Ipswich Town 4 Charlton Athletic 0

Today is the last day of the season in the English third division, and in common with every last day of the season for about the past twenty years it doesn’t matter much if Ipswich Town play today’s game or not.  In 2019 Town had already been relegated by the time what is often thought of as this auspicious day arrived, but usually, like today, Town are becalmed in mid-table mediocrity with no fear of relegation and no hope of promotion.  Ours is the club that would confound Rudyard Kipling and his poem ‘If’; we neither meet with triumph nor disaster, so what else can we do but treat them both the same. According to Kipling they are both imposters so perhaps what we encounter is reality and may be therefore we’d better get used to it.  But of course, next season is going to be different, Keiran McKenna is the messiah and so we approach today not with dull resignation, but with hope and new found belief, even though it’s a pesky 12.30 kick-off.

The one saving grace of the early start for today’s game is that my walk down through Gippeswyk Park is enchanting, serenaded as I am with sweet birdsong and bathed with soft spring morning sunlight.  The tide is high as I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge on which a banner reads “Champions of England, back in ‘62”. The heavy stench of body sprays and perfumes falls from the open windows of the Pentahotel.  In Sir Alf Ramsey Way I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) in the modern cashless manner and a Turnstile Blue fanzine with an ‘old-fashioned’ pound coin. Reaching the Arbor House pub (formerly The Arboretum) the front door is invitingly open and having stepped inside I order a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) before going out back into the garden where Mick is already nursing a pint of the same fine beer along with a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.   We talk of planning permissions, Mick’s discovery that he has vertigo and what has and hasn’t happened since we last met, which seems long ago, before the Cambridge game back on 2nd April.  We are interrupted by a telephone call from Mick’s son who it transpires will be attending a four day, all expenses paid conference in Paris; it’s alright for some, although he does have to make a presentation. Checking our watches at five past twelve we decide it’s time to leave for the match; I return our glasses and the empty cup that once contained peanuts to the bar, which is also now empty.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way Mick and I part ways as he secures his bike and heads for the posh seats of the West Stand and I make for the cheap seats near the front of what used to be ‘Churchmans’. Entering the hallowed halls of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand through turnstile number 60 I thank the overweight turnstile operator and am soon stood in a row with other men before a stainless-steel trough.  The man next to me is gushing forcefully against the steel and I shuffle as far away as I can for fear of unpleasant splashback.  Washing my hands, I am greeted by Kevin who I know from our previous mutual involvement with Wivenhoe Town; he tells me how much he enjoys this blog, which is kind of him.

Up in the stand, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, and his young son Elwood are all here as I take my place between Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket.  We enjoy a few bars of Hey Jude and a red smoke bomb from the Charlton fans before at 12:31 the game begins; Ipswich having first go with the ball and facing the direction of Phil and Elwood, Pat, Fiona and me.  Bizarrely I think I hear the Charlton fans chanting “We’re the Millwall boys, making all the noise, everywhere we go”, that can’t be right, can it?  A woman sat in front of me devours an obscene looking foot long hot dog.  It’s the third minute of the match, the smell of the smoke bomb lingers and Town break; Bersant Celina to Conor Chaplin and out to Wes Burns, who shoots inaccurately and a little wildly from outside the penalty area.  With the smell of the smoke still lingering it currently seems more like Guy Fawkes night than the last match of the season, but no fireworks yet.

It’s the fifth minute and another clever pass from Conor Chaplin is meant to put Wes Burns through but he hasn’t reacted, it’s the third time already that Mr Burns has not been his usual self. A minute later and Bersant Celina does a few step overs before passing square to Tyreeq Bakinson who allows the ball to run across in front of him, looks up and then strikes it firmly into the top right- hand corner of the Charlton goal and Town lead 1-0.  As I remark to Pat from Clacton, Bakinson has been unlucky with a few shots from outside the penalty area in previous games, so it was a goal that had been coming for a while, although happily today we’ve only had to wait six minutes.

It always feels good to score early in a game, it’s almost as if the first goal is the hardest one to get.  But good things, possibly including goals, are like buses, someone probably once said and so it will prove. The twelfth minute and a through ball from the excellent Conor Chaplin sends Wes Burns clear of the Charlton defence and he hits the ball past the on-rushing Charlton goal-keeper, whose sprawling arms and legs aren’t sufficient to counter the deft use of the outside of Mr Burns’ right foot – “Excellent” as his cartoon namesake might say.  How we cheer, although it’s not enough to stop the Charlton supporters from chanting “Two-nil and you still don’t sing” as they trawl their back catalogue of late 1970’s disco hits.

Four minutes later and we think we’ve scored again as yet another through pass from Conor Chaplin, who must be carrying a slide-rule with him today allows the oddly named Macauley Bonne to ‘score,’ only for his and Conor’s work to be annulled by the raised flag of the brutal, heartless linesman.   It’s days like this when there’s nothing at stake that the attitude of ‘disgraced’ French referee Tony Chapron is required; Chapron has admitted having allowed some disallowable goals during his career because they were good goals. La Beaute 1 Actualite 0.

This is just what the last match of the season should be like and to add to the fun lots of players are slipping over on the watered wet turf, eliciting the inevitable jeers from a crowd that just loves slapstick. A slow clapping accompanies that song that includes the words Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez, Allez, I cant decide which. The joy is so infectious even people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand put their hands together and chant, albeit a little bashfully.  Above the Cobbold Stand the three flags hang limply and Charlton get a little more into the game, winning two corners, but to no effect. I am struck by the thought that Wes Burns’ hair is looking much neater today than usual and he seems to have discarded his usual head band.  Wes is pictured on the front of today’s programme all dressed up with a black tie, which incidentally needs straightening, to receive his Players’ Player award at last Wednesday’s awards night and it looks like he may not have been home since.

More than a quarter of the match is over and as Town win a corner Pat from Clacton produces a polythene bag of sweets. “We always score when I get the sweets out” she says “Or we always used to” she adds, harking back to the ‘good old days’.  I tell her that I think the difference is we simply  always used to score in the ‘good old days’. This time the sweets don’t work, despite ever-present Phil also going all Cuban with a chorus of “Score from a corner, We’re gonna score from a corner” to the tune of ‘Guantanamera’.  At the other end, a long throw for Charlton ends with a low bouncing shot bouncing harmlessly past Christian Walton’s right hand post.

“Is this a library?” chant the Charlton supporters in the time honoured operatic fashion,  thereby creating an odd impression of the benefits  of public education in South East London.  A half an hour has passed since the game began and Town’s attacking vigour has subsided somewhat, giving way to plenty of square passing.  In a rare moment of real excitement Sam Morsy shoots past a post and then,  perhaps in an attempt at what passes as satire for south-east Londoners, the Charlton fans embark on a long passage of chanting in which they call either “We’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball, we’ve got the ball” or “We’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball, we’ve lost the ball” according to whether or not their team has the ball. As an exercise in observation it’s not very taxing for our visitors, but it is very, very boring and after a while a little annoying. 

On the pitch meanwhile, Charlton are probably having as much if not more possession than Town as half-time approaches and they almost score when Jayden Stockley heads across goal and Christian Walton has to make a fine diving save, palming the ball away for a corner.  It’s a very good save indeed, but the best thing about it is that it interrupts the Charlton fans incessant, boring chanting about whether or not their team has the ball.  Sadly, after the corner comes to nought the chanting resumes.  Only four minutes to half-time and Town win another corner, “Your support is fucking shit” sing the Charlton choir employing Welsh religious music and seemingly becoming angrier, or at least more‘potty-mouthed’ in the process.  The last action of the half sees Conor Chaplin drop a looping header just the wrong side of the cross bar and a long passage of passing play leads to yet another aimless corner.

At half-time I speak briefly with Ray who has his wife Ros with him today; they have been enjoying pre-match hospitality in the form of a late breakfast in honour of their grandson Harrison’s 18th birthday earlier this week.  I speak with Harrison’s dad Michael and also give Harrison his birthday present, a copy of the CD ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ by the excellent Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who has provided the soundtrack to most of my adult life. Happily, Harrison will later let me know that he thinks the CD is “Brilliant”.  Meanwhile, behind us, public address compere Stephen Foster talks to true Town legend,  84 year old Ray Crawford, who was top scorer in Town’s Championship winning team of 1962 and even turned out for Charlton Athletic too a few years later.  If any other Town player ever deserves a statue it has to be Ray, Town’s all-time top scorer with 228 goals in just 354 games, no one will ever beat that. Returning to my seat,  I speak to ever-present Phil and let him know that I have e-mailed the club to suggest they paint or paper the walls inside the away supporters section to look like book shelves.  I am disappointed that I have not yet received any response other than that they will forward my e-mail to the ‘relevant department’.  I e-mailed again to ask who the ‘relevant department’ might be, but have not received a reply; they no doubt think I’m a looney.

The second half is still fresh when Charlton’s George Dobson becomes the first player to see the yellow card of the distinguished sounding referee Mr Charles Breakspear, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  A minute later as if in an act of calculated revenge Conor provides yet another precise through ball which releases the oddly named Macauley Bonne, who then delivers a low cross for Wes Burns to despatch in to the Charlton goal net for a third Town goal.  Pat from Clacton records mine and Fiona’s celebrations for posterity in the form of a digital photograph which will later appear on Facebook, as is the fashion.

“3-0 on your big day out” chant the taunting, mocking occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the south-east Londoners. Pat looks to see what she has drawn in the Clacton Supporters’ coach ‘predict the result’ draw; it’s four home goals and any number of away goals, so Pat could be in the money!   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand as if they know that Pat may yet be a winner.  The thrill of expectation is broken by Janoi Doncien tactically heading over his own cross bar before  the North Stand launch a chorus of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” as they pretend it’s Christmas and Charlton make their first substitution, with Alex Gilbey who, like both the oddly named Macauley Bonne and Kane Vincent-Young once played for Colchester United, but unlike them shares his surname with a brand of gin, being replaced by Chukwuemeka Aneke.   Janoi Donacien appears to have been injured in heading over his own cross-bar and is also replaced, by the aforementioned Kane Vincent-Young.

Less than half an hour of the season remains but Conor Chaplin continues to make incisive passes and this time Luke Woolfenden almost puts in a low cross before sending the ball high and wide from what was possibly a shot.  “3-0 and you still don’t sing” chant the Charlton fans sounding increasingly frustrated at the Town fans’ insouciance, but still enjoying a cheery late 1970’s disco vibe.  The attendance is announced as being 26,002 with 1,972 of that number being Charlton supporters.  Weirdly, some people applaud themselves for turning up, but to my right there is a sudden exclamation. “I don’t believe it” says Pat from Clacton, “The bloody dog has won it”.  The ‘it’ in this case is the Clacton Supporters’ bus guess the crowd competition, and the dog is her brother Kevin’s dog Alfie, who Pat will later worryingly refer to as her nephew.  “Does he win a lot?” asks the man with the crew cut who sits in the row between Pat and ever-present Phil.

Cameron Humphreys replaces Conor Chaplin who receives well-deserved rapturous applause and Charlton replace Conor Washington with Elliott Lee to reduce the number of Conors on the pitch from two to zero within the space of seconds. “Is this a library?” and “Your support is fucking shit” chant the Charltonites again, ploughing an all too familiar furrow, but perhaps not realising that as football stands go the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is a sort of retirement home in which many of the occupants are constantly singing “Bobby Robson’s Blue and White Army”, but in our heads.

Thirteen minutes to go and Jayden Stockley heads against the Town cross bar. Three minutes later and a shout of “Handball! ” goes up from the Charlton fans. Nobody not in a red shirt knows why but there follows thirty seconds of every touch of the ball being greeted with a call of “ Handball” from the ever sarcastic people of Ipswich.  Charlton win a corner. “Charlton, Charlton!” shout the Charlton fans, showing how supporting your team is done, but it doesn’t bring a goal so it’s not worth it, although a prone Christian Walton does have to claw the ball down to stop it entering the net.  Six minutes to go and James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne to rich applause for both players.  James Norwood has announced that this is his last game for Town; if this were a US TV Cop show he’d get shot just before the final whistle, but happily it’s not.  Returning my attention to the actual football, “We want four” I think to myself half- imagining what Portman Road crowds of old would have chanted, and as I do so Cameron Humphreys threads a Conor Chaplin-style through-ball into the path of James Norwood who, from a very oblique angle steers it into the net, possibly off the goalkeeper, for his last ever Town goal. It’s only the third time Town have scored more than three goals at home this season and the it’s the biggest end of season win I’ve witnessed since Town beat Crewe Alexandra 5-1 in April 2005.   As Town fans cheer, Charlton fans sing “We forgot you were here” and three minutes of time added on melt away into forgotten history.

As last days of the season go, this has been a really good one, despite the 12.30 kick off, but it feels like it comes with the rider that Town have to do well next season.  Personally, I’m not too bothered either way, I just like to see Town play well; if we do that and we finish eleventh again I won’t be suicidal, although may be the club’s American investors will be.  But I can afford to be complacent, I’m old enough to have seen Town win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, but the likes of Harrison and Elwood haven’t, so come on Town, do it for them.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.

Ipswich Town 0 Cheltenham Town 0

It’s been a while since I’ve been to watch the Town at Portman Road, having forgone the last six matches thanks to the pandemic.  But it’s been a lot longer since I last saw Cheltenham Town play (7th September 2002 at Layer Road, Colchester to be precise), and it’s a lot longer still since Cheltenham Town played at Portman Road (19th March 1938 in the Southern League).  Add to the weight of history the fact that because I am not in my nineties, I have never seen Ipswich Town play Cheltenham Town at Portman Road, and you have the recipe for an evening of excitement to rival that of the last match I saw live, Town versus Barrow in the FA Cup, a truly awful goalless draw as I recall.  On days like this I don’t miss the Championship one little bit.  What’s being in the third division for if it’s not for playing the likes of Cheltenham Town?  Live for the moment and breathe as deep as you dare.

Rocking up on Anglesea Road at twenty-seven minutes to seven, I park my trusty Citroen C3 on a single yellow line and head for what I call the Arboretum pub, but the current occupiers label the Arbor House.  Eight minutes later I have hurried as quickly as I could through the bar, pausing only to mumble a request for a pint of Lacon’s ‘Jack Valentine’ (£3.80) through my face mask, and now I sit in the peace, solitude and creeping cold of the softly lit beer garden.  Amusing myself with the wonders accessible on my mobile phone I sip my beer and get into the funky groove of the righteous soul music climbing out of the plastic speaker in the corner of the garden shelter in which I’m sat. If I didn’t know I was in Ipswich I’d think I was in 1970’s Harlem as the sounds of Sir Joe Quatermain and Free Soul ((I got) so much trouble in my mind (1973)); Smokey Robinson (Baby that’s backatcha (1975)) and the Bobby “Blue” Band (Ain’t no love in the heart of the city (1974)) move my feet and my boogie body.  Beginning to feel like I’ve stepped back in time and looking forward to seeing the likes of Ian Collard, David Johnson and Colin Harper at Portman Road tonight I suddenly return to the now with the realisation that for £3.80 I could probably have bought everyone in the pub a drink or may be two in 1973, although I would have been a tad underage to have done so.

Leaving my reverie in the pub garden I head for Portman Road, my heart leaping a little as I catch a first glimpse of the glare of the floodlights in the night sky.  I approach the ground along Alderman Road to manufacture that ‘going to the match’ down terraced streets feel.  In the back of the Sir Bobby Robson (North) stand supporters already in the ground appears as silhouettes on the stairs and through the plate glass windows of the concourse.  Having purchased nothing with coins of the realm for over a month I recklessly buy both a programme (£3.50) and a Turnstile Blue fanzine (£1). I walk between the rows of fumy supporters’ buses lined up opposite the old tram depot and approach the Sir Alf Ramsey stand from the Constantine Road gate, eventually returning to Portman Road through turnstile number 60. I’m back.

In the stand I reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never missed a game until he caught Covid; they’ve missed me, or at least that’s what they tell me; they’re nice like that. With seconds to go before kick-off Fiona arrives too and I say hello to the man who sits to my right, who I always imagine is older than me, but possibly isn’t.  The game begins; Town getting first go with the ball, but I am quickly struck by how disappointed I am by Cheltenham’s kit. In my mind’s eye, a phrase that reminds me of my favourite Small Faces song, I see Cheltenham Town in red and white stripes, but tonight they sport a sort of knock-off Arsenal shirt with pinstripes and a Raglan sleeve.  The Raglan sleeve incidentally is the least desirable of all the sleeves for use on a football shirt.

Aside from the shirts, the football is fast and frantic, with Wes Burns uncontrollably shooting over the cross bar from close range after five minutes, and Bersant Celina making a weaving run before dipping the ball over the cross bar not five minutes later as Town confidently dominate their sartorial inferiors. The ostentatiously bald-headed referee, Mr Andy Davies, unexpectedly makes me think of the similarly hairless, on-loan St Etienne goalkeeper Paul Bernadoni, before a man behind me with a slightly Northern or Midlands accent annoys with a laugh that sounds like Disney’s Goofy.  “Unlucky, unlucky, unlucky; keep going, keep going, keep going” says an oddly repetitive woman from behind as another Town attack comes to nought and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand show signs of life, breaking into Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child”, to sing as ever of ceaseless fighting despite Norwich having run away, and all apparently and mysteriously because of Boxing Day.   High up in the Cobbold Stand the Cheltenham followers reveal a lack of originality matched only by their lack of memory as they chant “We forgot, we forgot we forgot that you were here” to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. With my attention back on the pitch, I can’t help but guffaw as Cheltenham’s  Reece Hutchinson hurls himself headlong to the ground in a wonderfully unconvincing attempt to cheat his way to a free-kick.  What was I thinking, staying away to avoid Covid when I could have been a part of this rich tapestry?

Ipswich’s dominance is total and is such that two of our three defenders, Janoi Donacien and Luke Woolfenden are seen exchanging forward passes within twenty-five metres of the Cheltenham goal.  Then a deep, angled Tommy Carroll cross is met with a diving header from Conor Chaplin, only for Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans to palm the ball away in front of Bersant Celina, who is taken too much by surprise to attempt to kick the ball back at the goal.  I’m just thinking how we haven’t been able to exploit Kayden Jackson’s ability to run very fast, when he suddenly breaks down the left, but when he comes to cross the ball he seems to have become over excited and at the far post the ball skids off the forehead of Conor Chaplin at such speed that it must have caused a friction burn.  It somehow feels as if everyone is just a bit too eager,  but out of the blue at the North Stand end Christian Walton fails to clear the ball successfully and his scuffed effort falls to a Cheltenham’s theatrically named Elliott Bonds, but fortunately Bonds’ left footed shot sails hopelessly high above the goal.

Town’s onslaught resumes and Cheltenham show the first sign of resorting to non-footballing tactics to relieve the pressure. “Oh, get up you wanker” says a polite sounding woman behind me as a red-shirted defender lays prostrate on the turf following a gentle collision with another bloke in a football shirt.  “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Cheltonians predictably in a quiet moment, and equally predictably no one responds.  Kayden Jackson delivers a slightly limp shot into the arms of Owen Evans and with the first half half-over, Town win their first corner, from which Tommy Carroll shoots impressively wide to the extent that the ball arcs away from the goal and stays on the pitch; Bersant Celina spots the unlikely trajectory and crosses the ball back into the ‘mixer’ but there’s no happy end to the incident.

 The second half of the first half plays out in a succession of Town corners and missed goal attempts.  Much of the first half football has been as exciting as it’s ever been at Portman Road in the past twenty years, but the plain truth is there has been no one to put the ball in the net.  As the half draws to a close Wes Burns turns to lash the ball back into the area in front of the goal from the by-line, but the ball strikes Hutchinson’s outstretched arm or possibly arms; VAR would doubtless have recorded the crime but instead Town are awarded another corner from which Luke Woolfenden deftly diverts a graceful header very precisely over the cross bar.

With the half-time whistle the Cheltenham players jog hastily and as one from the pitch, as if someone had just said “last one back in the changing room’s a sissy”.   By contrast Town’s players seem either less enthused, or just less sensitive to childish name calling.  It seems more likely they are lost in thought, grappling to understand how they are not two or three goals up. Forgetting about football for a bit I pop down to the front of the stand to talk to Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad.  Behind us stadium announcer and former BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster hands over his microphone to comedian and TV personality Omid Djalili, but sadly his words are completely scrambled by the hopeless public address system. Meanwhile Harrison’s dad offers me what the Tim Horton’s website enticingly describes as a ‘mini donut style cake ball’.  I am warned that it will probably taste of maple syrup; but contrarily it tastes of cinnamon. Whilst not ungrateful, and happy to ingest either cinnamon or maple syrup flavoured foodstuffs I am happy not to be offered another.

Cheltenham Town kick-off the second half by lumping the ball down field in the traditional manner.  Town soon get back to winning corners, but with much less frequency than before and somehow the speed and excitement of the first half has departed, leaving in its place mis-directed passes and an unsporting belief amongst the Cheltenham team that they could break away and score a goal of their own.   I remain full of hope, but either Town have lost their mojo or Cheltenham have worked us out.  The game descends into more of a battle with half an hour to go as Cheltenham’s Charlie Colcutt becomes the first player to enter Mr Davies’ address book for a heinous foul on Wes Burns and then the substitutions begin with Kane Vincent-Young replacing Dominic Thompson and the oddly named Macauley Bonne appearing in lieu of Kayden Jackson.  Cheltenham stopper Lewis Freestone is next to have his name etched in copper plate in baldy-Davies’s book as ten minutes later the Cheltenham number six ruthlessly chops down Conor Chaplin.

One bright spot in the second half is the announcement of the night’s attendance of 21,318, of whom 251 are supporting Cheltenham.  Pat from Clacton announces to Fiona and I that the winner of the Clacton supporters’ coach guess the crowd competition is the squirrel that steals the food from the bird table in her garden. I explain to Fiona that squirrels are very clever animals, but I didn’t know they enjoyed coach travel.

Following speed, excitement and accurate passing, enjoyment now leaves the game as Callum Wright of Cheltenham hangs about too long in a prone position on the turf and draws the vitriol of the Sir Bobby Robson stand for his trouble.  “Wanker, Wanker!” roar the lower tier to Wright’s bemusement as he is soon substituted with Aaron Ramsey.  “How could they tell?” he must be wondering to himself as he looks for hairs on the palms of his hands.  Time is running out and in desperation a chant of “Come On You Blues!” is sent out into the ever more chilly night air.  But the chant is only repeated twice more, almost as if everybody feels a bit self-conscious about shouting for any longer than that.  

The final ten minutes are miserable as Cheltenham players spend an unusual amount of time apparently suffering from cramp, something that I thought only happened in extra time in Wembley Cup finals.  Sadly, the ever-unresourceful Town fans can only think of chanting “Boring Boring, Cheltenham” rather than urging on their own team to victory by turning Portman Road into a frightening cauldron of noise.  Cheltenham do waste time, but what professional football team doesn’t when they are close to claiming a hoped for but not necessarily expected away point?  

“Come on Ipswich, score in the final second” I say to creation as the sixth minute of added on time ebbs away. But the final whistle blows, and it feels a bit like we’ve lost.  That’s the trouble with expectation, especially when you’ve not had any for a while.  Not to worry, I think I’ll still be back again next time.

Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

My paternal grandfather was born and grew up in the village of Cuxham, Oxfordshire, which is a bit more than 20 kilometres southeast of Oxford.  I have been told that as a boy his education was regularly interrupted by his grandfather, an itinerant clock mender with a reputation for being locked out of his house by his wife and who spent more than one night in police cells as a result of drunkenness. I might be wrong, but from what I can make out it seems my great-great grandfather would take him out of school so that he had someone on hand to get him home after a heavy session at the pub.  During World War One my grandfather was in the Royal Marines, and I believe in 1916 was on HMS Iron Duke at the battle of Jutland.   Happily, my grandfather was not one of those who died that we might live, and indeed he lived that my father might live and serve on HMS Locust on D-day. Happily again, my father also lived, and grew old, and consequently I am here to write this. My own service record is less impressive, having merely been in the cub scouts and then the sailor section of my school Combined Cadet Force; an utter waste of time for me and the teachers who dressed up as Naval officers on a Thursday afternoon, but nevertheless satisfyingly redolent of Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’.   Appropriately perhaps, I have no progeny to whom I can relay my story of living through what is generally regarded as peacetime; peace, who’s interested in that? As Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian almost said.

 I remember watching the 1970 FA Cup final on television with my grandfather, by which time he had been living on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for well over thirty years.  But despite having an appreciation of ITV’s World of Sport, being a big fan of cricket, as well as an avid reader of the Racing Post, as far as I know my grandfather never watched Oxford United or Headington United, as they were known until he was older than I am now.  Today, Oxford United play Ipswich Town at Portman Road for the twelfth time in my lifetime, and with the exception of last season’s goalless draw, which no supporter witnessed first-hand due to the Covid lockdown, I have seen every one of those fixtures, although the only one I remember particularly well is Town’s 3-2 victory in April 1986, a win which ultimately proved insufficient to relegate Oxford United instead of Town from what is now called the Premier League.

Today is a grey autumn Saturday, illuminated only by the colour of the leaves on the trees turning in different stages from greens to shades of gold, yellow and russet.  After parking my trustee Citroen C3, I follow my usual pre-match routine of Gippeswyk Park, Portman Road, where I buy a programme (£3.50), and The Arboretum pub (now called the Arbor House), which is unusually busy with diners and drinkers, only one of whom is wearing a mask.  I obtain a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and exit to the beer garden and the hoped-for safety of fresh air.  Mick soon arrives with his own pint of Suffolk Pride and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts; we talk of COP26, Covid booster vaccinations, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Indian partition, Morocco, Algeria and the Paris massacre of 1961, the ethics of holidaying in the third world and Mick’s desire to listen to ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, on the beach at Ipanema. At just after twenty to three we head for Portman Road.

With Covid vaccination credentials confirmed, I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 thanking the operator as she allows me through this portal to another world.  I arrive on the lower tier of the stand with the teams already on the pitch, Pat from Clacton tells me she and Fiona were getting worried about me. Stadium announcer, former Radio Suffolk presenter and ex-classmate of my friend Pete, Stephen Foster tells us that in honour of the dead of two World Wars there will be a minute’s silence when the referee blows his whistle.  The players link arms around the centre circle, the referee does not blow his whistle, and a lone bugler pays the last post, after which there is a ripple of applause, which doesn’t happen at the Cenotaph, and I am left a little confused, still waiting for the minute’s silence.  I recall however that we did have a silence last Saturday before the FA Cup game with Oldham Athletic and there was also one before the game at Wycombe Wanderers; there may even have been one before the EFL Cup tie versus Colchester United, but I boycotted that match because of the inclusion of Premier League Under 21 teams in the competition.  I even had my own two-minute silence when working at home on Armistice Day itself and there will be another on Remembrance Sunday.

With the normal sounds of Portman Road restored in the form of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which the Oxford fans sing along too as well, the knee is taken and the game begins; Oxford United getting first go with the ball and hoping to point it mostly at the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground.   Despite there being no clash of colours, Oxford are wearing an all black kit, possibly as a symbol of remembrance, or possibly just because their usual yellow and blue kit is in the wash.  Within 60 seconds Bersant Celina concedes the first free-kick of the match and it takes more than a minute for Town to get possession of the ball.  “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Oxford supporters reminding their team what colour shirts they should be wearing, and shaming whoever does their laundry. Town soon win a corner as the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a low cross blocked by Oxford’s Jordan Thornily who sounds prickly.  From the corner kick the same Town player sends a stooping header against the right-hand post of the Oxford goal.  After the glancing header and the diving header, the stooping is possibly the next best.

Oxford are looking rather good, better than Town and in the sixth minute Christian Walton is forced to make a spectacular flying save to repel a shot from Sykes who, being a fan of 1970’s BBC sitcoms, I should like to see in a front three with players called Jacques and Guyler. “They seem good at dipping the ball” says a voice behind me, “They are” says the voice in the seat next to him before a third voice makes an obscure and slightly surreal reference to oxtail soup which I don’t think anyone understands and which kills the “conversation”.

It takes thirteen minutes for the assembled Oxford supporters to ask through the medium of song “Is this a library?” which provokes a man a few rows back to shout in a distinctly middle-class voice “As if you’re used to this many working-class people in your libraries?” It’s an odd thing to shout out at a football match and betrays a curious perception of just who follows Oxford United.  In truth, to someone from Oxford’s Blackbird Leys estate the song was probably an honest enquiry.

Oxford are the better team, although unusually Town’s defence is playing alright, but after almost twenty minutes it is once again Town who come closest to scoring as a Bersant Celina shot strikes that right hand post again, leading to suspicions that the goal has been put in the wrong place and should be ten centimetres to the east. It’s an event that leads to two corners in quick succession for Town. In the Cobbold stand meanwhile the Oxford fans reveal their upper middle class, academic sensibilities that the bloke had alluded to in his library comment, with a lovely chorus of “Sit-down if you shag your mum” to the tune of Village People’s ‘Go West’.  It’s a perfect example of what Paul Weller was on about when, in The Jam’s 1979 hit ‘Eton Rifles’ he wrote the line “We were no match for their untamed wit”.

I’m not feeling good about what I‘m seeing and given past games feel sure that Town will concede a goal soon. “Tell you what,” says the bloke behind me “They’re a decent team”. “Well-drilled” says his friend introducing an appropriately military metaphor. Maintaining the theme, the Sir Bobby Robson begin to chant “Blue Army, Blue Army” but it soon fades into the grey of the afternoon as Oxford continue to dominate.  “Just not with it as a team” continues the bloke behind me, thoughtfully. “Bloody prats need to wake up” adds his accomplice cutting to the chase.

There are twelve minutes until half-time and spits of rain travel on the wind across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand.  Five minutes until half-time and Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan is booked by referee Mr Scott Oldham for trampling George Edmundson.  Brannagan waves his right arm up and down in protest and on the Oxford bench manager Karl Robinson, a man who often seems stupidly angry with the World, has evidently reacted badly to one of Mr Oldham’s decisions and is also cautioned. “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the irascible Scouser to the ‘tune’ of the Portsmouth guildhall clock chimes, and for once it’s good advice.

Although Oxford aren’t creating very many good chances, I’m still hoping for nothing more than Town making it to half-time on level terms.  “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing” chant the Oxford fans, annoyingly answering their own question but getting the answer right nevertheless and confirming that it hasn’t been a satisfactory half for Ipswich.  “Sing when we’re winning, We don’t even sing when we’re winning” responds Pat from Clacton with a sotto voce rendition of Guantanamera, for which the new lyrics only just about scan.  A minute of added on time is announced and before it’s over ever-present Phil who never misses a game has left his seat and headed for the facilities beneath the stand.  It’s an astonishing display of both confidence and pessimism that nothing of any importance to the result will happen in the next forty seconds, but it turns out to be well-placed, despite possibly casting a shadow of doubt over the validity of the epithet “ever-present”.

Half-time produces the usual Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar from my coat pocket, which I eat before going to speak with Ray, his son and grandson Harrison.  Ray is impressed by Oxford United, describing them as ‘honest’, which I think is football speak for hardworking but not prodigiously talented.

The football returns and from the start Town begin to play better and Oxford seem happier to sit back, perhaps hoping to ‘hit us on the break’.  Despite being quicker to the ball and having more possession than before, Town nevertheless don’t create the string of unmissable chances I had hoped to see from the team who have so far scored in every league game this season.  Kyle Edwards looks ‘dangerous’ but isn’t, Wes Burns looks tired, the oddly named Macauley Bonne is ineffective and Bursant Celina is either unable to measure a pass or is hallucinating.

When Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan goes down clutching a limb, his club’s female physio sprints across the pitch to him, her blond ponytail bobbing in the breeze. “I’d like to be a physio” says Pat from Clacton. “Ooh, just let me rub that for you” she continues, going all “Carry On”.   From afar Pat thinks the physio looks glamorous, so she zooms in on her with her camera and says in fact she’s a bit severe looking; women can be so harsh on one another sometimes. Meanwhile, I notice that George Edmundson appears to have a large varicose vein on the back of his left thigh.  The Sir Bobby Robson Stand chant something that goes “Addy-addy, addy-o, I.T.F.C” to no particular tune and then “Come On You Blues” as they connect with the improving vibe of the second-half, and full-back Bailey Clements, making his League debut, shoots wide of the far post.

Stephen Foster announces today’s attendance as 21,322, of whom 922 are a combination of professors, dons, Masters of colleges, undergraduates, assorted intellectuals and residents of the Blackbird Leys estate. “Yellows, Yellows” they chant once more in unison as their team win a sixty-sixth minute corner. Play ebbs and flows and a stonking clearance from an Oxford boot rattles the fascia of what is currently known as the Magnus Group stand. Twenty minutes remain and Wes Burns is replaced by Sone Aluko, and then Conor Chaplin usurps Kyle Edwards. It’s a change that had he asked me, I would have advised Paul Cook to make at or soon after half-time, but he didn’t ask me.

Oxford United win a succession of corners in the closing stages as they break forward with a final push for glory. Conor Chaplin shoots beyond the far post for Town and Sam Morsy receives his customary booking. Waves of drizzle sweep across the pitch, illuminated beneath the floodlight beams and the Oxford team take it in turns to fall down and stay down on the pitch clutching bodily parts.  Writhing on the wet grass may be a way to save time in the shower after the game but it’s more likely that the players are just wasting time, a tactic that fits with the joyless impression Karl Robinson creates with his angry Scouser routine.

As referee Mr Oldham stops the game for the perceived injuries, he incurs the wrath of the home support who tell him that he doesn’t know what he is doing.  It’s a shame that football isn’t more like Aussie Rules Football, a sport in which injuries are treated as the game carries on, and in which players are so tough, they only submit to treatment if they are actually missing a limb or coughing up blood.

The ninetieth minute sees Bailey Clements cautioned and the addition of five more minutes. The ball runs out at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end and the supporters within the stand await the corner kick, only for Mr Oldham, with perfect comic timing, to award a goal kick. “Lino, lino you’re a cunt” chant the gynaecologists in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and the match atmosphere either steps up a gear or descends into unpleasantness depending on your point of view.  “Oxford United, Oxford United FC, They’re the finest football team the World has ever seen” sing the professors and Blackbird Leys boys culturally appropriating the Irish folk song The Wild Rover. “Boring, Boring Oxford” chant the Ipswich supporters and the game ends.

Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood are quickly away and I’m left on my own; they will not chant “Boring Boring Oxford” as those that are left will. Leaving the pitch the Oxford players look slightly bemused by the anger of some Ipswich fans and it is true that they did try to win the match, but then they didn’t.   I contemplate what I have witnessed this afternoon and wonder what my grandfather and his grandfather would have made of it.  I don’t think they’d have been too bothered, as long as it had been an entertaining game and they could have a pint afterwards. That’s intellectuals for you.

Postscript:Ever- present Phil who nevermisses a game is keen for readers to know that he didn’t miss the end of the first half, he stood at the top of the stairs until the whistle blew.

Ipswich Town 2 Fleetwood Town 1

It’s a cool, almost cold, still, grey autumn day.  As I walk down through Gippeswyk Park a leaden pillow of cloud hangs over the town and Portman Road.  I march on through the gathering crowds, past people perched on car park railings folding foamy bread, heavy with sauce-laden sausage into their gaping mouths.  I stop only briefly to buy a programme (£3.50) and to put a coin in a collection box for an NHS charity, although I thought that’s what we paid our taxes for; I guess we’re being asked to make up the shortfall for the very wealthy and those companies like Amazon who could pay more, but choose not to because how else is their owner expected to be the richest man in the world and launch ageing actors who once played fictional astronauts into space.

At the Arbor House (formerly the Arboretum), Mick is already sat at a table enjoying a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride. I toy with the thought of copying him but opt for a pint of Mauldon’s Phantom (£3.90), it occurs to me that the beer seems to increase in price by 10 pence every time I come here.  I join Mick to discuss how we’ve passed our respective weeks and other assorted issues of our times, including driving a hearse on the M25, cycling in Belgium, the Kray twins and East Suffolk County Council police houses. At twenty minutes to three we depart for Portman Road, as do the three people sat at an adjacent table, we follow them down High Street.

Mick and I bid our adieus near the turnstiles close to the corner of Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road, Mick’s seat is in the upper tier of what is now called the Magnus Group stand; I’m in the cheap seats at the bottom of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Having vouched for my being double-jabbed I enter the ground through turnstile sixty-one, which I select over turnstiles fifty-nine and sixty because 1961 was when we won the Second Division for the first time.  I make my way through the undercroft of the stand having put on my face mask, although few others have the decency to do likewise, and Ipswich has the country’s highest Covid infection rates.

The teams are walking out on to the pitch as I shuffle past Pat from Clacton and Fiona to my seat.  “We were getting worried about you” says Pat as I sit down, and in dipping my head my glasses fly off.  “You’ve every reason to be” I reply.  The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ plays and people join in with the na-na-nas. The floodlights are already on and with knees taken and applauded, at a minute past three the game begins. Town are attempting to put the ball in the goal just in front of me, Pat from Clacton, Fiona, ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood.  In their red shirts with white sleeves Fleetwood look like a bargain basement Arsenal, and it’s good to see a team not change their kit unnecessarily just because they’re playing away from home; both teams are even wearing white shorts!

Just a minute of the game has passed and already the Sir Bobby Robson stand are singing “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away, and we will fight for evermore because of Boxing Day” as if to reiterate the often made point that Christmas seems to get earlier every year.  Town win a corner. “Come on you Blues” I bellow hopefully. “Is that Martin?” says Phil, turning round to Pat to ask a question to which he already knows the answer.

It’s early, the game is still settling down and the crowd are getting accustomed to what they are seeing before them. The referee Sam Allison is black; a voice behind me says “Uriah Rennie, innit”, a comment which unfortunately is unthinkingly racist, although I have no doubt it was not intended as such, but at least it does highlight the scarcity of black football referees despite there being a lot of black footballers.

Ten minutes pass and it looks as if Fleetwood almost score; Gerard Garner appearing from my low down, distant view to beat three players before having a shot blocked.  Four minutes later and Town have a goal disallowed as the oddly named Macauley Bonne heads in a free-kick, but is considered by the assistant referee to be have been offside. Another five minutes later and Bonne directs a free header at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, a large man who has made the double fashion faux-pas of wearing dark pants beneath his yellow shorts and displaying a distinct VPL.  Cairns is however one of the few footballers to share a surname with the name of a northern Australian city.  

The game has settled into a somewhat disappointing pattern of Town passing the ball about quite a bit, but not having any decent attempts at scoring a goal.  It’s nearly half past three and Paul Cook is gesticulating wildly from the touch line like someone directing traffic having dropped a few amphetamines.  Janoi Donacien wins Town a corner.  “Come On You Blues! Come On You Blues!” tumbles from the Sir Bobby Robson stand and a handful of people in the Sir Alf Ramsey stand join in, including me. Toto Nsiala heads the corner kick over the cross bar from a position so close to the goal that it looked easier to score. 

 It’s gone half-past three and after Fleetwood’s James Hill fouls Conor Chaplin, his name becomes the first to enter Mr Allison’s notebook.  I like to think of Mr Allison amusing himself childishly by stroking his chin as if in deep thought and then writing down Hill’s first name as Jimmy.  Ten minutes until half-time and Sone Aluko has Town’s first decent shot at goal, but it goes past the post. Finally, as the half peters out Sam Morsy becomes embroiled in a contretemps with Fleetwood’s Jay Matete, as they literally wrestle each other for the ball; Morsy is clearly at fault and Matete is awarded a free-kick.  A bit like the weather, the half has been rather dull.

My half-time snack of a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar is the highlight of the afternoon since leaving the pub and Ray offers the opinion that Town haven’t done very much so far as he stops by to chat on his way to use the facilities beneath the stand.

The game resumes at four minutes past four and the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson are soon singing “You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit you’re fucking shit, You’re fucking shit,” which strikes me as being not very polite.  From the comments of the man next to me I think their “song” is directed at the Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns, and I can only think that they too have spotted that you can see his pants through his yellow shorts, although I think it would probably have been more helpful to sing “Don’t wear dark pants, Don’t wear dark pants,  Don’t wear dark pants with yellow shorts, Don’t wear dark pants.”  

Cairns’ misdemeanor is soon punished however and with just four minutes played of the new half, Conor Chaplin turns outside the penalty area and sends a firm shot into the corner of the goal with, as the man next to me says, the goalkeeper “stranded”.  Clearly getting nostalgic for former glories, the Sir Bobby Robson stand erupt into a chorus of “1-0 to the Tractor Boys” to the tune of Village People’s 1979 hit ‘Go West’.  Feeling elated by taking the lead I risk sensory overload as I breathe in the smell of the damp turf. This afternoon’s attendance is announced as 20,099 with 133 of that number being from Fleetwood.  Pat from Clacton thinks she might have won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ coach and passes me the sheet containing everyone’s guesses.  Sadly, I have to break the news that her guess of 20,069 is not closer than someone else’s guess of 20,103, although to be fair to Pat her number looks a lot more like 20,099 than 20,103 does and she got five of the digits right; there has to be a field of experimental maths where what the numbers look like matters.

Back on the pitch and Wes Burns replaces Sone Aluko who is wiping his nose and has presumably either suddenly developed a heavy cold or has a nosebleed.    Meanwhile, back in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand Pat from Clacton tells us that she will be having a Marks & Spencer prawn salad for tea. 

It’s nearly half past four and Christian Walton makes a save from Ged Garner who had been allowed to dribble far too close to the goal.  From the resultant corner the ball is hit into the crowd where a man over the other side of the gangway from me calmly stands up and heads it back onto the pitch.  The last time I did that I tell Fiona and Pat from Clacton, my glasses flew off (Woodbridge Town, September 2018, FA Cup extra-preliminary round v Clapton).

Fleetwood’s Jay Matete is booked for a foul on Sam Morsy and meanwhile I count twenty-one seagulls on the cross girder above the roof of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Town miss two chances in quick succession as first the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a shot saved by the bloke in the dark underpants and then Conor Chaplin sends a shot above the crossbar.  Attempting to create a diversion, Fleetwood replace Ged Garner with someone called Paddy Lane; it’s Penny’s brother I tell Fiona, although of course I do know that Penny Lane is really a street in Liverpool, and Paddy Lane is round the back of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

Town miss another opportunity as Wes Burns billows the net with a shot to make half the ground think he had scored, only to realise the ball had gone behind the post. Sam Morsy is eventually booked for persistent fouling with Mr Allison offering a fine mime, pointing in different directions to indicate that Morsy had committed fouls here, there, and everywhere.  Whilst Morsy receives his punishment from Mr Allison I am struck by the long shins of Fleetwood’s number nine, Callum Morton, a youth who the app on my phone says is English, although his stroppy demeanour, ginger hair and surname shared with a Greenock football club imply he is Scottish.  I have a premonition that he will score, which is based on the fact that he looks like he has the capacity to annoy.

Something happens across the other side of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and from up in the Cobbold stand comes a chorus of “We forgot, We forgot, We forgot that you were here” and I think to myself “Who said that?”.  Back on the grass and Fleetwood’s Johnson fouls Celina and is booked before Fleetwood string together an alarming number of passes prior to Town eventually clearing the ball. Less than ten minutes of normal time remain, and Lee Evans concedes a free-kick.  The Liverpudlian back street crosses the ball and the annoying youth with long shins heads the ball into the Town goal from unfeasibly close range.  What had felt like a comfortable one-nil lead isn’t any longer,j but as I said to Fiona, we hadn’t conceded a goal for almost two whole games, so it was unlikely we’d hold on much longer.  We would probably have conceded sooner or later even if we had to score it ourselves.

To the credit of the Town supporters, we don’t become over-anxious and we even raise a few chants of “Come on Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” and indulge in some rhythmic clapping.  On the pitch, Town remain patient, passing the ball back and forth waiting to prise an opening rather than just hitting and hoping or ‘getting it in the mixer’.  In the eighty-eighth minute a deep cross from Lee Evans is headed across the goal by the oddly named Macauley Bonne, it’s a decent chance; and then the game enters five minutes of added on time.  A draw wouldn’t be unexpected, but hope remains that we can win; this is a team that has scored twenty-eight times in thirteen games, an average of more than two goals a game, so we’re due another one.

It’s the ninety third minute; Fiona has had to leave early to catch a train because she’s going out this evening.  The excellent Janoi Donacien runs all the way to the goal line to knock back a deep, cross field ball; his flicked pass falls to Bersant Celina who sweeps it imperiously past the man in the dark underpants to give Town victory.  It’s the best ending to a match at Portman Road in years, possibly since Pablo Counago scored almost directly from the kick-off after Coventry had equalised in 2010.  Town did manage a near last minute win against Shrewsbury last November, but that doesn’t count because last season only happened on ifollow.

What started as a grey, dull, cold day has ended in a blaze of glory, the embers of which will glow all week long and at least until we lose again, which hopefully won’t be for ages; and just to add a barely needed coat of varnish, Norwich have lost 7-0 too.  Some days are definitely better than others.