January is reputedly the most miserable and depressing of months and the closer to the middle of January it gets the more miserable and depressing it becomes. The third Monday in January has been designated ‘Blue Monday’; nothing to do with The Blues of Ipswich Town but rather something to do with the pleasure and happiness of Christmas having worn off completely and the realisation for people that they are now deep in debt; the weather has something to do with it too. Today is only 12th January however, I have no debt and my Christmas was not noticeably any more happy or pleasurable than any other couple of days off work, and although the weather is grey and overcast today, I have an afternoon at Portman Road to look forward to.
My erstwhile colleague and still current friend Roly is waiting for me at the railway station, he is drinking a cup of coffee which I imagine he imagines lends him an air of sophistication. Ignoring this, I tell him how I long for the weekends when I see Town play and how I feel a curious kinship with the many species of Mayfly that live for but a few short hours. It’s a twelve carriage train so we wander down the platform away from everyone else knowing that we won’t have so far to walk to the bridge over the tracks when the train arrive at Ipswich station; every second counts in the all too brief joy of a pre-match drink and then the match. Roly fritters away some of our precious time getting a fresh twenty pound note from a cash machine, but we are soon heading for St Jude’s Tavern where we are going to meet Mick. Portman Road is busy, the ticket enquiry office bleeds out into the road with a queue of late comers taking advantage of the special offer of tickets in any part of the ground for just £12. People with nothing better to do queue for the turnstiles to open. I buy a programme (£3) from one of the portable kiosks, which always make me think of a Tardis piloted by a Dr Who played by Mick Mills, transporting us back to the 1970’s. The programme seller is unsmiling and I wonder if he and his colleagues have been instructed to no longer invite customers to “Enjoy the match”; if programme buyers are anything like many of the nasty, ignorant and rude people who seem to inhabit social media I imagine such words of goodwill are generally met with verbal abuse. How I long to live in a civilised country like France where it is impossible to even make eye contact with club employees on a match day without them wishing you “bon match”.
In St Jude’s Tavern a group of three very young looking lads with Yorkshire accents buy two Coca-Colas and a pint of lager whilst I wait to purchase two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50 a pint), which today is Cliff Quay Brewery Neptune’s Nip; Mick appears, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to bump my order up to three pints and the barman for some reason makes an un-necessary association between Neptune’s Nip and Poseidon’s penis. Roly, Mick and I sit at a table next to the young Yorkshiremen. We talk of Ipswich’s new signings and Mick is impressed at Roly’s knowledge, which he imparts with a weightiness of tone as if to say “…these are the facts, think otherwise if you wish, but I will not be held responsible.” I sit and listen and hope he gets to the bar soon because I need to drink as much as possible before the match to dull the pain. Roly buys the next round of Match Day Specials which is now Cliff Quay Brewery’s Tolly Roger (still £2.50 each). Whilst Roly is at the bar I get Mick to show me how he has so neatly tied his blue and white scarf around his neck. “It’s like a cravat” he tells me. I follow his instruction and achieve the desired look of Michael Palin in the episode of Ripping Yarns entitled ‘Golden Gordon’. The Yorkshire lads have left leaving two half glasses of Coca Cola and most of a pint of lager, very strange. I imagine they’ve gone to see if there is a rain gauge at the town hall. Before we leave I feel the solitary need to sink a further half pint of Cliff Quay Brewery Sir Roger’s Porter (£1.70), and then one of the retired gentlemen I drank with before the Millwall game on New Year’s Day comes over to say hello and remarks that I have some friends with me today. I tell him yes and that I therefore don’t need his company.
Glasses drained and returned to the bar, we negotiate the door and descend Portman Road, crossing Handford Road and joining the expanding throng of match-goers. At the turnstiles in Sir Alf Ramsey Way we walk past the end of the queues of the first block of gates to reach the second turnstile block where there are no queues; I smile to myself about how stupid people are who join the first queue they come to and surmise that they probably voted ‘leave’ too. The lady turnstile operator and I smile broadly to one another as I pass through and Mick reveals that she smiled at him too when Roly complains that his turnstile operator was miserable. He cannot understand it he tells us, explaining that he is so much younger and therefore more attractive than Mick and me.
Once inside the East of England Co-op stand bladders are emptied and we head for our seats. Because the tickets are a mere £12 each today I have traded up my usual seat with the groundlings of the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and have taken up a place with Mick in the upper tier of the East of England Co-op Stand. The view of the game is better here, but it is also somehow a little too far removed from it, as if we are watching on TV and I sense that some of the people around me will be just waiting for a convenient break in play to go and put the kettle on. It wouldn’t occur to them to shout or chant in support of the team, they truly are just spectators and nothing more.
After group photos for the family album are posed in the centre circle, the game begins with Town kicking-off with their backs towards ever-present Phil who never misses a game and Pat from Clacton, who I can see in their usual seats in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, or Churchman’s as us people who remember the ’good old days’ call it. Town sport their usual blue and white kit despoiled by an ugly advertisement for an organisation of on-line scammers. The usual team colours of today’s opponents Rotherham United are red and white, but eschewing the opportunity to recreate the classic blue and white versus red and white Subbuteo encounter, they wear an un-necessary change kit of yellow shirts with pale blue sleeves, and pale blue shorts and socks.
Sadly Rotherham’s kit is insipid and somewhat effete; it detracts from
the spectacle and speaks nothing to me of Yorkshire grit and scrap
reclamation for which Rotherham is rightly famed.
The match is fast and furious and lacks finesse but unusually Ipswich have the upper hand. There is an air of expectation as a bevy of debutants (or debutantes if you prefer to see this match as a sort of ‘coming out’ ball) before the home crowd. The transfer window is open and a wind of change is blowing through Portman Road as Paul Lambert gets to choose his own players rather than just make do entirely with what he has inherited from that false Messiah, Paul Hurst.
Outstanding in the Ipswich defence is an enormous bald-headed man by the name of James Collins; he is thirty-five years old but looks fifty, he is a colossus and carries the Ipswich rear guard on his back like Atlas, though not literally of course. If for some bizarre reason I were to make a TV adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I would cast James Collins as Jean Valjean, not Dominic West.
With only twelve minutes gone referee Mr James Linington brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Rotherham’s Zak Vyner, a man whose name is distinguished by having more than its fair share of letters from the back end of the alphabet and is worth a decent score in the brand of imaginary Scrabble in which only footballers names and not proper words are currency. It’s one of the few popular actions Mr Linington makes all afternoon, although I do approve of his choice of all-black kit; it’s what referees should wear.
A half an hour passes and Freddie Sears scampers down the left; he gets beyond the Rotherham defence and crosses the ball low to the near post. No one has control and the ball looks like it is trying to escape, but it only runs as far as new signing Will Keane, who despite the unpleasant associations of his surname and a hairstyle more becoming of the Eastern Counties League strikes a low shot into the goal. The crowd rises as one and all but the 729 Rotherham United fans in the corner of the Cobbold Stand enter a state of joyful delirium. Town lead 1-0.
It’s half-time and the toilet beckons; as I enter the ‘smallest room’ in the stadium I hear Roly giving his friend Andrew from Bury St Edmunds the benefit of his analysis of the first half; he sounds very earnest, like a bearded, Caucasian Garth Crooks; I stand next to him at the urinal and open-zippered tell him I disagree with his analysis, although in truth I hadn’t heard what he had said. I wash my hands and am amused by the words ‘Danger Electricity’ which appear on the top of the hand dryer “ Ah, the old enemy , electricity” says Roly convincingly.
The game begins again and the two blokes behind me discuss refurbishing a kitchen; “ Seriously, if you do it, I can get you a 10% discount at B&Q.” says one “ Does that include stuff already on offer?” says the other, looking a gift horse in the mouth. But I shouldn’t be surprised, these two haven’t a clue who any of the Town players are and are clearly here because the tickets are cheap. Out of the kitchen and back on the pitch the match has changed. Ipswich no longer dominate, quite the opposite in fact. They are incapable of retaining the ball for more than a few seconds and have seemingly abandoned all attempts to pass it to one another. Rotherham produce wave after wave of ineffectual attacks which are repelled by a mighty rear guard action from the Blues. This is good on one level but immensely frustrating, worrying and disappointing on another. We are making Rotherham look like Paris St Germain; lose this and they’ll be wanting to take the Eiffel Tower down for scrap.
Despite Town’s apparent ineptness, brought on in my opinion by a shortage of proper midfield players, the crowd of 20,893 remain firmly behind the team. The lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, galvanised by the Blue Action supporters group and some welcome support from a bunch of fans of Fortuna Dusseldorf, Town’s unofficial ‘twinned club’ are proving inspiring, and every now and then even people in the East of England Co-op Stand are moved to clap their hands rhythmically. The floodlights are on as darkness envelopes the town and we benefit from the atmosphere of a night match, but Town still struggle to do anything but defend. On the touchline Paul Lambert the Town manager is very active, prowling up and down the technical area and swinging his arms directorially. I suggest to Mick that he’s probably just trying to keep warm because as ever he is in black slacks and a v-necked Marks & Spencer jumper and not wearing a coat, but Mick tells me in an authentic sounding Scottish accent that this is T-shirt weather.
Mr Limington the referee awards a catalogue of free-kicks to Rotherham, most, seemingly because a Town player has simply stood too close to one from Rotherham or has given him a funny look. The crowd tell Mr Limington he doesn’t know what he’s doing although I would prefer that they had asked “Who’s the bastard in the black?” Flynn Downes replaces German debutant Collin Quaner for Town as Paul Lambert reacts to that need for a stronger midfield and the bloke behind me with the kitchen asks “Who’s that?” “ Number twenty-one” says the bloke with connections at B&Q.
Finally, after five minutes of added time and a couple of narrow escapes for Town, Mr Limington gets something right and blows the full-time whistle unleashing rapturous scenes. The Sir Bobby Robson Stand finds a bigger voice than at any time during the match and hails the winners. It is a famous victory, as any victory is in this season mostly of defeats. But whilst the win is much needed and keeps hope alive, what this match has really shown is that people still care enough to come to a game, discounted prices or not, and Suffolk is still behind its team. Whether Town escape relegation or not, if managed properly this could be the start of a renaissance for Town and a re-connection with its fan base; I bloody well hope so.