FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was.   Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up.  To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name.  But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany.  Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.

Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website.  Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes.  Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us.  Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park.  The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.

It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened.  Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium.  I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much.  Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot.  Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it.  But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.

Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal.  Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out.  Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.

People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium.  Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves.  Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.

Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares.  I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.

As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On  Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout.  Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement.  Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence.  In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig.   Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”.  A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness. 

The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.  The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.

Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out.  The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.

Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.

The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match.  The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net.  It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.

The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago.  From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again.  With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.

With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England.  The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal.  When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.

A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net.  It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit.  The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait.  The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).

The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in.  The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure.  Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle

Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset.   A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand  hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header.  The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises.  All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.

With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match.  Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations.  We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people.  This has been a truly fantastic night.

US Concarneau 1 AS Nancy 2

The Breton coastal town of Concarneau is apparently best known as a successful fishing port and for its walled Ville Close, a quaint and historic medieval fortified town transformed into an appalling tourist trap full of the sort of shops or pristine buildings you find in places like Lavenham or Bourton-On-The-Water in England. In its favour however, Concarneau is also home of the Brasserie de Bretagne (Britanny Brewery) and Union Sportive Concarnoise, its local football club, which plays in the third division of French football known as Ligue National.

US Concarneau, as they are commonly called, are relatively recent arrivals in Ligue National and have aspirations to reach Ligue 2; tonight, they face Association Sportive Nancy-Lorraine, more usually known as AS Nancy, a club which has twice won the French FA Cup and spent twenty-five seasons in Ligue 2 and thirty in Ligue 1.  Today however, Concarneau are second from top of Ligue National and Nancy seventeenth, albeit after just three games.

The Stade Guy Piriou where USC play their home games is at the edge of town in that nether world of retail parks, Zones Industrielles and feeder roads inaccessible to pedestrians. I had asked in the Tourist Information Office where is a good place to park and the pretty young woman there had rolled her eyes with a look that told of chaos, but then said we could park in the car park of the LeClerc supermarket which is about 100m from the ground through a tunnel beneath the main road.  After getting a bit of shopping and an evening picnic, which my wife Paulene and I eat in the car, we make for the ground.

Having had difficulty trying to buy tickets on-line we had visited the ground earlier in the afternoon on arrival at Concarneau.  Although there are guichets open at the entrance to the ground selling tickets, these were shut when we arrived earlier and I had gone directly into the club office where I had selected our seats on someone’s lap-top and stood by his desk as he printed out two tickets for the main stand (12 euros each).  The stadium sits on the top of a small hill and the main entrance delivers us up a slope through an inflatable arch to the corner of the stadium; I don’t know if I’m in a football ground or a bouncy castle, but there is a main stand in front of us and to our left.  Pleasingly there is a club shop where for 5 euros I add to the collection of petit fanions (pennants) that adorn my upstairs toilet at home, and also purchase a mug (9 euros) and acquire a match day programme which, like at every French club that produces a programme, is free.  The ground has three excellent buvettes which remind me of stalls at a fairground; they serve huge sausages piled on top of massive heaps of chips, and the very tasty local ‘Britt’ beer. After visiting what is possibly the smartest and sweetest smelling toilet I have ever encountered in a football ground; it’s all stainless steel and shiny coloured tiles, I change euros into tokens worth a euro each and buy a beer for me (3 euros) and a cola (2 euros) for Paulene, which surprisingly and disappointingly is not Breizh Cola. I then join Paulene in the main stand for the pre-match entertainment of observing everyone else arrive, search for their seats or eat sausage and chips, before watching a fastidious man organise three pairs of youths into holding banners displaying the Ligue National logo and the two club crests.  Off to our left the match ball sits above a plinth in front of the players’ tunnel and appears to be hovering in mid-air.

At half past seven the match kicks off, with Nancy in their all-red kit getting first go with the ball.  Concarneau are in blue shirts and socks with white shorts and the first chant of the evening surprisingly emanates from the main stand; “Allez les bleus, Allez les bleus” confirms that I am not suddenly colour blind. On the far side of the ground, in the long, low, basic but well maintained partly seated, partly terraced stand a knot of supporters sing “Allez, Allez, Allez” to the tune of The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’.  

Perhaps because of the backing of the home crowd, USC quickly settle into the game and their number 24 Ambroise Gboho soon threads an excellent diagonal through ball into the path of Antoine Rabillard, who has made an overlapping run, but Rabillard hits his shot straight into the body of Nancy’s goalkeeper. USC’s Amine Boutrah then wins the games’ first corner and Tom Lebeau wins the second. “Allez les bleus, Allez les bleus” sings the home crowd again.  Lebeau crosses the ball and Rabillard heads over the bar. Low, evening sunlight falls across the pitch illuminating the grass vividly where it doesn’t cast a lengthening shadow of the main stand. The sky is gun metal grey in the distance; there have been heavy showers inland throughout the day and a rainbow extends up then fades away beyond the opposite stand.  Behind the left-hand goal, on the steep concrete terrace below the hospitality area people appear to be putting their coats on; it doesn’t seem to be raining but briefly there is a faint rattle on the metal roof of the stand.

Back on the pitch, Nancy’s defending is effective but becoming more desperate and Lucas Pellegrini is the first player to see the carton jaune (yellow card) of the referee after he knocks over USC’s Amine Boutrah, who I am not surprised to read in the programme is the player of the month for August.  Within sixty-seconds Nancy’s number eight, Lenny Nangis follows the bad example that has been set and is booked for a foul on USC’s Georges Gope Fenepes.  If Lenny Nangis has any defence, it is that he has a great name.  The resultant free-kick is deflected over the cross bar for another corner to Concarneau.  A third Nancy player is booked five minutes later when Baptiste Mouaza fouls Ambroise Gboho. The supporters on the far side of the ground sing the na-na-nas from The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and then Mouaza provokes a sharp intake of breath as he trips USC’s Gaoussa Traore and we await the consequences. Like a not very good magician the referee holds up his yellow card and then with a distinct absence of sleight of hand replaces it with a red one.  Mouaza hangs around for a bit, seemingly discussing his misfortune with anyone who’ll listen as most of the other players crowd around the referee and the prostrate Gaussa Traore. When the melee clears and Traore has risen from the dead, Mouaza seeks clarification from the referee that he is no longer required on the pitch and his worst fears are confirmed with a wave of the referee’s arm.

  A minute of the first half remains, and USC win another corner; the ball is crossed from the left and having evaded everyone else, falls in front of captain Thibault Sinquin who appears to do little more than absent-mindedly stick out a leg, and thereby scores.  After two minutes of added on time, the teams retreat to the dressing rooms for mi-temps (half-time) with Concarneau in possession of a well-deserved lead, although having failed to score for the first forty-four minutes the eventual goal came as a bit of a surprise. Half-time sees a flood of people towards the buvettes and I get up from my seat to stretch my legs and peer down on them through the scratched Perspex screen at the end of the stand.

The game resumes at 8:32 and although Nancy have some early forays down the flanks it is USC’s Ambroise Gnoho who comes closest to scoring but for an offside flag and Lebeau shoots past the post from all of 30 metres.  With just ten minutes gone of the new half Georges Gape Fenepes,  who might be the first player from New Caledonia I have ever seen, is substituted by Faisal Mannai.  I don’t think it’s Mannai’s fault but within a minute of his appearance a passing move down the left for Nancy ends with the sort of cross commonly known as ‘inviting’, and Lenny Nangis  accepts the invitation, heading firmly into the Concarneau net to unexpectedly equalise.

Despite having lost their lead, Concarneau will surely still go onto win having a man advantage and they continue to press forward with Robillard, Traore and Boutrah always looking the most likely to conjure up a decent chance.  With a third of the match remaining USC win another corner after a flurry of activity around the Nancy goal.  A low cross from the right is just too far ahead of everyone to allow anyone to touch it into the net.  “Merde” says the bloke behind me through gritted teeth as a pass by substitute Faisal Mannai is intercepted by a Nancy player who breaks forward into the Concarneau half.  Nothing comes of it however and Thibault Sinquin in turn breaks forward for USC from his centre half position, but his low cross from inside the penalty area is cleared.

The game is into its last fifteen minutes or normal time and Gaoussa Traore lashes a shot somewhat desperately, which travels high and wide of the Nancy goal.  Nancy substitute Lamine Cisse for Isaak Umbdenstock, but not before Cisse looks confused as to which direction he must run to leave the pitch; after initially running away from the benches he checks and runs back and Umbdenstock runs on.  Concarneau replace Adrien Jouliex with Alec Georgen but are coming no closer to scoring a second goal.

Ten minutes remain of normal time and Nancy win a rare corner;  Diafra Sakho meets the ball on his forehead and Nancy are suddenly winning as the ball bulges the net with the Concarneau goalkeeper and defenders static.  Even now I can’t bring myself to believe that Concarneau won’t equalise,  but as Tom Lebeau is replaced by Pierre Jouan there are just seven minutes left and Nancy are taking every opportunity, and creating more to eke out that time by winning free kicks and staying down on the ground.  When a player goes down ‘injured’ on the far side of the field the slow-moving physio who looks about seventy-five can only trundle across the pitch.  Nancy make use of their penultimate substitution before six minutes of added on time are announced and then make the final one as they control the end of the game, not in terms of active football but in terms of frustrating Concarneau by fragmenting the remaining time into useless moments of nothingness.

Full-time arrives too soon for Concarneau and Nancy will make the 920 kilometre journey back to Alsace with an unexpected win, which in the context of modern football they deserve, but it wasn’t always much fun to watch and many would say they had ‘stolen’ the points.  Nevertheless, Concarneau is a great place to come to watch a match and is reminiscent of an English fourth division ground but with better beer, better food and cheaper admission prices; Paulene and I therefore have had a splendid time.

Shrewsbury Town 0 Ipswich Town 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ipswich Town 3 MK Dons 0

The hot, late summer sun beats down on the parched grass of Gippeswyk Park as I amble towards Portman Road beneath a cloudless azure sky.  When not ambling, I stroll along, enjoying the brief shade beneath Ancaster Road bridge and making as little effort as possible to place one foot in front of the other. There is something about walking slowly on hot days that feels cool, my wide-brimmed hat and sandals no doubt help add to the impression I must give that I feel like a dude.

In Sir Alf Ramsey Way an ice cream van looks a better proposition than the Butcher’s Grill, but I opt for a programme (£3.50), which I pay for in the modern cashless way. By the time I reach the Arbor House (formerly The Arboretum) sweat from my brow is stinging my eyes. I order a pint of Lacon’s Encore (£3.80) preferring a lighter beer today to my usual Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride, it’s good to have the choice. In the beer garden Mick is texting me in French to tell me he is “dans le Jardin”.  It seems a long time since we were last here, but it’s just a fortnight ago.  The conversation seems to be all about me as I regale Mick with tales of my road trip to Forest Green last week and how after getting home from the match versus Bolton my wife and I booked a holiday in Brittany.  We go on to talk of the Nazi submarine docks of St Nazaire and Lorient, the giant mechanical elephants of Nantes and the neolithic stone alignments of Carnac.

It’s almost twenty to three when we leave for Portman Road and in the course of our walk Mick expresses despair at the state of the world and politics, and how the hope of the immediate post-war era and the desire for peace and co-operation forged by the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet, has all but evaporated.  Mick also regrets that he will probably not live to see how the climate crisis ends; not wanting to suffer a lingering death from de-hydration or starvation, or a sudden violent death due to a cataclysmic weather event, I think this may be a good thing, but then I can be a bit of a pessimist at times.

In sombre mood, it is almost five to three as I enter the ground through turnstile number 59 by way of a change from my usual turnstile 60. I thank the turnstile operator and he calls me ‘mate’.  By the time I take my seat the teams are on the pitch and limbering up. Ever-present Phil who never misses a game is here with his son Elwood and so is Fiona and the man who I think is from Stowmarket, but Pat from Clacton is absent, she is visiting a friend she met on holiday who lives in Kent and is having a ninetieth birthday party.

The noise inside Portman Road today is fulsome, the heat and the sun seem to have invigorated the home supporters. Over the PA we get to hear just a few bars of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ before the game is ready to begin.  I don’t mind too much, as my favourite Beatles’ songs are probably Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever, but much as I want to, I can’t ever imagine the Sir Alf Ramsey stand singing “Let me take you down, cos I’m going to, Po-ortman Road, nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about, Po-ortman Road for ever”.  Knees are taken and applauded and Town kick-off towards me and Phil, Elwood and Fiona and the man who might be from Stowmarket.  The opposition today are wearing a frighteningly unimaginative kit of all red.

Town begin the game in an attacking frame of mind and within two minutes Freddie Ladapo shoots to the near post necessitating a save from the visiting goalkeeper Jamie Cumming, who unfortunately sounds like he could have a side line in pornographic films.  “Sit down if you’re standing up” is the bizarre but original Village People themed first chant from the visiting supporters. In the Sir Bobby Robson Stand Town supporters respond with an old religious number– “Care-free wherever we may be, We are the Ipswich Town FC, and we don’t give a fuck wherever we may be, cos we are the Ipswich Town FC”.  How pleased the nineteenth century American Shakers would have been to have heard that.

It’s the fifth minute and Janoi Donacien advances down the Town right, then advances a bit more, before sensibly stopping at the by-line to pull the ball back to Wes Burns, who sweeps it majestically into the visitors’ goal net. Town lead 1-0 and joy abounds, with chants of either Ole, Ole, Ole or Allez, Allez , Allez  spilling from the stands  depending on where you take your holidays.  Oh my, it’s so good to score an early goal.

Town are dominant; Sam Morsy wins a free-kick and his deflected shot is cleared off the goal line and a follow up shot saved.  In a moment of madness, the visitors win a corner but can only summon a rally of head tennis before losing possession entirely to a goal-kick.  About 12 minutes have elapsed and having gone behind, the visitors are having what we will look back on as their best spell of the game as their number 30 has the temerity to direct a header over the cross-bar after a good passing move down the Town right; alarmingly, he possibly should have scored. Normal service is soon resumed however, as Freddie Ladapo chases a punt forward and has his shot blocked to win a corner, which leads directly to another from which George Edmundson heads past the far post.

With the visitors’ goal kick I notice that their number 4 is called Tucker; I think of the characters in tv’s Citizen Smith and Grange Hill, and imagine his team mates saying “flippin’ eck Tucker” as he makes a catastrophic defensive error, sadly it doesn’t happen.

Town just attack and then attack again. Marcus Harness and Conor Chaplin play beautifully down the right and win another corner. Sam Morsy shoots wide.  The visitors’ number thirty collapses to the ground when challenged from behind as if suddenly and miraculously crippled by polio, admirably referee Mr Carl Brook just gestures to him to get up. The half is half over as stadium announcer Stephen Foster reads an obviously pre-prepared statement “The players and officials will now take the first drinks break of the afternoon”.  “How many are there going to be?” I ask Fiona a little incredulously.

The effect of the refreshment and re-hydration is almost immediate as Town win another corner and then Wes Burns runs down the right again and towards goal;  he shoots for the far corner  and his low shot is parried, but Marcus Harness is on hand to strike the rebound with just enough force and direction that it  dribbles over the  goal line and Town lead 2-0.  That was in the 27th minute and with a half an hour gone, Ipswich fans are singing “And it’s Ipswich Town, Ipswich Town FC, By far the greatest team the World has ever seen” and of course they’re not exaggerating. “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me. “It is” says the bloke next to him. I don’t tell them that true Champagne football can only be played in Reims and Troyes.

The final fifteen minutes of the half sees Conor Chaplin shoot over the cross-bar and Sam Morsy’s shot steaming for the top right hand corner of the visitors’ goal before the goal keeper tips it away for yet another corner.   Christian Walton has to make a rare save with ten minutes to go until half time, but the visitors’ goalkeeper is soon working again as another Wes Burns break leads to a deep cross which is headed back for another Sam Morsy shot which is again saved.   With time ticking down to the half-time break the game quietens down a little, perhaps because the more depressive souls amongst the Sir Bobby Robson standers begin one of their funereally-paced versions of “Oh, when the Town go marching in”.  Yet another Town corner ensues however, and three minutes of time are added on,  presumably to compensate for that very formally announced drinks break.

Today there is no sign of Ray, or his son, or his grandson Harrison and so I merely stand to eat a Nature Valley Maple Syrup and Nuts Crunchy bar and flick though the programme.  Nothing really grabs my attention, although I do now know that Conor Chaplin prefers pens to pencils, Apple to both Orange and Samsung and, although I don’t know what it means or who they are, Phineas to Ferb.  It is not recorded whether he voted Remain or Leave, is in favour of the right to abortion or not, or favours nationalisation or privatisation.  Next week I shall perhaps ask if there is an alternative match programme for us grown-ups.

At 16:07 the game resumes.  The heat has been building and ever-present Phil drapes a white shirt over Elwood’s head beneath his cap.  The bloke behind me is talking about the half-time scores in the context of his fantasy football team; it sounds like his fantasy football team is Manchester City. It’s a while since I played Fantasy Football, but maybe nowadays you can opt to have your team taken over by a wealthy country with a poor human rights record which is keen to launder its global image.

On the pitch, Town produce a sweeping move that travels the length of the pitch and more corners are won before the visitors’ number eight sees Mr Brook’s yellow card for tugging desperately at Sam Morsy’s shorts.  “ We’re just too good for you, we’re just too good for you” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier channelling Guiseppe Verdi.  On the right Janoi Donacien proceeds down the wing, lays the ball back and Conor Chaplin sweeps it into the net in a majestic style reminiscent of Wes Burns, and Town lead 3-0. “Ee-I, ee-I, ee-I-o, Up the Football league we go” chant the home fans boldly predicting the situation next Spring, before reprising their version of “No nay never” which has Ipswich Town being the finest football team the world has ever seen.  As if to prove the point, another fine move follows, and whilst it ends with Freddie Lapado missing quite badly, at least he was offside, so it didn’t really matter.  “Champagne football” says the bloke behind me again, clearly not having read up on the rules surrounding protected designation of origin during the half-time break.

Evidently now in party mood,  the Sir Bobby Robson Stand lower tier break into a chorus of “Stand up if you ‘ate the scum” before Stephen Foster’s voice is heard again announcing “The players and officials are now taking the second half drinks break” just in case anyone was wondering why the players were all of sudden drinking at the side of the pitch instead of playing football.  The refreshment has apparently reached the people counting the attendance too and this is announced as 23, 045 with 532 of those being visiting supporters, although in truth we’re all just visiting , no stands at Portman Road having been demolished to make way for residential flats just yet.  News arrives that Town are now top of the league with both Peterborough United and Exeter City losing.

With twenty minutes left mass substitutions are made for Town, although these can’t excuse a sudden error by Luke Woolfenden which forces Christian Walton into diving at the feet of some opposing player or other to maintain his clean sheet and give the visitors the treat of a corner. The corner however merely leads to a Town breakaway from which we earn yet another corner kick of our own.

With the game entering its last ten minutes the sun has emerged from behind the Sir Alf Ramsey stand and its hot rays are playing across my bare knees. Town are camped in the visitors’ half of the pitch.  “Gonna make a move in a sec” says the bloke behind me, adding “Over innit” to justify his decision. A minute later he leaves. “See ya later mate” he says to his mate. “See ya mate” says his mate.   “Ole, Ole, Ole” sing the Town fans celebrating the very probable result,  or may be it’s  “Allez, Allez, Allez”. The visiting supporters take note and begin to drift away.   Two minutes of normal time are left and an injury to a visiting player provides a convenient opportunity for a final, unannounced drinks break. The last action of note is when George Edmundson almost emulates Rakeem Harper’s goal assist for Col U in midweek as he sends a poorly advised square ball to the edge of the Town penalty area. “Bloody Hell!” I utter in a moment of sudden panic, but happily the ball is cleared.  Five minutes of added on time are safely negotiated and Town win what has been a most enjoyable match.

Whether Town were good or the visitors were poor I don’t care, I have decided to live in the moment and not think about it; in this way I hope to remain both happy and of balanced mind, but I am looking forward to my trip next week to Shrewsbury.  Up the Town  – Ipswich that is.

Postscript

In previous seasons I have not deigned to allow the name of the club Town played today to appear at the top of the page; I have instead referred to them simply as Visitors.  Today however, I have displayed their name because Ipswich have so thoroughly outclassed and humiliated them that I thought it was a good thing to ‘out’ them.  The reason for this, if you didn’t know is that the MK Dons have no right to be in the Football League, having stolen the identity of Wimbledon FC in 2004 and moved the club to Milton Keynes. As a city of over 150,000 people Milton Keynes should probably have a Football League team, but that team should achieve that status by gaining promotion through the league pyramid as other new town clubs such Crawley Town and Stevenage have done. 

The new town programme was a utopian vision for the future of post-war Britain, and the likes of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Abercrombie, who inspired and put it into practice, and were surely big footie fans themselves, are doubtless spinning in their graves because of the MK Dons.  

Ipswich Town 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

The ritual of every other Saturday from late summer to mid-spring has come round again, predictably after just a fortnight, but today I have broken free from the shackles of totally repetitive behaviour by making a pre-match visit to see my mother.  As ever, she has more to say about my beard and the length of my hair than much else, and when I think I’ve successfully got her reminiscing about trolleybuses or a family holiday in Aberystwyth or her mother filling the copper from the garden well on wash days, she somehow, out of the blue, asks me when I’m getting my hair cut.  To her credit however she does re-iterate her dis-like of Mothers’ Day, telling me that children have no reason to be grateful to their mothers; they didn’t ask to be brought here.   I tell her that it’s only for one day a year though, and we both laugh.  After an hour of such conversation, it’s time for her to eat her lunch and so after we’ve said our goodbyes and she’s told me to be good, even though she says she doesn’t believe I can be, I climb back into my trusty Citroen C3 and head back across town to resume the fortnightly ritual.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.  Walking through Gippeswyk Park I hear a snippet of conversation from inside the tennis court, “I’ve got probation at 11:30”, says a voice. A little further on, three scruffy looking blokes with cans of lager and tattooed necks lurk expectantly behind a hedge; I feel the urge to start singing Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for the man” from his Velvet Underground & Nico album with cover design by Andy Warhol, which coincidentally was released almost exactly fifty-five years ago (12th March 1967 to be precise).  Meanwhile, a dog that looks like a bear sniffs the grass and a chubby youth takes a swig from a plastic bottle and then holds the bottle up to the light as if he can’t quite believe what he’s drinking.  At the Station Hotel on Burrell Road, Plymouth Argyle supporters enjoy the delights of its riverside garden, and Portman Road is already busy with eager supporters chewing on factory produced bread and mechanically reclaimed meat products. I attempt to purchase a match day programme in the up-to-date cashless manner, but the smilingly apologetic programme seller tells me from within her booth that the wireless gadget has stopped working. I delve into my pocket for the four coins that will make up £3.50 and place them in her hand. Still smiling, the programme seller hands over a programme and wishes me an enjoyable afternoon.

In the Arboretum pub (now known as the Arbor House) I have to queue for a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and the beer garden is busy with drinkers, some of whom will clearly be Portman Road bound.  Mick won’t be joining me today as he is in London meeting a friend who is over from Germany and so I thumb through my programme, which on its front cover has a picture of Paul Mariner drawn in a sort of cartoon style; it’s probably what Paul would have looked like if he’d appeared in the opening credits to BBC tv’s Grange Hill.  Later at home, my wife will tell me she thinks the picture looks creepy.  My view is that I think Roy Lichtenstein or Hanna and Barbera might have done it better.

By twenty-five past two I have drained my glass of beer and with little else to do I decide  to take a gentle stroll down to Portman Road, which gives me time as I pass Ipswich Museum to admire the elaborate terracotta mouldings above the ground floor windows, it really is a magnificent building, another of Ipswich’s architectural gems; but ignorant people will still tell you the town is a dump and that “The Council” have demolished all the ‘lovely old buildings’.

Back in Portman Road supporters head purposefully for ‘their turnstile’ or mill about waiting for friends; some queue for more last minute mechanically re-claimed meat products; on the grass of Alderman Road rec others recline, soaking up the sun as if this was the Cote d’Azur.  I make my way between the assembled supporters’ coaches of Whincop, C & J and Tendring to the Constantine Road entrance.  Passing through turnstile number 60, I thank the operator who smiles and says rather gushingly “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time.”  This in the week in which I answered a club questionnaire about human inter-action with stewards and turnstile operators.

After making use of the toilet facilities to a soundtrack of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’ playing over the PA system, I arrive on the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, where ever-present Phil who never misses a game is of course present, with his young son Elwood, and I can see Harrison, his dad and his grandfather Ray ‘down the front’.  Pat from Clacton soon arrives, and we prepare to wave the polythene flags that have been left on our seats to celebrate Paul Mariner day.  The PA system has stopped playing the rock music that Paul Mariner was a fan of and ramps up the music designed to make us feel excited and full of expectation. “Exciting isn’t it” says the bloke who sits next to me.  “It is, I just hope I can last out until kick-off” I tell him. At the North Stand end of the ground banners read “Mariner” and “A fire in the sky”; the latter words an extract from the lyrics of “Smoke on the Water” that was playing in the toilet earlier.  Apart from Paul’s liking for Deep Purple, I don’t really get the connection as the song was about a casino burning down in Montreux in Switzerland and Town only ever played in Zurich ( versus Grasshoppers), and that’s over 200 kilometres away from Montreux. 

With the parade on to the pitch of the teams, we wave our flags for all we’re worth, like a host of Liberties or Mariannes leading the people in Delacroix’s painting; but unlike her we all keep our tops on.  Finally, with the first flush of excitement over, the game begins, although I don’t even notice who got first go with the ball, only that Town are kicking towards me, Pat from Clacton, Elwood and Phil, whilst Plymouth are wearing a rather attractive kit of all white with a green band across the chest bearing the name Ginster’s . Who, apart from my grain and lactose intolerant wife, doesn’t love a beef and pastry-based snack, even if much of Cornwall will tell you that a Ginster’s pasty is not a pasty at all, but a vile abomination?  Diverting our attention from this controversy, the Argyle fans attempt a new World record by singing “Is this a library?” with just fifty-three seconds on the clock, which is an admirable effort by anyone’s standards and smacks of their knowing they would be singing it sooner or later so why not just start with it.  I have much admiration for Plymouth supporters and their endless travelling. London is much the same distance (342 km) from both Plymouth and Paris, but whilst it takes about two and half hours to get from London to Paris by train, it takes three and a quarter to get to Plymouth. 

Quickly, Town are on the attack and after a fine interplay of passes in front of the Cobbold Stand, Sone Aluko sends a shot just behind the goalpost into the side netting of the Plymouth goal, and Pat from Clacton tells me that she won £43.75 playing whist last week in Great Yarmouth; she had to pay £2.00 to play extra games, but reckons she came out on top by about £10 overall.  Just as I’m thinking how well Cameron Burgess is playing, the bloke behind me says “Tell you what, Burgess has done well since he’s come in”. Cameron immediately passes to a Plymouth player. “ Apart from that “ says the bloke next to the bloke behind me.

“Stand up if you love the greens” sing the Plymouth fans to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ as they promote the eating of broccoli, French beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage with their pasties.   The same tune is then employed to chant “No noise from the Tractor Boys” to further goad us after their song about libraries failed to reduce anyone to tears. It’s the sixteenth minute and after Aluko tackles high up the pitch, the ball is swiftly moved to an overlapping Wes Burns who shoots across the face of the Plymouth goal.  With no goal attempts of their own the Plymothians go all Welsh and employing the tune Cwm Rhondda, tell us we’re supposed to be at home; ‘home’ being Portman Road rather than our individual home addresses I imagine. I think they’re goading us again.

The game is close and Pat from Clacton tells me how my last blog, for the Pompey game, was all wrong because Fiona  wasn’t on a cruise then, she was in the director’s box on a jolly, and today she is at her sister’s birthday party. Kindly, Pat hadn’t put anything on social media thinking it might make people think the blog was a load of inaccurate rubbish. There are a few isolated and short-lived bursts of chants from Town fans, but inexplicably the Plymouth fans respond with “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chanted like the chimes of the Portsmouth Guildhall clock.  Do they want us to sing or not?  

“Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” suddenly explodes from the North Stand, but peters out gently and the bloke behind me says “This ref is letting the game flow” just as I think the very same thing myself, probably because Mr Rock the referee doesn’t give a free-kick for a Sam Morsy ‘tackle’ that many referees would deem to be a foul.  Twenty-three minutes have gone forever and a shot from Plymouth’s Niall Ennis is blocked before the plain sounding James Bolton is replaced by Romony Crichlow, whose name sounds like it could have been that of a bit-part actress in a 1950’s Ealing comedy.

The opening act of the game is now over, and Town are taking control. Janoi Donacien gets behind the Plymouth defence to produce a low cross which no one can get to. Plymouth strike back briefly with a shot from Steven Sessegnon, who sounds French but isn’t, although he does have a cousin from Benin, which is a former French colony; they win their first corner and Sam Morsy earns his customary booking, this one for a foul on Niall Ennis, but then Bersant Celina wins a corner for Town, and a chipped cross leads to a strongly directed header from Wes Burns, but it’s  much too close to the Plymouth goalkeeper Mark Cooper who saves it without too much difficulty.  “No noise from the Tractor Boys” chant the Plymouth fans again as Town win another comer and I shout “ Come On You Blues, Come On You Blues” and ever-present Phil joins in.  “Two of you singing, there’s only two of us singing” sings Pat from Clacton softly, like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play.

Town should have scored by now, we’ve been brilliant; then the 38th minutes arrives. A ball over the top is pursued by James Norwood, he catches it up, controls it, shields it and then crosses low to the near post where Sam Morsy scores from what looks no more than 2 metres from the goal.  The roar from the home crowd is part celebration, but feels mostly like relief; we can score, we have scored, at last.  “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” chant the Plymouth fans employing a Cuban folk vibe whilst also stating the obvious.   A minute later and Norwood shoots over the cross bar from 20 metres out and then a superb dribble from Sone Aluko sends Norwood to the goal line only for him to get over excited and launch the ball into orbit instead of laying on a second goal or scoring himself.   In the executive boxes of the Cobbold stand four fat bellies of men enjoying hospitality are illuminated as if under spotlights by the afternoon sun.  Three minutes of time added on are played before the team leave the field to warm applause. It’s been a great half of football, as good as we’ve seen at Portman Road in many years.

After eating a Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar I join Ray and Harrison to talk of forthcoming concerts at the Regent theatre and other venues, and the pre-1973 recordings of Pink Floyd.  Half-time passes quickly and I’m soon back next to Pat from Clacton; at seven minutes past four the game resumes.  Town don’t immediately regain their rhythm from the first half and Plymouth enjoy a bit of possession and even a corner kick, although it goes straight to Christian Walton in the middle of the Town goal.  Today’s attendance is announced as 23,256 of whom 1291 are Janners, as Plymothians and other country folk with thick accents are known in Devon and Cornwall.  The guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters coach is won by Callum who isn’t even on the coach today, but his wife has had a go on his behalf.

Plymouth’s substitutes are trotting up and down the touchline and in their red tops with green sleeves Elwood thinks they look like Robin, Batman’s sidekick.  If this had been a Christmas fixture he might have thought they also looked like Elf.  Town are returning to form again. Sam Morsy crosses the ball; we wait to see who might get on the end of it; “Is there anybody there?” asks Pat from Clacton hopefully, and sounding as if she’s at a séance. Conor Chaplin and the oddly named Macauley Bonne replace Sone Aluko and James Norwood.  Sixty-seven minutes have passed and the North Stand start to chant Paul Mariner’s name, but most of them are doubtless too young to know of Paul’s own song which we would sing to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy. “Mariner, Mariner, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals, Paul Mariner”.  Pat sings it to me quietly for old times’ sake.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain; Jordon Garrick replaces Ryan Hardie for Plymouth and Romony Crichlow is booked after cynically tugging back Macauley Bonne.  It’s a pale blue afternoon with a cloudless sky above the North Stand and the sun now casts a shadow across the whole pitch.  Ten minutes remain. “Here we are, over and in” pleads Pat from Clacton as Town move forward again. The ball reaches Conor Chaplin who twists and turns, finds crucial space and places a shot beyond the far post.   Plymouth are getting desperate; their run of six consecutive victories is looking like it might end very soon indeed.  “Careful” says Pat as a Plymouth cross drops in the Town penalty area.  In the shadow of the West Stand the bright lime and lemon kits of the two goal keepers stand out as if they’re luminous.

Five minutes of normal time remain; Pat tells me she’s having Marks & Spencer prawn salad and a baked potato for her tea; I’m having fish and chips, I tell her. It’s the final minute of normal time and Plymouth win a corner; but Town clear it easily and Celina races away up field; he passes to Macualey Bonne who passes to Wes Burns who closes in on goal and shoots; past the far post.  If that had gone in we would have been guaranteed the win. We’re now into five minutes injury time and Plymouth break down the right and the Ealing studios starlet wins a free-kick. Luminous lime green Mark Cooper joins the Plymouth attack and every player is within thirty-five metres of the Ipswich goal.  The free-kick comes to nothing but the ball falls to Conor Chaplin; he shoots at the empty Plymouth goal and the occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the North Stand witness the painful arc of the ball drifting wide of the near post.

Happily, full-time follows soon after, and those who haven’t dashed away in the traditional post-match hurry to get home for tea applaud the teams and some of an Ipswich persuasion, including me and the bloke behind me join in with a few choruses of “Nana-Nana Ipswich” to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’  It’s been a fabulous afternoon’s football and I feel like the operator of turnstile number 60 must have known something when she said “Enjoy the football, have a lovely time” because I did and I have had,  and I like to think that it  had something to do with it being Paul Mariner day.  Paul Mariner was easily the best forward I’ve ever seen play for the Town and probably one of the top five in any position. I loved the way he moved, I loved that he sometimes wore his shirt outside his shorts, I loved his floppy mullet, I loved that he never got his hair cut.  I don’t believe in having ‘favourite ever players’ but if I had to choose one on pain of death or something worse I’d choose him.….or Frans Thijssen, or may be Arnold Muhren, or possibly Eric Gates…or…nah, I’d choose Paul Mariner.