Newmarket Town 1 Thetford Town 1

The train journey from Ipswich to Newmarket (£10.50 return with a Goldcard) takes 58 minutes to cover a distance of about 65 kilometres.  That may seem a little slow, but the train does stop at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell, Thurston , Bury St Edmunds and Kennet before arriving in the town that is the centre of the British horse racing industry, home to about 21,000 people and 3,500 horses.

Despite a little mist it’s a bright February day beneath a cloudless blue sky, the unseasonal warmth has resulted in blossom appearing on some trees.   I am in good time for the 13.20 train to Cambridge which is already waiting on platform 4B; I board through the sliding doors. I immediately feel as though I have inadvertently stepped into someone’s dining room.  At the table to my right a family of four has their picnic lunch spread out before them; sandwiches and baking foil everywhere.  They look up at me as if to say “Don’t you knock before you enter a room?”, but they can’t say it because their mouths are full of sandwich; their jaws churning like tumble driers.  I pause to decide if I want to sit at the table opposite them; I don’t think I do, they’ve stared me out; I turn left.  There are plenty of empty seats and I find another vacant table.

Behind me I hear a sound like a vacuum cleaner; it is a vacuum cleaner and it is strapped to the back of a man in a blue tabard; he looks like a one man tribute to Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd (Ghostbusters).  I am impressed that the train is being cleaned between journeys; on his back above the vacuum cleaner it says “Presentation Team”, which sounds much nicer than plain old ‘cleaner’.

I sit and enjoy the architecture of the Victorian station platform briefly before the train departs, on time. Soon out of Ipswich the train speeds through the rolling Suffolk countryside of isolated farmhouses and medieval church towers.  A warm but slightly condescending female voice announces the station stops. The floodlights of Bloomfields the home of Needham Market FC can be seen if you know where to look and the track passes next to Stowmarket Town’s Green Meadow.   Munton’s of Stowmarket announce on a large sign that they are “passionate about malt”.  There are misty silhouettes of church and cathedral towers in Bury St Edmunds and a black cat crosses the Ipswich bound track; at Thurston there are chimneys like candy twists and at Kennet a metal silo that looks like a painting by Charles Sheeler.  The landscape changes towards Newmarket;  rows of pine trees and broader, flatter downland; the chalk beneath pokes through where the soil is tilled and forms white cliffs in railway cuttings.  Surprisingly, the final approach to Newmarket is through a long tunnel.

The train is still on-time as it arrives in Newmarket, this is as far west as it’s possible to go without not being in Suffolk anymore, but Newmarket station is a massive disappointment.  There is no sense of arrival here, it’s no more than a platform and a couple of metal bus shelters.  It is hard to believe that such a wealthy, internationally known town as Newmarket should have a railway station which is, to be blunt, so crap. Apparently the original Victorian station was demolished in 1981 despite being a listed building.

Putting the squalor of British public transport behind me I make the short walk down Green Road over The Avenue and up Granary Road where I turn right through a kissing gate and across the railway line into Cricket Field Lane, the home of Newmarket Town.  I am somewhat amazed that it is still possible to walk across the railway track as increasingly the population is treated like idiots incapable of working out how not to suffer grievous injury or death from stepping out in front of moving trains.  However, a poll conducted in 2016 did reveal that 52% of people who voted were stupid.

There is no queue to get into what I imagine Bloorie.com pay to have called the Bloorie.com Stadium.  Two men have squeezed themselves into the blue metal-clad turnstile booth; I ask for “one and a programme” and hold out a twenty pound note.  The smaller and older of the two men pauses, I wonder if perhaps he hasn’t got enough change, but no, he has; he eventually asks for £8 (£7 entrance +£1 programme); he was just adding up.  His mind had “gone blank for a moment” he tells me. As the smaller man hands me my change the larger man invites me to buy two strips of tickets for the club 50/50 draw, which he explains will see half the money collected becoming prize money and the other half going to the club.  I tell him I understand and buy two strips (£2); there didn’t seem to be an option to buy just one.  My investment will come to nothing; I’ll have to write it off as a charitable contribution.

Inside the ‘stadium’ I head for the tea bar where I purchase a bacon roll (£2.50) and a cup of tea (£1.00).  As I wait for my bacon roll I watch the teams and referees warm up on the sun-lit synthetic pitch, which looks extremely neat even if it is accompanied by a rash of prohibiting signage; this is its first season.  My bacon roll is ready and I sit in the stand to eat it and to avoid having to juggle a paper plate, napkin, bacon roll and cup of tea.  The bacon is crispy.  Bland, forgettable, 21st century pop music plays over the public address system.  Today, Newmarket Town who are ninth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier league with thirty-seven points from twenty six games played face Thetford Town who are fifteenth with eight fewer points from the same number of matches played.

In time everyone disappears back inside the dressing rooms only to re-emerge as the three o’clock kick-off approaches.  The referee’s assistants are first to appear, posing in the doorway, before the away team and then the Newmarket team each form a queue and at the referee’s signal march onto the pitch to line up in front of the main stand as if for inspection and to greet one another with multiple handshakes.  Meanwhile, a short man in a blue cap uses a radio mike to introduce the match and announce the teams, and in a possible homage to John Motson he adds all sorts of extraneous detail, such as the fact that Newmarket’s Jacob Partridge is expecting his first child later this year; he’s not showing.

Thetford Town begin the game kicking towards the miserable little railway station whilst Newmarket Town play in the direction of a row of pollarded trees and the Gallops which are visible far off in the distance. 

Thetford wear all claret with odd looking sky blue rings round their shoulders, whilst Newmarket sport yellow shirts with blue shorts and blue and yellow hooped socks. I particularly like Newmarket’s socks and it is no wonder that there is an advertisement for a supplier of sock tape on the fence at the side if the pitch.  Electrical tape is good enough for most, but hooped socks deserve something special.

The game begins with the ball being played back to Thetford’s number five Jonathan Carver who hoofs it forward unceremoniously. The Newmarket goalkeeper Will Viner boots it back and it’s Carver who heads it back again, fifteen love.  The most difficult thing in football sometimes is knowing what to do with the ball from the kick-off.  Happily the game settles down into a more entertaining series of passes and moves.  Newmarket are the first to ‘get the ball down’ but soon Thetford get the idea too; it would be a shame not to make use of the flat, true surface of the synthetic pitch over which the ball almost seems to whisper as it rolls.  Newmarket earn the game’s first corner but Thetford claim the first booking as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting is clattered to the floor.  “Ref, he’s fucking injured” cries Newmarket’s goalkeeper Alex Archer helpfully as the game at first carries on.  When referee Mr Brian O’Sullivan (not a relative of deceased racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan) awards a free-kick to Thetford’s number nine Volter Rocha, Archer who is very ‘gobby’ for a man dressed from head to toe in salmon pink calls out “ He fuckin’ slipped” . 

At the other end the more soberly dressed (all grey) Thetford ‘keeper is equally vocal but restricts his advice to his own team.  “Win it, win it” he shouts and “Left shoulder Steedy;  Elliott, left shoulder” .  Meanwhile from the touchline the advice is a more positive sounding “In the hole”.  Just before twenty past three Thetford hit a post and five minutes later the impressive Volter Rocha hits a shot onto the cross-bar and the equally impressive number two Sam Bond heads in the re-bound to give Thetford the lead to cheers from the main stand.

In front of me a group of lads watch keenly. “Go on boy wonder” says one as Newmarket’s Jack Whiting pushes forward. “ That number nine rolled his ankle” says another “ Well he looks okay” is the reply.  “Yeah, but he has rolled his ankle”.  Half-time is approaching and the bespectacled linesman whose glasses make him look a little like Kevin Costner’s character in the film JFK stifles a yawn.

With the referee’s whistle I head for the bar.  I check on the half-time scores; Ipswich are winning away from home; excellent!  I order a half of Lacon’s Pale Ale (£1.70) to cautiously celebrate a job half done.  The beer is much too cold and fizzy but it has that fashionable, light, hoppy flavour. Once the rush has died down I ask the barman what has happened at Newmarket that the place now looks so much better than it did when I was last here, probably in 2014 or 2015.  Back then it looked like the National Trust might want to preserve it as an example of a slightly shabby Step Five football ground from the 1980’s.  He tells me that they sold the land behind the clubhouse for housing, which funded the synthetic pitch which is now hired out every night; this week Cambridge United have used it every day for their soccer school.  Meanwhile the club’s guests and visiting officials enjoy plates of sandwiches and fancy-cakes in a room to the side of the bar.  I look at the programme, a  glossy publication full of adverts, but with potted club histories, league tables, results and fixtures too, so a useful programme all the same; and it’s good to see which local companies help support the club.  I very much like that Tattersalls advertise their sales calendar and wonder how many of the crowd here today will be looking to buy a filly or may be a two year old at the next sale.

The second half begins promptly at four o’clock, which is good because I don’t want to miss my train at eight minutes past five.  “Come on Jockeys” shouts a large man from close to the smoking area “Come on Jocks” echoes another man.  The first action of the half sees the Newmarket goalkeeper slice the ball high over the clubhouse and out of the ground. “There goes another thirty quid” says someone.  I wander round to watch from between the dugouts. 

The two Newmarket coaches kitted out in matching blue tracksuits stand conspiratorially together.  “Come and fuckin’ get it” shouts one of them at the ‘keeper after Thetford put in a cross. “ He was behind him” shouts the ‘keeper in his own defence. “Fuck off” replies the coach.

Thetford look like they might score again and their good play belies their relatively low position in the league table; perhaps they need to play on a synthetic surface every week.  The afternoon wears on and the sun sinks lower in the sky casting long shadows of the trees behind the Thetford goal down the length of the pitch.  Spectators enjoying the warmth of the sunshine have to shield their eyes, but it’s very cool in the shade.  Substitutions are made and the man in the blue cap announces them as best he can.  “Number 17 is coming on” he tells us “… but I haven’t got a number seventeen on my teamsheet”.  Whoever number 17 is he’s got a powerful shot and he soon elicits a spectacular save from Newmarket’s Archer who because of his pink kit really does ‘leap like a salmon’.

Up in the stand Thetford supporters are encouraging their team. “On your bike ‘arry, skin ‘im son” is the advice to the alliteratively named number eleven Harry Hutt.  But Thetford fail to score again and as the game enters its last ten minutes Newmarket begin to keep the ball a bit more to themselves.   At five thirty-six an angled free-kick into the Thetford penalty area is met with a deft, flicked header from substitute and player manager, Michael Shinn.  The ball enters the top left hand corner of the goal as great goals often do.  Shinn may have one of fuller figures on the pitch today but his is a fine goal and Shinn is a fine name for a footballer, although not quite as good as that of the Newmarket number two Blake Kicks, whose surname is worthy of the Happy Families card game; up alongside Mr Bun the baker, Mr Bones the butcher and Mr Pots the painter, meet Mr Kicks the footballer.

Thetford make a final substitution, but don’t hold up the numbers to show who it is and the man in the blue cap announces “Looks like we’ve given up on the boards, so I haven’t a clue who’s come on”.  A little while later as the final whistle blows and the man in the blue cap goes to remind us all of the final score, his microphone stops working .  The final score is one-all, perhaps my least favourite score line, especially when the opposition equalises in injury time as I learn Wigan Athletic have done in their game against Ipswich.

With the sun now setting behind me I head back towards the turnstile and Cricket Field Road and reflect on what has been an entertaining match.  I like the synthetic pitch and that it doesn’t smell weirdly of rubber like others I’ve seen, in fact I don’t think it smelt at all.  This has to be the way forward for clubs like Newmarket Town, along with hooped socks.  Upwards and onwards, as I said to the barman.

Bury Town 0 Waltham Abbey 0

It’s a thirty-five minute train ride from Ipswich to Bury St Edmunds (£7.20 return with a Gold Card) stopping at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell and Thurston, which for a 25 mile journey by train seems quite a long time. But whilst it’s not one of the fastest train rides in the world, it’s pleasant enough and there’s a busyness and hum about it due to the churn of passengers at each of the four stops.
I board the 1320 and sit at a table seat where just before departure I am joined by three blokes in their thirties who seem to be part of a larger group on a stag weekend, but they also seem to be Margate supporters heading the nine miles down the track to today’s match at Needham Market; an interesting combination that beats paintballing in Dublin. At Stowmarket the train fills up again and pulls away from the station passing the Green Meadow ground, where later this afternoon Stowmarket Town will beat Ipswich Wanderers 3-0. Three well-turned out women in their forties apologetically take up the empty seats around me, asking if I mind if they sit there. “As long as you behave yourselves” I say and they reply that they can’t promise anything but they’ve only had one drink so far today. They’re heading for the bright lights of Bury St Edmunds to celebrate a birthday and they natter constantly throughout the journey about all of life’s trials. “Oooh, I can’t get on with public transport” says one “You know that striped carpet we’ve got” says another “ …had to have it re-laid twice, they got it all wrong on the stairs” . “I don’t go shopping anymore” says the third “Just do click and collect”. “Same with me” replies one “But I just buy baked potatoes”. Then one talks at length about the problems with parking outside her house and an intimidating little bloke in a Range Rover who’s got four cars and a bike, but there’s only him and his wife living there. She doesn’t know what they’re going to do when Annabel gets a car.
Arriving at five to two at Bury St Edmunds’ beautiful red brick railway station, the

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women alight and thank me for letting them sit with me, I tell them it was my pleasure, and it was. Stepping onto the platform I immediately breathe in the sweet smell of the local sugar beet factory, a smell that transports me back to the school playing fields of Ipswich in the 1970’s. It’s not exactly a pleasant smell because it’s thick and cloying, but it’s always at its strongest on clear, bright, cold days like today when the wind is in the east and the sky is a frigid blue, and for that reason I can’t help but like it. The sugar beet factory is a thing of beauty with its grey concrete silos and billowing trail of white steam belching and then dissipating into that blue sky. I feel glad to be alive, but it’ll pass.
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Heading for the town centre I turn to admire the railway station with its pair of ‘minarets’ and then set-off along Northgate Street before turning into Cannon Street and stopping at the Old Cannon Brewery, hotel and bistro. Most of the people in here are eating and it doesnt have the ambience of a pre-match boozer, but I just have a pint of Black Pig (£3.50) and sit at a small table facing the shiny brewing vessels to read the football pages of the Bury Free Press. The headline story concerns Walsham le Willows FC who apparently are being threatened with relegation from the Eastern Counties Premier League if they don’t resolve some health and safety issues at their ground in Summer Lane. I worry why the League considers relegation would resolve the issue, unless the view is that in Division One some injury and possible death is to be expected.
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I wrestle with the idea of having another pint, but decide to head for Bury Town’s ground because it’s now twenty five past two and I’m not sure exactly how far it is or what delights await me at Ram Meadow. I am surprised at how quickly and easily I find the ground considering that I last came here in February 1989. The approach is across the adjacent municipal surface car park (£1.80 for three hours) and is not very imposing; there is no sense of arrival, just a close board wooden fence and three advert hoardings with a single gate. If there was a queue at the turnstile people could be mown down by small men in Range Rovers desperate to park.

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I pay my entrance money (£9) and step around the turnstile to stand in what looks like a queue to buy a programme (£2), but it’s not, it’s just old blokes talking; so I step around them explaining to the programme seller that I thought they were a queue. The layout of Ram Meadow is a lot like that of King’s Meadow in Sudbury with the main stand and club house on the west side. The club house at Ram Meadow is new and tacked onto the end of it is a conservatory which is the members’ lounge.
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Through the glass I can see people scoffing plates of boiled potatoes and pies. By the side of the conservatory is the club shop, it’s the sort of structure that the occupiers of suburban bungalows call a ‘garden room’. I love a club shop; this one is pedalling the usual shirts, scarves and woolly hats but also bears and dinosaurs in Bury Town t-shirts.I head for the bar.

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The club house at Ram Meadow is quite new having opened in September 2016; it’s a very plain building but I forgive this because there’s a hand pump on the bar, although the barmaid doesn’t know what it’s serving, just that it isn’t what it says on the pump clip. I buy a pint (£3.40) and have pricked the barmaid’s curiosity; she has to find out what the beer is, but returns to say she’s none the wiser and the barrel just says SX SW Pale Ale. I take a seat at the side of the room near where the Bury Town Under 10’s are getting ready to be mascots; there is cake on a table and a mother stands with a plate of chips with a look of ‘do you want any more of these?” on her face.
Two blokes next to me are talking about the match. “So where is Waltham Abbey then?” asks one. “Down near Harlow by the M25” says the second, looking it up on his ‘phone. “They’re all fucking down there, these clubs” is the reply. They speak not in Suffolk accents but as though they really should know where Waltham Abbey is. The beer is good and is quickly gone so I step back out into the cold afternoon. It’s not long until kick-off so I think about where is going to be a good spot to watch the game. I wander back round to the corner of the ground by the turnstiles and the teams are just coming onto the pitch when a voice says “Allo Martin”. It’s Dave, the man with whom I used to write the ‘A Load of Cobbolds’ fanzine back in the 1990’s. In his day Dave was every bit as dedicated to watching Ipswich Town as ever-present Phil who never misses a game is now. I will be eternally jealous of Dave because in 1981 he was in a minibus that went to St Etienne to see Ipswich win 4-1 in Ipswich Town’s greatest performance ever. But Dave became disillusioned and did something about it, he stopped going. But Dave can’t give up football and now has a Bury Town season ticket.
Dave and I walk round to where he sits every week, in the Jimmy Rattle stand with two old codgers who like to just sit and moan. The Jimmy Rattle stand is a long low, multi-stanchioned structure with just a few rows of lovely, warm, wooden bench seats. A scaffolding tower adds interest in the centre, from where each match is filmed.
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The game begins with Waltham Abbey, in green and white hooped shirts and green shorts, kicking towards Bury St Edmunds cathedral, and Bury Town, in all blue, kicking towards the sugar beet factory and its plume of white steam. If I had to choose ends, I’d choose the sugar beet factory.
The pitch is soft and muddy and the colourful kits and clear blue sky make a beautiful scene. Dave updates me on family life; his eldest daughter who I met as a toddler in 1992 is now head of history at a school in Cambridge; I remember her being able to say “We are top of the league; we are top of the league”. Dave says how his younger daughter is less academic and her idea of preparing for an exam was to do her make-up and hair. She has a boyfriend who plays for Bury Town. Dave likens his children to Lisa and Bart Simpson and clearly enjoys that they are so different.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the game is entertaining whilst being of rather poor quality in terms of skill and well organised football. My attention is mostly taken by a Waltham Abbey player who looks as if his kit is a size too large for him
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and the Bury right-back for whom the opposite is true.

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Bury are expected to win as they sit 10th in the Bostik League North Division table, whilst Waltham Abbey are 13th and have lost most of their last eight or nine games. Very little happens near the goals and most time is spent ploughing through the muddy turf of the congested midfield. But near the end of the half Waltham Abbey twice break free and although their number ten looks certain to score he contrarily hits each post and then a short while later another player carelessly boots a third good chance wide.
We buy a fifty-fifty draw ticket each (£1.00) from a lady called Maureen and the half soon

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ends. With half-time I return to the club house to catch up on the half-time scores, and to celebrate that Ipswich are winning I buy another pint of the mystery pale ale. With my beer in a plastic cup I am free to wander outside and explore, and as I do so my beer gets colder and colder as the sun sinks low in the west. At the sugar beet factory end of the ground is a an advertisement board for The Suffolk Pest Control Comp[any Ltd , which features a silhouette of a Suffolk Punch horse; I didn’t know
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these animals were considered pests, but can well imagine that an infestation of them would be a bit of a bugger. But it does account for why the Suffolk Punch is a rare breed.
As the game resumes I visit the outside toilet, in which very weirdly I think I can detect a faint smell of Christmas pudding. I pass the ‘Home and Away Directors box’ and wonder if there are other TV Soap themed directors’ boxes around the country or whether this is the only one. I wander back past the clubhouse where the faces of men holding pint glasses peer out through the double glazing, watching the game from the warmth of an alcoholic haze. As with most non-league or local football, the crowd is mostly made up of middle-aged men and older, and the occasional dog.
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There should be more dogs at football matches.

The most passionate Bury fans have now re-located to the Cathedral end and pinned

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their flags to the high quality close board wooden fence that encloses the ground. “BTFC. Suffolk Is Ours” boasts one flag somewhat incomprehensibly. It smacks of the same conceit that sees the town of Bury St Edmunds label itself “a jewel in the crown of Suffolk”.
Back on the Jimmy Rattle side of the ground I meet Andrew, a fellow public sector employee who is here with his young son who points out that the Waltham Abbey substitute has an interesting hairstyle. Indeed, he looks like he is from a 1970’s

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discotheque and as we watch, the ball comes to him inside the Bury Town penalty area, he aims a kick and misses the ball completely.
By and by I return to sit again with Dave and the game carries on much as before, but Bury are the more dominant team now without ever really looking like scoring; it’s a lot like watching the Championship, but cheaper and more fun. We talk a little bit of politics and how even the Labour Party supporters are Tories in Bury St Edmunds. The game is drawing to a close and Bury hit a post, but even before the three minutes of added on time is announced people are drifting away, beating the imagined rush of 274 people all simultaneously trying to get through the one little gate in that wooden fence. “Have you had enough entertainment for one afternoon?” asks Dave of the old boy who was sat next to him as he toddles off home.
The three minutes elapse and I reflect that I have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment. I say good bye to Dave as I head once again to see if I can still smell Christmas pudding and Dave goes round the corner to pop in on his mother-in-law. Before I finally leave Ram Meadow I check on the full-time score at Preston where Ipswich have won. On the walk back to the railway station I phone my wife and as the camera pans away from my afternoon Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ can be heard.
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