After lock down, 20 months of working at home, following on directly from six months off work due to illness, I have adapted to a centrally heated life spent mostly indoors. The thought therefore of venturing out on a cold late November evening to sit and watch a football match that your team is probably odds-on to lose isn’t that appealing. But I have a season ticket, so I’ve already paid to go, and I can’t bear to miss out, added to which I consider myself to be the heir to Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown; I’m a football supporter of Ipswich Town. My drive into town is nevertheless made without enthusiasm, but by the time I’ve walked from my car to The Arboretum (now the Arbor House) pub, the still night air, the glow of the streetlights and the promise of a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) have altered my mood, and after a light dinner of Scotch egg (£4.50) with chips (£4.00) in the company of Mick, who incidentally has falafel Scotch egg (£4.00) with halloumi chips (£4 .00), I am once again ready to do or die for the Town.
The walk through the streets of Ipswich to Portman Road is always one of the best parts of any match day, it’s when the glorious sense of anticipation is all there is, and nothing has yet gone wrong to ruin the day. Today the sensation is heightened because it’s an evening game and the floodlights shine a bright halo into the night sky and the crowd seems drawn to it like moths to flame. In over an hour Mick and I have not talked about the match but crossing Civic Drive I ask if he thinks we’ll win. Mick is as ever hopeful, but not optimistic, the same as me. Rotherham United are the form team in the division; a win will put them top of the league and Town have failed to score in three of three of our last four games, and just to trowel on the portents of doom a little more Town have beaten Rotherham United just once in our last seven attempts.
Resigned to our fate, Mick and I part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way; Mick to the decent seats in what used to be the West Stand, whilst I head via turnstile number 60 to join the groundlings in the bottom tier of what was Churchman’s, purchasing a programme (£3.50) along the way. I shuffle to my seat past Pat from Clacton and Fiona before the teams are even on the pitch, I’m early. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here and so are Ray, his grandson Harrison and Harrison’s dad. Also here, sat behind Ray and his progeny, are four or five blokes of various ages all sat in a row; three of them wear dark-framed glasses and sport matching haircuts which are short at the back and sides with a tangled mop above; they look like the same bloke seen four or five years apart, but appearing all at once, as if the BBC tv’s documentary Child of Our Time had been presented by Dr Who not Robert Winston.
With the teams on the pitch and knees taken and applauded the game begins with Rotherham all in black, like the baddies always are, aiming the ball towards the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end of the ground. The cheerful man who sits to my left remarks on how cold it is, “Feels like someone’s left the fridge door open” he says. I wonder how big his fridge must be. From the beginning the crowd is quiet, as it often is at Portman Road; the home support huffily adopting the attitude of “well, we’re not going to shout until you give us something to shout about”. Rotherham are solid and their supporters shout and sing as if to celebrate that, as if it’s the essence of life itself, maybe it is in Rotherham. Rotherham have a shot blocked, and Christian Walton makes a fine flying save from Rotherham’s Jamie Lindsay, but the game is even, in a cagey, no one is taking any chances kind of a way. Scott Fraser shoots from outside the penalty area but misses the goal.
Twenty-three minutes pass and then the Rotherham number eight, Ben Wiles, decides to run at the centre of the Ipswich defence. I don’t know if it’s the effect of the cold night air, but what we had thought was beginning to gel, shatters and Wiles runs on unmolested to the edge of the penalty area before launching an impressive shot into the top right corner of the Town goal, with the predictable outcome that Rotherham take the lead. I’d just been thinking to myself that we’d not conceded an early goal so perhaps we might now have the confidence to impose a little of our will onto the game. C’est la vie, as they don’t often have cause to say at Paris St Germain.
The blokes a few rows in front of me are lairy, shouting and showing off to one another in the manner of people who have had too much to drink, or are what they would probably call “wankers”. Rotherham have more shots blocked, Ipswich don’t but Bersant Celina gets caught offside, which sort of shows willing. Rotherham have shots on goal, which miss the target; with the exception of a blocked attempt by Scott Fraser, Ipswich don’t have any shots. “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” chant a few hundred Town fans for a few seconds before trailing off in a manner that sounds like they’re embarrassed at the sound of their own voices, or their mum has given them a stern look. Rotherham United’s Jamie Lindsay and Michael Ihiekwe make their mark on the game by being booked by referee Mr Gavin Ward, not that anyone else is going to book them, they wouldn’t attract many to the Ipswich Regent. In time added on Town win a corner courtesy of the extravagantly monikered Ramani Edmonds-Green. “Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” I chant, sounding in my head like a lonely, ghostly echo of Churchman’s forty years ago.
Half-time arrives and I make the short journey to the very front of the stand to talk to Ray. “I think they should bring Celina on” says Ray ironically; he’s not a fan of the Dijonnaise loanee. Nor is Ray a fan of the blokes behind him, the lairy ones with the identical haircuts and glasses; they’re getting on his nerves a bit. Our conversation lurches from the disappointment and annoyance of tonight to our extreme dissatisfaction with the current Prime Minister and the sitting Member of Parliament for Ipswich, Tom Hunt, who we concur is a both a lackey and a twit. Unhappy in a political and footballing context, but happy to have spoken to Ray, I return to my seat for the second half. Before play resumes, I have time for a brief look at my programme, the cover of which features Christian Walton glaring out suspiciously at us; page 66 refers to next week’s FA Cup tie with Barrow FC, who it describes, amusingly to my mind, as “the Cumbrian outfit”. If you enter “Cumbrian outfit” in the search engine on your phone or personal computer it will tell you where best to go for fancy dress costumes in Workington.
Both teams take it in turns to foul one another when the game re-starts, and Scott Fraser sends a free-kick over the Rotherham cross bar. Almost an hour has passed since the match began and Rotherham’s ‘tricky’ Frederik Ladapo combines with their most prosaically-named player, Michael Smith, to outwit the entire Town defence and run the ball across the face of the Town goal and beyond the far post where Shane (I imagine his parents were fans of Westerns or Alan Ladd) Ferguson clogs the ball into the roof of the net to remove all doubt that Rotherham United might not ascend to the top of the third division tonight.
The remainder of the match dissolves into a mess of forlorn hope and disappointment for Ipswich. The lairy blokes in glasses in front of me who had annoyed Ray in the first half show their true colours and become abusive towards the Town players. “You’re all shit” shouts one of them, confirming his unsuitability as a summariser on Match of the Day. But it’s an outburst that amuses the blokes behind me. “Ha ha” one of them chuckles, “Look at old Harry Potter down there”.
Desperately, Town replace Bailey Clements and Lee Evans with Matthew Penney and Kyle Edwards and Joe Pigott makes a rare appearance in place of Conor Chaplin, but nothing changes. Michael Smith has a chance to make the score 3-0, but heads over the crossbar. The Portman Road crowd occasionally remember that they should try to encourage their team but mostly they don’t bother, apparently content to watch the game as they would just another episode of a box set on Netflix.
Rotherham United are just too good for Town, their solidity and organisation more than enough to suppress any flair we think we might possess. The last ten minutes are run down by Rotherham as they make three substitutions of their own; my curiosity and attention only being pricked and grabbed by the unusual surname of Daniel Barlaser, who is booked by Mr Ward the referee, and the name of substitute Mickel Miller, whose surname matches the nickname of Rotherham United, The Millers, and whose first name suggests his parents or the registrar couldn’t spell Michael; I once had a girlfriend whose middle name was Jannette because her father couldn’t spell Jeanette.
In common with everyone else in the ground I am prepared for the boos that accompany the final whistle, although happily tonight they don’t convey the vitriol that some results provoked in previous seasons. Sadly, after two consecutive defeats and a run of league games in which the Town haven’t scored, the optimism and bullishness of a few weeks ago has all too quickly evaporated for some people. Whatever, it’s only a game, and so far on balance I’m enjoying this season; the frustration, the disappointment, the strangled hope are, after everything, what football is all about, most of the time.