Today sees the fourth game at Portman Road in 26 days, it’s as if Town don’t play away from home anymore and I’m getting a bit fed up with it to be honest and hanker after a change of scenery. The wide open spaces of non-league football are ever more attractive compared to the claustrophobic pall of gloom that hangs around Portman Road and seemingly seeps from the pores of so many home ‘supporters’.
But what’s this? Today Ipswich are playing Leeds United and I shall transport myself back to the 1970’s with a scarf tied round my wrist, double denim, feather cut and platforms. In my mind Leeds United embody the 1970’s, that awful but grimly fascinating and rather marvellous decade, and I love to see a game against Leeds United because of that, and also Leeds are guaranteed to bring a good number of supporters who are equally guaranteed to make a noise and create that rare thing at Portman Road, a bit of atmosphere and the sensation that there is a football match taking place.
It is a dull, grey January day as I head for the railway station past flat, featureless, cold
fields above which a few seagulls circle. At the station I meet Roly who has travelled from Borley and looks slightly disagreeable as he clutches a paper cup of coffee. He admits to having eaten a bacon butty from the station buffet and says that he only feels marginally happier than if he hadn’t eaten it, which for a greedy man like Roly means it was not a good bacon butty.
The train is three minutes late due to ‘congestion’ attributed to engineering works.
Once on the train we discuss grandmothers sucking eggs and how the use of powdered egg affected this during World War Two; we also discuss the relative merits of the minute’s silence or applause at the start of football matches. I long to be trusted to be respectfully silent in a dead person’s honour as football fans used to be, but Roly points out that there is now an unwritten etiquette of applauses for individuals who have shuffled off the mortal coil naturally, whilst armistice day and terrorist attacks and the like attract a silence. We agree that an applause in the wake of a terrorist attack might be misconstrued, but it nevertheless makes us laugh.
Arriving in Ipswich we are greeted by a posse of police on the station forecourt. The Station Hotel opposite looks packed, there is condensation on the windows, bums on the window sills and a crowd of Leeds fans occupy the car park and garden.
It’s not the prettiest riverside setting, but probably makes these Yorkshiremen feel at home, like they’re down by t’canal. Roly and I stroll on and the Leeds United team bus passes us heading towards Portman Road, which is the scene of a military operation. Police vans partly
block the road whilst policemen are strung across the road restricting the easy flow of people along the street. The Leeds team bus has disappeared into the yard behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and a group of people clamour around the gates, presumably seeking a glimpse of Leeds players, or maybe they’re bus spotters. We walk on, a group of late-middle aged men meet beneath the hollow gaze of Sir Alf Ramsey’s insouciant statue.
In St Jude’s Tavern we each drink a pint of today’s ‘match day special’ (£2 a go) which is Elgood’s Festive Feelgood; we talk football and in particular of the myriad of players who have appeared for Town in the last twenty years or so. We speak of Kevin Ellis, who made one appearance against Arsenal in the Premier League 1995, remained at the club for two more years before going to King’s Lynn and never playing another game for a League club. We both have another pint of the ‘match day special’ and then I have a half of St Jude’s Hazelnut Stout (£1.80), partly because I feel guilty about only drinking the cheap beer. It’s only 2.30pm, but Roly is eager to leave so that he can buy a pie; he is probably not obese, but he could easily become so. We part in Portman Road because Roly’s seat is in the posh seats in the East of England Co-operative Stand, where by rights he should get divvy on his pie.
In Portman Road the police are hard at work controlling the crowd for whatever reason, which means not allowing passage behind the Cobbold Stand for home fans and sending us all around the ground and back up Princes Street to get access to the Sir Alf Ramsey
stand. I don’t mind; this scenic route, it makes a change. I buy a programme from a girl in a kiosk on the corner of Alderman Road and pass by the main entrance to the club as a massive black Bentley sweeps through the gate.
By the time I’ve enjoyed my walkabout and the street theatre that the Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary are providing today it’s nearly time for kick –off and the teams are soon on the pitch when I take up my seat. Before the game today there is a minute’s applause for Ted Phillips, one of the greatest players ever to represent Town, who died this week at the age of eighty-four. Ted was in the teams that won the Third Division South, Second Division and First Division championships and in total scored 181 goals in 295 games. We’ll probably not see his like again, definitely not for the twenty-odd quid a week he got paid. I would happily stand and applaud him all afternoon and am very disappointed that his picture is not on the cover of the programme.
The game kicks off and is closely fought, but this is not a Leeds United I recognise, this team is the anti-thesis of the renowned Lilywhites, this team are wearing an all-black kit,
they could be anyone; a team of referees. Leeds United in all-black, it’s just wrong. But happily the Leeds fans are still the same; loud, raucous, foul-mouthed and very heavily stewarded. There are even police inside the stadium today, although strangely they seem to be watching the home fans. Without the Leeds fans this game would be dull like all the others; they have the whole of the Cobbold Stand today and have displaced Ipswich season ticket holders, but it was the right thing to do, it has made this game special and if Ipswich hasn’t got supporters interested in filling the ground and creating a match atmosphere, then let someone in who has. Nevertheless, there are only 18,638 of us here today and that is despite the addition of visiting supporters of Fortuna Dusseldorf who have adopted Town as their English team; we seem to have lost nearly 20,000 people somewhere since Town met Leeds in the FA Cup sixth round in 1975.
There are a lot of fouls in this game, a nostalgic nod to ‘dirty Leeds’ of the 1970’s perhaps, but the fouls are mostly clumsy rather than cynical, niggly or vicious although both teams’ physios are called upon to treat the wounded. Like most Second Division matches nowadays it’s a bit of a mess, as once again levels of effort and running exceed levels of skill. I nevertheless think I see Town captain Luke Chambers quite artfully control the ball and pass it accurately and then look rather pleased with himself; it may just have been a look of surprise however.
It’s not a bad game, but the presence of the noisy away support is carrying it somewhat. It takes until the 19th minute for the first decent shot on goal and this is followed by the news from the Leeds fans through the medium of “Cwm Rhondda” that “your support is fucking shit”. It’s taken them a while to realise this but they got there in the end. It doesn’t look like either team is particularly likely to score and then in the 37th minute the odds on a goal shift in Town’s favour as Leeds United’s Eunan O’Kane is sent off by referee Robert Jones for an off the ball assault (headbutt)on Town’s Jonas Knudsen.
Everyone loves a sending off, if it’s not one of their own players. Kane must walk the full length of the pitch and a Leeds fan set off a fire cracker, the loud crack and the smoke just add to the drama and excitement.
After four minutes of time added on for injuries and sundry stoppages, during which Town’s on-loan Kosovan Bersant Celina hits a post with a shot, the imposing Mr Roberts, who likes to stand with his hands on his hips, blows his whistle for half-time. I head down to the concourse and devour a piece of left-over Christmas cake that I had brought with me in lieu of thebacon butties or pies that others might eat to see them through the afternoon. I gaze up at the TV set delivering the half-time scores and first half stats, which are clearly wrong. I learn that I could buy a hospitality package for £35 plus VAT. I look at the programme and am impressed by the diversity of the Leeds squad with players from fifteen different countries. Ipswich players come from just seven countries, and one of them is Wales. The Leeds squad also has some fine surnames, my favourites being Roofe and Grot although Borthwick-Jackson and Peacock-Farrell also deserve a mention. Inside the programme there is a tribute to Ted Phillips, but if as the tribute says he is a legend, and he is, it should probably run to several pages, not just two. Also in the programme is the usual piece from club captain Luke Chambers. Luke is in philosophical mood today and amongst other nuggets says “I think football stadiums in general have become places where supporters can vent their frustrations over 90 minutes, sometimes that frustration comes from life as much as football. You see it everywhere now ”. It’s a very funny read.
For the second half I decide to sit with Pat from the Clacton-On-sea branch of the supporters club because the people near where Pat sits seem to have a bit more life in them, although they don’t really sing either, and at least when I do they laugh. The players and officials return to the pitch and Mr Roberts crosses himself, which is pure showmanship and not really becoming of a referee, but hey-ho.
The Leeds fans are still in good voice and treat the home crowd to renditions of “We all love Leeds and Leeds and Leeds” to the tune of ‘The Dambusters’ March’. Soon afterwards the chant of choice switches to “ We are Leeds, We are Leeds, We are Leeds” to no particular tune at all and then “When the Whites (sic) Go Marching In”, forgetting that their team is wearing all black, which may be why they previously had to remind themselves that they are Leeds.
Ipswich’s superiority in numbers isn’t making very much difference, although they are having more possession than usual and Leeds are not looking very likely to score. It will take a moment of very inept play or one of special skill to get a goal from this game and surprisingly it’s the latter that comes to pass in the 67th minute. Bursant Celina receives the ball from a throw-in on the left; he drifts in towards the centre of the field running sideways like a stray dog before suddenly unleashing a beautiful, gently dipping, but powerful shot into the corner of the Leeds goal. It truly is a thing of beauty, mostly because it is scored by someone in an Ipswich shirt.
Ipswich should really press home their advantage even more now, but they don’t, although they are the dominant team.
At the side of the pitch the managers and coaches are animated, the Spanish Leeds manager looking sharp in a smart, tailored coat, Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor looking like a couple of scallies in anoraks and tracky bottoms.
A Leeds substitute comes on with his socks turned up over his knees so that he is in black from neck to toe like a mime artist, but for some reason he also reminds me of Papa Lazarou in League of Gentlemen. The Leeds players become frustrated, particularly their Swedish centre-half Pontus Jansson who deserves an award for succeeding in getting the bulk of the North Stand lower tier to sing loudly in unison; to the tune of Cwm Rhondda, they chant, even if it is just to ask “Who the fuck, Who the fuck, Who the fuckin’ ‘ell are you?” and then, after presumably consulting their programmes to answer their own curiosity “Jansson, Jansson, you’re a cunt”. The upshot is that Jansson is booked by Mr Roberts, possibly for having inspired the putting of rude words to a hymn tune, but more probably for persistent fouling.
There is not long left but Town have to hold out against a late Leeds onslaught in which goalkeeper Dean Gerken saves the day with a fine dive to his right to parry away a shot from Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who is German. Finally however, Mr Roberts calls time; it has been an enjoyable afternoon for several reasons; Ipswich have won, the goal was spectacular and the opposition have had a player sent off, but also because of the presence of the Leeds fans who have created an atmosphere usually so sadly lacking at Portman Road. I am look forward to next season’s game already, if I can survive all the dreary ones in between.