Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

Another Saturday and another football match;  having witnessed last Saturday’s victory over Burton Albion, as encouraging as it was, and having been to the mid-week game before that at Wimbledon and the Saturday match before that versus Peterborough I am feeling somewhat blasé about going to yet another game.  Today Ipswich will play Oxford United and therefore to set the mood it is with the sort of thoughtless, arrogant, complacent, condescending and contemptuous attitude associated with the most privileged people who go to the top schools and universities and end up as members of the government that I set out for the railway station. A warm, gusting wind blows me along and conifers waft and billow as I pass by.  The train is on time and I board it alone.

On the train I sit by a window, a man on the opposite side of the train slumps with his feet on the seats opposite, I give his shoes a stare worthy of Paddington bear.  “How do you think we’ll do today?” he says as he sits up and takes his feet down off the seat.  Oh crap, I think to myself, he’s seen my blue and white scarf and wants to talk about football.  As much as I like football, I hate talking football, the conversations are always the same.  This fella is one of “we need more investment” brigade.  I tell him the owner puts in 5 or 6 million quid each season and that most Championship clubs are technically insolvent, but he clearly finds facts too difficult.  I am saved when his phone goes off and he has a conversation about how he won’t be drinking much today as he was in the pub until 3 am, drinking Coronas, “I had about twelve” he says to the person on the other end of the phone “and I feel a bit fucked”.

The piazza in front of the railway station is deserted but there is a steady trickle of people sporting yellow and blue knitwear wandering up Princes Street towards the Station Hotel.  Portman Road is positively busy with people, many decked in yellow and blue. I follow a short woman and her two much shorter young children who each carry a yellow and blue back pack sporting a cartoon bull.  Disappointed that I fail to spot anyone who looks even vaguely academic, although the back-pack could be construed as school satchels, I continue on my way to St Jude’s Tavern.

In St Jude’s I find Mick looking up at the day’s beer list; together we choose Mad Dog brewery’s ‘Now in a minute’ (£3.60) of which Mick kindly buys a pint for each of us.  As he sits down Mick tells me that the barman let him have a taster because many customers thought it had an unusual taste.  It is slightly sweet, but it’s pleasant enough and reminds me a little of some of my own homebrew, on a good day.  St Jude’s Tavern is well populated today and we sit in a cramped corner of which the building seems to have several.  Our conversation includes the failings of Ipswich Town’s on-line ticket selling, the films of Sam Peckinpah, the new film of David Copperfield, not burning damp wood, avoiding air travel and Susan George, whose name I struggle to remember until Mick gives me a clue with reference to her surname being a common English regnal name, which is a bit ‘University Challenge’.  After I consume another pint of ‘Now in a minute’ and Mick has a Jameson’s whisky (£3.00) and the licensee reminds us of the time, we head off round the corner into Portman Road.

It’s about ten to three now and outside the stadium Portman Road is active with people scurrying to the turnstiles like charged particles.  “I can’t see any mortar boards or gowns” says Mick with genuine disappointment as if he really had expected Oxford fans to be a bunch of academics.  We enter the ground separately through turnstiles number five and six and after visiting the facilities beneath the stand clamber over our seats so as not disturb Pat from Clacton on the end of the row.  I wave to Ray down the front in his red kagoul and spot ever present Phil who never misses a game, who today has his young son Elwood with him, albeit an Elwood hidden beneath an anorak hood and obscured from my view slightly by the man with the heavily brylcreemed hair who sits in front of me.  With little further ado the teams emerge from the blue plastic concertina in the corner of the ground to the strains of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, a mystifying 1980’s rock anthem.  I hate rock anthems.  The PA announces that the team is being led out by the club’s community chaplain. Mick says he didn’t know we had a community chaplain; the thought seems to amuse him and he wonders if the club also has a community Imam, which is a fair question, although I thought that professional football served only mammon.

The game begins a minute late at 15:01 with Ipswich playing in the direction of Mick, me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood, ever-present Phil, Ray, his grandson Harrison and the man with the brylcreem. Today, for a reason to which I am not party, Oxford United are wearing an unnecessary change kit of white shirts with a blue and yellow diagonal stripe or sash across the chest in place of their customary yellow shirts.  Their bottom halves are covered by Oxford blue shorts and socks.  The Oxford shirts advertise the name of Singha beer from Thailand, which seems a little exotic.  I imagine a multi-lingual Oxford don having incidentally arranged the deal with the Boon Rawd Brewery whilst on a short holiday to find a Thai bride.  Ipswich wear the usual blue and white advertisement for on-line gambling and, as they so often do, begin the game sparklingly well, running down the flanks under the bright blue sky and sending in low crosses which only the Oxford defenders ever reach.   “Yellows, Yellows” bellow the 1,365 Oxonians in the Cobbold Stand who are either colour blind or are simply ignoring the pointlessly white shirts of their team.

The match is entertaining and it can only be a matter of time before Ipswich score as the ball continues either to be just out of reach Town players shaping up to shoot or to be blocked by the ubiquitous Oxford defenders.  The flags on the back of the Cobbold stand are blowing in the strong wind and seagulls hover like drones.  The visiting fans have brought an array of flags with them which are not flying but are draped over the front few rows of seats in the Cobbold Stand.  One flag, a cross of St George appears to have the words “We all live in a Oxford wonderland” printed on it; I am shocked by the poor grammar, which might not be so surprising in some backwater like Swindon or Norwich, but Oxford?

I am still enjoying the match and the football is good to watch but for the absence of shots that the Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is required to save.  The bloke behind me sounds confident and says he wouldn’t mind Town “…meeting these in the play-offs”.  In the Sir Bobby Robson stand the normally more vocal supporters in the corner (Action 1878) seem quiet today and are not displaying their banners and flags.  In the corner of the Cobbold Stand a group of Oxford fans are standing and goading Ipswich supporters in the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand.  Pat from Clacton wonders how they managed to get the seats closest to the Ipswich supporters and we decide that the Oxford ticket office must ask supporters if they are would-be hooligans who want to goad the opposition and allocate them seats accordingly.  With the price of tickets nowadays this seems fair enough.

Despite Ipswich’s dominance it’s not until nearly half past three that they win a corner and then win another as Luke Chambers’ header is deflected over the cross bar.  The corner affords a close-up of Oxford number three Josh Ruffles who seems to have quite a large head which, with his muscular upper chest gives him the look of a very big clasp nail or tack as his body tapers down to a point around his ankles.  More minutes pass and an unexpected chorus of “Come on Ipswich, Come on Ipswich” lives then dies around the ground.  Pat from Clacton offers Mick and me sweets; I have one of those green metallic looking ones which fizz with sherbet. “We’ll score now I’ve got the sweets out” says Pat “Well, that’s what used to happen”.  Town don’t score.  Pat eats a “nice piece of fudge” left over from Christmas.   “They can’t pick a pass this lot” moans the bloke behind me as Town’s Gwion Edwards misplaces a pass for the first time in the game.  Paul Lambert runs up and down his technical area excitedly in what look like deck shoes.

Town still haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time, so Oxford string a few passes together, the Ipswich defence melts away and Oxford’s number 9 the diminutive Matty Taylor scores instead.   Paul Lambert waves his arms around as if winding a huge key, which he sort of is metaphorically speaking.  Seizing their opportunity to either indulge in some half-time swatting in the event of an affirmative answer or turn up the goading quotient whilst utilising their knowledge of opera, the Oxonians sing “Is this a library?” to the tune of La donna e mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto.  “What are they singing?” asks Mick. “Is this the Bodleian?” I tell him. The game begins again but not for long as it’s time for another visit to the facilities beneath the stand and a chat with Ray.

The second half begins, the blue skies have been replaced by grey cloud.  The match proves to be one of those that has two distinct halves.  Oxford United continue to thwart Ipswich’s attempts on goal which become ever more inaccurate, but also start breaking away and threatening to score again themselves, which seems a bit cheeky. Oxford win a corner and their number fourteen Anthony Forde holds up a hand to indicate where he intends to kick it, which would seem to be onto the head of Ipswich’s nearest defender and a good yard or two from the nearest Oxford player.

It’s nearly twenty five past four and the Oxford supporters spell out the name of their club to show the benefit of a university education but on the pitch the play descends to the level of the kindergarten.   Josh Earl and Matty Taylor  push each other around and salmon pink clad referee Mr Scott Oldham, who most unusually appears to be the tallest man on the field and sports a GI haircut, has to tell them to grow up, particularly Matty Taylor who is only 176cm ( 5’9”) tall.

Seventy two minutes have passed and Pat from Clacton admits to me that she might soon start to think about the jacket potato she’ll be having for her tea.  Oxford have adopted a more spoiling approach to the game this half although only their  Marcus Browne and Town’s Luke ‘Garbo’ Garbutt have seen Mr Oldham’s yellow card, and  Ipswich  now begin to vent their frustration with some pointless fouls.  Pat and I look forward to the announcement of today’s attendance which we will soon learn is 19,367; the nearest in the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton coach is Calum with 19,476.  Pat is disappointed again that no one’s pet cat or fish has won the prize.

The old dears who now sit in front of me but used to sit behind me leave early; I tell them I will let them know all about the goals they are going to miss. The bloke behind me leaves.  Ipswich’s Kayden Jackson leaves at the request of Mr Oldham after he is apparently spotted stamping on an Oxford player and is shown Mr Oldham’s red card.  There is a melee down by the corner flag in front of the Oxford supporters which could have been avoided if Mr Oldham had acted more decisively and given a free-kick to Ipswich instead of Oxford and  Town’s Luke Woolfenden is booked before the game stutters to a halt and the final whistle sounds. 

 I’d like to say that Luke Chambers either accidentally or ironically produces his trademark fist pump, but he doesn’t and instead the crowd dejectedly melts away into the night, apart that is from those who stay to boo.  Ipswich drop to eighth in the third division table which means they will be happy to meet any club at all  in the play-offs.

Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has

Witham Railway Station

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

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I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

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railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

Witham Town

As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

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On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

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I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

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arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

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by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

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With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve, past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

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