phones, but their youthful hope and enthusiasm is dashed as Lee Evans shot avoids the defensive wall but not Joe Wildsmith. Three minutes of added on time are announced with a flourish by Stephen Foster but bring forth nothing to justify his optimistic tones.

The half time break sees me join Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad Michael ‘down the front’ where I encourage Harrison to buy ‘Shufflemania’, the new LP by Robyn Hitchcock which is released today.  Ray regales me with a story about his dad who used to drive the Ipswich Town team bus in the 1960’s.  Ray’s dad was known as ‘The Cat’ by the Town players and he maintained that this was because he would play in goal in 6 or 7-a-side warm up games when only twelve or thirteen players would travel as there was only one substitute allowed, and before 1965 no substitutes at all.  Ray was to find out later from a Town player of the period that his dad wasn’t called ‘The Cat’ because of his goal keeping prowess, but because late one night, having returned from a distant away trip , he backed the bus off Constantine Road and over the club cat.

The second half begins with renewed vigour from Ipswich and Derby fans alike who both sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” as if vying with one another in some sort of choral competition.  The encouragement seemingly works and just seven minutes into the half we witness the first shot from open play that is worthy of the name as Marcus Harness conjures up a half-volley that is blocked.   It’s a symptom of Town now dominating possession and looking the team most likely to score.  In the Cobbold Stand the Derby fans sing a song which to my ears sounds as if it’s about a man, possibly called Michael, who found an octopus, but I doubt that’s right. “ We forgot that you were here” respond the Town fans in the old North Stand in a curious role reversal; I conclude that the half-time break can do funny things to people and to prove the point the Derby fans produce a chant which sounds like the theme from the Addams Family, but then it is nearly Hallowe’en.

The second half is a better ‘watch’ for home fans even if it is ‘all up the other end’ from my perspective in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand. In the sixty-seventh minute it all gets much better still as Kayden Jackson breaks down the right, loses the ball but carries on running as the unsuspecting Derby defender decides on a back pass which is nothing more than a pass to Jackson who shoots on goal.  The ball hits the post but rebounds to Wes Burns who has plenty of time to hit the ball into the net and give Town a lead which they now probably deserve, and they haven’t even made any substitutions yet.  I remember to take ever-present Phil’s photo for Pat from Clacton as Phil and his son Elwood hold their arms aloft whilst grinning joyfully.  “E-i E-i E-i-o, Up the Football league we go” sing the Town fans, and not to be outdone the Derby fans sing the same before deciding that they would be better served by a chorus of the sneering “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.”

Tonight’s attendance is announced by Stephen Foster as 28,415, with 1,777 of them being the people who have been shouting all evening about Derby and what poor supporters Ipswich fans are. Ipswich continue to be the better team however, and Kayden Jackson shoots the wrong side of the goal post, substitutions are made and with seven minutes left former Town player David McGoldrick tries to make amends for collecting much of his salary from Town whilst not actually playing, by kicking Wes Burns in the penalty area.  After pausing to decide if he should really give Ipswich a penalty, Mr Swabey points to the spot.  It seems he was right to pause for thought because sadly Town will waste the opportunity given to them.  “Jackson’s taking it! ” says the bloke behind me somewhat incredulously and his surprise proves well-founded as Kayden’s kick lacks both the pace and accuracy required unless the goalkeeper dives the wrong way.  Wildsmith dives the right way and the score remains 1-0. 

“Ken Rodwell, contact the nearest steward” announces Stephen Foster perhaps making up a surname laced with double entendre to help reduce the tension of the closing minutes as Derby win a rare corner.  Seven minutes of added on time are announced and at the first stoppage in play four Town players collapse to the ground.  I don’t think they’ve got the hang of this time-wasting thing, they’re surely meant to go down one at a time? 

Time moves on inexorably. “Got to be it” says the bloke behind me after what he thinks seven minutes feels like. “Got to be it” he says again a short while later and then again. “Got to be it, innit” he says before saying “Got to be” at least twice, and then inevitably it is it, the final whistle, and a tidal wave of relief floods from the stands, not because Derby had looked like scoring, but just because no one has any faith that Town can win a match that’s shown live on the telly, well they just did.

Robyn Hitchcock 17 Norwich 0

When I win a large amount of money on the Premium Bonds and the biographical film of my life comes to be made, many of the best bits of the soundtrack will be to the music of Robyn Hitchcock who has provided much of the soundtrack to my adult life.  When my good friend Mr Goold told me therefore that Robyn would be performing at Norwich Puppet Theatre, a venue a mere 24 kilometres from Mr Goold’s abode, I was obviously quick, well in truth not that quick, to buy a ticket (£18, plus £2.30 to anonymous middle men) and invite myself to sleep on my good friend’s floor for the night.  My other good friend Pete decided he would also like to come along on what his consumption of American popular culture and resultant outlook on life told him would be a road trip in the style of Hunter S Thompson.

It’s a dreamy drive through the Norfolk countryside on a September evening in Mr Goold’s golden 2004 Nissan Micra, the sun is setting to our left casting long shadows.  Reaching Norwich, having been driven for the first time in my life through Poringland, I am struck by how much like a proper city Norwich is, from its riverside roadways, medieval cathedral and monumental County Council building to its elevated four lane highway; a pity about its football club. Mr Goold’s Nissan Micra comes to rest in Magdalen car park in the shadow of a concrete flyover, our ultimate destination less than 200 metres away.  We walk through the fading light to the 15th/16th century church of St James the Less, now re-purposed as the Norwich Puppet Theatre.  I muse on St James the Less being appropriate given that puppets are like miniature people. At my behest ⁹Pete poses with the cathedral as a backdrop; I photograph him but fail to make the spire give him the appearance of a man wearing a tall, pointed hat; I can’t helping thinking that it’s an opportunity missed.  My life is full of regrets.

Inside the theatre we drink at the bar, Mr Goold drinks coffee, Pete drinks Adnams Ghostship, I down Adnam’s Broadside. We check out our fellow audience members; people in late middle age like us, Norwich’s arty set and younger people dragged along by their elders against their will. I make assumptions about people.  Eager to get ‘good seats’, when we see the first people departing the room we follow, hoping we’re not just pursuing them into the toilet. The auditorium has been dropped neatly into the nave of the church, and the interweb tells me it has over 150 seats, my eyes tell me these are split either side of a central gangway; it is steep giving a good view of the stage.

At 8 o’clock the support act, Jessica Lee Morgan and Christian Thomas play a set of unfortunately forgettable songs very competently indeed and they seem very nice.  Jessica is the daughter of Mary Hopkin and Tony Visconti and she tells us so in case we didn’t know.  After the set, as we wait for Robyn Hitchcock to appear I tell Mr Goold that from now on I might be begin telling people that my mother is Daphne Brooks and Reg Brooks was my father.  In spite of the snidey implications of the previous sentence the support act are alright.

At nine o’clock Robyn Hitchcock appears, being helped onto the stage and to a seat at a Clavinova digital piano, a product of the Yamaha company.  Robyn explains that the previous evening he fell over and whilst not damaged in terms of breakages to bone and sinew, he is clearly in pain and standing up and moving about is a problem for him.  In an unfortunate way however, this is a good thing for his paying audience as we receive the rare treat of hearing Robyn playing piano and sounding not unlike the Plastic Ono band.  I can’t now wholly remember which four songs are played, but ‘Ted, Woody and Junior’, a song about three men lathering each other with soap is one, and by way of an apparent insight into this song Robyn tells us about his grandma’s Ray-Bans, which were comparable in a competitive way to those owned by Andy Warhol, and how her wearing them at home on the Isle of Wight was concomitant to and therefore related to the meeting of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Brian Jones in New York.  Many of Robyn’s songs are about moments in time such as this.

After four songs on the piano, Robyn shuffles out from behind it to a stool, where he is handed his acoustic guitar by Chris Thomas of the support act who has been pressed into the role, hopefully only temporarily, of carer.   Again, the audience is in luck as a less than satisfactory pick-up on the guitar causes Robyn to come to the very front of the stage to perform un-plugged and un-miked.

The first of five songs Robyn plays on his acoustic guitar is ‘I’ve got the hots for you’, a tune dating back to 1980 when Robyn existed in a previous incarnation as member of the Soft Boys, but still wrote excellent songs.     ‘Hots’ as I have stupidly decided to call it here for the sake of brevity, although these words of explanation have of course taken longer to type and read than the full title is on the life-enhancing LP ‘Underwater Moonlight’, and is a song of which I have always been especially fond. My fondness for ‘Hots’ is in a good part due its reference near the end of the song to “a piece of Hake”.  I have always enjoyed this lyric, ‘Hake’ being such a fine word and few artists ever mention fish in their songs. Tonight this song has extra poignancy as I have recently returned from Brittany where I had a particularly good time watching FC Lorient, a football team who call themselves Les Merlus, and have a mascot called Merlux; Merlu is the French word for Hake and Merlux therefore translates approximately as Hakey.  Incidentally, Lorient beat FC Nantes, a team known as the Canaries just like the local team in Norwich. I don’t think Robyn has any knowledge whatsoever of football or its mascots, but it’s as if he knew. It’s a situation not unlike that of Andy Warhol and Robyn’s grandmother.

Also within the acoustic set, Robyn plays a new song entitled ‘I am this thing’, a song which has appeared on-line but is so new it has not been played live before.  Robyn tells us that this song has been requested this evening and after the show Mr Goold tells Pete and me how he was particularly taken with the track when hearing it on-line, and it was he who had asked that Robyn play it tonight. Whilst secretly grateful to Mr Goold, we don’t let on too much and I admit to thinking the song sounds a bit like another of Robyn’s songs, although typically I can’t remember which one, but obviously it’s a good one.

After the five acoustic tunes, Robyn hobbles back to be handed his electric guitar on which he plays four more songs including a reverberating version of ‘I often dream of trains’ and the almost-title track from his new album Shufflemania, which is entitled ‘The Shuffleman’.  Robyn remarks how his fall has resulted in his becoming the Shuffleman himself, although alternatively, given the venue, his movements could be said to be puppet-like , as if Thunderbirds had had a member of the International Rescue team who just sat about and rescued people by playing groovy music.

The final quarter of the gig sees Robyn joined on stage by Jessica and Chris for another four songs, with Robyn managing to stand up to play his electric guitar. After a beautiful rendition of ‘Queen of Eyes’, which almost brings a tear to my eye as it again takes me back to 1980 and my lost youth, Robyn advises that these songs are the encores, which whilst disappointing is understandable unless Robyn can somehow be magically lifted up from the stage and then set down on it again like some sort of over age Peter Pan.  The ‘encore’ also comprises the stonking ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ which includes the lyric “Please don’t call me Reg, It’s not my name”, the galloping ‘Oceanside’ and finally ‘Airscape’, probably a favourite of Robyn himself.  

Applause for Robyn and his band is not thunderous, because there aren’t enough of us in the puppet theatre for that, but it is heartfelt and enthusiastic and barely ends before the lights go up confirming that that was indeed the encore. It has been a fabulous evening and possibly a unique one, what with Robyn both playing piano and going doubly unplugged.

As a final act before departing the puppet theatre, which has been an excellent venue, I purchase a copy of a seven-inch single entitled ‘Mr President’, which I like for the picture on the cover of Robyn on the telephone against a back drop of overhead trolleybus or tram wires.  Such records and CDs along with his weekly shows on-line will now have to suffice until we can see Robyn play live again, and driving back to Mr Goold’s abode our happy reminiscences of the evening inspire us to resolve to get tickets for Robyn’s seventieth birthday concert at the Alexandra Palace next February.