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 either 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)

Woodbridge Town 2 Clapton 2

Today is the day of my favourite round of the FA Cup. Whilst supporters of professional clubs may enjoy the third round when the ‘big’ clubs deign to take part, or the first round when the not quite so big clubs join in, I love the very first day. For a start, it is still summer and the days remain long and warm, but what I love about it more is not that any particular clubs take part, or even that it is the beginning, what I like is its name, the extra-preliminary round. Before the first round there are four qualifying rounds; before the first one of those there is a preliminary round, but the FA clearly don’t think that goes far enough and rather than have six qualifying rounds, they decide to have both a preliminary round and an extra-preliminary round. This seems to me to embody the FA’s attitude to grass roots football clubs as a bit of a nuisance that must be culled before the competition can begin properly. This is the FA ‘putting it’ to these little clubs that they are nothing. It’s no wonder that only 800 odd clubs enter the FA Cup, the FA would never cope with what happens in France where over 7,000 clubs enter their equivalent competition, the Coupe de France, but then, France is a republic.
Today I am travelling to Woodbridge by train (£3.15 return from Ipswich with a Goldcard) to watch Woodbridge Town, newly promoted to the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League, play Clapton of the Essex Senior league, a club with a distinguished history and where the fabled Walter Tull began his football career. On the first part of my journey to Ipswich I sit next to two women discussing a man called Amos and what he does when he is in Uganda. When I change trains I sit at a table where a girl in red socks and white T-shirt is quick to tell me that she is innocent of having made the neat arrangement of two empty Lucozade bottles and three crisp packets that sit on the table. I tell her it’s okay, I will avert my gaze and look out of the window. British Transport police are looking for an obese person with OCD who is recovering from illness. Two West Bromwich Albion supporters on their way to Norwich sit across the gangway from me, we chat a little and I wish them luck, telling them that I am expecting at least four or five goals from their team; pleasingly they will oblige. I also recoil from the hideous sight of a tall, well-spoken young man in a Norwich City shirt; he has ‘Cooper’ ‘21’ on his shirt back; his name and IQ I surmise, or possibly the number of members of his family with whom he has had a sexual relationship.
The three carriage 13:18 to Lowestoft leaves Ipswich on time and slowly roars its way through marshalling yards and past Hadleigh Road industrial estate with its mighty disused gas holder that sits in a nest of buddleia. Beyond the River Gipping the view of Ipswich from the bridges over Bramford Lane and Norwich Road is a joy with its cluster of modernist blocks and the floodlights of Portman Road looming up beyond low streets of red roofs, which haven’t changed much in eighty years, in many cases much longer. This is a lovely train journey, albeit a noisy one thanks to the diesel engine and old-fashioned clickety-clack of the rails. The train arrives at 13:32 and Woodbridge seems busy; a group of women, all teetering heels, tanned legs, tight dresses, make-up, flowers and fascinators await a taxi; on their way to a wedding, I hope. Woodbridge station is a homely looking building, but I waste no time in setting off up the hill towards Notcutt’s Park, which is a good twenty-minute walk away.


Woodbridge is clearly a well-heeled town, there are large houses, some with naked statuary in the garden and the lamp posts are adorned with somewhat twee hanging baskets, overflowing with summer flowers. I pass by the Cherry Tree pub but do just that, pass by, it looks busy and full of Saturday lunchtime diners. Further up the hill is the local Ford motor dealership where in 1970 my father traded in his maroon 1962 Ford Cortina 1200 for an almost new (ex-demonstrator), beige Ford Cortina 1600 Super, which he always maintained was the best car he ever owned.

Further on, the path leaves the roadside, ascending an embankment and becoming a leafy bower43072886655_a4cf6c222d_o before emerging again into the full light by the Duke of York ‘country’ pub, which is really a ‘family diner’ masquerading as a pub and part of the Vintage Inns chain whose “…rustic buildings offer a country style dining experience…” .

I have been walking for almost fifteen minutes and fearful that the Woodbridge Town clubhouse might only serve insipid Greene King IPA I call in for a pint of Adnams Southwold Bitter (£3.90). At the bar a youngish man orders food. “The menu says you have those kofte things” he says. “Yes” says the bar maid. “I’ll er, have some of them, er please” says the man, showing what sophisticated diners the English have become thanks to the country style dining experience and its ilk.
Refreshed by Adnams Southwold Bitter I press on with the final short leg of my walk to the match through a modern estate of red brick houses, which all look like they are43072882865_26c0797c46_o trying to be nineteenth century Suffolk farmhouses; I imagine their occupants having Ploughman’s lunches for every meal. At the end of a winding road of executive homes is Woodbridge Town Football Club. I follow a man with a carrier bag of empty bottles which he tips into the recycling bin outside before proceeding through the turnstile.

I pay my entry fee (£6.00) receiving a yellow and white ticket in exchange and purchase a programme (£1.00), which annoyingly I will later lose in mysterious circumstances (did it fall from my pocket, or did I leave it in the bar?), it was a glossy publication which I rather liked. After a cursory look across the pitch, where players of both teams are limbering up, I enter the bar and a youth wearing a thick grey anorak as if he’s in in 1990’s indie band serves me with a pint of Adnams Ghostship (£3.50). I feel foolish for worrying about Greene King IPA now and my faith in football club bars is restored, for now. The barman doesn’t look old enough to serve alcohol, but he later takes the anorak off revealing tattoos suggesting he is indeed over eighteen. But maybe he serially lies about his age, has been driving since he was thirteen and had this been a century ago he would already have spent a couple of years in the trenches of northern France. I sink the Ghostship and wander outside into the sun where the crowd is gathering. There are just two stands at Notcutt’s Park, one a covered, shallow metal terrace and the other, which is directly next to it, a brick structure with half a dozen rows of bench seats; I pick a spot in the seated stand and read my programme, which I have not yet lost. After a short while I am surprised to look up and see the two teams and the officials all lined up on the pitch, shaking hands like Baptists on a Sunday morning.
The game begins with Clapton in all blue with yellow socks and sleeves kicking off in the direction of whatever lies northeast of Woodbridge; Ufford probably. Woodbridge Town wear black and white stripes with black shorts and socks, hence their nickname ‘The Woodpeckers’, not that woodpeckers wear football kits and of course not all woodpeckers are black and white; a fact highlighted by the most laudable poster above20180811_144447_42172634410_o the urinals in the toilet urging spectators to buy a re-usable drinks cup and become a ‘green’ woodpecker. All clubs should be doing something OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsimilar.

 

 

Woodbridge play towards the junction with the A12, Martlesham and the tower of BT’s research laboratories which is visible in the distance.

 

The first foul of the game, after just a few seconds, draws a shout from the crowd “That’s about time ref”. Woodbridge look much the better of the two teams in the opening minutes; perhaps they should with former Ipswich Town and Sunderland player Carlos Edwards in their team; they pass the ball whilst Clapton just run about after them. But Woodbridge don’t create any chances to score and when it looks like they might, a Clapton player always manages to be in the way. Woodbridge have the first proper shot of the game, which flies over the Clapton cross bar in the seventh minute. Woodbridge are playing well, but then again they’re not; and Clapton are struggling, but then in a way they’re not because their goalkeeper has not had a save to make. Some of the crowd amuse themselves with shouts and cat calls. “VAR. That was a penalty!” is heard as a Woodbridge player tumbles in the box, and then “Eh, absolute shite ref” as play is waved on. I decide to take a wander, and alone at the corner of the ground I get to play the ball back to the Clapton full-back Lanre Vigo when it goes out for a throw. There is a pause in the action as the somewhat portly referee Mr James Beal speaks to two complaining Woodbridge players. ”Get on with it Porky” is the shout from the crowd; you can’t beat humour at the expense of fat people. I get to touch the ball back to Lanre Vigo again, this time a header, no one congratulates me and although it does knock my glasses off I thought ’I done well’.
Considering that as someone who paid to get in I am getting too many touches of the ball and am therefore bound to embarrass myself (if the flying glasses haven’t already done so) I walk round to the dug outs on the opposite side of the pitch to the stands. Here the Clapton manager and his coach are providing a constant commentary of the game as they live every touch of the ball by their players. “Why do you put it there?” shouts the manager to his goalkeeper Jack Francis “I keep telling you mate, I don’t want it in the centre I want it here”. There are a number of players who receive constant encouragement and instruction, the names Jerome, Warren, Gio and Dylan feature prominently. Number five Dylan Ebongo is a ‘big lad’ who rivals and outstrips the referee for the space he takes up on the pitch, but as is so often the case with players that spectators accuse of having eaten all the pastry based foods, he can play a bit and Dylan is a rock in the Clapton defence.
It’s about twenty five past three and against the run of play Clapton have a corner; at the near post the ball is flicked on, the young Woodbridge goalkeeper Alfie Stronge flaps a bit and the ball meets the goal net in the lovely way that footballs do; it’s 1-0 to Clapton. “Who scored?” asks the happy and surprised Clapton manager of his neatly coiffured number seven Ryan Reed, but he doesn’t seem to know, or I at least I can’t work out what he says.
“Take heart from that” shouts the Clapton manager to his team as if none of them expects not to lose. Despite his constant imploring and helpful encouragement to his players the Clapton manager seems quite pessimistic in private moments when speaking to his coach or simply verbalising his thoughts, or perhaps he’s just realistic. “We’re our own worst enemy”, “We could be in trouble here”, “Now we’ve got trouble” are a few of his comments as the Woodpeckers press, along with his admirably honest assessment that his team has actually done nothing and Woodbridge have had all the play. Despite being a goal up however, ten minutes before half-time there is a falling out between the manager and his number ten Jerome Mortell. Jerome is threatened with being substituted, but his response is simply “Go on then” and within a minute he is stomping his way round to the dressing room, leaving the pitch with the words “I’ve had enough of this shit”. Clapton had only Jacod Dingli on the bench today, and now he’s on the pitch, but at least they’re still winning and very soon they are almost two-nil up as another corner against the run of play sees a header thud against the woodwork of the Woodbridge goal.

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Across the pitch a tall man, immaculately dressed in a dark suit stands out amongst the general scruffiness of the usual football crowd, I believe this is Vince McBean the current owner of Clapton FC and a controversial figure after he allegedly attempted to liquidate the charity that administers Clapton’s Old Spotted Dog ground. From where I stand he looks like an undertaker.

Half-time and I’m one of the first at the bar for another pint of Ghostship (still £3.50) which I follow up with a visit to the toilet where I admire the juxtaposition of a large print of a sunset over the Woodbridge’s tide mill with the urinals; it makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. 20180811_144443_42172634020_oBut there is little time to consider twentieth century art, the players are on the pitch and Woodbridge line-up as Clapton huddle. I return to stand between the dugouts where the entertainment is richest, although I do take a moment to enjoy the Co-op’s side by side, edge of pitch advertisements, one solemnly telling us how their funeral service is “Supporting loved ones locally when it matters” (and presumably telling non-local loved ones to clear off) and the other in a lighter frame of mind urging us to ‘Pop to the Co-op’.

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The second half begins and before not very long Ryan Reed intercepts a poor pass and breaks forward, he rides a tackle and is through on goal, he shoots, Alfie Stronge saves but the ball rebounds to Ryan who strikes it confidently and with force inside the far post from a tight angle. It’s 2-0 to Clapton.
The Clapton manager stresses the importance to his players, particularly to big Dylan at the centre of the defence, of holding onto the 2-0 lead in the next ten minutes, which he says will break Woodbridge’s hearts if they can do it. They do and the game seems to settle down with Woodbridge still dominating possession, but mostly over-hitting all their forward passes and crosses. Substitutions are made by Woodbridge and approaching the last fifteen minutes it looks like Clapton will hold on. The Woodbridge manager who incidentally is probably bigger than both the referee and Clapton’s Dylan seems calm, despite his frequent frustration at those over hit passes, is he resigned to a defeat?
Woodbridge for all their inadequacy in terms of shots, are still dominating however and the ball is spending most of its time on the Clapton half of the field. A Clapton player is nearly always the last man to touch the ball inside their own penalty area, but then just after twenty five to five the ball runs loose and Woodbridge’s number seven Callum Sinclair lashes it on the half volley in to the top corner of the Clapton goal to halve Clapton’s lead and give Woodbridge hope.
I came to this game as a neutral but the enthusiasm of the Clapton manager and coach and the fact that they turned up with just one substitute and seemingly a team that must be coached through every kick has me wanting them to hang on for the win. There is also a bit of me that wants rough, deprived, inner city Clapton to triumph over wealthy, privileged Woodbridge, although of course I know in reality that those distinctions don’t actually have any relevance in the context of these two football clubs.
Woodbridge earn a corner, it’s late in the game and goalkeeper Alfie Stronge comes up to add his presence and he heads narrowly over the Clapton cross bar. The Clapton manager berates his players for trying to pass the ball when clearly a hoof is required. That has been a recurring theme but I find it reassuring that players want to play the game ‘beautifully’, because that’s what makes it so good to watch and play whether it comes off or not. The game is into time added on and a half-hearted challenge which causes a slight stumble but no trip sees Mr Neal award a free-kick just outside the penalty area, in range for a well taken direct shot. The Clapton coach is apoplectic and winds himself up by imagining that it’s as if the referee wants Woodbridge to equalise; the manager is not happy about it but is more sanguine realising that whatever will be, will be on the way to Wemb-er-ley. Woodbridge’s number five Liam Scopes steps up to scoop a shot over the wall and into the top left hand corner of the Clapton goal. Woodbridge have tied the match and the Clapton coach is sent off by Mr Beal for simply getting carried away with himself.
There is no time for anything more to happen and I am only sorry that with the time now almost five o’clock I must leave and hot foot it back the railway station to catch the 17:18 back to Ipswich. It’s been a lovely afternoon in the August sun and a thoroughly entertaining game, which has been a credit to both clubs. I am tempted to try and make it to the replay. I’ve had a great time but in about twenty-five minutes I will realise I no longer have my programme.

Long Melford 2 Newmarket Town 1

Long Melford is a big village, one of the most appealing and attractive in Suffolk according to Suffolk Tourist Guide.com with, according to Wikipedia, a population in 2011 of some 3,518. Melford, as it is known locally, is just a few miles north of Sudbury, it used to have a railway but since 1967 and the evil Doctor Beeching, the line now terminates at Sudbury. If you want to get to Long Melford by public transport therefore, it is necessary get the No 753 bus from Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds. Like the train service from Marks Tey, the bus service runs hourly, but as this is England the trains and buses are not properly co-ordinated; the train to Sudbury arrives at 13.08 and the bus conveniently leaves at 13:30, reaching Long Melford Post Office ten minutes later. On the return journey however, the 754 bus passes Long Melford Post Office at 17:11 and arrives in Sudbury four minutes after the train has left, at 17:20, so there is nearly an hour’s wait in Sudbury for the next train at 18:16.
Today however, I am driving to Long Melford’s Stoneylands ground because I have agreed to give a lift to a man called Roly, who lives in nearby Borley. I happen to know Roly’s house is within walking distance of Stoneylands because Roly has walked it before, but I was in generous mood when we discussed by text message going to the game and very slightly inebriated.
It is a grey, still, cold winter’s day as I make the twisting, undulating drive through Chappel, home of the East Anglian Railway Museum, Mount Bures with its excellent Thatchers Arms pub, Bures with its large empty bus depot, the edge of Cornard and through busy Sudbury before taking the turn towards the wonderfully named Foxearth. In Borley, Roly’s Victorian cottage home is a scene of domestic bliss; his partner Sarah reclines on the sofa with their young baby Lottie, whilst Penny the dog rolls over at my feet and wriggles excitedly. But I don’t linger, there is football to go to and withinOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA minutes Roly and I are bouncing down the pitted, puddle filled private road that leads to the football ground and my Citroen C3 gets a taste of what it must have been like to be a Citroen 2CV carrying a tray of eggs across a field somewhere in the Auvergne.
Getting parked takes longer than it should as the man in the car in front seems to want to park as close to the entrance as possible, which means reversing gingerly and at first unsuccessfully into a narrow space despite the presence of acres of car free space just 15metres away. There is an air of the village hall about Melford’s ground from theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA outside and indeed the club’s nickname is The Villagers. There is no turnstile as such here, just a few metal and plastic barriers herding would be spectators towards a kiosk of the type that used to be at the exit to municipal car parks back before the days of Pay & Display, when a bloke stamped your ticket and took your money as you left. There is a short queue to get in because it takes the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgrey-haired woman in the kiosk a little while to root around for change from a plastic tub. A board on the side of the kiosk announces the price of admission, but in reality it’s just a green smudge of felt tip pen; fortunately I’ve done my homework so I know from the club website that admission is £7 including a programme.
Once inside, Roly buys me a bottle of Nethergate IPA (£3.50) in the bar, which is the least he could do after I went out of my way to drive him here, selfishly he gets one for himself too. We drink bottled beer because sadly the hand pump on the bar is covered over with a tea towel, which is very disappointing. The woman serving is struggling for change and asks rhetorically how she is expected to run a bar with a float of just four pound coins. I empty my pockets and find just short of ten pounds in change, which she is happy to exchange for a ten pound note; I’m 40p up!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We sup our beer in the company of other middle-aged and older men stood around tables as men do in bars, but soon we are aware that the teams are coming on to the pitch. We leave the clubhouse just as the line-up for the obligatory handshakes is dissolving away into the two halves of the pitch. Newmarket Town are the visiting team today and they sit seventh with 53 points from 31 games in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League table; Melford are 16th with 39 points from 32 games. It’s a clash between a village known for antique shops and a town known for horse racing. I suspect that watching local football puts us firmly outside those two spheres of activity although weirdly I think, there is an advert in the match programme for “Wealth management advice”, whatever happened to plain old financial advice?
The 1970’s pop blaring from the tannoy stops abruptly as Newmarket, nicknamed predictably as the Jockeys, kick off towards the dull, suburban estate-style houses at the Sudbury end of the ground. Newmarket’s club colours are yellow and blue, but for some unknown reason today they are wearing a rather ugly all red kit with white stripes below the chest, as if they’d brushed their teeth before coming on and dribbled Colgate down their stomachs. Melford play towards the dilapidated wooden fence, shelter and open fields to the north, wearing their signature black and white striped shirts and black shorts. Melford’s kit is embellished with name of the excellent Nethergate Brewery, who have newly built premises at the entrance to the village by the turning to Foxearth.
Newmarket start well, passing neatly and getting forward, but Melford suddenly win possession, breakaway and have a shot, and so it continues. Both teams have a lot of players with beards. Newmarket have the ball most of the time, but Melford spring the occasional surprise, getting the ball to their number seven Hassan Ally who is always in the right place, but never quite makes the final telling cross or pass. The Melford cross bar is hit by a header and then at about twenty five past three a long ball to the right is chased down by Lewis Whitehead who shoots across the Melford goal keeper; Newmarket lead and a number of middle aged men cheer unexpectedly. No one in the crowd is wearing club colours but for a Bedlington Terrier in a red coat, so the presence of away supporters is a surprise.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Half-time arrives and Newmarket would seem to be in control. Roly has already treatedOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA or ‘tret’ himself, as he would say in his quaint rustic dialect, to a cheeseburger (£3.00) from the food bar which the programme tells us is called Deb’s Diner. The concluding paragraph of the joint managers’ column in the programme says “Whatever happens, we hope you enjoy your afternoon here in Long Melford, get yourself something to eat and drink…” and Roly has clearly taken note. I don’t ask him if it was an early tea or late lunch or just a celebration that his NHS health check during the week had shown him to be a well man, clearly capable of absorbing the ill-effects of junk food, for the time being at least.
We go into the club house again for two more bottles of Nethergate IPA and to catch the half-time scores on the TV and are much heartened that Ipswich are winning 2-0 at Sunderland. The club house is recently refurbished after the roof fell-in last year and there are several marvellous photos on the walls of past achievements such as Suffolk Senior Cup wins. A trophy cabinet contains a couple of old brown leather footballs which impress me more than the cups and trinkets. When there is a cosy clubhouse, half time is never long enough and it’s soon time to re-join the rows of middle-aged men hanging over the rail around the pitch.

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The second half is not the same as the first, roles are reversed and it is the Villagers who more frequently have the ball at their feet whilst the Jockeys chase about in vain and are pushed back into their own half. For the second half we stand on the opposite side of the ground to the clubhouse near the dugouts and in front of a coniferous hedge, carefullyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and neatly cut into a modernist architectural shape; behind the hedge a close-board wooden fence is in places nailed to its thick trunks. In its neatness the hedge is only matched by the Newmarket goalkeeper’s haircut, but is less contrived. There is more noise on this side of the pitch as the coaches of both team teams shout and urge their teams on.
As the game continues Melford dominate more and more and Newmarket are getting tetchy. Whilst there were hardly any fouls at all in the first half, tiredness and desperation and swearing are introducing a new kind of entertainment. A Melford player goes down and the Newmarket number two complains to Mr Pope and anyone who is listening, because Mr Pope isn’t, that Melford have some right prima donnas, although he pronounces it pre-madonnas. Another foul and a free-kick on the edge of the box and then another. Then, whilst Roly is in the toilet Melford win a third free-kick. Despite referee Mr Pope taking time to book the perpetrator, Roly still isn’t back by the time Ross Waugh scores, apparently with a header, although to be honest it was one of those messy goals and I had lost track of the ball.
There are only eight minutes left and the blokes in trackie bottoms and sports coats onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the touchline are visibly tense. The Melford number ten Scott Sloots is hurt and is substituted; as he hobbles off the pitch one or two of his own players seem to be complaining that he is taking his time. “Come on ref, make him get off quicker” I hear. I hadn’t previously realised that there was a point where team togetherness and the will to win would clash. But nevertheless, Melford continue to push forward and in the final minute of injury time there is a run down the left, the ball’s in the box, a shot is blocked and Hassan Ally is in the right place to score from the rebound. Rarely have I seen such elation from a team sixteenth in the league to a winning goal; both coaches burst onto the pitch to celebrate with the team as if this was a most crucial victory. I’m all in favour of making your own fun but this seems to be going a bit far.
To his credit, Mr Pope the referee makes nothing of the exuberance of the Melford coaches and in no time at all the match is over. Roly and I stroll round to the club house to make final use of the toilet before applauding the Melford team from the pitch. It’s been a very entertaining game with a dramatic finale and I’ve made 40p.

AS St Etienne 2 Stade Rennais 2

Ever since 4th March 1981, when Ipswich Town produced what is probably the club’s greatest ever performance, winning 4-1 in St Etienne, I have wanted to see a game at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; it would be a pilgrimage to the scene of Ipswich Town’s finest hour. St Etienne is famous for its fanatical supporters and seeing and hearing them on the television since just added to the draw of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Today, thirty-six and a half years on I have stopped off on my way back from the south of France. Our hotel is close to the centre of town opposite the wonderful brick and metal-framed St Etienne-Châteaucreux railway station.

From there it is 1.40 euro tram ride on Ligne 1 to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. It is a little after one o’clock and there are several green-shirted St Etienne supporters on the modern, green tramOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA which glides through narrow central streets into broad squares of fountains, trees and majestic buildings. Why are French provincial cities so much more attractive and inviting than our own? St Etienne isn’t even that big, with a population of the town itself being about 150,000; vistas of the green hills outside the town are visible along some city streets. It’s an industrial town built up on coal mines and manufacturing like Sunderland or Salford but that’s where the comparison ends.
At the tram stop on Rue Bergsson, conveniently named Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, we alight and make the walk along Boulevard Roger Rocher towards the corner of the stadium which looms in the distance like a sleek grey box. We approach through car parking shaded by plane trees and past stalls selling club shirts, food and beer. There are several approaches to the stadium each with its own collection of food stalls.

People stand about in the sunshine, talking, eating, drinking, being French. I buy a hot dog for 3 euros, it’s one of those where the frankfurter is slotted into a hole in the centre of a baguette; I have mustard with it.
A man gives out 24 page, A4 sized, colour programmes named “100% St Etienne”, they are absolutely free; there are more advertisements for restaurants (eight) within its pages than for any other type of business. The club shop is close by the stadium and I take a look inside; it’s very, very big and very busy with a huge range of St Etienne branded goods which includes watering cans, locally brewed beer in 33cl and what look like 3 litre bottles, and wine.

Last year the club celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its one European Cup Final appearance, when the team containing Jacques Santini and Dominic Rocheteau lost in Glasgow by a single goal to the Bayern Munich of Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness; a book commemorating the event is on sale for 25 euros; I don’t buy it.
Back outside I join a short queue through one of the many automated turnstiles and after a cursory patting down by a very smiley gentleman I enter the ‘Chaudron’ (Cauldron) as it is known. Our seats are way, way, way up in the stand and the succession of flights of stairs seems to go on and on forever. Eventually I find my seat in the very back row of the third tier. The view is spectacular, but it’s a long way from the pitch and a massive steel girder obscures any view of a good half of the stand at the far end of the ground, although that’s okay if you’re just here to look at the football and not the architecture.37430129191_f59c952158_o But even with an interrupted view, it is a mightily impressive stadium; fundamentally it is a traditional arrangement of four individual stands around the pitch, but they have been unified by the placing of a massive steel box over the top of them with irregularly shaped cut outs in the faces of the box. It is a simple idea and it works brilliantly, creating an imposing building, the outside of which doesn’t give a clue as to what the inside is like; it could easily be a factory viewed from the outside, which is wholly appropriate for St Etienne. The retention of the traditional four stands on each side of pitch successfully avoids the risk of this being a bland, anonymous bowl of a stadium.

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The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is a stage and the supporters behind each goal are every bit as much performers as the players. Already there are thousands inside the stadium and from high up at the back of the stand I look down upon those still yet to enter. Across the open space below me a crocodile of fans stride towards the turnstiles; they seem to be all part of a single group. The ultras beneath us in the stand two tiers below sing “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey Hey Hey, St Etienne”; very 1970’s. The teams will soon be on the pitch but there is a strange looking man with long silver hair in the centre circle, he is accompanied by four young women in short skirts or hot pants.

He has a radio microphone and he is going to sing. A truly bizarre couple of minutes ensues in which the silver haired man struts about, the women dance and everyone seems to have a great time joining in with a truly awful Eurovision style song that would have been considered a bit naff even forty years ago. I recall having seen a picture of a man with the fashion sense of Jimmy Savile in the club shop, but I had dismissed it as something I’d rather not know about. Well you would wouldn’t you?
Fortunately the teams now enter the field to great fanfare with banners and anthems and hullabaloo and the memory of the poor man’s Johnny Halliday is soon lost beneath more pleasant sensations as the game begins, St Etienne (les Verts) wearing their distinctive green shirts and socks with white shorts, whilst Rennes sport all-red. St Etienne start well and is it any wonder with a crowd of 31,000 roaring them on. It’s a warm day and at the far end of the stadium virtually a whole stand of ultras is shirtless.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Below, the ultras are urged on and orchestrated by blokes with megaphones. At most French grounds I have been to there might be two blokes sharing one megaphone; today at one time I see as many as five each stood up high facing the supporters with his own megaphone. There seem to be parties going on down there with36760026263_953ec16ac1_o outbreaks of frenzied pogoing in the centre, but in general just expressing a great communal support for their team. The ultras at each end of the stadium call to one another in song, it’s like some sort of very noisy religious service and it’s haunting, beautiful even. But then, French is the language of song. A young bloke in the seat but one next to me clearly longs to be down amongst the ultras as he bawls and shouts fiercely and joins in with songs which turn into solos, because he is so far from the main congregation. Children turn round to look at him and his girlfriend seems quite proud. Much of the crowd noise is independent of events on the pitch, it just happens constantly, an avant garde soundtrack of incidental drums and chants. Nevertheless, the stream of sound wobbles from time to time as referee Monsieur Miguelgorry does something like booking Assane Dioussé after four minutes Kevin Theophile-Catherine after thirty-one and Saidy Janko three minutes later.
As all the bookings might suggest, it’s an entertaining game on the pitch as well as off, and St Etienne are giving us all something to shout about, but they haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time. The Rennes players seem unable to stand up when a St Etienne player is near and this explains the bookings and, typically for cheating bastards, it is Rennes who score therefore. Les Verts’ Ola Selnaes is far too easily knocked off the ball just outside his own penalty area and Rennes’ Benjamin Bourigeaud insolently chips the ball over the wonderfully, stereotypically gallic goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier and into the net.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Forty odd Rennes fans are filled with a belief that it was worth travelling the best part of 750 kilometres to be here.
The St Etienne supporters telepathically share their disappointment so they don’t have to stop urging their team on vocally. The game heads on into the four minutes time added on by Monsieur Miguelgorry because of all the recumbent Rennes players lying prone on the turf. Justice is served however as in the second minute of this additional time a corner to St Etienne is headed across goal by captain Loic Perrin and Gabriel Silva hooks a splendid, athletic volley into the roof of the Rennes net. The ultras surge to the front of the stand and we are all consumed in the extreme, noisy, joyfulness of the moment. It somehow feels like St Etienne have scored twice in one go.
Half-time comes and I look around a bit. I am impressed by the signs for the toilets which37316187401_916131cef9_o feature a very stylish, well dressed and attractive looking couple; after they’ve emptied their bladders I’d be happy to spend time with either of them.
The second half begins and the ultras sing something containing the words ‘Ally Ally O’ and it reminds me of Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey and a time when Britain made films as artful as the French. But my reverie is disturbed eight minutes in to the new half as a cross and a perceived shove sees another Rennes player in a crumpled mess and a penalty kick later Rennes lead 2-1 through Wahbi Khazri. Monsieur Miguelgarry bought it again. How we boo those Breton bastards and their superior acting skills. But life and football and the match carry on and St Etienne and their fans continue to excite and eventually their pressure pays off as the Stade Rennais goalkeeper Tomas Koubek appears to snatch at the ankles of Lois Diony and Jonathan Bamba equalises with another penalty kick. The noise of drums and chants doesn’t let up and although Stephane Ruffier has to make a brilliant diving reaction save, pushing the ball away off a post, St Etienne continue to dominate. With less than ten minutes to go Kevin Monnet-Paquet’s header is clawed away from the top corner by Tomas Koubek sailing across his goal like a runaway kite in shorts and football shirt. In the final minute Monsieur Miguelgarry cements his place in the hearts of the St Etienne fans as a grosse merde as he sends off Gabriel Silva whilst another Oscar deserving Breton lies prostrate on the grass.
The game ends in a draw and it has been bloody marvellous, even though I had wanted St Etienne to win. I have fulfilled my wish to see St Etienne play a match at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard and now I can’t wait to come back and see another one. This was a real football match, better than anything I have ever witnessed in England; the football wasn’t of the highest quality, although good enough, and these aren’t the world’s best players, but the supporters are the very, very best. I will return. Allez les Verts!

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