Ipswich Town 2 Visitors 2

Today is one of the lowlights of my football season; one of Ipswich Town’s two fixtures against the nation’s most odious club, the club that stole the identity of the original Wimbledon Football Club.  If the EFL had even the merest shred of decency they could still own up to their mistake in allowing the theft and expel the thieves from the Football League, but of course they won’t do that.

Boycotting today’s fixture is unlikely to provoke some sort of Damascene moment for the EFL and with my winless team in desperate need of my hope, support and will that they should win, I know that I must make the journey to Portman Road.  On the bright side, two years ago today I was undergoing open heart surgery to replace two heart valves eaten up by Endocarditis and I survived. The saintly people of Basildon hospital pulled me through and I’m here today to take my chances with the pandemic in a mostly un-masked crowd of 18,622, so I have a lot to be grateful for.

Regrettably still not confident of the safety of public transport, I drive to the match thereby hurtling us all towards climatic oblivion that little bit faster. I park my trusty Citroen C3 on Chantry estate and stroll down through Gippeswyk Park (bequeathed to the town by Felix Cobbold), as very occasional raindrops fall upon me, and on other people as well I imagine.  In Ancaster Road a man walks by on the opposite pavement eating crisps from a ‘family size’ bag. I cross the Sir Bobby Robson bridge, from the middle of which all views of the football ground are hidden behind the offices of Suffolk County Council.  I arrive in Constantine Road to a busy scene of coaches and buses arriving from the countryside, and queues of supporters snaking from the turnstiles across Sir Alf Ramsey Way; it might just be the humidity but there is an air of expectation and excitement which I haven’t sensed for years.  A woman in leggings and a droopy cardigan holds aloft a clutch of ‘Turnstile Blue’ fanzines. “0nly a pound” she calls, so I hand her a two-pound coin. “I’ll just get your change” she says. “I should hope so” I reply as she delves into the depths of her cardigan. Unsure of what to do next with a half an hour or more of continued breathing to waste before kick-off, I queue to get into the Fanzone. It’s warm and I fancy a drink.  Arriving at the marquee where I believe beer is being served, I am in time to be turned away with several other thirsty people willing to part with their money, by a woman in a day-glo tabard, whose defence presumably is that she is only obeying orders. Apparently, the policy is no more drinks after two-thirty, which seems rather mean-spirited and pointless.  Feeling like I’m losing one-nil already without the game having even started, I leave the Fanzone and head for turnstile number 59, having first shown my vaccination credentials and, because I have more money than I know what to do with, purchased a programme (£3.50).

Inside the Sir Alf Ramsey stand ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here, but minus his son Elwood, and Fiona, Pat from Clacton, Ray and his son and grandson Harrison all arrive in time for kick-off too. The old dears who used to sit behind me but now sit in front of me aren’t here again, but Pat from Clacton has been in touch with her and they’re okay, although they’d been to Lowestoft and he’d had a fall; Pat tells me he’s over ninety.

The knee is taken, proudly we applaud, and the game begins. The visiting team, who sport a suitably anonymous all-red kit get first go with the ball, which they boot in the direction of the Sir Bobby Robson stand.  Behind me blokes with Ipswich accents discuss the team. “We int had a decent centre-half since Berra, have we” says one truthfully.  Three-minutes in and visiting number five Warren O’Hora, whose name makes me think of Star Trek and unfeasibly short skirts, is booked by referee Joshua Smith for a foul on Town’s Kyle Edwards, a player whose dribbling ability might earn him the description ‘slippery’.  Unusually, the visiting goalkeeper gets the opportunity to dribble too today, taking the ball around two Ipswich players in quick succession in his own penalty area.   A lovely smell of pervading damp rises up from the pitch into the stand.  “Your support is fucking shit” sing the visiting fans to the tune of Cwm Rhondda, and they have a point , even if poorly made; but then we are probably complacent, lacking the nervous energy borne of guilt from following a club that is ‘stolen goods’.

The visiting team are dominating possession and their number nine Scott Twine, who scored twice against us last season for Swindon Town is particularly industrious.  Fourteen minutes have passed and Macauley Bonne heads a Wes Burns cross over the bar, in a manner which he perfected in the previous game versus Newport County, although curiously this time he wins a corner.  Two minutes later Bonne atones spectacularly, driving the ball high into the goal net past Fisher from 15 metres on the half-volley, having collected a punt forward from Kane Vincent-Young. Bonne proceeds to create a template for all future goal celebrations, running behind the goal with his arm aloft blowing kisses to the crowd before being consumed by a ball of hugging team-mates in the corner of the pitch.   This is surely where the season starts and as if to mark its birth the Boney M fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand break out into a chorus of Mary’s Boy Child, albeit with somewhat altered lyrics. 

The goal has lifted the Town players and the crowd. When Lee Evans fails to control a carefully placed kick from goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, a collective sigh of disappointment is exhaled from the stands as if we’re watching the dissolving, falling embers of a slowly dying firework.   Watching Town being a goal ahead is a giddying experience and it feels like we’re winning by more than a goal to nil. When the visitor’s Ethan Robson strikes the cross bar with a shot the reality of our fragile lead returns, particularly given that it happens at the end of a two man move which began seconds beforehand with a corner to Town.   Over in the West Stand in the seats behind the dugouts I notice a figure in a bright red cagoule; I think of the 1973 Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now.

 It’s nearly half-time. The blokes behind me leave their seats. To my left someone rises from their seat and shuffles along towards the gangway, they will want me to stand to let them past; I want to tell them to sit back down wait for the half-time whistle, but I don’t.

Half-time arrives. It’s been a satisfactory half inasmuch as we’re winning, which is unusual, but it is doubtful that the score will remain 1-0.  I both celebrate our lead and console myself about what the second half may bring by eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar, before going to speak with Ray.  We discuss full-backs and the replacement today of Matt Penney with Hayden Coulson. “The opposition don’t get much change out of Penney” says Ray.  “The same couldn’t be said of Adam Tanner” I reply.  

The second half begins very quietly indeed, with the crowd seemingly observing a hushed, embarrassed silence as if someone had said or done something during the interval that was in bad taste and everyone knows about it.  Four minutes into the half, Kane Vincent-Young is booked for a foul on Mo Eisa as he surges towards the penalty area.  The amusingly named Harry Darling sends a free header into the arms of Vaclav Hladky. I imagine a scenario in which Darling is booked. “Name?” asks the referee. “Darling” says Darling.  “You won’t get round me that way” replies the referee.  My childish reverie is broken as Wes Burns strikes a shot which hits the far post and defies physics, as for a moment the angle of incidence does not equal the angle of refraction and the ball deflects out into the penalty area instead of into the net.  It’s the sort of thing to be expected when playing the devil’s club however.

Today’s attendance is announced as 18,622 with 501 from the town whose advertising slogan suggested that it would be nice if all towns were like it, proving again that advertising is mostly about lying convincingly.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the visiting new town neurotics.  Town’s Luke Woolfenden stretches to tackle Scott Twine and Twine goes down. Woolfenden is booked. “You’re a fucking wanker” bawls a voice behind me at the referee, perhaps because he knows him and does not hold him in high esteem, but more probably because he just disagrees with his decision.  The free kick is some 25 metres from goal in a fairly central position. Twine strikes the ball over the defensive wall and whilst Vaclav Hladky gets both hands to it he fails to stop it squirming into the net; the scores are level, Woolfenden is culpable. 

Matt Penney replaces Hayden Coulson and then Wes Burns is replaced by Tommy Carroll almost fifty years to the day since Tommy Carroll last played for Town (23rd August 1971 versus West Ham United). Although Town have seized a degree of control of the game, still the visiting team dominate possession. “How are we letting them control the fuckin’ tempo” says an exasperated voice behind me, unexpectedly introducing an Italian word after a rude one. His concern is premature however, and soon afterwards Scott Fraser breaks into the penalty box down the left, crosses and Macauley Bonne sweeps the ball past Fisher at the far post.  Ecstasy ensues once again. Eighteen minutes remain and surely Town will win.

Three minutes later Lee Evans is facing his own goal some 30 metres away from it; then, in the style of someone dropping off to sleep he allows Matt O’Riley to rob him of the ball and enjoy a free run at goal, which ends with a simple equaliser as O’Riley wrong foots Vaclav Hladky and rolls the ball into the net.    “Mr Grimsdale!” shouts Evans, although he denies he was ever influenced by Norman Wisdom.

As if to make some sort of unwanted point about lovable losers, the visitors bring on a player with the unlikely name of Charlie Brown, whilst Town replace Scott Fraser with Armando Dobra.  The visitors continue to keep the ball mostly to themselves although Town threaten when they occasionally have it.  But the optimism has evaporated. “Is this a library?” chant the visiting supporters trying to convince us that they’d know what one was like and that they know Italian opera.  Five minutes of additional time are to be played, which gives a visiting player time to hit the town cross bar with a shot, but nothing more happens of note.  The final whistle blows to the sound of boos from those Ipswich “supporters” most likely to make interesting subjects for psychological case studies.  The sweary man behind me is moved to admonish those who boo, so he’s not all bad, even if his swearing is now worse than ever.

I applaud a few players for their efforts as they leave the field, but don’t hang about. It has been a very good game, and we haven’t lost against a team who, it pains me to say it are pretty good too.   I don’t feel I can ask for much more given that two years ago I was undergoing major heart surgery, I’m just glad I was here to see it.

Swindon Town 1 Ipswich Town 2

 Swindon is by far the largest town in Wiltshire and is also home to the only Football League team in the county.  I like Swindon.  Despite being a long way from the coast, there is something a bit like Ipswich about it, particularly with its relationship to the county in which it is situated. Salisbury and Bury St Edmunds have their cathedrals, but whilst historically the locals there were poncing about singing psalms and reciting canticles Ipswich and Swindon folk were getting their hands dirty making stuff, or at least they were until the forces of international capitalism did for them.  Like Ipswich, Swindon is one of those rare, unpretentiously provincial towns that’s a decent size, is a respectable distance from London but isn’t ‘Up North’;  it’s like Northampton, Shrewsbury, Newport and, if you don’t count Staffordshire as ‘Up North’, Burton On Trent.    Added to that it’s got a Magic Roundabout, is only 20 kilometres or so from groovy places like Avebury stone circle (bigger and therefore better than Stone Henge) , Silbury Hill  and the Uffington white horse hill figure, and is home of the hard to pigeon-hole band XTC, although sadly they split up about fifteen years ago.  More recently, Swindon Town is the team supported by Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe in the wonderful BBC comedy series “This Country”.  Swindon also still has its own local brewery, Arkell’s, which has been fulfilling the town’s beer needs since 1843.

I first saw Ipswich Town play at the County Ground, Swindon in December 1987.  Fresh from having failed to return to the First Division at the first attempt the previous season, Town played newly promoted Swindon Town and lost 4-2 after initially coming back to equalise from 2-0 down at half-time.  Mark Brennan and David Lowe scored for Town and Ian Cranson also scored, but for Swindon, with a spectacular header.   I didn’t remember any of that, I had to look it up, but having had my memory jogged I do recall that the game also saw the debut for Town of the least successful of our Dutch imports, the less than  legendary Ulrich Wilson, on loan from FC Twente.  Since then Swindon has mostly been a lovely day out, with four wins in our last four visits, although we’ve not been round theirs now since the turn of the century, which is another reason why I would have been looking forward to today’s fixture.

Spared a 3 hour, 275 kilometre trip along the motorways of southern England I nevertheless still rock-up late at the on-switch of my retro-style Bush radio, which is already primed in a state of preparedness being perpetually tuned-in to BBC Radio Suffolk.   It’s as if I’ve only just pushed through the turnstile after hurriedly finishing my last pre-match pint of Arkell’s 3B, as at almost 3 o’clock I am greeted with the news that alongside Brenner Woolley today is former Town player Ian Atkins. Despite his having played over ninety games for Town, some as captain, I always think of Atkins as one of the most inelegant players I’ve ever seen play for Town; he’d get in today’s team mind.  As Brenner Woolley sets the scene and tells us that Swindon are wearing red shirts, white shorts and red socks I can hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s  rip-off of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ blaring out from the County Ground’s public address system.  With the common man still absent from its stands and concourses I wonder to myself to whom Swindon Town are playing this little burst of populist Prog-Rock.  I’m as partial to a bit of Prog-Rock as the next grammar school boy born in the 1950’s or early 60’s, but as grand entry music for the players at a football match I would place ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ somewhere up close to “The boys are back in Town” in the league table of all-time naffness.  Give me “Entry of the Gladiators” or the Toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen every time.

How embarrassing

“It’s Teddy Bishop, going to be kicking off” announces Brenner and the game begins.  Somewhat inevitably Brenner’s commentary for now is obsessed with Town’s having failed to score a goal in over ten hours.  “Goals change games” says Ian revealing his  Birmingham accent. Well duh.  The game begins well for Town as you would hope against a team who have already been relegated after only forty-four games and have conceded eighty-four goals.  “Dozzell’s had a very good start at the moment” says Ian cautiously.  “Town on top at the moment” says Brenner with the same note of caution borne from bitter experience as Town win the game’s first corner.  “Swindon….they’re letting Northampton play”  adds Ian, already confused about which game he’s watching.

Inevitably, there is something of an end of season feel to the game, what with it being the end of the season and Brenner is soon indulging in playful commentator-speak. “ …bit of a school-boy error, Dobra” says the BBC man triumphantly.  Ian meanwhile soon reveals the contents of his own locker of sayings to fall-back on when your vocabulary has otherwise been exhausted.  Ian’s stock phrase is “to be fair”, which, to be fair, seems innocuous enough but it’s also largely unnecessary. “…leaving the space to attack, to be fair” is Ian’s first use of the phrase and he follows this up with “… this is where they had a little bit of a problem against Northampton, to be fair”.

Meanwhile, Brenner entertains us as he always does. “Payne, who’s sprung to life in the last few moments” says Brenner summoning, in my mind at least, a vision of some sort of resurrection,  before he then says “It’s Norwood with his pink boots who’s been penalised” leading me to wonder if the referee has awarded a free-kick against Norwood because of the colour of his boots; I wouldn’t be wholly against the  idea.  The game moves on and Brenner is soon tempting fate as he loves to do, telling us that “Swindon have never doubled Ipswich in a league season”.  It’s the sixteenth minute and fate is nearly tempted; “Pitman inside the area” says Brenner with rising excitement “…puts it past the post”.  Brenner confides that he was convinced Brett Pitman was going to score, and having heard his agitated commentary of the incident, it’s hard not to believe him.

Ipswich win a second corner; it comes to nothing.  “Dobra up on all fours, now ready to continue” says Brenner making it sound as if Town’s number 36 does actually scamper about the pitch as if he were a quadruped.  Nearly a quarter of the game has passed; “Town under pressure” is the latest assessment from Brenner.  Ian’s view is that Town are giving the ball away because they’re not strong enough to hold off challenges from Swindon players.

With the game into its second quarter Brenner starts feeling oddly compelled to say things:  “Jaiyesimi actually did very little against Ipswich a few weeks ago, it has to be said.” “Swindon the better side at the moment in this game, it has to be said”.  “Still Camp not had a save to make, it has to be said”.  It’s as if we’ve now reached a point in the game where Brenner can no longer carry on unless he gets these things off  his chest. It’s either that or he now feels that his audience has been listening long enough to be able to stand these harsh truths without bursting into tears.  I feel myself welling -up a little but pull through.

Five minutes later and things look up.  “Saved by Camp; are Ipswich Town ever going to score another goal?” asks Brenner after an “Almighty chance for Town” sees Camp divert a shot from Teddy Bishop, who is through with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.   As Brenner has told us in previous games “Paul Cook, screaming his heart out”, which as any cardiologist will tell you is not advisable. Shaken perhaps by hearing a grown man scream, Brenner seems to panic and when Swindon’s Christopher Missilou under hits a ball he tells us that “The Frenchman didn’t have enough air on that pass”.  It’s an odd description of what you’d normally expect a commentator of Brenner ‘s experience to call a ‘hospital pass’, added to which Missilou is Congolese, not French.

Armando Dobra shoots wide. “Dobra’s head is in his hands” says Brenner with such conviction that I half expect him to confirm that yes, Dobra’s head has actually come off and is in his hands.  A James Norwood shot is saved by Lee camp and Mark McGuinness heads the ensuing corner kick over the cross-bar.  It’s evident that Town are continuing to attack and Brenner is in positive mood. “Kane Vincent-Young over-hits that cross, but quite a lot” says Brenner trying to play down the full-back’s error. The same player then has a header saved by Camp “ I thought he was going to score there, Young” says Brenner, deceiving himself once again.  Ian assesses Vincent Young’s forays forward, “…like a wing-back, to be fair”.

With Town sounding like they are creating chances, the mystery remains why they have not scored and Ian enlightens us by telling us that what Town are missing is “someone of real presence in the box who can upset defenders”.  It’s an analysis that suggests to me that over the summer we should sign either a sort of Joan Rivers character capable of reducing defenders to tears or just put a ‘big bloke up front’.

“It’s now eleven hours without a goal” announces Brenner polishing the glass on his stop watch, but his words soon lose their meaning as “ Bishop goes down inside the box, the referee says penalty” and I somehow imagine the referee Mr Johnson turning in the direction of Brenner up in the stand and mouthing the word “penalty” to him .   “Please James, do not miss this opportunity” implores Brenner.  Norwood scores, “…the goal-drought is over” confirms Brenner.  “He deserves his goal at the moment” adds Ian introducing the slightly tantalising possibility that he might not deserve his goal later on and suggesting possibly that Ian believes undeserving players should have their goals taken away from them.  There then follows some blokey banter about Paul Cook having said he would do a lap of honour if Town scored. “Typical scally” says Ian “saying they’re going to do something and not doing it”.  I will admit to being a little surprised by Ian’s comments and can only think he is unaware of the risk of becoming the subject of a Liverpudlian version of a fatwa.

The first half ends with a chance for Gwion Edwards to double Town’s goal tally. “ Edwards shoots!” says Brenner excitedly “ …and the flag’s up” he continues with well-practised resignation.  Brenner asks Ian what he made of the first half. “A bit like a practice game” says Ian honestly.  “They’ve had chances that the players have missed” he adds un-controversially.  Ian’s advice for the second half, which sounds a bit like an extract from an instruction manual for something purchased in an Ann Summers shop is  “Rather than just sit on it, go and enjoy it”

Half-time is the familiar blur of kettle, tea and Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar.  For the second-half I am joined by my wife Paulene who, as I listen to the wireless through my earpiece will be watching the Ligue 1 game between Paris St Germain and Racing Club de Lens on the telly.  As I re-join the broadcast from BBC Radio Suffolk Brenner ‘advertises’ his forthcoming commentaries and explains that he will once again be with Ian for Tuesday’s match at Shrewsbury. “ Is that basically because Mills’ car doesn’t go to the other side of Colchester?” asks Ian, evidently still in banter mode and also daring to take Mick Mills’ name in vain.

As far as I can make out from the commentary the second half is much like the first. “Comes to Downes” calls out Brenner with rising excitement “…who skies it”.  Ian begins to add “ at this level” to the end of most of his explanations of what Town need to be doing. Nearly an hour has passed since kick-off.  “…gives it back to Norwood, Norwood prods it in, Ipswich now lead Swindon 2-0” exclaims Brenner. “He’s tucked that ball away well” adds Ian, whose analysis has otherwise increasingly come to depend on the phrase “bodies in the box”.

Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop. “He looks like a nice little footballer” says Ian of Teddy, when asked for his opinion of the departing player’s contribution.  But it quickly transpires that Ian doesn’t really think there is a place for nice little footballers “at this level.” Brenner meanwhile advises us that it’s a case of “Town getting the job done, for what it’s worth”.  More substitutions follow. “Harrop and Bennetts both coming on to play a bit more football” is Brenner’s reassuring statement before they replace Edwards and Dobra.  As a rule it’s best when the substitutes come on to play football rather than just paint over the white lines or do a  bit of weeding.  Ian’s assessment of Edwards and Dobra is that they have “Been lively, without ever having any end product”; I believe it’s what seasoned commentators and sports hacks call ‘flattering to deceive’.

Less than twenty minutes of the basic ninety minutes remain. “Goodness me” says Brenner channelling Peter Sellers, almost. “Terrible goal-keeping from David Cornell” exclaims Brenner and Brett Pitman scores.  I had sort of hoped Pitman would score, I liked him as a player at Town; my impression is that managers don’t think he runs about enough; perhaps he doesn’t , but he still scores goals, which is what forwards are supposed to do.  “A Sunday league howler – no disrespect to the Sunday league by the way” says Ian of Cornell’s error and for some reason affording a respect to the Sunday league that he previously hadn’t afforded Scousers or Mick Mills.

A couple more minutes pass. “Surely a penalty, it’s a penalty” cries Brenner unable to contain his excitement as Troy Parrott is fouled.    James Norwood steps up to claim his hat-trick.  “Forward he comes, he’s missed it, unbelievable” says Brenner of a situation which in reality is all too believable.   The only good thing to come of the incident is Ian’s lugubrious West Midland’s pronunciation of Parrott.

“Kenlock’s had a decent game” says Ian generously. “Town holding on for a win” says Brenner and meanwhile Neymar puts Paris St Germain one-nil up at the Parc des Princes.  News arrives on BBC Radio Suffolk of scores in other matches; Peterborough United have pulled back to trail two-three having been three-nil down. “Well, some excitement there in that game” says Brenner with a hint of jealousy.   Perhaps losing his enthusiasm Brenner mis-pronounces the surname of Swindon’s Tom Broadbent, so it sounds like Broadband. Flynn Downes is booked for a foul. “That’s like a booking for the team” explains Ian, but strangely he doesn’t say “to be fair”.

The final minutes of the game drift away. “Typical end of season game” says Ian. There is still occasional excitement. “Fabulous defending from Woolfenden” says Brenner one minute, and then “lovely little ball to Parrott in the area!” says Brenner expectantly the next.  “ …ball up in the air, Parrott goes after it” continues Brenner and I imagine a blur of brightly coloured feathers taking flight.  The first half ends in Paris.  “You’d like to think they can see this one out, you’d like to think” says Brenner half-repeating himself for no apparent reason.  Time added on runs out. “There is the full-time whistle, at the ninth time of asking Paul Cook get his first away win” concludes Brenner.

Mentally exhausted, I switch off the radio and prepare to turn my attention to the game in Paris.  Later, I will journey down to the south of France courtesy of FFF tv to watch FC Sete, who have scored just twenty-eight goals in thirty-one games (a goals per game record even worse than  Ipswich’s)  beat  Orleans 1-0 and secure their place in the French third division.  Finally, this evening, to complete my  virtual tour of some of my favourite places I will tune in to watch Lille versus Nice in French Ligue 1, it’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do driving back along the M4.

Ipswich Town 2 Swindon Town 3

I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was in an Ipswich which had a similar layout to the real place but all the buildings were different and weirdly the buses were like those from the 1970’s; I got on one in a shopping-centre painted chocolate brown and it unexpectedly took me up a fast road to what might have been Chantry; I got off and wandered back towards Portman Road because there was a match on.  I walked through streets of medieval, half-timbered buildings and past a pub I had never been in before where they were calling last orders, it was only two o’clock; I knew I had had a pint already but I couldn’t remember where.  That’s when I woke up.

After a welcome mid-season break which has made me feel even greater kinship with the people of France, and Germany that Brexit has tried to divorce me from, I have spent the last few days in keen anticipation of today and the match versus Swindon Town, even though it’s only on the telly, but this is the new reality to which I have become accustomed.  I even ordered a match programme yesterday (£3.50 including postage and packing), but the waking day gets off to a bad start because when I check my post it hasn’t arrived.  Kick-off today is at 5.30 so after a morning of dull, domestic normalcy and a light lunch of chorizo sausage and salad I take an afternoon walk, slipping, trudging and sliding across frosty, muddy fields, squinting into the low January sunlight and avoiding human contact.

Mud & trees

Back home, with the help of tea and biscuits I watch the FA Cup scores develop on BBC 1 where a man who looks like a bigger version of Pep Guardiola fills the air time once occupied by Grandstand and the seat left vacant by Frank Bough.  Gradually, 5.30 draws near.  I log onto the ifollow in time to catch the last three names of today’s virtual mascots, Georgia, Rory and Albi; I am reminded of Albi the racist dragon, who Bret and Jermaine sang about in episode seven of Flight of the Conchords.  There follows a compilation of the best bits from the commentary the last time Town played Swindon, which was back in January 2000, even before Flight of the Conchords was first on television. In goal for Swindon that day was Frank Talia and I amuse myself by wondering if he had a sister called Jenny.  There’s time to get a pre-match ‘pint’, if not to drink it, before kick-off and I pour a glass of Fuller’s 1845 (on offer before Christmas at £3.00 for two from Waitrose) for me, and a glass of ‘mother’s ruin’ for my wife Paulene, which she takes topped up with fizzy water.

As the players take the knee we are informed that today’s fixture is a ‘memorial match’ for everyone who has died in the last year.  Paulene chuckles and we both roll our eyes.  “What the heck is a memorial match?” asks Paulene.  It’s as if people have never died before.  What a sentimental, maudlin lot we have become.  As the handover is made from the Radio Suffolk studio to the commentary team we learn that today’s commentary will not be from Brenner Woolley, who sadly is unwell, instead Radio Suffolk have enlisted the services of former Northgate school boy Stuart Jarrold, who should by rights be enjoying his retirement; I can remember him on Anglia TV forty years ago; he must be well over seventy.  Happily Stuart’s co-commentator is still the dependable Mick Mills who will hopefully add to his record of 741 games played for Town by co-commentating on a similar number.  It was Mick’s birthday this week; he was seventy-three. With two septuagenarians at the microphone there is an undeniable hint of Last of the Summer Wine pervading the airwaves.

Stuart begins his introduction to the game assuredly and authoritatively, he’s an old pro. But then the game begins; Swindon kick off, play the ball back and Dion Conroy lumps it up field.  It is immediately clear that Stuart doesn’t recognise any of the players; he doesn’t even seem to be familiar with their names. His assuredness has departed quicker than a season ticket holder in the top tier of the Cobbold stand when we’ve just conceded a third goal with twenty minutes to go.  Just to make it clear to anyone who hadn’t picked it up from his commentary, Stuart now admits he hasn’t watched Town at all this season.  Stuart can’t tell Luke Chambers from Luke Woolfenden.  He struggles on.  Usually it’s Brenner that interrupts Mick, but today Mick has to interrupt Stuart to clarify what’s just happened.  “Was that Brett Pitman firing in a shot there?” asks Stuart sounding reasonably confident “No, it was Matt Smith” replies Mick.

The camera lingers on a man in glasses and a black hat with a dark scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face.  I can’t tell who it is.  It could be Marcus Evans, it could be Paul Lambert.  Either one of them could be forgiven for not wanting to be recognised at Portman Road.  “I can’t see Paul Lambert here” says Stuart, quite coincidentally and no doubt unaware of the picture on the tv screen.  Would Stuart even recognise Paul Lambert if he saw him?

Stuart tells us that three minutes have been played, but the figures in the corner of the tv screen suggest he is living some three minutes in the past. “Can’t see who’s taking the corner from here, can you Mick?” Mick is having to work hard today.  “Cleared by one of the Lukes” says Stuart.  Armando Dobra is fouled by Paul Caddis. “Did Caddis get a yellow card for that?” asks Stuart in the latest in a series of questions “I think he did”.   Mick resorts to saying things which Stuart can re-use in his commentary.   “Luke Chambers knocks it back to err…err… err… Luke Woolfenden” says Stuart. 

I don’t know if it’s wheeziness due to his age or just anxiety, but Stuart’s breathing is audible over the microphone.   Paulene cringes, but she’s feeling sorry for Stuart.  I am too, but I don’t let it stop me from laughing, this is what makes local radio so great. “It’s a bit aimless in the middle there Mick” says Stuart, sounding slightly incredulous that the game is as bad as it is.  Further proof, if proof were needed, that he hasn’t seen Town play previously this season.  Stuart mentions that Swindon’s Diallang Jaiyesimi had been at Norwich City.  Mick asks if he ‘came through the ranks’ there.  Unsurprisingly, Stuart doesn’t know.

It’s the 16th minute, Swindon score.  “Err, yes, it’s a goal, it’s a goal” says Stuart, sounding as unprepared as the Town defence was and as if, like them, he wasn’t really watching when it happened.  Paulene cheers, I think because Brett Pitman played for Pompey, although he didn’t score the goal,  that was our friend from Norwich City.   I look at Paulene coldly.

The game resumes. “I haven’t mentioned Judge yet, I’ve rarely seen him touch the ball” says Stuart optimistically suggesting he would recognise Judge if he did see him touch the ball.  “I’ve got to get used to these players, haven’t I” he adds, more realistically.  He is improving, a little.  “This is Emyr Huws now, tussling with the ball” says Stuart in a moment of clear vision, but also a weird use of language worthy of Brenner Woolley.  “We are beginning to sit back and watch them play” says Mick of the Ipswich players. “That’s not what we should be doing is it Mick?” says Stuart asking a question so stupid it would sound sarcastic if he hadn’t grown so childishly reliant upon Mick’s every word.

A half an hour passes. Andre Dozzell sends a brilliant pass over the top of the Swindon defence, little Alan Judge runs through but incredibly fails to score with just the Swindon ‘keeper Mark Travers to beat.  It’s a unique moment of inspiration coupled to the usual failure and frustration in an otherwise featureless first half. 

Half-time begins to loom like an oasis.  “Luke Chambers…left foots it forward” says Stuart making up a new verb.  “The last six or seven minutes seem to have dragged a bit, without a lot happening” Stuart then adds, clearly beginning to get into the feel and rhythm of Portman Road on match day.  At the end of two minutes of added time Mick provides a concise summary of the half before being cut-off by advertisements which, not being a fan of the consumer-society, I ignore, “You’ve got to say Swindon have been the better side”.

Half-time is a delicious blur of more Fuller’s 1845 and gin.

The second-half arrives all too soon and James Norwood and Flynn Downes replace Aaron Drinan, who Stuart didn’t even mention not having mentioned, and Emyr Huws.  Swindon’s Scott Twine has an early chance to double his team’s lead but doesn’t and Stuart carries on not knowing which Ipswich player is which “…..putting Jackson away, no, that’s not Jackson”.  But Town do look a bit better now, with Norwood seeing more of the ball within a few seconds than Aaron Drinan did in the whole of the first half.  It’s the 51st minute and Stuart and Mick are now honing their double act to perfection.  Little Alan Judge shoots on goal, “I thought it was going to hit the post” exclaims Stuart. “It did hit the post” explains Mick, demonstrating the value of having an expert co-commentator who has played the game at the highest level and is therefore capable of spotting the difference between the ball hitting the post and not hitting the post.

Two minutes later and Flynn Downes shows that he has settled back in to the team and receives his customary booking.  Town continue to look like they have now been given a rough outline of the aim of the game and with just over an hour of our lives wasted Kayden Jackson unexpectedly plays in an early cross which James Norwood reaches just a few metres from goal.  Showing an unimaginable level of skill Norwood slices an attempt to shoot onto a Swindon defender standing the statutory two metres away, the ball rebounds back to him and he strokes it into the goal. “We’ve scored” I utter cautiously, scarcely able to believe my eyes.  Victory must now be ours, surely; how can we not go on to win against the team second from bottom in the league who have lost five of their last six matches conceding fifteen goals in the process?

Confident, I sit back, but unfortunately so does the Town defence and together we watch Scott Twine score from about 35yards.  “It was a stupendous goal” says Stuart almost shouting with excitement and clearly scarcely able to believe that such a goal could be scored amongst what otherwise seems a pretty lamentable standard of football.  Mick is appreciative of the finish, but generally less enthusiastic than wide-eyed Stuart, citing Ipswich’s contribution by virtually “inviting” Twine to shoot.  Mick sensibly adds that it was a somewhat freakish goal too, although I would add not freakish enough to have actually been scored by Ipswich.

James Norwood harvests another booking for a pointless tug at a Swindon player before Brett Pitman appears to score a third goal for Swindon, but sadly it’s not Brett who scored it’s that bloke who played for Norwich instead.   Had it been Pitman’s goal it would have been a good goal, a deft flick no less, but instead it’s a cross that has sneaked in at the far post because everyone else misread it, a bit like the weirdly named Keanen Bennett’s goal against Shrewsbury a few weeks ago.  “It’s almost an embarrassment isn’t it?” says Stuart really getting to grips with the reality of commentating on Ipswich Town in the 21st century.

We’ve watched seventy-eight minutes now, Town trail 3-1 and Jack Lankester replaces Armando Dobra. “Will that make much difference Mick?” asks Stuart , probably having worked out by now that it won’t. But with four minutes remaining of normal time a punt forward is controlled by James Norwood who lays the ball off for little Alan Judge to score simply and unexpectedly for Town. “That came out of nothing” says Stuart,  not having yet realised that this is true of nearly every goal scored in the third division.

In the remaining minutes Mark McGuinness has a shot which might have been an equaliser if hit harder and wider of Travers in the Swindon goal and Swindon make a final substitution to eke out the dying seconds before another home defeat is confirmed.  To misquote Elton John, I guess that’s why they call us the Blues. The players must be so pleased that the supporters are once again safely locked down at home and not in Portman Road, but if any has particularly good hearing they can probably discern the boos emanating from sofas and easy chairs all across the town  as they leave the pitch.

What a disappointing afternoon it has been, but one in which Stuart Jarrold can at least feel reasonably happy that his inability to recognise Town players was matched by the Town players themselves, and that at least he had a really good excuse; unless they have all been in isolation for the past fortnight they didn’t.  For myself, I at least now understand that dream, because I can no longer recognise the Ipswich Town I knew either, but I shall be back again next week to try again.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.