Ipswich Town 0 Portsmouth 0

Spring is sprung and as former Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells us, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of promotion and sneaking into the play-offs. With such thoughts in mind, I once again park up my trustee Citroen C3 in classical sounding Waller’s Grove, and tread steadily across Gippeswyk Park towards Portman Road and the Arboretum pub beyond, which is now known as the Arbor House.   It’s a gloriously sunny day, which sits beneath a pale blue sky, once the grey clouds have broken up.  The human contents of the Station Hotel spill out onto Burrell Road and in the pub garden Pompey fans revel in the joys of beer and life.  On Portman Road a golden Labrador sniffs for incendiaries and I buy a programme (£3.50) for the first time using cashless payment.  There are far more police about than usual, no doubt because of some strange belief that the followers of today’s opponents, Portsmouth Football Club, are somehow rowdier than your average spectator, but on Portsea Island life is lived to the full.

At the Arb’ I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and bask in the sun in the beer garden where I am soon joined by Mick. who I haven’t seen since before Christmas.  We talk of Fatty Liver Disease, Home Office funding for the housing of Afghan refugees, conversations with mutual friends, bicycles, people who still think Brexit was a good idea, Baptists, my wife’s twin aunts in Portsmouth, one of whom has sadly died and electric cars.  We don’t talk of Ukraine except to say that it makes us too angry and sad, and we simply don’t know what to say about it.  At some time after two-thirty, having finished our beers, we depart for Portman Road, Mick walking his Raleigh bicycle as we go and finally locking it up in Sir Alf Ramsey Way where we head for our respective turnstiles, Mick making for the posh West Stand seats and me the cheap seats in the lower tier of what I still think of as Churchman’s.  For a second consecutive fixture there are queues at turnstiles 59 and 60, but I’m inside the stadium by ten to three giving plenty of time to use the ‘bathroom’ facilities before taking up my seat.

In the stand, Pat from Clacton is here, as is ever-present Phil who never misses a game, along with his young son Elwood.  Fiona is away on a cruise to the Canary Islands, but her seat is occupied by Mark, a long -time supporter who travels on the coach from Clacton with Pat, but usually sits in the West Stand. Curiously the seats immediately in front of me are empty today.  We will later learn that there are 25, 495 other people here too, each with their own distinct lives, hope and fears and tales to tell, and 1,986 of them are also Portsmouth supporters.

At a minute past three, after knees are taken and applauded the Town begin the game, hoping to rattle the net of the goal just a little to the right and in front of Pat, Phil, Elwood, Mark and me.  Town are back in our traditional blue shirts and white shorts after Tuesday’s flirtation with all blue, whilst Pompey are in a handsome kit of red and black halves with black shorts, it’s a kit with personal significance for me because my wife was wearing an earlier version of the shirt when I first spoke to her back in the 1990’s, and it was the shirt I spoke to her about.

“Hello, hello, we are the Pompey boys” sing the Portsmouth supporters helpfully and politely introducing themselves, as if to hold out a hand and bid us all a good afternoon.  There is a fine atmosphere inside Portman Road today courtesy of the Pompey boys (and girls) and a chorus of “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” is soon ringing out and the Sir Bobby Robson stand respond with “Oh when the Town go marching in” sung to the tempo of a funeral march and with a similar quota of joie de vivre.   It’s conceivable that the Pompey fans can’t hear the Town supporters’ dirge above the sound of their own anthem, or it could be that they can only clearly see the impassive faces of the Town fans in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but our visitors soon break into the old  favourites of away fans at Portman Road with choruses of “You’re support is fucking shit” and its intellectually superior sibling chant “ Is this a library?”.  Moving swiftly into goading mode they produce a rendition of the geographically inaccurate “Small town in Norwich, you’re just a small Town in Norwich” before finishing with “You’re supposed to be at home”. Such is the wit of football supporters. “Never heard that one before” says the bloke behind me sarcastically as I imagine that I’ve been listening to an advertisement for a compilation of football ‘s favourite chants from K-tel Records.

Twelve minutes past three and Town, who have been dominating possession, win the game’s first corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the Pompey boys and girls showing that it’s possible to vocally encourage your team when they’re defending as well as when they attack; this afternoon is proving to be an education.   The corner kick is delivered and Luke Woolfenden, looking a bit like a 1990’s Eminem with his bleached blond hair stoops and twists to somehow head the ball away from goal rather than into it.  Four minutes later and Pompey win a corner too, eliciting even more chimes.

Sam Morsy has already had to pause the game once to check on his gammy leg; a legacy (no pun intended, though it’s a pretty good one, isn’t it?) from Tuesday night’s game, but now with seventy minutes still to play, he has to be substituted by Tommy Carroll, who incidentally last played for Town against Pompey on 4th May 1968 (Town won 2-1 at Fratton Park).  Bringing on a player who would be over eighty if he was still alive unsettles the Town team and Pompey nearly score as Aiden O’Brien shoots spectacularly over the cross bar from very close range and then Luke Woolfenden gives the ball away to O’Brien who thankfully misses again, this time shooting wide of the far post.  It’s almost as if Town had been setting up O’Brien to embarrass himself. Town bounce back briefly to win a second corner but then a George Hirst shot has to be saved by Christian Walton. On the left touchline the referees assistant fits very snugly into his pale green shirt, almost as if he’s been vacuum packed.

After twenty minutes, the incidence of foul play is increasing, and O’Brien falls beautifully, arching his back in a graceful curve as he is allegedly fouled by Wes Burns.  If they ever put on Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, O’Brien has to be worth a punt for the part of Odette.  A short while later Pompey’s Louis Thompson is the first player to be shown the yellow card belonging to the largely ineffectual referee Mr Christopher Sarginson, as Wes Burns wriggles in a heap on the turf.

A third town corner is greeted with a song involving repeated Ole’s or Allez, I’m not clear which, from the Sir Bobby Robson stand, but the corner kick is easily cleared at the near post.  The improbably named Mahlon Romeo then drags down Dominic Thompson and holds the ball up angrily in the air as if to say to “But look, I got the ball” when he is called out by Mr Sarginson,  who, I like to think ,tells him that he could equally have come away with the ball if he’d hit Thompson with a long plank of wood or set a dog on him, but it would still be a foul.

“Oh, great ball Bakinson” calls a sarcastic voice somewhere behind me as Janoi Donacien mistakenly passes to a Pompey player.  “Oh Shut up” says someone else, understandably frustrated by the sort of people who inexplicably seem to need a bete noire in every Town team.  Conor Chaplin has a shot blocked and with half-time nearby Cameron Burgess concedes a corner. “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up” sing the 1,986 in the Cobbold Stand. “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey Fuck Off” answer the Sir Bobby Robson Stand revealing a level of sophistication, wit and humour which goes some way to explaining the popularity of TV’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ among much of the general population.  Entering time added on a Conor Chaplin snap shot whistles past the left hand post of the Pompey goal before Kayden Jackson runs on to a through ball and has his shot saved by Gavin Bazunu.  Jackson appears to tweak a hamstring in the process of running and shooting and troops off angrily and dejectedly to be replaced by the oddly named Macaulay Bonne whilst Town take another corner and the three minutes of added on time are played out.

Half-time brings relief and nourishment in the form of a wee and a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, but unusually I do not go and talk to Ray and his grandson Harrison because Ray is somewhere up the back of the stand with his brother-in-law today.  Half-time nevertheless passes quickly and the football soon resumes along with the pattern of Ipswich possession interspersed with corner kicks and a series of crosses which carefully avoid anyone likely to divert the ball into the Pompey goal.

As Bersant Celina wins another corner, the volume of the home crowd seems to be turned up a notch as if there is either a sudden collective understanding that they can help the team, or an outbreak of collective anxiety. From a cross, subsequent to the corner kick , the ball comes out to Wes Burns, but he wellies it over-enthusiastically and high above the Pompey cross bar.  Pompey are mostly the lesser team in this contest but they retain the ability to threaten occasionally and as half past four approaches a header from Sean Raggett lands on the roof of the Town goal net and the “Play Up Pompey/ Pompey Fuck Off” duet is reprised. It took the home fans a while to think of their response to the Chimes, but now that they have they’re not missing a beat.

Pompey’s Louis Thompson is replaced by Joe Morell and Tyreeq Bakinson seems to carefully place a shot into the arms of Pompey goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu before Bersant Celina wins yet another corner, and Bakinson heads the ball into the side netting, promoting jeers from the Pompey supporters directed at those Town supporters who might have thought the net was bulging from within.  Over seventy minutes have passed and the competitive edge in the game unfortunately boils over as it appears that the Pompey manager, the never-smiling Danny Cowley, gets in Dominic Thompson’s way as he prepares to take a throw-in.  Thompson seems to over react somewhat, but Cowley makes no attempt to appease the offended wing-back and starts to come over all macho.  An unseemly melee ensues and the Sir Bobby Robson  stand are unforgiving as they announce “ Cowley, Cowley, You’re a cunt; Cowley, You’re a cunt”.  To my shame I join in with a shout of “Bugger-off back to Braintree”, but mainly because I enjoy the alliteration and find any mention of Braintree faintly amusing.

The match descends into its final ten minutes as Bersant Celina shoots wide and Tyreeq Bakinson is booked. Meanwhile Pompey swap Aiden O’Brien for the interestingly monikered Denver Hume and   I notice that their bearded Ryan Tunnicliffe has strange hair, cut into a sort of bob like a 1920’s flapper.  Pompey also replace George Hirst, whose name is satisfyingly close enough to Geoff Hurst to make me smile and his substitute is a man with two surnames, Tyler Walker. With three minutes of added on time ebbing away some folk in the home crowd begin to accuse Pompey of time wasting; there are even calls of “Boring Boring Portsmouth”, which are ridiculous and reveal how easily some people can slip into repetitive behaviour; it saves having to think.

The final whistle brings inevitable disappointment that Town haven’t won, tempered by the understanding that this has been a good match and we haven’t lost either, which we often do at home to Portsmouth.   Pat from Clacton makes a swift exit and Mark thanks me for my company;  I reciprocate before heading out into the chill of the early evening for the journey home and the thoughts of Mick Mills through the medium of BBC Radio Suffolk and the car radio.  Life is generally good, although it could sometimes be better.

Portsmouth 0 Crewe Alexandra 1

Portsmouth is one of the smaller cities in England (Population 200,000ish) but it is also one of the best, probably the best. What other city has a port, a naval dockyard, an historic seaside resort, two piers, a ferry service, a concrete viewing tower, a hovercraft service, four tides a day and most importantly a supporters owned football club. If you don’t think those are all things worth having then you can only be a hopeless misery or from Southampton.0The upshot of this glowing first paragraph in praise of Portsmouth is to show that for footie fans a fixture at Fratton Park is wonderful thing and far better than any of the traditional long weekend attractions of away games at seaside towns such as Blackpool, Brighton or Torquay. Incidentally, why anyone would want to stay in Blackpool I cannot imagine, what a dump! A sleazy, greasy, grubby, outside toilet of a town.
Back to Portsmouth. My prelude to the match took in a Friday evening in the Meat n Barrel pub in Southsea, a trendy establishment, which felt like a Student Union bar and had a hipster-friendly décor of bare brick walls and girders, metal light shades and school canteen style tables and chairs. It made for harsh acoustics and was reminiscent of a 1980’s New York loft apartment or squat, but the beer was good, although at £3.95 a pint it needed to be. Saturday morning brought breakfast in the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower and then a trip at 4metres per second up said tower to take in the views over Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight,which are bloody marvellous. The sun shone, clouds swirled and scudded, rain fell over the English Channel and the water sparkled. It’s only the existence of Manchester United, Chelsea and Robbie Savage that stops me believing in God when confronted with such beauty.
With my soul and spirits still soaring I arrived at Fratton Park, a wonderful football ground which isn’t that much altered from when I first attended a game there in 1979. The ground’s character comes from the two lateral stands which both date from the 1920’s, the North stand is cranked towards the pitch a third of the way along and inside is a warren of steel girders and wooden floorboards perched on an earth bank. There is still an advert for Brickwood’s beers at the back of the stand, ales that haven’t been brewed for the best part of forty years, but a part of Pompey’s heritage.
My seat was in the South Stand, a similar structure in some ways to that opposite, but designed by the illustrious Archibald Leitch, ‘architect’ of football stands all across Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. One of the joys of watching Pompey is Fratton Park itself; it is a museum piece, but that only adds to the atmosphere once the stands are occupied as the noise of the crowd echoes beneath the low roof and bounces off the wooden floorboards and staircases. Not that Pompey needs helpful acoustics, because Portsmouth supporters are arguably the most passionate and loyal of any in England. What other club would get larger gates in the Fourth Division than in the Second Division; only a few thousand down on when they were in the First Division?
It was visiting Crewe Alexandra in their boring all-black away kit who started the game brightest as they strove to quell the atmosphere that had built with the approach of kick-off. But Pompey very quickly began to behave as the home team should and soon the ball stayed mostly at the Fratton end of the ground where the Crewe goalkeeper stood. But despite there being 16,810 people in the ground, the majority wearing blue, they weren’t getting behind the team like they normally do. Expectation was high, a win for Pompey and defeat for Carlisle United would see Pompey climb into 3rd place in the league table, an automatic promotion position. But that rain I’d seen over the English Channel in the morning was now over Fratton Park and seemed to dampen spirits and the supporters weren’t their usual noisy, committed selves. There was a chill breeze too which blew away the warmth of the morning’s sun. Not good. On the pitch Pompey were like a superior life form from another planet, probing and prodding the Crewe defence as if they were hicks abducted by UFO from mid-west America, but they got nowhere; the Crewe defence was unfathomable, like why those Americans chose Donald Trump as their leader.
Despite being ‘on top,’ Pompey were not really performing. Gary Roberts, the slow-paced former Ipswich Town winger was running the midfield, but up front Kyle Bennett, whose parents may be watched South Park, skipped around a lot but was ineffective showing no inclination to kick the ball at the goal. Crewe’s defenders were big blokes and Kyle has the frame of a pasty-faced teenager and a haircut which looks like he has a small fish on top of his head; he was no match for them. Meanwhile, Pompey’s former Ipswich defender Matt Clarke could only lump the ball forward aimlessly; I can’t imagine where he learned to do that. Shocking.
In the stand I was growing frustrated like my fellow spectators, but mainly because of a teenage girl and boy who kept wanting me to stand up so they could pass by and go down onto the concourse to buy coke or burgers or some such crap. The lack of space is the drawback of a 1920’s football stand; it wasn’t built for well-fed, strapping 6ft 2 inch smart arses such as me; it was built for weedy, flat capped, malnourished tuberculosis sufferers, traumatised by their experiences in the First World War . I felt conflicted. When those youths asked me to let them by I wanted to say “ No, it’s not half-time yet” but I wasn’t going to do that. I felt guilty for having such curmudgeonly thoughts, but also for not actually telling them to go back , sit down and watch the match; added to which I was an Ipswich Town season ticket holder watching Portsmouth and secretly wondering how the Towen were doing at home to Brentford. I was a seething mass of internal conflict, but fortunately it was half-time before I knew it, although there were plenty of clues with loads of other people now going downstairs to the concourse to beat the queue for the khasi, beers, teas and burgers, which are what people really go to football for after all.
Despite the relative disappointment of the first half there was still a tangible air of optimism for the second half. Pompey had had more possession and more clearly wanted to win, rather than not lose like their opponents, so surely that would count for something. Well, it didn’t. Crewe Alexandra, if anything, played a bit better and although they won a few corners and somebody fell over in the penalty area Pompey were probably less threatening towards the Crewe goal than they were in the first half. Such was their ineffectiveness, that my thoughts turned to how much Pompey centre- half Christian Burgess, with his pony tail, looked like an 18th century sailor; all he really needed was a ribbon and perhaps a tricorn hat. He could have “Mr Christian” printed on the back of his shirt like those Brazilians do who don’t play under their real names. I also mused on whether Crewe’s curly blonde-haired striker Alex Kiwomya was a relative of former Ipswich Town waif Chris Kiwomya; Wikipaedia tells us he is his nephew.
Crewe were now so much improved on their first half showing that they had the cheek to score a goal; a bout of pinball ending with a header in to a far corner of the Pompey goal which they seemed to have forgotten about. Although there was in theory plenty of time for an equaliser, the goal caused of mass exodus of Pomponians who deserted ship as if they’d got wind of an imminent torpedo attack. As large numbers made for the lifeboats Pompey continued to flounder and despite desperate substitutions their play deteriorated to the point that they could barely string two passes together. The now predictable outcome was that Crewe Alexandra emerged victorious, but I was still a trifle disturbed to hear a chorus of “What the fucking hell was that? “ from a phalanx of disgruntled Pompey fans as they headed for the exits after the final whistle.
The Pompey team had disappointed this afternoon, but unusually so had the Pompey supporters who had failed to get behind their team when they most needed it. I left Fratton Park somewhat disillusioned. Pompey is normally the antidote to miserable, moany Ipswich for me, but something had gone wrong today; I think it was perhaps that there was expectation. As a football supporter you can only ever have hope, expectation is a step too far and you will be punished for having it. Oh, but if you support Manchester United or Chelsea that is a good thing.