I usually catch the train home from work at about ten to five, but today I am engrossed; writing a report and explaining why a deadline has to be extended. At about five past five however, my stomach feels slightly jittery, I am feeling inexplicably anxious and my concentration is waning , thoughts of beer and football tumble over one another displacing everything else in my mind. All at once it seems horribly late, it’s getting dark outside, I can feel my heart beginning to pound. I have to leave. At five-fifteen I step out into the cool, dimming light of dusk in Ipswich. Office lights shine out sadly from upper floor windows casting shadows of regret. But what do I care, I am making straight for St Jude’s Tavern.
I pass the Ipswich Town main gate where people wait like groupies at the stage door. Is it a free ticket they crave or a glimpse of a star player arriving for the match in his nastily ostentatious Audi or Range Rover? A steward leans in towards the wound down window of a Ford Fiesta, perhaps explaining that this sort of car isn’t acceptable round here and there is a Council pay and display car park over in Portman Road for his sort. I walk on past warning signs about CCTV and bag inspections, past burger vans and polythene goodie bags containing the local paper. It all has a certain beauty.
In St Jude’s Tavern I collect a pint of the Match Day Special, St Jude’s Thaddeus (£2), I ask if they have any pies, but they haven’t. I console myself with the thought that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I sit down with two of the superannuated old blokes who are here before every match; we talk football and Ipswich Town. The older looking of the two tells me he saw Town play three games during their last season in Division Three South in 1957, versus Bristol City, Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday. He’s talking nonsense because none of those teams was in Division Three that season. The memory can play tricks.
I buy another pint of Thaddeus and Mick arrives, and then so does ever-present Phil who never misses a game, they both drink Thaddeus and Phil remarks that it tastes like it’s ‘on the way out’, it is, and for my final pint of the evening I choose St Jude’s Oatmeal Stout (£3.60); it’s an extra £1.60 well-spent. Along with third division football grounds, a jazz festival in Nice and what the city of Derby is famous for (Rolls Royce, real ale pubs and Bombardier trains) we talk of euphemisms for dying and I relay how a member of staff at the crematorium in Colchester referred to my ninety eight year old mother-in-law’s eventual death as being when “she performs”, which we all agreed was a very odd turn of phrase.
After just a half, Phil leaves first for the ground because he’s going to visit the Fan Zone, but Mick and I also leave earlier than is decent because Mick has to arrange a refund having bought two tickets together in the West Stand for tonight’s match even though I have a season ticket in Churchman’s. Mick is extremely polite in the ticket office and I feel slightly guilty when the ‘saleswoman’ says that the club doesn’t usually move season tickets seats and I reply a little snappily “Well, they did for the Rotherham game.” As a person who generally is almost as polite as Mick, I can’t really explain my bad attitude, but suspect I harbour a lot of resentment as a result of being a season ticket holder for the past 35 years. I am also fearful that if the club knew that I sometimes imagine handing out flares, or at least sparklers in the family and disabled enclosures I would be banned for life.
The ticket refund palaver has made us late and the teams are already on the pitch and participating in a minute’s applause for the late Gordon Banks who very sadly has ‘performed’ today. By the time we have drained our bladders and taken up our seats the game is just kicking off. Tonight’s opponents are Derby County a club whose appearances at Portman Road in their halcyon days of the early 1970’s I somehow contrived to miss. Despite first attending Portman Road in 1971, I failed to see Derby County play here until December 1977, by which time their once brilliant star had started to wane. It is for this reason perhaps that I have no strong views on Derby County and in my mental map of league football they appear only faintly as peripheral, shadowy figures. Tonight’s game will do nothing to alter this image as Derby line up and begin the game in the most insipid, uninspired and vapid kit of pale grey shirts, shorts and socks with lime green cuffs and trim. Town meanwhile sport their usual blue and white attire despoiled by the anything but magical “Magical Vegas” logo.
Perhaps as a result of low self-esteem induced by that “Magical Vegas” logo or because they simply didn’t notice the Derby players drift by in their shadowy, foggy kit, Town offer up the customary one-goal lead to the opposition within the first two-minutes. Bloody hell. Town are now quite literally giving teams a goal start, I fear they will soon be kicking off every game with a ball already in the back of their net to save time.
Happily, once play resumes it’s as if the goal never really happened and for people reaching their seats only fractionally after Mick and me, it never did. Town soon settle into playing passing football and they dominate possession. The crowd, who we will later be told number 18,604 (including 926 from Derby) are behind the team as one; the Sir Bobby Robson stand is as good as full and the enthusiasm engendered by the Blue Action group has seemingly spread all along the lower tier. “Man On!” shouts the man behind me trying to help out Town’s on-loan full-back James Bree. “Who’s that” asks Mick . “Bree” I reply. “What, Bree as in tree?”. “Yes”.
“Ohh, just that bit too high, weren’t it” says the bloke behind me as a Town’s first corner kick sails over everyone’s’ heads. He’s not wrong. “O-oh no-o” he then says developing an ugly streak of pessimism when Alan Judge’s pass is intercepted. There’s no such doubt in the Sir Bobby Robson stand however where “Ipswich ‘til I die, I’m Ipswich ‘til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Ipswich ‘til I die (or perform)” is the life-affirming song of the day. All the Derby fans can muster in response is a wishy-washy “Lampard, Lampard, give us a wave” which he does, limp-wristedly.
This is a good game and things get better as the first player booked is former Ipswich darling Martyn Waghorn, as he fails to fool referee Mr Andy Madly into awarding him a free-kick and pays the price for his impression of someone ‘performing’. The smell of chips wafts up into the middle tier of the East of England Co-op stand as half-time approaches but the bloke behind me refuses to be optimistic “ Oh, here we go” he says as a Derby player runs at the Town defence. A flowing passing move releases Town’s Collin Quaner into the penalty box, he shapes to shoot and I tense my calves, ready to jump up, but he shoots high and wide having almost fooled me into thinking he might actually score.
Matthew Pennington is having possibly his best game so far in a Town shirt and I can think of no higher compliment, for the time being, other than to say he reminds me of David Linighan; it’s his leggy run I think. Less leggy is diminutive, little Alan Judge who is nevertheless a cut above his fellow midfielders and reminds me of Olympique Marseille’s Valere Germaine, but with a little bit more hair. Trevoh Chalobah tips over Derby’s number seven Harry Wilson whom Brian Clough would hopefully have called Harold Wilson. “He was lucky to get away with that” says the bloke behind, adding “He does do that” as if to explain that he can’t help himself, which the referee understands and is why he didn’t book him. Pessimism soon returns however as the bloke behind me muses “If they score another, that’s it”. He couldn’t enjoy the game if he wasn’t so miserable.
Half-time necessitates further bladder draining before stepping out onto the practice pitch to take the air and stretch our legs. The middle tier of the West Stand is a little uncomfortable for people who exceed 1.8m height like Mick and me, but we rationalise our pain by deducing that in the 1950’s when the lower part of the stand was built people were probably shorter on average, perhaps because they never had the benefit of free-school milk that us baby boomers enjoyed.
Refreshed and un-coiled we resume our positions and Town resume their dominance. Derby really are as pale and innocuous as their kit, which barely seems possible. Surely Ipswich are on the brink of the play-offs and Derby bottom of the league? “As if to verify this the North Stand chants “Can you hear the Derby sing? No-o, No-o”. It is the first time in years that Town fans have had the confidence to sing this.
A Derby player has the ball, “Put him under! “ Put him under” shouts a wannabe coach or anaesthetist. Trevoh Chalobah misplaces a pass and we speculate that his bleached, dreadlocked fringe got in his eyes. Jon Nolan replaces Flynn Downes for Town; for some reason I cannot hear the name Nolan without thinking of the Nolan sisters and I am reminded that Anne Nolan was married to former Blackpool footballer Brian Wilson and I enjoy the ‘Seasiders’ and ‘Beach Boys’ connection. Within two minutes of Nolan’s appearance, Collin Quaner lays the ball off to him and everyone is in the mood for dancing as his low shot tears past Kelle Roos the Derby goalkeeper. What a great goal! But when your team hasn’t scored for three games and seldom does anyway, the feeling of elation reaches new heights. Winning might be overrated, but scoring isn’t.
This is the best match of the season so far, by far. Defeat at Norwich, or perhaps more so Paul Lambert’s alleged threats of violence towards the Norwich goalkeeping coach have been an inspiration. “Paul Lambert is a Blue, Is a Blue, Is a Blue; Paul Lambert is a Blue, He hates Norwich” to the tune of London Bridge is falling down tumbles from the mouth of the Northstanders. The rest of the stadium remains pretty moribund but they carry us through. The pessimist behind remains un-moved from his dark outlook. “Uh, ohh” he groans as a Derby cross flies in. Meanwhile I breathe deeply the smell of the damp, cold turf. Derby come with a late surge on the back of some forlorn cries of “Come on Derby” from the 926 in the Cobbold Stand; they hit a post and miss a shot but nothing terrible happens.
After five minutes of additional time courtesy of six substitutions and the usual needy players craving the attention of the physio, the day-glo shirted Mr Madley whistles with final certainty. We all get up to go home, but not before a round of applause and a general exchange of good wishes and loving feelings. Happiness reigns; Town haven’t won, but they haven’t lost and even if they had I didn’t think most of us would have minded that much, because even though they didn’t look very much like scoring it was clear that was what they were trying to do. It makes me wonder if we’re not re-defining sport here in Ipswich, returning it back to what it’s meant to be. We’ll need a few more relegations to accomplish that fully however and the Southern Amateur League isn’t what it used to be. It’s been a while since we played the Crouch End Vampires.