Ipswich Town 1 Derby County 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 2

Back on Tuesday 8th March I erroneously believed that the glorious two-goal victory over the Imps of Lincoln City would be the last time this season that I would witness our heroes play a match under the dreamy luminous glow of the Portman Road floodlights.  But my capacity for getting things wrong is pretty much limitless, and courtesy of Sky Sports TV moving our Good Friday excursion to Rotherham to Saturday lunchtime, what should have been a relaxed end of season stroll of a game on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon has been transformed into a final, atmospheric night game.  Sky TV and its parent company Comcast may have completely ruined professional football in England with their money and meal-time kick-offs, but it is an extremely ill-wind that blows no good at all and I love a mid-week game under floodlights, even if our opponents tonight will only be third division leaders Wigan Athletic and not Real Madrid, Feijenoord or Lokomotiv Leipzig as they once would have been.

For an evening match it’s still very light as I walk down through Gippeswyk Park and along the river behind the Pentahotel, but then it is only half-past six on an April evening in the Northern Hemisphere.  The salty, pungent smell of seaweed and mud is carried on the wind and Oyster Catchers whistle like demented referees as they swoop above a group of Canada geese, ornithological reminders of Frank Yallop, Jaime Peters, Craig Forrest and Jason De Vos.  I’m heading for what was the Arboretum pub but is now the Arbor House for a pre-match pint. I stop off in Sir Alf Ramsey Way to buy a programme in the modern cashless way. “Is it working?” I ask the cheery young female programme seller. “At the moment” she replies, cheerily. ”We’d better be quick then” I say, tendering my blue plastic card. Disappointingly the sale does not transact. “I think we probably don’t take that card” says the girl letting me down gently.  “No, I don’t expect you do” I say, proffering a second blue card, “That was my season ticket”.   It’s the sort of faux pas to rival those of my dear mother, who once on a day trip to France asked a waiter if he spoke French.

At the Arboretum, or Arbor House, I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) using my bank card and sit in the garden alone. I take my programme from my jacket pocket expecting to just ‘flick through’ it, but to my surprise I end up actually reading two quite interesting pieces about Sone Aluko’s experiences playing for Nigeria and how Idris El Mizouni copes with being a professional sportsman during Ramadan.   After a half an hour of beer and contemplation I head back to Portman Road beneath the setting sun shining through pearlescent clouds. Turnstile 61 is my favoured portal tonight, it was a choice between that and No 59. The pleasant lady turnstile operator smiles me into the ground and I make for the gents where I enjoy a tinny rendition of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown before I wash my hands.   Up in the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is concealed within a blue hoody and Pat from Clacton is talking to the bloke who sits to my left and I think is from Stowmarket; they’re talking about how cold it is this evening and indeed a lazy East wind is blowing across the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, causing me to raise my collar and do up the top button of my coat.  Fiona arrives, returned from her cruise and other excursions.

With hands shaken and knees taken and applauded the game begins;  Town getting first go with the ball and pointing it mostly in the direction of the goal in front of me, Pat, Phil, Fiona and my neighbour who might be from Stowmarket and whose grandson is here with him tonight. “Everywhere we go” sing the Wigan fans up in the Cobbold stand, but I can’t quite catch what it is about everywhere they go that they want to tell us. Everywhere they go is quite nice? Everywhere they go is better than Wigan and not as nice as Ipswich?  Everywhere they go they are politely asked to leave? I may never know. As if not to be out done by the visitors, which is unusual, the Sir Bobby Robson stand breaks into the same tune but with different words, the ones that begin “Addy, Addy, Addy-O”. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a good start and it’s not even properly dark yet.   My first thoughts on the game itself are that the Wigan players all look extremely big and their all-scarlet kit stands out particularly well even if it does lack style. But the football soon chases away all thoughts of haute couture as Town embark on a first half of fine attacking football, raining in crosses from left and right from Wes Burns and Matt Penney and winning corners courtesy of Janoi Donacien and the clever passing of Conor Chaplin.

Only an announcement asking the owner of a black Ranger Rover in the Sir Alf Ramsey car park to move it breaks my concentration and I realise I never knew Sir Alf had a car park named in his honour.  The incident reminds me of when my own car achieved similar fame at Barnet, with the registration being read out over the public address system.  My car was also black, but it was a Ford Fiesta, and I didn’t have to move it, just turn the lights off. When I got back to my car after the game the battery was flat, but some friendly Barnet fans gave me a push start.  Wigan have a few moments of possession, but it ends with Town breaking swiftly with Wes Burns, who lays the ball off to the oddly named Macauley Bonne who feeds it to the overlapping Matt Penney who shoots hopelessly high and wide of the goal from 20 metres out.

This is a good game with Conor Chaplin threading more inviting passes into the box and Bersant Celina shooting into the arms of the Wigan goalkeeper and Old Testament prophet Amos.  As Amos then spills the ball from a Sam Morsy shot , a man a couple of rows behind me laughs like Goofy, the anthropomorphic Walt Disney dog. A cross curves in a graceful arc from the boot of Bersant Celina but eludes the head of the oddly named Macauley Bonne and another chorus of “Addy, Addy Addy-O” emanates from the North Stand before echoing from pockets around the ground where people seem to know the rest of the words too.  Up in the Cobbold Stand the Wigan fans sing of balm cakes, coal and canals, possibly.  A man next to the man who laughs like Goofy, laughs like a chimpanzee.

Above the North Stand roof and floodlights a smear of cloud adopts a pinkish tinge as the sun sinks down over Sproughton and a lone seagull glides above the pitch on its way back to the coast for the night. Twenty-five minutes have passed and Wigan’s Kelland Watts, whose name sounds a bit like the formal version of former Coronation Street character ‘Curly’ Watts, gets to be the first player shown the yellow card of referee Mr Will Finnie, after he fouls Conor Chaplin.  Matt Penney and Bersant Celina rain in more crosses, which Wigan’s tough centre-back Jack Whatmough (pronounced Whatmuff I hope) sends out for another Town corner. “Are you working from home still?” asks Pat from Clacton of Fiona; she is.  Town are all over Wigan like a rash but just can’t score.  My neighbour from Stowmarket and I turn to one other and share how we just know that Wigan are going to go up the other end and score.

With half-time approaching Sam Morsy is shown Mr Finnie’s yellow card as a bloke called Bennett wriggles on the turf and rubs his face.  No free-kick is given to Wigan and indeed Town have a corner, during  the taking of which Mr Finnie watches intently as the miraculously recovered Bennett proceeds to give Sam Morsy a huge bear hug to prevent him from making a run towards the ball or anywhere else. Incredibly Mr Finnie evidently doesn’t consider that being hugged by an opposition player as the ball is crossed into the box is any sort of a foul, perhaps he simply thought  Bennett hadn’t seen Morsy for a long time and was understandably overcome with emotion.  From the corner, Wigan break away and Luke Woolfenden is booked for bringing down Stephen Humphrys. The free-kick leads to Wigan winning their first corner of the match; it’s the forty-fifth minute and Wigan score as Will Keane runs free and glances a header inside the far post.  We knew it would happen.

Four minutes of added on time give the Wiganers in the Cobbold Stand the opportunity to sing “We’re gonna win the league, We’re gonna the league, And they int gonna believe uz , And they int gonna believe uz” to the tune of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”,  but curiously they develop a Midlands accent as they do  so. 

Half-time begins with me booing the referee for his incompetence and then Ray stops for a chat on his way to using the facilities beneath the stand.  The football resumes at seven minutes to nine with the replacement of Matt Penney with Dominic Thompson and Pat from Clacton remarks on how Thompson receives a lot of unfair abuse from some Town supporters on social media;  but we all agree that he’s alright and we like him.  I would even go so far as to say that with his beard that sometimes looks like massive sideburns and his hair that looks like tied-back dreads (it might actually be tied-back dreads), he is easily the coolest player Town have ever had.

Town pick up where they left off about fifteen minutes ago and dominate possession whilst also sending in more crosses that are cleared. “Ole, Ole, Ole” or “Allez, Allez, Allez” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier, along with other words that I have even more difficulty deciphering and therefore don’t bother trying to; I just enjoy the noise. The fifty third minute and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar. The attendance is announced in a very jolly manner over the PA system by Stephen Foster, former Radio Suffolk presenter and school chum of my friends Ian and Pete, as 21,329 with the number of Wigan supporters in that total being 402, or as Stephen in full DJ mode pronounces it “foouur, huuuundred and twooo.”   “You’re support is fucking shit” chant the Wiganers to the ever adaptable Welsh hymn tune of Cwm Rhondda,  which in turn provokes more chimpanzee style laughter from the  bloke a couple of rows behind me.  

Back on the pitch and with an hour gone Wigan’s Callum Lang scythes down Conor Chaplin and is justly booked by the otherwise inept Mr Finnie.  Lang’s protestations of innocence are as credible as those of Boris Johnson; it was a blatant foul, but probably less cynical than our Prime Minister’s lies.  From the free-kick the ball pings about a bit in the penalty area before it falls to Conor Chaplin who makes a small clearing and pops the ball into the back of the net to equalise.   “Top of the league, your ‘avin’ a laugh” taunt the Sir Bobby Robson standers to the tune of Tom Hark, originally recorded by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes in 1958, which seems a bit harsh given that Wigan are both genuinely top of the league and, for all Town’s possession and good play, are not actually losing. But the goal has enthused the home crowd and a pledge of “Ipswich ‘til I die” is heard before James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne and then Wigan almost reclaim the lead, as Dominic Thompson inexplicably heads across his own penalty area forcing Christian Walton into two point-blank saves from the lurking Bennett.

Within four minutes Wigan are punished for missing the gift we had tried to give them as Wes Burns’ cross is headed back across the face of the correct goal by Dominic Thompson, atoning for his earlier error and an incoming Sam Morsy does a passable impression of John Wark by lashing the ball into the roof of the net.  It’s a proper goal, but foolishly and conceitedly the home crowd find it necessary once again to chant “Top of the league, you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” and go on to compound their error with more than one chorus of “Keano, Keano, What’s the score?”. It’s almost as if the crowd have forgotten that Will Keane no longer plays for us and they actually still want him to score.  What other explanation for such flagrant tempting of fate can there be?

Will Keane has already scored once and eludes the defence again to shoot at Christian Walton before the inevitable happens and with four minutes of normal time remaining he again slips all trace of marking to flick a low cross past Walton from close range.  Keane has looked mean and lean all game and much sharper than he ever did playing for Town, and when he has needed to he has made easy work of Town’s zonal ‘marking’ system.  Up in the Cobbold stand the scenes are more reminiscent of Wigan Casino  than Wigan Athletic  as the foouur, huuuundred and twooo dance and celebrate being top of the league (still) and Will Keane scoring both of his team’s goals.

The game is more even now, not only in terms of goals scored. The final whistle sees Wigan having the last laugh at being top of the league; we might have mostly outplayed them but they didn’t lose and it seems unlikely they won’t be going up as Champions,  whilst Town will be hoping Bolton and Portsmouth let us finish higher than eleventh. Some people find solace by saying that age is just a number, well perhaps so is your team’s league position, unless of course it’s bottom like Norwich’s.

 Watching your team play well is always a pleasure whatever league they’re in and tonight’s has been a marvellous match, a fitting finale to this season’s floodlit fixtures, which is just as well because courtesy of Sky TV the last game of the season is at bloody lunchtime, so we can all fast like it’s Ramadan. Bon appetit.

Ipswich Town 0 Barrow 0

When I first became interested in football at the tender age of ten, Barrow were in Division Four and had been in the Football League since 1921, when they were elected as original members of Division Three North.  In my Observer’s Book of Football, the one that has a picture of Bobby Charlton on the dust jacket, it states “Honours have always been elusive for Barrow” and it goes on to say that Barrow had just “one season of triumph”, in 1967 when they finished third in Division Four. Sadly for Barrow, by the time I first saw them play, at Layer Road, Colchester in 1990, they had been replaced in the Football League by Hereford United and were not yet half way through a forty-eight year stint in non-league football.  Thirty years on and today, through the wonder of the 2nd round of the FA Cup, Ipswich Town and Barrow meet for the first time ever. I’ve been looking forward to today’s game to some extent since 1971, but more tangibly since the Cup draw was made, and in reality since Idris El Mizouni’s cracking goal ensured Oldham Athletic wouldn’t be making an unexpected run to Wembley.

As befits an FA Cup Day, the sun is shining gloriously, although with little impact on the outdoor temperature as I stroll across Gippeswyk Park and up Portman Road beneath clear azure skies.     Portman Road is notable this afternoon for the atypical absence from the car park behind Sir Alf Ramsey’s statue of some of the usual vendors of chips and other grease-based foods sold inside spongy ‘bread’ products.  There is also a corresponding shortage of human beings in Portman Road today compared to other match days, and whilst you might infer from this that people only come for the grease-based foods, the sadder truth is that the FA Cup simply doesn’t attract football fans like it once did.  I can recall paying full-price to watch Town play fourth division Halifax Town and Hartlepool United in the company of about 24,000 other souls back in the late 1970’s, and now find it hard to understand why with reduced ticket prices the lure of Cup glory against such Northern exotics is no longer an attraction.  In this age of instant gratification and tv reality game shows, Cup football should be more popular than ever with its promise of advancement to the next round and the jeopardy of defeat and expulsion from the competition after just ninety minutes; Death or Glory as The Clash sang just a year after Town lifted the FA Cup. The tyranny of Sky tv and the Premier League is clearly to blame.

Having purchased a match day programme (£2), I head on to what was The Arboretum pub back in the days when 24,000 turned up to see Hartlepool United and Halifax Town at Portman Road,  but is now The Arbor House.  With a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) in my cold right hand I sit and wait for Mick in the garden.  Mick soon arrives with a pint of Mauldon’s Molecatcher, a packet of Fairfields Farm cheese and onion crisps and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts.  Mick explains that Molecatcher is brewed to the same recipe as Suffolk Pride but is less alcoholic; I can’t really see the advantage of that at the moment, but our conversation explores various avenues from last night’s Have I Got News For You tv programme to nuns before it is time to walk down the hill past Ipswich Museum to Portman Road.

Today, taking advantage of the reduced flat rate ticket price (£10 for adults and £5 for concessions plus £1.50 each for the pleasure of buying them, which goes to a parasitic organisation called Seatgeek) we are in the top tier of what was the West Stand, but is now the Magnus Group Stand. We are in Block Y where the seats are brown in colour, not because of any sort of unpleasant staining but merely because I imagine brown looked ‘classy’ in 1982 when the top tier was opened; the seats are also padded.  I bought our tickets soon after they went on sale and we benefit from being close to the stairway or vomitorium, and just two seats in from the gangway, so only two old men must rise from their seats for us to access ours.  With everyone in their winter coats it’s a tight squeeze nevertheless.

The teams appear to an introduction from stadium announcer Stephen Foster worthy of the occasion and with knees taken and duly applauded the game begins;  a strong Town team getting first go with the ball and kicking towards the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, formerly plain old Churchman’s.  Town are wearing their traditional blue shirts and socks and white shorts whilst Barrow are in an unexpectedly stylish pale pink shirt and socks with black shorts, vaguely reminiscent of Sicily’s Palermo or the now defunct Evian Thonon Gaillard, briefly of French Ligue 1.   The largely empty stadium is filled with a sense of expectation as the game starts and the murmur of a nascent chant can be detected from the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Within a minute of kick-off however silence reigns.

From the start Town look as hesitant and short of ideas as their supporters are of rousing supportive chants. It is Barrow who show the first serious attacking intent as several players in pink break forward “They’re all offside, nine of ‘em; except him” says a man with a loud and annoying voice a couple of rows behind me as Barrow’s number eleven Josh Kay bears down on goal beneath the shade of the Magnus Group Stand.  The same voice is all too audible a short while later as Barrow break forward again. “Toto, Toto, leave him alone Toto” he calls as Toto Nsiala tracks a Barrow player into the Town penalty area and makes a tackle before he can fashion a shot on goal.  Had Toto Nsiala followed the spectator’s advice it is likely Barrow would have scored or at least had a shot on target. It’s not a good start by Town or their supporters.  But as a consolation the low winter sun is reflecting a sparkling yellow light back off the windows of the Guardian Royal Exchange office block on Civic Drive, so although the football isn’t, the backdrop is gently inspiring.

Over twenty minutes pass and Barrow earn two free-kicks in quick succession in the Town half and then win the game’s first corner.  Barrow come close to scoring twice as one free header hits a post and then one from Mark Ellis is saved by Christian Walton.  Barrow’s Josh Kay shoots and his shot is tipped over the bar by Christian Walton. “Come on Lambert, sort it out” bawls the ruddy-faced old boy sat in the seat next but one from mine.   Nobody reacts in the seats around me; I fear some of my fellow supporters might have died. I turn to Mick and dare him to shout “Robson Out”.

 It takes Town over half an hour to have a shot on goal worthy of the name as Scott Fraser eventually launches a shot over the cross-bar from outside the penalty box.  I remark to Mick that with the number eleven on the back of his shirt and his short brown hair, from this distance Fraser sometimes makes me think of Mick Lambert.  “I can’t think what Mick Lambert looks like” says Mick. “Well I expect he looks a bit different now” I respond.   Idris El-Mizouni is booked for a foul, a little harshly in my opinion and I wonder to myself whether referee Mr Sam Purkiss is a closet French nationalist in the thrall of Marine Le Pen.  As half-time approaches a rare moment of hope sees Conor Chaplin break away and from a low cross earn a second corner for Town, and then the oddly named Macauley Bonne strides forward to unleash an appallingly bad shot which results in a throw-in to Barrow. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuckin’ ‘ell was that?” sing the Barrovians up in the Cobbold stand in the time honoured fashion. “Good question” mutters the old boy next to me to himself.

Half-time comes as a welcome relief and whilst Mick gains further relief using the facilities, I remain in the stand alongside the two old boys. The match resumes at three minutes past four as dusk descends to shroud Suffolk’s County town in chilly December darkness.

Half-time has brought change and Joe Pigott has replaced Idris El-Mizouni who hadn’t looked sure where he was meant to be playing, with Sam Morsy seemingly competing with him for the ball in midfield.  Within three minutes Joe Pigott has found space and strikes a post with a firm shot.  Pigott’s presence continues to make a difference as he seeks space behind the Barrow defence and controls and lays the ball off in a manner which the oddly named Macauley Bonne has so far appeared incapable of doing.  Things are looking up and the Sir Bobby Robson stand feels moved to sing a song which has quite a lot of words, few of which I am able to decipher, but then Kay scoops a shot over the bar for Barrow when it was certainly no more difficult to get his shot on target.

This is a much better half for Town and I sense a glimmer of optimism amongst the Town followers in the meagre crowd of 6,425, of whom a respectable 205 are from Barrow.  The mood hasn’t affected the loud man behind me however, who continues to provide a mainly sarcastic commentary, which sounds both smug and moronic in its delivery.  He clearly doesn’t like Toto Nsiala and bewilderingly urges him to chip the ball over Christian Walton as Toto turns it back towards goal, before saying “He was tempted”.  This man has the sort of voice that would make a more violent person than myself want to punch him in the throat.

Town now dominate possession and whilst still a little slow on the ball they are getting players down both flanks to put in crosses, an approach that is helped by bringing on the exciting Sone Aluko.  The Town  support has corresponding moments of enthusiasm and sing another song with plenty of hard to fathom words, but a simple chorus of “Addy, Addy, Addy – O”, which is the sort of thing heard sung by children in one of those black and white films from the early 1960’s such as A Taste Of Honey, and I half want to see Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan warming up on the touchline.

As the match winds down into its final fifteen minutes the support wanes, and as we enter six minutes of normal time the ground is once again silent.  As ever, there is a late flurry of goal attempts as the realisation dawns on the players that their failure to score a goal can only result in an evening in Barrow-In-Furness.   Corners are won but no booming chants of “Come of You Blues” or  intimidatingly repetitive calls of “ Ipswich, Ipswich, Ipswich” materialise from the stands;  even the score board seems apathetic as each corner kick is met, not with an entreaty to shout support for the team, but instead a message about how the Ipswich Mortgage Centre “corners all your home improvement and mortgage needs”.    The old boys beside me leave with a couple of minutes to go.  Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from close range and substitute Cameron Humphreys heads against it , but Town don’t score and the breath saved by not shouting in support of the Town is expended in a chorus of sadly predictable boos and jeers.

Later this evening I will learn that the Town manager has been sacked and briefly I wonder to myself if the old boy sat next but one to me had been right; Paul Lambert had never actually left the club he’d just shaved the top of his head and swopped his Scottish accent for a Scouse one, but after nearly a season’s worth of games he’d finally been found out.   It’s certainly never dull being a Town fan, well except for the actual games that is. Try stopping me going through it all again in a fortnight’s time though. No, please, try.

Colchester United 1 Aston Villa 2

I hadn’t intended to go to this match; well I thought about it but just didn’t get around to buying a ticket. It’s what happens at the start of the season. I’m still in summer mode, it seems way too early for football, but it creeps up on you and all of a sudden the match is here and I’m sat at home ticketless.
Come the day of the match however, the bloke I sit next to at work, let’s call him Oliver, which coincidentally is his name, asks if I’d like his ticket because he has committed himself to watching Framlingham Town’s FA Cup extra-preliminary round replay against Wadham Lodge so can’t make it. Severe, heavy rain is forecast, the wind is in the north and the seat is in the south stand. Armed with this valuable potentially life-saving knowledge I say “Yes, I’ll take that ticket off your hands”.
I didn’t get home from work until just before six o’clock tonight because of heavy traffic and the fact that the A12 is partly flooded near Ardleigh. So rather than linger over dinner with a fine wine I gulp it down and am out again in time to catch the 18:46 train to Colchester. The rain is hurling down as I walk to the railway station, as it has been for the past couple of hours or more. Tonight trying to stay dry will be a challenge, one I am meeting by means of an umbrella, long navy blue raincoat, which my father bought in about 1954 and a pair of Wellington boots (green).36301663442_fac2cda0d1_o Proud to be different. A tall man walking towards me appears to be wearing spats but as he gets close I see he is wearing black and cream trainers; they won’t keep his feet dry like my wellies will.
From Colchester station it’s a short walk to the bus stop35634451744_9e9bf25d93_o to take me to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Stadium, the bit of Colchester the Romans just couldn’t be arsed to occupy. There’s no time to stop for a pint of Adnam’s Oyster Stout in the Bricklayers Arms tonight as the train is late and I just want to get in the stadium and out of the rain as quickly as possible. I step onto the bus and fumble for change, but the driver says that it’s free tonight, which is just as well because the top deck is already full so I will have to sit downstairs. A woman in her sixties politely budges-up and thanking her I settle down in a seat at the foot of the stairs. This bus is sweltering; it has warm air blowing down from vents in the roof and nearly everyone is sat in steaming wet coats. Most of the passengers are men, several are in their seventies or older. It’s not long before the bus is officially declared full, the doors sweep closed and it pulls away. The roar of the engine fills the ‘saloon’ and the swish of the rain and splash of the puddles in the gutter create an exciting cacophony of sound; men have to shout to be heard above the noise of this speeding, softly lit, mobile tin sauna. “With this team we should win about 3-0 most weeks” expounds an obese Villa fan of Asian descent. Less confidently he adds that Steve Bruce “..is a good manager, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he could be better”. He concludes that if Villa aren’t promoted at the end of the season Bruce will be sacked.
Arriving at “Layer Road” we politely pile out of the bus, many of us thanking the driver for his labour. It is gloomy and wet and people queue unhappily for programmes and draw tickets. The cameras of Sky TV are here tonight to broadcast the match live and at35661501913_6f1d94c088_o the corner of the stadium is a corral of trucks and broadcasting paraphernalia which looks like a traveller site; I half expect to see a couple of straggly-haired lurchers running about and some half-dressed, snotty-faced kids playing in the puddles. Sky TV have deigned to visit “Layer Road” tonight because this is a League Cup match with the prospect of plucky little fourth division Colchester knocking out famous, big city, and until recently Premier League club Aston Villa. Whilst I have called it a League Cup match it is in fact known by the name of its sponsor, a company I have never heard of , something like Caramac or Caribou. Whatever the cup is now called the sponsor is probably something to do with alcohol or on-line betting because modern football is classy like that.
I buy a programme (£3) and join the queue to get in the stadium; only one turnstile is open at the south end of the ground although not long after I join the queue, two more open. It is still raining of course and a gust of wind blows my umbrella inside out. “He-he it’s not doing much like that” blurts a drowned rat of a youth in front of me in the queue who looks like an extra from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!. I want to tell him that even inside out it’s a lot more effective than his non-existent umbrella, which is why he looks like he has just stepped out of Albert dock and will probably die next week of pneumonia in depressing Dickensian circumstances. I, meanwhile will of course live on to enjoy watching Colchester United on many a wet night to come as he moulders in a damp pauper’s grave.
At length I get to the turnstile where I hand my slightly soggy and bedraggled ticket36469586505_8b71af2da1_o to a steward who passes it across the sensor on the automatic turnstile, which rather defeats the object of automatic turnstiles, but hey-ho. Safe and dry In the strip-lit cosiness of the breeze-block concourse beneath the stand I seek re-invigoration with a pounds-worth of Tetley tea and then head for my seat.
Once the adverts on the telly are over the game begins to a spectacular backdrop of floodlit, teeming rain.35661459713_ae68344f0a_o Wow. Colchester are quick and play freely, but so do Aston Villa; this is good, an open game. Sadly, unluckily and possibly unfairly for the U’s, they trail quite soon when their goalkeeper spills the greasy ball, or has it kicked from his grasp and a Villain rolls it accurately beyond those around him into the net. The goal scorer’s name is announced as what sounds, perhaps because of the hiss and bubble of rain on standing water, like Squat Hogan. I think his name may be Scott, but he is a bit squat being slightly bandy and having the disfigured, pumped-up torso of a spinach filled Popeye. But soon afterwards Colchester are awarded a penalty, only to have it saved athletically by the Villa goalkeeper. It’s not even eight o’clock yet.
The referee is not popular with the home supporters due to that dodgy goal and for a series of free-kicks he awards to the Villains who seem quite unable to stay upright as if they have some unpleasant infection of the inner ear. The referee is called John Brooks a name he shares with my dead grandfather who, nice as he was, would probably have made a terrible football referee, so a bit like this bloke, who along with his assistants sports a shirt the colour of palest primrose. At about five past eight the U’s trail further as the tubby, balding linesman on the main stand side seems to react slowly to a probable offside and Col U’s number six Frankie Kent slides across the wet grass on his bum to clear the ball, only to deflect it into his own goal. A stroke of bad luck combined perhaps with misadventure and the uncertainty of the balding linesman.
The game looks up for the U’s despite the fact that they are matching their opponents all over the pitch and creating goal scoring chances; I start to wonder if their best bet would be for the game to be abandoned because of the weather. My hopes of this are raised as36301673682_59ebd56d1e_o the intensity of the rain increases and the water bounces off the roofs of the stands and cascades down making the floodlights appear as watery roman candles through the moisture laden night air.
A late arriver sits next to me and asks if John Terry is playing; had I thought for just a second I should have said “Who”? But to my eternal shame I just tell him there’s no one I’ve ever heard of playing for Villa, adding that there was no Dennis Mortimer, no Peter Withe and no Gary Shaw. I’m not sure if he understood, although he didn’t look that young.
It’s twenty-five past eight and at last Colchester get a break as a shot from some distance is deflected into the Villa goal by Kent allowing him to atone for his earlier bum-sliding error. How we cheer. But half time follows soon after and the like of such chances for Colchester is not seen again. Aston Villa, under the management of the well-fed and somewhat boozie-looking Steve Bruce, unsportingly tighten up in midfield and the flowing football we enjoyed up until half-past eight becomes just a fading memory.
The home supporters console themselves by taunting the Villa fans, singing “You’re not famous anymore” which kind of contradicts itself and there’s a bit of native American style drumming at the few corners the U’s win. For my own part I gain disproportionate enjoyment from an advert on the illuminated scoreboard which displays the message “Watch from a box” and has me imagining fans sat in coffins along the touchline. Some fans have their loved-ones ashes sprinkled on the pitch, well why shouldn’t those not lucky enough to be cremated be able to come along too?
Despite their team being ahead for all but the first seven minutes of the match, The Villa fans have not been overly vocal, something the Col U fans have pointed out to them through the medium of song. The stadium announcer tells us somewhat too excitedly that there will be five minutes of added-on time and then with two minutes left of those five minutes the visitors from the West Midlands finally feel bold enough to mount a chorus of “We shall not be moved”. These are perhaps some of Britain’s more pragmatic, not to say cautious supporters. But there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s infinitely preferable to the big-headed, cocky attitude displayed by certain clubs’ fans from London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Indeed, it’s rather endearing.
As much as I don’t want Colchester to be knocked out of the Caribou Cup, I’m not too sorry when Mr Brooks blows for the last time and a further half an hour in the cold and damp has been averted by the U’s failure to equalise. The rain is still falling as the crowd of 6,600 odd file out of the stadium, but it falls with a bit less vigour and intensity as befits the moment when the game is over and the excitement has ended; it’s time to go home and dry out .