Who doesn’t love a match under floodlights? Not just the floodlights of a mere afternoon match once the clocks have ‘gone back’, but the floodlights of a fully-fledged evening fixture, one that doesn’t begin until it’s dark and when the walk to the match is like being drawn towards a glowing beacon; it’s even better on a rainy night, and tonight is such a night.
Having arrived in town early for work related reasons, I get to park up my trusty Citroen C3 on Anglesea Road and amble down to the Arboretum (now known as the Arbor House) where I sit in the garden to eat a Scotch egg (£4.00) and down a pint of Woodforde’s Kett’s Rebellion (£3.80). The only other table in the garden that is occupied plays host to three twenty-something blokes, one of whom intermittently calls out “Blue army” as if he’s suffering from some sort of oddly Ipswich-based variant of Tourette’s syndrome. After half an hour Mick arrives, announcing his arrival in French; I treat him to a pint of Kett’s Rebellion, because it’s a beer the taste of which is worth sharing. Mick requests some dry roast nuts (£1) too, which don’t come in a packet as we had both expected, but in a cup, “Ooh, you do them like that” I say to the young woman serving behind the bar, trying not to sound fazed. Back outside it starts to rain, and we move to a table with an awning whilst Mick and I curse the planet destroying evil of outdoor heaters. Mick and I talk of making speeches at weddings, of who Kett was, of Angela Merkel and of local government before 1974. Twenty or so minutes before kick-off we head for Portman Road, Mick walking his black bicycle beside him.
The rain is merely an occasional drizzle and having left Mick to lock up his bike somewhere in Sir Alf Ramsey Way, I am invited to prove that I wasn’t frightened of a ‘sharp scratch’, unlike these scaredy vaccine deniers, who clearly are, and having snapped up a programme (£3.50), I proceed through turnstile number fifty-nine into the hallowed halls of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the gents toilet nearest the players’ tunnel. Relieved, I join the assembling throng as the two teams enter the field of play. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here (of course), and so are Ray’s son and his grandson Harrison, but Ray and Pat from Clacton are absent; it makes me wonder if the Clacton branch of the supporters club aren’t able to get a coach ‘up’ for midweek games, perhaps because the Tendring peninsula is under curfew once the sun goes down. I will later learn however that the Clacton branch run a coach to all home games, but tonight Pat is unwell. Get well soon Pat from Clacton. Fiona arrives shortly after kick-off; the train was late.
It’s Doncaster Rovers in their red socks, red shorts and red shirts with thin white hoops who get first go with the ball, and although we don’t know it yet, it will prove to be one of their best moments of the game. Cameron Burgess is an early casualty of hairless referee Carl Brook’s yellow card as he tries to interrupt Doncaster goalkeeper Pontus Dahlberg as he takes a drop kick. Dahlberg is an unfortunately angular looking man who disproves the theory that Scandinavians are all tall, blonde and good looking, although admittedly he does score very highly on the first two criteria. Twelve minutes pass and a poor cross field pass from some or other adopted Doncastrian is intercepted by Wes Burns, who charges forward to the by-line and turns in a low cross which the oddly named Macauley Bonne has only to direct into the net. It’s a good start. Town lead, and Mr Bonne celebrates like a Chantry boy who scores for the Town should.
“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing” chant the ‘Boney M’ supporters’ group from the lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson stand as they gear-up for Christmas. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” chant the Doncaster Rovers supporters up in the Cobbold Stand as Portman Road once again goes quiet after the goal; presumably someone tells them “No thank you” because that’s the last we hear from them.
With Town a goal up, the excitement subsides, and I ponder what “Built Environment Recruitment” is as referred to on the advertising board for Conrad Consulting. I like to think that I could maybe phone Conrad up and ask him to send round a couple of terraced houses, an office block and a beach café to drive some petrol tankers. The game is a bit scrappy, mainly down to Doncaster’s lack of precision, but Sam Morsy is looking good for Town in front of the defence and intermittently Town break down the flanks to put in testing crosses.
A half an hour passes, and Town earn a corner. There is a lot going on in the penalty area but the kick sails across nearly everyone to a point beyond the far post, where Lee Evans is all alone waiting to stroke the ball into the net. Referee Mr Brook stares hard at the scrum of players in the front of the six-yard box, in the manner of a bald Paddington Bear, but can evidently not discern that any offence has been committed and the goal stands. Two-nil; Fiona confirms that we’ve been here before (versus Wimbledon) and not won.
Celebrations completed, the game re-starts and Doncaster’s Joe Dodoo becomes the second name to enter to enter the notebook of Mr Brook, possibly because Mr Brook thinks it’s too good a name not get in his collection, but also because he chops down Matt Penney. Town are now clearly the better team and playing some fine one and two-touch, passing football. Sam Morsy has a powerful shot from 20 metres that goes not too far over Pontus Dahlberg’s cross bar; it’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen for a while.
Half-time arrives to appreciative applause and with no Ray to chat to I eat a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar in silence, although I later speak with ever-present Phil who never misses a game. Phil tells me that there was no Matchday Special in St Jude’s Tavern this evening and I feel his disappointment. At the corner of the pitch meanwhile, stadium announcer and former Radio Suffolk presenter Stephen Foster, who was at school with my friend Pete, conducts a Radio Suffolk style interview with former Town hero Jonathan Walters, who is the recipient of warm applause.
When it begins, the new half brings substitutions for Doncaster as Joseph Owulu and Rodrigo Vilca replace Jordi Hiwula and Danny Gardner. This evening’s attendance is announced as 18,111, of whom 165 are from Doncaster, or are at least sat in the upper tier of the Cobbold Stand pretending to be so. As Stephen Foster reads out the numbers many in the crowd applaud, seemingly congratulating themselves for having bothered to turn up, odd. It strikes me that Doncaster’s blonde-haired number fourteen Matthew Smith, looks a bit like 1980’s Town midfielder Trevor Putney; I suspect however that he doesn’t really and it’s just his hair, either way he’s changed since he played Dr Who.
“Who the fucking hell are you? sing the more impolite occupants of the Sir Bobby Robson stand to a Doncaster player whose identity I can’t work out either, and then in a moment of uncharacteristic attacking intent, Doncaster’s Tiago Cukur has a shot on goal which Town ‘keeper Vaclav Hladky doesn’t so much save, as just stand on tiptoes to catch. It’s the last action Vaclav will see for a while as Town suddenly go into goal scoring overdrive. Breaking down the left, Bersant Celina, with open grassland in front of him, gets to a point where he needs to cross, so he checks and loops the ball over into the penalty area where as if by magic Lee Evans appears to head home unchallenged inside the far post. It’s a goal of beautiful simplicity. Two minutes later and another cross from Bersant Celina on the left is controlled on his chest by the oddly named Macauley Bonne, who then proceeds to volley the ball just inside Dahlberg’s right-hand post; it’s the best goal of the night, or is it?. Just another two minutes pass, barely time for the Sir Bobby Robson stand to finish a chorus of “And it’s I-pswi-ch Town, Ipswich To-wn FC, they’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” followed by “E-i-e-i-e-i-o, Up the football we go” when Wes Burns lays the ball on for Lee Evans to lash high in to the top right hand corner of Dahlberg’s net. Cracking goal, possibly even more spectacular than the last one. From 2-0 to 5-0 in not much more than five minutes. Just four minutes later and the Sir Bobby Robson Stand are singing “Six-nil to the Tractor Boys” and sounding like the Pet Shop Boys, as George Edmundson diverts the flight of a free-kick from Lee Evans in the best possible way. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game, turns to me and Fiona to tell us that the last time Town scored six was away also against Doncaster Rovers (February 2011); I’ve no idea if he’s right but if anyone should know it should be ever-present Phil who never misses a game.
Ten minutes of normal time remain, and without wanting to seem greedy I’m hoping for a seventh goal, after all, I haven’t seen Town win 7-0 since 1974. It was Mick Mills who scored Town’s seventh goal that Saturday night forty-seven and a half years ago, and tonight substitute Rekeem Harper tries to emulate him with two minutes left, but his shot travels in a frustratingly straight line and hits a post rather than swerving outrageously around the goalkeeper like Mick’s shot did. I have no idea how many minutes of added time are added on, but when you’re winning six-nil such details no longer matter; the minutes come and go however without further shots eluding Pontus Dahlberg. The final whistle produces the sort of love-in not seen at Portman Road since, well I don’t honestly know when. Relief, elation and an element of disbelief swirl about as I applaud the team from the pitch. Paul Cook makes a laudably quick exit down the players’ tunnel to allow his team to take the plaudits and hopefully so that he can put the kettle on and may be break open the Custard Creams.
As I hurry up Portman Road and back to my trusty Citroen C3, excited chatter and snippets of throaty chants fill the night air. “I’d have been livid if I hadn’t come tonight” I hear a man say to a friend as they exit the Cobbold Stand, suggesting perhaps that he nearly stayed at home. “Were we really good or were they just bad?” asks a passing woman from within the crowd; unfortunately, she and whoever she asked the question of are out of earshot before she gets an answer. If she had asked me, and why wouldn’t she, I think I would have said “A bit of both”.
Driving home I hope that tonight has been a turning point; the night when our new squad of players finally endeared and proved itself to Town supporters; whether it is or not, I shall remember it. It’s been a while since we scored six, or conceded nil at Portman Road though best of all it happened beneath the floodlights and in the rain.