Shrewsbury Town 0 Ipswich Town 3

My first encounter with the ancient town of Shrewsbury was in the August of 1969 when on a family holiday to Aberystwyth.  Shrewsbury was a convenient overnight stopover on our coast-to coast journey and I recall peering through the rain-streaked rear window of the family Ford Cortina as we arrived in the evening rush hour in Shropshire’s county town and sought out the bed and breakfast recommended in the AA guide; I think it was named after a local priory or abbey.  Thirteen years later my father and I returned by coach to see Ipswich dumped out of the FA Cup at Gay Meadow. We did the same again two years later.  My last visit to Shrewsbury was almost 35 years ago to the day, on 22nd August 1987, to witness a goalless draw in the Second Division. Today my return will re-kindle old memories and reveal the delights of the ‘New Meadow’.

I spent last night at a hotel in nearby Telford, where I drank a pint of Camden Pale Ale, a beer that tasted so heavily of citrus my mouth felt all evening as if I’d eaten a whole tub of lemon sorbet.  This morning I take a short walk from my hotel after breakfast and decide that if the residents of Telford were true to the architecture of their town, they would still all have big hair, shoulder pads and the sleeves on their jackets would be rolled up.  I didn’t much like the 1980’s and I am happy to quickly make the short hop to Shrewsbury having first filled up the petrol tank of my trusty Citroen C3 and discovered that fuel is 5p per litre cheaper at Sainsbury’s in Telford than it was on Thursday in Ipswich.  At the Meole Brace Park and Ride site near New Meadow, it costs a fiver to park and then walk to the football ground.  If you pay £2 to ride the bus into Shrewsbury and back however, the parking is free, and you get to ride on a bus, twice.  With an eye for a bargain and a bus trip, I arrive early and catch the bus.

Shrewsbury is a fine town to roam around for a couple of hours, with scores of fab buildings to see, I particularly liked the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s church, the ‘new’ market hall and the ‘cosmic egg’ as well as street names such as Mardol, Dogpole, Grope Lane and Bear Steps.  At the castle I look down upon the site where Gay Meadow used to be.  On Mardol I drink a pint of Castle Eden Golden Harvest Ale (£3.80) in the King’s Head pub, where the bar maid shows me the medieval wall paintings and even takes me out into the street to show me the interpretive signage telling the history of the neighbourhood and how in the sixteenth century it used to be the red-light district.  Oddly she also tells me that her name is Maggie May after the Rod Stewart song and that Maggie May was a prostitute; sadly, I don’t get the opportunity to tell her that Maggie May was in truth just an ’older woman’; although the Maggie Mae that the Beatles sang about on the ‘Let It Be’ album was a prostitute.

My mind swimming with the delights of Shrewsbury Town centre, which as medieval towns go really only tops Ipswich due to more exciting topography, I catch the bus back to Meole Brace from where I will walk to the football ground.  The New Meadow can be seen across fields from the road outside the Park and Ride and again, after a stroll through a retail park, from a nearby railway bridge; it’s not an architectural gem of a football ground but the cantilever steelwork has a certain appeal.  The club shop beckons as I have instructions to purchase a cuddly gnome to add to my wife’s collection of football club soft toys. The shop is much, much, smaller than I had anticipated and with its modest display of replica kits on hangers it has the feel of a walk-in wardrobe. I find the necessary gnome (£9.00) and a match programme (£3.00) and make my purchases.  Placing the chosen gnome in a plastic bag, the woman in the shop explains, as she rolls her eyes, that she won’t put my programme in the bag too because she knows that some people like to keep their programmes flat.

With time still to spare until kick-off I watch Town fans watching the team alight from the team bus, and then eat two Marks & Spencer chicken and ham sandwiches (£3.50) that I bought in the retail park. It starts to rain, and I shelter behind a brick wall. Happily, it was just a shower and after enjoying a poster of a former Shrewsbury player called Ken Mulhearn, whose fantastically coiffured hair looks like he may have modelled 1970’s knitting patterns,  I take a look at the ‘Fanzone’ which, showing how enlightened Shropshire is, is available to both home and away supporters. Music plays, it’s a song by the Smith’s and I think how it is somehow from a different 1980’s to the one in central Telford.  Fans queue for fizzy beer, there is a ‘festival atmosphere’ and in a converted shipping container at one end of the Fanzone an elderly man in replica shirt sits behind a desk, whilst another man in late middle age with a blue and yellow scarf wrapped around his neck announces the result of a prize draw; a woman holding a beer and a man with very poor posture look on; I feel as if I’m at a village fete.

Eventually, I make my way to turnstile 18 and after seeing ever-present Phil who never misses a game, in the toilet,  and bumping into a man named John and another called Ray, neither of whom I have seen for at least three years, I take my place in row M seat 18.  “Shrewsbury‘s a shit hole I want to go home” chant some Ipswich fans across the aisle from me to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’.  I can only assume they have recently discovered irony, because I have found Shrewsbury to be a smashing little place.  In the corner between the main stand and the away end I see house martins swooping and diving, I love our summer visitors but sadly have seen very few this year at home.  In due course, the game begins, with Town having first go with the ball and for the first time wearing this season’s red and black striped away shirt. Shrewsbury Town meanwhile sport yellow and blue striped shirts with blue shorts, as does their lion mascot who unimaginatively is called Lenny.  Ipswich are playing towards something called the Salop Leisure Stand, whilst Shrewsbury are aiming towards the DMOS People North Stand, where I and my fellow Ipswich fans are spending the afternoon.

Town quickly win a corner and it is the Tractor Boys who are making all the noise with someone banging a drum and a child behind me shouting in an ear-hurting high pitch, as children do. Kane Vincent-Young takes the ball around the goalkeeper and looks set to score but is apparently tackled fairly, although those around me believe otherwise and bay for a penalty. “You’re Welsh and you know you are” chant Town fans to the Shrewsbury fans presumably implying that there is something wrong with being Welsh rather than just providing an insight into the number of people in the local telephone directory with surnames such as Davis and Pugh.  It is racism, but the English, Welsh and Scots have a reciprocal agreement on abuse enshrined in the Act of Union of 1707.  Marcus Harness has a low shot saved at the near post by Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.

On the touchline Kieron McKenna is wearing what from a distance looks like a white cardigan, it’s not to my taste but it shouldn’t affect the result, I hope, although Town are living dangerously at times at the back by insisting on drawing Shrewsbury on to them with daring passes between defenders in our own penalty area.  “Your ground’s too big for you” chant my accomplices in the DMOS People North Stand having quickly totted up that there are a good 2,319 empty seats in the 9,875 capacity stadium.

I look at my watch, it’s only a quarter past three, it feels like it’s later.  Perhaps to help the passage of time the town fans air a new song to the tune of The Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’, which celebrates the fact that. “we’ve got; Marcus Harness”.  Sam Morsy gets booked for an unnecessary and at worst petulant kick or trip on Tom Bayliss.  Like many third division teams, Shrewsbury’s approach is physical and bullying, but Ipswich are possibly the bigger bullies so far today. But all of sudden, like the sun streaming through the clouds that play across the Shropshire countryside, some superior skill shines through as Tyreece John-Jules slaloms past a defender and scores in to the bottom right hand corner of the Shrewsbury goal; Ipswich Town lead 1-0 and it’s a bit beyond twenty past three.  Town are the better team but are now proving it and continue to do so by preventing Shrewsbury from getting anywhere close to the Ipswich goal.

Tyreece John-Jules looks like he is through again on goal but is called offside and the home fans are so quiet the Ipswich supporters dare to chant “Na-na-na, football in a library”, which is something that I would frown upon.  As the first half draws to a close Cameron Burgess gives Shrewsbury the gift of a corner kick with an inelegant  sky-high clearance, but despite bouts of all in wrestling between opposing players Ipswich manage to clear the ball up field.  Two minutes of added on time ensue, which the PA announcer tells us are sponsored by Reece Media, “designed to deliver”.  I wonder to myself if the sponsors pay more depending on the amount of time that is to be added on; a first-half with lots of stoppages could potentially end up with spectators thinking of Reece Media for minutes on end.  The closing act of the half is Ipswich winning a corner, but as so often happens, nothing comes of it .

I pass half-time eating most of a Nature Valley Oats and Honey Crunchy bar but then I spot a man called Richard who is eating a hot dog at the front of the stand. Richard and I have previously journeyed together to such exciting locations as Coventry, Sunderland, Blackpool and Nottingham and he even wrote this blog once when I was in a coma.  We catch up on the intervening years and whilst we do so a large, probably overweight, young man walks by on chubby legs and vomits, and as he does so he mystifyingly appears to try and catch the vomit as it is propelled from his mouth.  “Why would you try and catch it?” asks Richard rhetorically. 

I threaten to contact Richard about possible future away trips and as drops of rain begin to fall we part, eager to forget what we have just witnessed.  At five past four the football resumes and Shrewsbury quickly win a free-kick which leads to an unsightly melee in the Ipswich penalty area, but we are strong today and successfully out muscle the home team.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand a small murmuration of starlings swoops and pulses like a weird flying muscle and Tom Bayliss levels up the score for yellow cards after he fouls Lee Evans.  In the next sixty seconds a fine move down the left to Leif Davis allows him to send a square ball to Conor Chaplin who shoots from at least 20 metres out with his left foot into the bottom righ hand corner of Marosi’s goal.   Ipswich lead 2-0 and it’s another fine goal which Shrewsbury came nowhere near preventing. There could never be another Eric Gates,  but if in the inevitable dystopian future our Tory overlords decree for reasons of insane political dogma that there has to be one, I’d like it to be Conor Chaplin.  Eric’s goals of course went more top corner than bottom corner.

Town go close to scoring again. Leif Davis is getting loads of space on the left. Kane Vincent-Young gets to one of Leif’s crosses but that’s all, and the ball orbits up and over the away supporters. “ Two-nil to the Tractor Boys” we sing and the noise carries on but without too much very interesting happening on the pitch.  Then it changes, and Town dominate, and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from 25 metres. Cameron Burgess receives a head injury and dons a dark bandage, he’s big enough to be our third division Terry Butcher.

It’s gone half past four and Shrewsbury make substitutions because they have to do something; Caton and Bowman for Udoh and Pyke, and Bloxham for Da Costa.  Ipswich quickly follow suit. Jackson and Ladapo for Vincent-Young and John-Jules, but not because we have to, just because we can. Kayden  Jackson soon wins a corner and  Lee Evans heads wide.   Harness and Chaplin who have been magnificent are replaced by Edwards and Aluko.  Shrewsbury win a rare corner but it’s just a platform for Ipswich to break away up field and win another corner of our own.  Above the Salop Leisure Stand the mini murmuration of starlings reappears and settles on the two floodlights that project from the roof of the stand and look down on the pitch.  In the same way that twitchers gather to see rare birds, it seems that shropshire starlings gather to watch decent football.   A lone house martin swoops and dives above the pitch, picking off the insects Sam Morsy hasn’t already crushed.

The attendance is announced as being 6,556.  “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich” chant the now gloating Ipswich fans whilst also being simultaneously and illogically scornful of the ‘small’ crowd.   Full-time approaches and after another slick passing move Freddie Ladapo side foots weakly into Morosi’s grateful arms.  Six minutes of added on time are announced and after just two, more approach play down the flanks finds Morsy in the middle. Morsy shoots; his shot appears to be going in but is blocked on the goal line,  but the ball rebounds to Kayden Jackson whose leg is in the perfect position by accident or design to place the ball perfectly between Shrewsbury defenders and into the net. Three-nil to Ipswich and there’s barely time for Shrewsbury to have their consolation ‘only shot of the game’ which Matthew Pennington helpfully boots directly at Christian Walton.  “Head for the corner” shouts an excited and deranged looking young man dancing on the steps in front of me, who clearly has a view on the way to ‘see the game out’.  He needn’t have worried. It’s Ipswich who finish the game with another corner kick just to sum up their domination of this fixture.

Euphoria reigns in the DMOS People North Stand as elsewhere the stands empty in silence.  It’s a love-in at our end of the ground. Importantly, I get to see that Kieran McKenna isn’t wearing a white cardigan, although I’m not sure what it is, a sweatshirt perhaps?  Brimming with the happiness only a 3-0 away win can induce, I head back to the Meole Brace Park & Ride unaware that I wont get out of the car park until 6 o’clock.

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Ipswich Town ended a sequence of defeats and general under achievement with victory at Home Park, Plymouth on 6th December last year, just three months and a week ago.  It doesn’t seem a quarter of a year ago, let alone a third of a football season since that victory, but oddly it seems that time has simultaneously both speeded up and slowed down since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns.  The experience finds me in reflective mood this morning and I dull the pain by steam cleaning the shower, ‘hoovering’ the kitchen and filling a  five year old hole in the kitchen ceiling, which was created when a new light fitting was installed. 

Yesterday evening I signed up to witness the third game of the Paul Cook era at Portman Road on the ifollow, and without crossing the threshold of my semi-detached suburban home, my Saturday afternoon is consequently mapped out for me, as every Saturday afternoon has been since some time back in August.  Not being a particular fan of television since the demise of Quiz Ball in December of 1972, I was surprised to find that at first I quite enjoyed the novelty of seeing the Town courtesy of the cathode ray tube in the corner of the living room, or it’s flattened, somewhat swollen, wall-mounted, modern equivalent.  Town had never been regular performers on the telly, even back when we was fab in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, but now all of a sudden we are; it’s just a shame we are no longer worth watching as entertainment but only as an exercise in eternal optimism, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.    Today therefore it now feels like mere habit that makes me log on to my lap top as three o’clock approaches.

By way of a change today I shall be watching the match against Plymouth in the kitchen.  It has been agreed that the living room is the room in the house that is most like Wembley Stadium, and therefore best suited to my wife Paulene watching her team Portsmouth play Salford City in last season’s final of what used to be the Associate Members Cup, but is now merely an occasional playground for the youth of the Premier League clubs and a vehicle for the peddling of takeaway pizza.  By Paulene’s own admission it is a particularly pointless fixture because whoever wins the enormous slice of tin-plated pizza or whatever the trophy now is, will get to keep it for just twenty-four hours because this season’s final between Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers is to be played the very next day.

As the ifollow transports me to Portman Road, the quality of the transmission is at first poor and creates the impression that the sound engineer, if there is one, is a devotee of the late Norman Collier. Happily the technical fault is only temporary and the airwaves are crystal clear as I hear BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley ask Mick Mills how he assesses Ipswich Town’s play-off ambitions.  Reassuringly Mick presents the argument that it’s best to finish sixth in the league table.   “If you hit sixth spot anything can happen from that position” says Mick raising the possibility that sixth position in League One is some sort of portal to another world where Luke Chambers captains England to the third-place play-off in the World Cup, Paul Cook has a head of hair to rival that of Carlos Valderrama, Marcus Evans offers Lionel Messi whatever he wants to see out his playing career at Portman Road and the Football Association is run by a race of highly intelligent squirrels.

The game begins and in making a minor adjustment to the position of my lap top I accidentally press the off button.  Quickly turning the lap-top back on the picture returns sans commentary just as an Alan Judge free-kick whistles over the Plymouth cross bar.  The resultant corner kick is cleared and sound is restored just as Brenner speaks poetically of a throw-in being awarded against a Plymouth player as the “ ..ball skims over the laces of his right shoe”.   Brenner has many quirks which make his commentary satisfyingly unique and his insistence that the players are wearing shoes and not football boots is just one of them.   Down on the touchline meanwhile, we are told that Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe is “…barking out instructions”, although there is no word from Brenner about his footwear, but we can guess he’s not wearing Hush Puppies.

It is only the fourth minute of the game and Town score courtesy of an ill-advised back pass by Adam Lewis. “Troy Parrott couldn’t believe his good fortune” says Brenner, obviously not really having any idea what Mr Parrott does or doesn’t believe but making something up which he thinks sounds plausible. “That is a dream start” says Mick, giving us an insight into how retired professional footballers still think about the game even in their sleep.

Without warning ,the ifollow pictures stutter and I imagine living rooms and kitchens across Suffolk in which Tractor Boys and Girls point at their lap-tops and TV screens as one and chant “ You’re not very good, you’re not very good, you’re not very, you’re not very, you’re not very good”  to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown.  Back at Portman Road, Plymouth’s Panutche Camara does something to inspire Brenner to say “Camara, a bit of a live wire customer”.  Unusually for a player not from Britain, Brenner makes no reference to Camara’s nationality ; Camara  is from Guinea-Bissau; I can only guess that he can’t decide whether someone from Guinea-Bissau is a Guinean or a Guinea-Bissauan.

Plymouth Argyle are poor, their play consisting mostly of mistakes and passing to Ipswich players.  Sympathetically, Myles Kenlock makes a couple of mistakes of his own, which is thoughtful of him. Andre Dozzell is “…trying to pull the strings in midfield” Brenner tells us just as Dozzell turns attack into defence with an incisive 20 yard pass back across the half-way line to  centre-half James Wilson .  It’s the tenth minute and Kayden Jackson is clean through on goal, he must score!  He doesn’t.  “That was a real chance for Kayden Jackson” says Brenner “Was it” says Mick using a little heard affirming intonation   “Totally dominant, Ipswich Town – can’t remember the last time I said that in a game” says Brenner, and no one else can remember either, although if they can they should send their answer on a postcard to BBC Radio Suffolk or text 81333 and as Brenner would tell you, start the message with the letters SFK.

In an idle moment Brenner tells us of when Plymouth last won at Portman Road; it was eleven years ago and Paul Mariner was their manager and he gave his coat to someone in the crowd as a memento but left his glasses in the pocket and had to contact the club to get them back.  Remembering the story too, Mick tells it again but with more words and added superfluous detail.  When Mick has finished the story Brenner tells us that he remembers it too, almost as if he wasn’t the one to tell us about it in the first place and that we wouldn’t remember that.    A short while later Brenner once again tells us again that Andre Dozzell is trying to pull the strings in midfield.

The match is unusually enjoyable and Town’s attacking play gives Brenner the opportunity to try out some football-speak seldom heard in his recent commentaries.  “Trying to get Jackson on his bike” says Brenner as a long ball up the wing drops off the end of the pitch.  Another similar attempted pass on the opposite side of the pitch has little Alan Judge not getting to the ball either , “ …his legs weren’t going to get him there” says Brenner, perhaps implying that he should have borrowed Kayden Jackson’s bike.

A quarter of the way through the game and with Town still “…by far the better side, completely on top” Brenner looks ahead to the forthcoming Town games at Portsmouth and Wigan, which he rather weirdly refers to as “Paul Cook derbies” on the basis that Paul Cook previously managed both clubs; it’s a disturbing insight into how the mind of a football commentator works.  Mick Mills meanwhile keeps his commentating firmly based in reality and rather than indulging in such nonsense he tells us how twice Myles Kenlock has saved Town by dealing with crosses in central positions that a mysteriously absent   James Wilson should really have cleared.  “Myles Kenlock has dealt with them really, really well” says Mick delivering praise which would smack of nothing more than solidarity amongst left-backs if spoken by any lesser man.

Almost a third of the game has passed and Plymouth win their first corner, which is played deep to what Brenner rather indelicately and peculiarly describes as “the backside of the box” .  The sun comes out in Ipswich and it sounds like Brenner refers to Troy Parrott as Troy Carrot, but it might be my hearing or the poor quality speakers on my Sharp Aquos television set,  which is connected to my Lenovo lap-top by an HDMI lead – or so I’m told.

After a flowing Ipswich move almost results in a second goal, Flynn Downes goes down injured. In the ensuing hiatus in play Brenner asks Mick what are his thoughts on Ipswich Town’s season.  “Ipswich?  This season?  Says Mick,  sounding somewhat incredulous.  Mick is about to take us on a footballing journey back to last August, but it quickly It transpires that Brenner hadn’t meant to ask about the whole season, only about this game.  “Oh goodness” says Brenner with a note of panic in his voice “Don’t start re-capping this season”.  It’s a moment that perhaps reveals that Brenner thinks Mick could have talked for England as well as playing football for them.  Flynn Downes goes off to be replaced by Teddy Bishop. “Downes looks really down” says Brenner  possibly but probably not making a mildly tasteless pun.

Three minutes of added on time are to be played, Brenner tells us that Plymouth are in white; it seems a bit late to be  telling his BBC Radio listeners that; without Brenner’s guidance they have probably all been imagining Plymouth in a range of materials, colours and designs from puce-coloured chintz to flesh-toned gingham taffeta.  It seems that Plymouth have also worked out which colour shirts they  are wearing and according to Brenner “ You wouldn’t rule out an equaliser”.  But they’ve left it too late and Mick’s half-time verdict is that “Yes” Town deserve their lead because of the length of time that they dominated the game.

Half-time tea and ginger Christmas tree biscuits follow.  Paulene appears looking sad and dejected; the Portsmouth versus Salford game is absolutely awful and she has had to turn the sound down to avoid the terrible commentary with its constant hackneyed, fawning references to the former Manchester United players who are bankrolling Salford City. For Paulene the weekend will only get worse with Pompey destined to lose a penalty shoot-out and their hamster-like manager Kenny Jackett resigning in a fit of self-loathing.

After scrutinising the half-time match statistics and enduring an advertisement for the ifollow which, if it were true, would make you wonder why anyone ever went to a real game because watching football on a lap-top or tv screen is clearly far, far superior, the game begins anew.  Kayden Jackson is soon hurt and is according to Brenner, “ on all fours”, it’s a pose that he seems to like to report whenever he can.  Mick then embarks on an extremely lengthy description of a cross-cum-shot from Myles Kenlock; Mick’s eventual conclusion is that Myles didn’t know what he was trying to do.

After seven minutes of the second half Town should be 2-0 up, but Kayden Jackson’s pass from the by-line is met with a simply awful attempt at a shot from little Alan Judge who is about 10 metres from the goal.  Six minutes later and completely out of character Brenner refers to a Plymouth player (Conor Grant) as wearing a boot, not a shoe.  Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is replaced by Luke Jephcott . “ Strong boy,  he knows where the back of the net is” says Brenner, now heavily into  ‘Ron Manager’ mode.

Amazingly, neither Mick, nor Brenner says it but the match gives every impression of being a game of two halves.  “Plymouth….are in charge of this game” says Mick.  Substitutions are made.  Hardie for Lewis for Plymouth; Skuse and Drinan for Parrott and Jackson for Ipswich.  “ Positive move by Plymouth, sensible move by Ipswich” is Mick’s well considered opinion.  Brenner asks Mick what he thinks of Cole Skuse.  “ I like Cole Skuse, I like Cole Skuse” says Mick repeating himself for emphasis and possibly because all he could think of to say was the same thing twice; but no one will notice, he’s on BBC Radio Suffolk, not Radio 4’s Today programme.  Mick speaks of the criticism that Cole Skuse receives from some sections of Suffolk’s football watching public.  “ I don’t understand; I do understand it”  he says, succinctly summing up the mind boggling complexities of the situation.

As Mick takes a rest Brenner tells us what Paul Cook is wearing, “ a hooded coat zipped up to just below his chin”, he’s also wearing a beanie hat . I feel reassured to know that our new manager is suitably dressed for a windy March afternoon  in which there have been occasional heavy showers.

Plymouth are dominating possession. “ Watts along the deck” says Brenner describing a pass along the ground in a manner appropriate to a team from the city that contains Western Europe’s largest naval dockyard.  Plymouth’s McCloud hits a half volley from 20 odd metres having received a pass form Town’s Luke Chambers; it’s an easy catch for Tomas Holy.  “ Wind and hail” says Brenner as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Town win a corner after a passing move started by Cole Skuse.  “ Skuse read it lovely” says Mick like a true footballer as he describes Cole’s interception which pre-empted the passing move.  “ I do worry about Plymouth getting themselves level in this game” says Brenner showing uncharacteristic bias to the home team.  Plymouth still dominate possession but Ipswich are winning corners on the break.  Camara is unmarked and heads wide of the far post for Plymouth.  “That was a let off for Ipswich Town” says Brenner ,not telling a word of a lie.  The oddly named Keanan Bennetts replaces little Alan Judge and Jack Lankester replaces Gwion Edwards.  Reeves and Lowe replace McCloud and grant for Plymouth. Twelve minutes of normal time remain.

Town win a further corner which is played short. “Strange corner” says Mick as the ball is passed around the box and crossed in from the opposite side.   Town continue to play ‘on the break’. “It’s a strange way for a home team to play “ says Mick, sounding a little baffled.   The game enters the four minutes of time added on for assorted stoppages and the substitution of nine of the twenty out field players. The oddly named Keanan Bennetts gets the chance to run at the Plymouth defence but concludes what is not much more than a gentle trot with a limp cross to no one in particular.  “ He just completely wasted it for me” says Mick sounding a little hurt.  “ Town in the top six as things stand” says Brenner triumphantly, before revealing a previously unknown interest in and implied knowledge of the larynx  “Paul Cook shouting, not doing his voice any good at whatsoever”.

With Town in possession of the ball the game ends and victory is confirmed. “It’s been a fabulous day for Ipswich “ says Brenner getting a completely carried away.  A more cautious Mick Mills is “Happy with the result, but not the performance” and questions why Teddy Bishop “doesn’t do things in the game”.    It’s a good question and one which might be asked of nearly all Town’s midfield players and forwards.   We haven’t finished sixth yet.

Ipswich Town 4 Accrington Stanley 1

Before starting this account of Ipswich Town’s latest fixture I must let you the reader know that I am sick and tired of people droning on, repeating that 1980’s advertisement for milk whenever Accrington Stanley is mentioned. There is no excuse for not knowing the name of Accrington Stanley and that child in the advert was an ignoramus and possibly an imbecile and deserves to suffer from calcium deficiency.

Today, I am extremely excited; as excited as a Liverpudlian child with weak bones or a deficiency of vitamins E, B6 and B12 should be when offered a glass of milk. Today for the first time in five months I am returning to Portman Road to watch the latest chapter in the Superblues’ epic march back towards world domination, and today Town face the famous Accrington Stanley. The last game I saw was Town’s tepid one-all draw with Sunderland in August, soon after which I was found to have pneumonia, was put in a coma, diagnosed with Endocarditis, given open heart surgery to replace two valves eaten away by bacterial infection and placed on a two-month long course of industrial strength anti-biotics. Sunderland AFC was not implicated in these events.   Unlike Gloria Gaynor, who after all these years is still all about what she will do, I actually did survive, thanks to the fantastic NHS, and at last I now feel fit enough to once more brave the streets and terraces of Suffolk’s capital city. Consider Emyr Huws’ return to the team after long-term injury, Andre Dozzell’s return to the team after torn ligaments, Ian Marshall’s return to the team after being run over by a shopping trolley; roll them all into one and you will come close to how I feel today. Today is, as those who speak in modern parlance say, ’massive’ or at least quite big.

It is a grey and windy Saturday, becoming of early January, and the trains are not running. Refusing to pay train fares to travel by Corporation bus, yesterday I experimentally sought the assistance of fellow Ipswich Town supporters on social media and attempted to politely solicit a lift to Ipswich. With the sole exception of a sensible answer from a kind man in his sixties called Ian, the responses I received were at worst rude, ignorant or stupid and at best unhelpful. These responses included one from a man whose profile indicates somewhat worryingly that he is chairman of governors at an infants’ school, whilst another respondent claimed to be three years old after I notified him that his initial response implied he was not able to offer me a lift and that was all I needed to know.  Depressed that idiots and dumb arses trying to be smart arses are also Ipswich Town fans, I muse that at least Ian proves that decent people do exist and today I convey my gratitude to him as we travel up the A12 in his grey Volkswagen Tiguan. We talk of football and our plans for the pre-match period. Once the VW is parked up we go our separate ways, departing each other’s company with the reciprocal wish that we might enjoy the drive home on the back of a good win.

It’s only a quarter to one and Portman Road is still open to motor traffic; I assiduously keep to the pavement because it would be a waste to be mown down by a car now, having dodged death only a few months before and at public expense too. After stopping to buy a programme (£3.50) I continue up the gentle incline, across Handford Road to St Matthews Street, passing a few early-arrivers walking in the opposite direction.  I have time on my hands and rather than fall prey too early to the demon drink I walk on past St Jude’s Tavern to Francesco’s Hair Salon at 61 St Matthew’s Street.  My long period of convalescence has left me looking like Howard Hughes and I need a haircut, so I get one (£15.50) courtesy of a charming lady hairdresser with whom I chat about going to football, Christmas, family, drinking enough fluids and fruit.  Francesco’s is incidentally the same establishment where Bobby Robson would get his hair cut.  Although Francesco has moved premises since Sir Bobby’s time, I nevertheless can’t helping feeling I would have had Bobby’s endorsement for this match-day tonsorial, although it is only in my imagination that I see him smiling back at me from the mirror giving me the thumbs-up.

Looking like a new man I leave Francesco’s and make the short walk back to St Jude’s Tavern; upon entering I think I hear a small voice say “Martin”, but I pay no attention believing I have just happened to walk in on the end of a conversation about relatives of the polecat or cast members of ‘That was the week that was’.  I proceed to the bar, but before I can order a pint of today’s Match Day Special (£2.50) my friend and colleague Roly is at my shoulder and wishing me well, for it was he who spoke my name.  I have not seen Roly for several weeks and we talk agreeably, making jokes of everything we can think of, none of which we will remember.  Soon, my mouth parched from incessant conversation, I get a second pint of the Match Day Special which today is Mr B’s Hexagon, a name which refers to the shape of the honeycomb, but which I as a lover of all things French prefer to think of as celebrating the mainland part of metropolitan France, which the natives often refer to as l’hexagone due to its approximate shape.  I treat Roly to a half a pint of the same drink; he is on reduced ration because later he will be driving home in his second-hand Vauxhall Astra.

Before we leave St Jude’s for the match, Mick pops in to give me my season ticket which he has been using whilst I have been confined to my sick bed. Mick doesn’t stay for a drink but lingers long enough to tell us how he met his friend Chris at the railway station and they had a drink in the Station Hotel, which on match days is dedicated as the ‘away supporters’ pub.  Unable to spot any away supporters Mick asked a bouncer where they all were; the bouncer turned and pointed to two blokes drinking quietly in the corner of the bar.  Later the number of away supporters attending the match will be announced on the Portman Road scoreboard as 155 in a crowd of 17,536.  I do not believe that 153 of these 155 Accringtonians are teetotal and I am pleased therefore that they paid no heed to being confined to the ‘away pub’ and sought their pleasure like free men and women, wherever they could find it.

Time passes and eventually with glasses and bladders drained Roly and I descend Portman Road in time for kick-off; the day remains dull and defined by grey cloud. I dodge my way across the stream of supporters flowing out of Portman Road car park and into Sir Alf Ramsey Way; I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile seven after a brief internal dialogue about which is the luckier number, seven or eight; I decide I don’t believe in lucky numbers. I say a hearty, smiling ‘hello’ to the lady turnstile operator and a little bizarrely also bid her ‘goodbye’ as the turnstile clicks; my excuse is that I am out of practice with this match-going lark, but I am also feeling a lot of love for the world and everyone in it.  After another brief visit to the toilet facilities I ascend the steps from the concourse into the lower tier of the stand to reacquaint myself with Pat from Clacton, ever-present Phil who never misses a game, Ray, the old dears who formerly sat behind me, Bluey, Crazee and my view of the green, green turf and its dramatic, part human, part concrete, part blue plastic and steel backdrop.

It is with a heavy heart that I learn from ever-present Phil that Pat from Clacton is not at the game today because she is on a cruise, but I speak excitedly with Ray and his grandson Harrison before taking up a seat two along from ever-present Phil and in front of the old dears.  With all that lining up to shake hands malarkey out of the way referee Mr Charles Breakspear, whose name sounds like he might have played Association Football for Old Carthusians in the 1870’s, parps his whistle to begin the match.  Accrington Stanley get first go with the ball all dressed in a strong shade of red, which makes them look a bit like Liverpool and is ironic given that at least one fictional, undernourished child from that city has never heard of them.  Incidentally, my earliest contact with anything Accringtonesque was a short, balding bloke called Steve who I met when at university; he came from Accrington but shamefully supported Liverpool, I think if I described him as dwarfish and ugly it wouldn’t be an injustice.  My second contact with something touched by Accrington was by contrast an attractive lady work colleague who was a native of Oswaldtwistle or Ozzy as she called it, a town contiguous with Accrington or Accy as she called it. She was well versed in the names of Burnley players of the 1970’s  and rarely wore a brassiere, two possible reasons why I remember her over thirty years later.

With Town in their customary blue and white and the turf glowing green beneath the floodlights this could be a scene conjured up from a Club Edition Subbuteo set. Town start well, passing the ball accurately, playing towards me and ever-present Phil and looking keen to do well.  My attention is taken however by Accrington’s enormously tall number 5 whose name, the shoulder of his shirt tells me is Sykes, not Eric or even Bill sadly but Ross, like the fish fingers.  “Cor! He’s skinny” shouts a voice behind me. Sykes’s gangliness is however overshadowed by that of Accy’s number 36 Jerome Opuku, a player on loan from Fulham whose flailing arms and legs give him the appearance of a piece of nineteenth century agricultural reaping machinery or a drunken octopus; when tackled he collapses to the floor like a puppet that has had its strings cut.  That said he’s a half decent player.

After kick-off just twelve minutes pass and Ipswich take the lead; a glorious passing move involving the eye-rubbingly strange sight of Luke Woolfenden surging into the penalty area in open play (‘underlapping’ as ever-present Phil christens it) from his centre back position. I can’t recall having seen such a thing before at Portman Road, it’s tantamount to ‘Total Football’; a marvel, even if the ultimate finish from Kayden Jackson looks a bit scruffy as he slides on his bum side by side with an Accrington player to get the ball over the goal line.

“Come On Ipswich” chants the crowd, bemused or tentatively intrigued by the stylish football before them. Two minutes later another passing moving ends with James Norwood hopelessly mishitting the ball when well placed to score. In a rare idle moment I watch a seagull arc above the pitch, but this is a game that demands to be watched and before a half an hour has passed Norwood runs on to an instinctively reactive, first time volleyed pass from Emyr Huws and casually lobs the ball over the head of the Lambeth born Accrington ‘keeper Josef Bursik.  Time slows down as the ball follows a graceful arc, although I’ve yet to see an arc that isn’t so, and descends perfectly beneath the cross bar before striking the net.  The goal inspires a thankfully brief dirge version of “When the Town going marching in” from the North Stand and I decide that Jerome Opuku’s squad number of ‘36’ refers to his inside leg measurement.  Life is good if you’re a Town supporter inside Portman Road football ground today and just to prove the point a third goal is scored by little Alan Judge a minute before half-time. It’s the result of another fine passing move which this time has seen centre half Luke Chambers push forward in open play to set it off.  Luke Chambers mostly looks angry when he’s playing football, some might say he is pulling a determined face perhap. His snarly reaction to the latest goal today seems to imply he is claiming some responsibility for it, almost as much as Alan Judge; perhaps scoring again was his idea. 

Applause is the sound of the day as the teams clear off for half-time and I head down to the toilet before consuming a Nature Valley Protein Peanut and Chocolate bar which I had had the foresight to put in my coat pocket before leaving home almost four hours ago.  The queues for the refreshment kiosks are long and I’m pleased I am not in one.  I check the half-time scores on one of the overhead TV sets beneath the stand but get bored waiting to see anything of interest and consider how literally pointless half-time scores are.  My already cheerful mood is enhanced further however when I learn that Norwich City are losing and in my mind’s eye I see a poky, high up corner of Old Trafford where funny looking folk in yellow and green knitwear have paid exorbitant Premier League prices for the privilege of seeing their team humiliated.  I return to the stand and speak again with Ray before the teams return to play out the second half which with a satisfying sense of symmetry begins at four minutes past four.

The greyness of the afternoon deepens behind the stands making the floodlights seem to shine all the more brightly.  Predictably perhaps, the second half does not reach the heights of the first, in spite of the efforts of the glowing beams of electric light illuminating the pitch. Town begin well enough and continue to dominate possession, but the gaps in Accrington’s defence have been plugged and whilst the football is not bad, it’s been downgraded from the first half’s Copacabana-style to something more like Felixstowe-at-low-tide-style.  It’s been a game pleasantly devoid of histrionics or naughty fouls but at half past four Accrington substitute Ajibola Alese, who is on loan from West Ham United and is only 18 years old commits a foul on little Alan Judge which Mr Breakspear considers worthy of yellow card style censure. Cole Skuse replaces the wonderfully Welsh Emyr Huws, which is nice because their surnames rhyme, and then Teddy Bishop replaces little Alan Judge.   There are now two Bishops on the field as Accrington also have one in Colby Bishop, although to be honest he sounds more like a firm of estate agents than a footballer.

It’s getting on for a quarter to five and an Accrington player, possibly Dion Charles is left unmarked close to Ipswich’s goal; he shoots with his right boot; he should score but Town’s James Wilson, who makes me think of Labour prime ministers of the 1970’s moves across to deflect the ball away above the angle of the goal post and cross bar with his calf. “Lucky Ipswich” says the old boy behind me, but it wasn’t luck, it was good defending, eventually.  If it had been luck that stopped an Accrington goal it would have been of the sort that didn’t last because within a minute or so Accrington’s Congolese substitute Offrande Zanzala, who has previously played for Stevenage, Barnet and Chester, is pulled back and has a leg swiped across his chest courtesy of James Wilson. Zanzala manages to beat off a team mate who seemed to want to take the resultant penalty before he could and then scores.

There is still time for stomping Luke Chambers to get himself booked un-necessarily, which he does, and for Accrington to score two more goals, and that’s the sort of scenario that wouldn’t surprise an Ipswich supporter considering Town’s aggregate form over the last thirty years or so.  Today proves not to be the sort of day for that to happen however, and with the game into the time added on to compensate for substitutions and any nihilistic attempts to fritter away existence, Town’s third substitute, the imposing Will Keane robs an Accrington player of the ball, turns back towards the away team’s goal and sends a low shot past the man known to the French as le gardien and to Emyr Huws as the gol-geidwad.  With his hair drawn back in a scrappy pony tail Keane has the look from a distance, a long distance, of a poor man’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his record of three goals in the last four games is worthy of the big Swede.

The game ends amid much clapping and self-congratulation and after bidding ever-present Phil adieu I make a final visit to the toilet beneath the stand and then walk out into the evening, towards Ian’s Volkswagen, the soporific tones of Mick Mills on the car radio, the voices of assorted opinionated people calling to give Mick their worthless views and the journey home.

Finally, after Ian drops me off I walk around the corner to my house; a small coach drives by with the name ‘Enigma Travel’ painted on the side; “Probably on a mystery trip” I think to myself.

Endocarditis 1 NHS 2

On 5th July 1948, courtesy of Clement Attlee’s Labour government the people of Britain became the recipients of a national health service which was free to all at the point of use, paid for through progressive taxation, a tax system which put into practice the ideal of citizens contributing according to their ability to do so and receiving, in this case, according to their clinical need.  No longer would sick people feel the need to shy away from seeking help from a doctor because they could not afford to do so.  My mother still remembers her mother living in fear of the cost of the doctor’s bill. The population had ‘pulled together’ during World War Two and now a new post-war age was dawning in which selfless actions for the greater good could now be put to peaceful purposes.

I benefitted from the existence of the NHS when I came into the world at the Priory Hospital in Haverfordwest in 1960 and as a child I received all the free inoculations, dental treatment and medical checks that the system provided.  Inevitably, as a child I took it for granted and given that tooth extractions and injections were included I did not see it as a good thing; the polio vaccine-laced sugar lump was scant consolation for the promise of pain the health service otherwise represented in my young mind.    As an adult I never gave much thought to the NHS because I was rarely ill, and therefore had little need to do so; I visited the Accident & Emergency (A&E) department at Ipswich’s old Anglesea Road hospital when I shut my right forefinger in the door of a Fiat 126 on men’s Wimbledon final day 1980 and then in autumn 1994 I attended the re-located A & E department at Heath Road when I chipped an ankle bone playing football; my darting run into the penalty area coming to a sudden premature halt as my ankle gave way on the uneven surface of one of the pitches up at Gainsborough Sports Centre.  But otherwise, the NHS meant little to me despite its apparently increasing profile in the national psyche, which more recently reached a crescendo in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, which almost seemed to define Britain in terms of its NHS; to be honest I thought it was going a bit far.

When Town drew at home with Sunderland on August 10th this year I was disappointed because it was a game we should have won, but I was not despondent, I wasn’t going to get ill over it. I went to work the following Monday as usual but on Tuesday morning awoke in the small hours feeling short of breath. I didn’t go to work on Tuesday because I felt lousy; a visit to my GP produced a course of Amoxycillin antibiotic to deal with a perceived chest infection. By Thursday I was no better and my wife Paulene called the doctor’s surgery, they asked me to come in but I was so short of breath by now I was barely able to walk; they said to call an ambulance.  I was admitted to Colchester hospital that afternoon; the following morning I was put into a coma. I had pneumonia, but on the following Tuesday lunchtime I travelled at speed under sirens and blue flashing lights to the specialist cardiac unit at Basildon hospital.

The following morning I had open-heart surgery to replace two valves that had been attacked by a bacterium; the pneumonia was a decoy, I actually had Endocarditis, a very rare but potentially fatal condition which infects and eats away at the endocardium (the inner lining of the heart chambers), and at the heart valves.

Town’s two-all draw at Peterborough came and went without my knowledge and then I missed the mid-week home game versus Wimbledon on 20th August, which was annoying, but my ventilator would no doubt have aggravated other supporters in the seats around me and it would have been difficult to give the team much vocal support with a bunch of tubes stuck down my throat. Being comatose however, is not necessarily a barrier to watching the Town at Portman Road,    as many season ticket holders in seats all around the ground regularly seem to prove; as animated as some Northstanders get, Portman Road cannot really be described as a cauldron of noise.  By the time Saturday came, and Town were heading ‘up north’ to Bolton Wanderers, I was out of the coma and was conscious, but sadly if predictably not fit to travel.  Judging by some of the hallucinations I was experiencing due to the pain-killing drugs I was receiving however, I doubt I would have understood what was going on even if I could have watched the game.  No one could have blamed me if the 5-0 final score in Town’s favour had seemed like just another weird imagining from my drug-addled brain. A 5-0 away win still seems a bit unlikely.

My recovery was to be a long one and one which now, almost three months later, is not yet over.  As my condition improved and I recovered from surgery I was moved out of the Critical Care Unit into a Cardiac ward.  I caught up on the results I had missed and as I continued to recover, Town continued to win, with the occasional draw just to give the other clubs a chance.  A variety of friends and neighbours swapped about my season ticket between them and sat with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, so it didn’t go to waste and Town continued to do well.

Whilst everything was rosy at Portman Road my thoughts however had begun to linger on the fact that there were eight recent days in my life of which I had no memory. What struck me was that during these eight days I had apparently come close to death and my life had ultimately been saved by the NHS.  The open heart surgery I had been given was remarkable enough, but the NHS kept giving with continuing care of the highest quality.  I was struck by just how brilliant the staff were but also how they were of so many nationalities from all around the world.  As if the ideal of a free health service wasn’t enough the NHS operates as an international melting pot of doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff, a caring combination of all races, colours and creeds, a World health organisation in the service of a single national population.  That combination of being a health service free at the point of use and its being staffed by people from all around the world makes the NHS one of, if not the most magnificent achievement of human civilisation, an international fellowship of people acting solely for good and not for profit; it is awe-inspiring and achieves what much organised religion strives for.

If I had to come up with some laboured football related analogy I would say that the NHS is the World Cup of healthcare, free to tune in to whenever you want and in an Ipswich Town context it is a Portman Road where all the gates are open all the time and the team is made up of a selection of some of our best ever players (loanees included) all of different nationalities, except there must always be two particular Dutchmen;  for example: Bialkowski, Burley, Taricco, Thijssen, Hunter, Hreidarsson, Legwinski, Muhren, Crawford, Counago, Finidi.   Subs: Begovic, Diallo, Thetis, De Vos, Chopra, Dos Santos, Peralta.   Other team selections can be made according to how brilliant or amusing you want your team to be.

But the moral of this tale is not about football; it is more important than that, it is that matters of life and death seriously are about life and death. The NHS is always there to save anyone’s life at any time and it remains free at the point of use; so please think very carefully about who you vote for on 12th December if you want that to remain the case.

Ipswich Town 1 Sunderland 1

Only the 10th of August and it’s bloody started already.  Summer is still here although today it has the good grace to pretend its autumn; a howling gale licks around the corners of my house and my Women’s World Cup bunting, strung joyfully across my back garden, slumps over the patio and plants in colourful tatters.

I look out of an upstairs windows to glimpse a silver Vauxhall Astra slip past; it’s Roly, he’s going to park on my back drive.  Roly is not the name of the Vauxhall Astra, he’s the driver. We had planned to meet at the railway station but seconds after he bought his ticket his train was cancelled; the result of a fallen tree, possibly two.  We walk to the railway station, the usual journey ensues. Roly tells me how his partner Sarah would castigate him for catching the train and not driving all the way to Ipswich, but he’s not going to tell her. Roly wants to save the planet, like me, and he also hates having to find somewhere to park and then sitting in traffic after the game.

Ipswich appears to be in a state of emergency, a police van sits in the middle of the station plaza but in fact everything is okay, it’s just ‘Norfolk and Suffolk working together for you’.  Football chants in thick far northern accents are carried up on the wind from the beer garden of the Station Hotel.  We cross the road and hurry away; we pass a lairy looking youth who suddenly bawls something unintelligible.

After a successful relegation season it’s a new dawn for Ipswich Town in division three and entering Portman Road I think I might buy a programme for every match this season to mark the newness, the difference.  I am looking forward to seeing the slightly unfamiliar clubs deemed ‘unfashionable’ by dullard journalists.  I approach a programme booth; I don’t think I will buy a programme after all, they’ve put the price up to £3.50 a copy, that’s an increase of 16.6%, way above the rate of inflation, not that I know what that is.  Why couldn’t they just make the programme less glossy, a bit smaller, add a couple of adverts and take out some of the drivel no one reads?  I want to blame Brexit.

At St Jude’s Tavern Roly buys two pints of the Match Day Special (£2.50) which today is Mr B’s Plan Bee, he gives one to me.  We invade the space of a man sat at a table on his own, but I ask him first if the seats are free, they are.  Mick arrives and buys a pint of porter and a packet of crisps, which he opens upon the table for us all to share, I don’t ask him how much the porter or the crisps costs.  It only takes one person with a loud voice in St Jude’s Tavern to make it difficult to hear what my fellow drinkers are saying and such a person is here today so I end up nodding and smiling as  the conversation drifts in and out of my comprehension.  I buy two more pints of the Match Day Special, Mick doesn’t want a second, but I get him a bag of dry-roasted peanuts (90p).  It’s barely half past two but Roly wants to get down to the Portman Road so that he can eat. We hang on ten minutes or so but soon give in to his gluttonous cravings.

At the corner of Portman Walk I leave our trio andI head for the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand whilst Roly and Mick head west to the East of England Co-op Stand and the posh seats.  I tell them I will wave up at them and doff my cap from amongst the groundlings behind the goal.  I make my way to the far end of Portman Road, following the pointing finger of Sir Bobby Robson’s statue; the parked up away supporters coaches either side of him displaying the names of County Durham towns he would have been familiar with.   

Nearby, a ginger-haired bloke in a yellow hi-vis jacket sells Sunderland fanzines.  There are queues at the turnstiles, possibly because not all the turnstiles are open. I pause to select the fastest moving queue and am quickly in the ground.  I speak briefly with Dave the steward with whom I once worked and then use the toilet facilities before proceeding to my seat.  Nothing has changed, Pat from Clacton is here and so of course is ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood.  On the pitch before us the serious looking steward with the enormous headphones looks as worried as ever, as if fearing that a violent supporters’ rebellion might start at any moment.  To confuse the operators of the improved CCTV surveillance system I have moved my seat slightly, I no longer sit in front of the old dears behind me, but behind them, a couple of seats to the left of Pat from Clacton.  Otherwise it seems like the first day back at school, “Have you had a good summer?” asks Pat from Clacton,   “It’s not over yet” I tell her, not really answering the question but subconsciously implying that the start of the football season doesn’t mean an end to ‘summer fun’. Ever-present Phil and I shake one another’s hand “Happy New Year” says Phil, which seems apposite.

It’s busy here today, with plenty of seats occupied that may not be sat upon again all season.  The attendance will eventually be announced as 24,051. The Sunderland supporters are present in large numbers (1,847) and mostly seem a humble, self-effacing lot.  No unduly boastful or mean spirited songs can be heard from the Cobbold Stand, which is nice. Their continuing, numerically impressive support for a club which was successful in the 1890’s but otherwise is most notable for a level of mediocrity which puts Ipswich Town’s recent averageness in the shade is such that mass sainthood doesn’t seem unreasonable. In nineteen eighty-something Sunderland even lost a League Cup final to Norwich, for heaven’s sake.  That careless catastrophe aside, Sunderland have good reason to be forever loved a little by everyone outside West Yorkshire because of the 1973 FA Cup final, which not only saw hated Leeds United beaten by the then Second Division team, but gave us the joyful sight of a man in a trilby hat and pale raincoat running with arms and hands outstretched to embrace his victorious players.  Manager Bob Stokoe’s joyfulness is now captured forever at The Stadium of Lights in a statue to him and by association his team of Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Horswill, Watson, Pitt, Kerr, Hughes, Halom, Porterfield and Tueart.  They might have won the FA Cup before in 1937, but seeing the world through a filter of ‘Ipswichness’ and TV pictures then 1973 was Sunderland’s 1978.

It’s three o’clock, the game begins; Sunderland in their excellent traditional kit of red and white striped shirts, black shorts and red socks get first go with the ball. Town parade this season’s version of whatever Adidas is peddling, a similarly traditionally plain blue shirt, white shorts and blue socks number. The crowd is noisy but there’s little co-ordinated chanting or singing.  The football is fast and uncontrolled; the long ball is favoured. After not many minutes the child sitting behind me is bored; I can understand why, it’s not exactly recognisable as the ‘beautiful’ game, but to the trained eye Town are already looking better than Sunderland.  Kayden Jackson is very quickly booked for trying to con the referee Mr Neil Hair, a man who I wish was German, into awarding him a penalty.  I quite liked Kayden Jackson last season, I hope he isn’t going to be an arse this season.

 A fraction of the match passes that is equal to the percentage increase in the cost of the match programme since last season and a long throw is helped into the Sunderland penalty area; the ball is cut back, Luke Garbutt controls it and surges through a mass of players towards the touchline before striking a finely angled shot through the legs of Sunderland goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and just behind the far post. “Garbutt, 1-0”, as David Coleman might have said had he not been long dead.   How we cheer.  This is what we came for. Joy abounds.

I think this is better than I expected, although even last season we took the lead in a few games. The remaining half an hour of the first half sees Sunderland fail to do anything to threaten Town’s lead. It takes them forty minutes to even have a shot at goal. Kayden Jackson pines for attention and has an ice bag pressed against his head.  Garbutt develops a mystery ailment and is substituted by little Alan Judge. Everyone in a blue shirt is playing well, but no one scores another goal.  This new system of two players ‘up-front’, isn’t working  that well; James Norwood and Kayden Jackson sometimes get in each other’s way, they’re no Johnson and Whymark or Crawford and Phillips, not yet anyway.

Half-time arrives and I dash from my seat to stand before the stainless steel urinals beneath the stand before checking on the half-time scores, which are singularly unremarkable.  I return to the stand to speak with Ray and his grandson Harrison.  Our verdict on the game is that it’s okay and Ipswich are by far the better team, but the quality of the football could be better.  Harrison predicts a final score of 3-0.  Ray and I reserve judgement, our capacity for unbridled optimism beaten, squeezed and drained out of us by decades of bitter experience.

The second half disappoints. The blue skies over the Sir Bobby Robson Stand are as lovely as ever and I bask in the warmth of the August sun, but Town have lost their way; all they can do is pump in inaccurate cross after over-hit cross after inaccurate cross, Alan Judge buzzes about doing nothing very successfully. An hour has passed and a Sunderland throw is punted forward.  Luke Chambers has this covered; he is a yard or two ahead of Marc McNulty even though he cannot run as fast.  But Chambers doesn’t decide what to do and as he waits for an almost static ball to roll into touch McNulty dispossesses him and then simply has to pass the ball into the path of the incoming Lynden Gooch who side foots the ball into a gaping wide goal.   It’s like last season all over again.

There’s plenty of time for another goal but Ipswich have no inspiration, no means to prise an opening.  Fortunately Sunderland have even less idea and their forays forward are both rare and ineffective.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing some Sir Bobby Robson Standers to the Sunderland fans, demonstrating a complete absence of any concept of irony.   Mr Hair annoys the home crowd with a series of decisions that penalise imaginary infringements and favour Sunderland.  Pat from Clacton offers me a sweet from a plastic bag and shows me her new blue and white watch that she’s only going to wear on match days.  It’s a nice looking watch, but I’m feeling very self-centred and prefer the crumbly peppermint I took from Pat’s pick’n mix selection; it’s probably my highlight of the second half.   The attendance is announced and I verify that Pat from Clacton’s brother has won the guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters’ bus; his guess was the highest of all, 24,001.

After three minutes of added on time the game ends.  I rise from my seat and quickly leave. It’s been an afternoon of three thirds, Sunderland, Wonderland, Blunderland……all infused with Peppermint.

Today my favourite name of an opposing team’s player was Denver Hume.  I also liked the names Dylan McGeouch and George Dobson.

This week I have been reading ”The man who hated football”, a novel by  Will Buckley (2005)