Oxford United 2 Ipswich Town 1

Oxford United is another football club for which I might claim some affinity due to genealogy.  My father’s father was from the Oxfordshire village of Cuxham, with a family history there going back into the 1700’s, whilst my wife’s mother was from Iffley, which is now a suburb of Oxford.  Added to that, my mother had a book of poems by Pam Ayres and rather liked Sir John Betjeman (a failed Magdalen College student) and Ernie the milkman too, but I never heard my grandfather speak of Oxford United, and I think he might have had a brother who played for their local rivals Reading.  Personally, I hate the bastards.  That is an attempt at a joke of course, but from the demented outlook of a football fan I do have cause not to like Oxford United much.  Ipswich Town have never won a league game in Oxford and the old Manor Ground in Headington, the scene of much Town disappointment for Town followers in the mid to late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, was an absolute dump, guaranteed to give you pneumonia from standing in the open in the rain, or cholera if you used the toilets, even though Town did get promoted there in 1992.  Adding an extra layer of resentment is the fact that my only previous attempt to attend a match at the Kassam Stadium, when spending a weekend in Oxford back near the turn of the century, a time I no longer really remember, ended with the game being called off due to a heavy frost.

With my mind a tortured maelstrom of contradictions and stuff I set out for Oxford, not in my trusty Citroen C3 but in my new electric Citroen E-C4 as I simultaneously attempt to right the wrongs of football watching history and save the planet from carbon monoxide poisoning at the same time.  The car won’t make a round trip of 240 miles without re-charging the batteries so I have been worrying and losing sleep all week imagining that I will not be able to re-charge the car and get home.  My research into the Zap-Map App and the comments of electric car users, intended to allay my fears through comprehensive preparation have only added to my insecurity.  I needn’t have worried of course, because having made the obvious choice to make a pre-match visit to the Redbridge Park and Ride super hub thing, I now am easily restoring the magical power of electric traction to my hopefully trusty but definitely clean air promoting Citroen EC4.  I find a small community of  electric car users there  who are willing to help and discuss best electric car-practice, although I can’t say much of the clique of Tesla users who have their own bank of charging points away from the hoi-polloi as if Elon Musk, the weirdly monikered owner of Tesla is trying to create his own fan base or private army over whom he has dominion.

With enough miles in the Citroen’s battery to ensure my return home after the match, I head for the Kassam Stadium just a few kilometres along the southern ring road.  It’s been a pleasant drive to Oxford on free-flowing motorways under pale blue skies and winter sun.  That was until I crossed the border from Buckinghamshire. Descending the awesome Aston Hill chalk cutting through the Chilterns  ( aka the Stokenchurch Gap) Oxfordshire is usually spread out below, but today it has been replaced by a murky, blurry smudge as if  Mark Rothko had painted a life size landscape.  To the side of the road, twenty or more large birds circle, they might by Kites but to my worried imagination they look like vultures; I’ve entered a scene from a fantasy novel in which the hero journeys into the cold and eerie kingdom of his evil nemesis, and to save battery power I haven’t even got the car radio on to keep me company.

An hour and a half later I have rocked up at the free-parking at the Kassam Stadium, where despite the car park being full, and it’s only half-past one, the little fella on the gate let’s me in and says if I can find a space I can stay.  After another steward directs me to some disabled parking spaces and I have to explain that I’m not disabled (not in any way that counts anyway) I follow the lead of another searcher and bump up onto a verge, which is very handily placed near the entrance for a quick getaway at the end of the game.  I switch off the car and eat the lunch that I brought with me, two poached salmon and water cress sandwiches on soft malted brown bread and two handcrafted classic pork sausage rolls.  I consume a chapter of my current read, a book entitled “Raw Concrete, the beauty of Brutalism”.  Outside of my Citroen it is foggy and grey and cold, and the home end of the Kassam stadium looms out of the misty gloom.  Just before two o’clock, I venture out to explore what lies beyond the sea of parked cars all around me.  I talk briefly to a man on a motorbike, who complains that people on foot won’t get out of his way.  I tell him I didn’t hear him, and it’ll be even worse when he has an electric bike; he doesn’t believe that will ever happen.  Although an Oxford supporter, the biker seems to think Ipswich will win by a couple of goals because they have some good players.  We part agreeing that we are both out to enjoy the afternoon whatever the result.

Outside the main stand I buy a programme (£4.00) from a woman stood behind a table. I had thought she said it was only £1,  and as I tender a single small coin I tell her  “That’s cheap”.  “Oh go on with you” she says as if I’m mucking about,  and my brain quickly reconsiders what I’d heard and tells me to hand over two larger coins and take the small one back, which in fact makes the programme rather expensive.  I wander on through more parked cars, past the statue of a bull with an impressive scrotum towards the club shop which is behind a cinema.  The club shop is a wonderful experience and I particularly enjoy the mugs celebrating the fact that Oxford lost three-nil at home to Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup; also for sale is a large mounted photo of the stadium that night, as if Oxford supporters need something to put up on their walls to prove that the stadium was very nearly full once.  There are also gnomes.

It’s one of those days when it seems I can’t help but catch people’s eye, and they nod as if they know me.   A policeman did it a minute ago and now a steward does it as I step up to turnstile three of the main stand.  Approaching the turnstile, I don’t know why but I half expect it to be automatic,  and I’m slightly taken aback to see the face and hand of a woman appear at a small window from which she scans my ticket.  Inside the stand, the walls are a mellow shade of breeze block, I buy a coffee (£2.20) and the young woman who serves me hopes that I enjoy it, which is good of her considering it’s just a paper cup of Kenco instant granules and hot water.  A man is selling programmes from behind a wall, and as if by way of advertisement he is reading a copy, pausing occasionally to call out “Programmes” in the manner of someone with Tourette’s syndrome, or like an evening paper seller.  There are the names of successful Oxford teams of the past printed on boards attached to the walls.  I find myself feeling slightly jealous of the names Cyril Toulouse and Les Blizzard.

Clutching my coffee to warm my hands, I find my seat, which is in the back row of the bottom tier of the stand, seat number 78, I chose it because that was the year Town won the Cup. Behind me is a wall of beautifully smooth polished concrete on the other side of which are Oxford’s ‘executive’ boxes.  An old boy on the back row stands to attention to let me past him as I ascend the steps, but I point to the seat and tell him I’m sitting next to him today.  As I stand by my tip-up seat and survey the ground the old boy fills me on our neighbours; the seats next to him and his friend are empty today because “they’ve got a do, this evening”  , whilst the bloke who sits in seat the other side of me will turn up just before kick-off, and in front of me will be a bloke wearing a cap with horns on and annoyingly the horns will always be in my field of vision.  The other seats about us are mostly filled with old blokes in woolly hats, the sort who I’m more used to seeing at non-league games.  I feel comfortable here, probably because I’ll soon be an old bloke myself.  An impressively loud chant suddenly booms through the fog from the Town supporters who are in the stand directly opposite me. It’ll be good if they can keep that up during the game and for more than the few seconds it lasted this time.

The man with the horns duly arrives as does my other neighbour, just as the old boy predicted, although he didn’t say he’d be eating a Twix, which he is. In time the teams appear, ushered onto the pitch between lines of flag waving children. Oxford United get first go with the ball and kick towards the end of the ground where there is no stand, just a scoreboard and fence with parked cars beyond.  Reassuringly both teams are wearing their proper first choice kits, although hi-viz versions would be handy today.  “Good player , him” says the old boy about Sam Morsy.  “Good goalie, him” says the old boy about Christian Walton. 

Only five minutes have elapsed and the Town fans opposite are unimaginatively already singing “Is this a library?” Has anyone ever walked into the Bodleian and chanted “Is this a football ground?” I wonder to myself.   “You’re support is fucking shit”,   continue the Town supporters, just like every other club’s fans do at Portman Road.   The illuminated advertising boards suddenly announce “County Plumbing Supplies” and I am reminded of my wife’s niece’s husband, who is a plumber up the road from Oxford in Banbury.  “Ethically sourced coconuts” reads the electric sign less prosaically moments later.  So far, on the pitch,  the football is all pretty humdrum, and Oxford are boldly not giving Town time to pass the ball about much, which from their perspective seems like a good tactic.   “Oxford Fabrications Ltd” reads a plain old wooden advert hoarding down in front of me.

“Here we go” says the old bloke as Town move forward quickly in their first proper attack.  The bloke the other side of me finished his Twix a while ago and opens a flask of coffee.  At the end of the ground with a stand, Oxford supporters sing rounds of “We’re the left side” “We’re the right side” as Town fans used to back in the 1980’s; I had expected these Oxfordians to be more cutting edge, despite the soft lilt of their bucolic accents.   The fog is swirling in an out and around the ground, hiding and revealing the occupants of the other two stands in turn.

Town earn their first corner after just ten minutes. “Come On You Blues” chant the Town fans with quite impressive volume.  Sam Morsy commits a foul and concedes a free kick half-way into Town’s half of the pitch. “Yellows, Yellows” chant the home fans briefly. “We forgot, We forgot , We forgot  that you were here” lie the Town fans unconvincingly.  As a quarter of the game recedes into the forgettable past, the Town fans are desperate enough to sense the need for encouragement; “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant, a couple of times, to remind themselves that they are here.  A minute later Marcus Harness lashes the ball over the Oxford cross bar, it is a good chance wasted.

The fog has thickened, and the orange and black clad and totally bald referee Mr Robert Madden calls for a day-glo ball. I joke with the old boy beside me that it has a bell in it and lights up too; standard football match humour, but it made him laugh, although he must have heard it before at his age. “Football in a library,  do-do-do” chant the Town fans before asking “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?”  Nobody responds, but the bloke with the horns gets up and heads downstairs, presumably to use the facilities. Town win a second corner.  The bloke with horns returns and the bloke sat next to him leaves; Wes Burns trundles through the Oxford defence and strikes a firm shot against the Oxford cross bar. Like Harness before him he probably should have scored.   A third of the game is gone forever, unless the match is abandoned, and as a broken down  Oxford player receives AA assistance, everyone else gets a drink and remedial coaching on the touchline.  Sam Morsy even changes his boots, perhaps for comfort, perhaps for fashion reasons, we will never know.

The game restarts and Conor Chaplin is soon flashing a header from a Marcus Harness cross straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. A minute later Oxford’s Yanic Wildschut stumbles goalwards through attempted tackles from Sam Morsy and Luke Woolfenden to find himself just six or seven yards from goal with a large space to aim at to Christian Walton’s left.  It’s an opportunity he doesn’t hit over or against the cross bar preferring to roll it accurately behind the far post to give Oxford the lead.  The old boy beside me is very happy indeed, if surprised. I stand up with those all around me, just to be polite really. Goals are sponsored by Tripp Hearing the electric advert boards tell us, who will also unblock your ears, presumably for a fee.

It takes just three minutes for Ipswich to equalise as Janoi Doncian breaks forward with no one to stop him and Marcus Harness crosses the ball to the far post where the unmarked Leif Davies is free to head the ball into the goal very easily indeed. I hadn’t expected Town to score so soon but am pleased they did.  “You’re not singing any more”  chant the Town fans, but I’m not sure anyone was.

The remaining eight minutes of the half drift off forgettably, Oxford win a free-kick from which a direct shot on goal is possible. “Yellows, Yellows” implores the scoreboard and two mournful chants of the two words emanate from the end that has a stand; the shot goes over the Town cross bar and after three minutes of additional time it’s half-time.

Half-time is still cold and foggy and I take a walk to the front of the stand to help move the blood in my veins. On the pitch a small collection of former players is gathered including Ron Atkinson famous for his awkward, room-silencing racist asides; I hadn’t realised he was still allowed out in public and just hope Marcel Desailly isn’t here too.  I browse the programme, which I decide I like, despite costing four quid, because it doesn’t have many adverts and other than the cover is not printed on glossy paper.  Less attractive is another hoarding in front of me advertising Mola TV which shows Belgian football on-line in the UK, but also the podgy, grinning face of Alan Brazil who, as great a player as he was for the Town does a fair impression of a complete arse on the radio.

At six minutes past four play resumes,  with the break having typically made us all feel a little bit colder than we were when the first half ended.  Town soon win a corner and chants of “Come On You Blues” can be heard through the fog.  The bloke sat beside me with the Twix and the coffee drinks some more coffee and eats another bar of chocolate of unknown brand.  A break down the right from Marcus Harness ends with a low cross and George Hirst driving a first time shot past an Oxford goalpost, it might go down as third opportunity missed.

Two thirds of the match is gone forever and Oxford win their first corner of the match, closely followed by the second.  “ Come On You Yellows” seeps through the fog from the end with a stand.  Marcus Harness and George Hirst are replaced by Nathan Broadhead and Freddie Ladapo and Oxford swap Wildschut and Mcguane for Joseph and Taylor.  A little creepily Oxford manager Karl Robinson seems to like to cuddle and fondle his players as they enter and leave the field of play; I’ve always thought  touching in the work place was strictly out of bounds.

Less than twenty to minutes to go and Oxford win a third corner, but the north stand has melted completely into the fog.  Conor Chaplin heads past the post from a horizontal position with his feet closest to the goal.  The game now stops as Mr Madden consults both captains and the managers, presumably about the deepening gloom and whether it is wise to carry on. Cross field passes and long balls are now even more hit and hope than usual.   The old boy beside me seems sure the game is going to be abandoned; I think he’d like to get home in the warm.  Some people in front of us do get up and leave.  “Where are ya?, Where are ya?” chant the Town fans playfully. “What’s going on, what’s going on?” chants the end with the stand, sounding more anxious.  The game resumes, but on the far side of the ground my view of the match is reduced to one of shadows and fog; if this was West Ham, Jack the Ripper might come on as substitute and we wouldn’t notice.

The game is into its last ten minutes of normal time and Oxford replace the improbably spelt Tyler Goodrham with Djavan Anderson.  The ball is in the Ipswich penalty area and comes out the edge where Cameron Branagan chances a shot on the half-volley which ends up in the top corner of the Ipswich goal.  It was to an extent a hit and hope a case of fortune favouring the brave, but Town are losing and on the basis of what has happened so far this afternoon defeat looms out of the fog.  Town’s response is to quickly replace as many players as possible and all three remaining substitutions are made in a sort of hopeful ‘powerplay’ of ‘fresh legs’.  Town win their second corner of the half, and then another and the ball strikes the cross bar for a second time, on this occasion from a Harry Clarke header. The pressure on the Oxford goal recedes. “No noise from the Tractor boys” chant the occupants of the end with a stand, and the game staggers on into seven minutes of added on time.  But Town don’t look like scoring again and they don’t.

With the final whistle I exit sharply, taking care not to bowl over any of the old boys carefully descending the stairs.  I am soon back at my car where the fog is freezing to my windscreen and with no queuing whatsoever am out onto Grenoble Road and then onto the B480 towards the motorway, the high road out of the fearful darkness that is Oxfordshire. It’s a great ending to an otherwise very disappointing afternoon, if I decide to care overly about the result, but as the old boys have no doubt learnt over time “You can’t win ’em all”, even when you’re expected to.  Sometimes just being happy you can get home after a day out is enough.

Coggeshall Town 5 Wivenhoe Town 0

It is Friday and at last after four consecutive games at Portman Road, the chance to enjoy the relaxed, happy atmosphere of local non-league football and the associated audible swearing from the players and coaches. It’s a typically cold winter’s evening and just a short drive to Coggeshall from my house. The streets of Coggeshall are quiet and dark, but the fluorescent light of the local Co-op shines like a beacon drawing me in to buy dairy-free white chocolate for dairy intolerant Mrs Brooks, who is unable to come out on a cold night like tonight because her asthma won’t allow it. I’d hate to miss the game because I was stuck in the back of an ambulance with her; in sickness and in health etc.
Back on the road the narrow streets of Coggeshall are suddenly busy with traffic coming in the opposite direction so progress is slow, but at length I turn into the rough car park where a sizeable collection of automobiles is bathed in the soft light spilling out beyond the ‘stadium’ from the floodlights. Football in the evening is all about the lights.

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There is a queue at the turnstile, not really because of large numbers of people wanting to get in but more because the fella on the gate likes to have a chat with everyone and entreat them to ‘enjoy the match’; he has a beer and a fag on the go and says it’s nice to see me again as I hand over a tenner and the odd 50p to cover the £6 entry and £1.50 programme and already I feel pleased to be here.
Just inside the stadium tonight a local Nimby group called PAIN (Parishes Against Incinerator) have a table set up and are collecting signatures from anyone wanting to object to plans to build an incinerator at nearby Rivenhall. Seeing as Rivenhall straddles the river of carbon monoxide and diesel particulates that is the A12 my initial reaction is that a little ‘cleaned up’ smoke from a very tall chimney would be rather lovely by comparison and it seems preferable to landfill, but I don’t know the full facts; I don’t sign up but take a page of tightly typed A4 to learn more.

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Heading along the path towards the clubhouse I meet four Wivenhoe fans I know; four of the self-styled SOBS (Sad Old Bastards) who have followed ‘The Dragons’ through thin and thin since the 1990’s. One of them jokes about coming to visit the home of one of the nouveau-riche of non-league. These guys don’t care overly that Wivenhoe are bottom of the league with a goal difference of minus 66 after 30 games (Coggeshall are fourth with a goal difference of plus 66 after 26 games), they just like football and having a good time watching it; I see them as Messiahs, placed on earth to show supporters of professional clubs the error of their football supporting ways. Further along the path I meet Paul my next door neighbour and then speak with Miguel, brother of Ipswich Town’s Tristan Nydam and a player and youth coach for Wivenhoe.
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coffee and beer and scoffing sausage rolls, waiting for the teams to emerge from the ship-lap clad changing rooms. I look at the team sheet, pinned to the outside wall. I like the names Ross de Brick and Kyan Gulliver who, along with Gary C Birdett, sound like they might have been in a 1960’s American ‘garage’ band. Amusingly, long serving Wivenhoe

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centre-half Tim Dennis has been re-named on the team sheet as Dennis Timothy.

It is 7.45 and the game begins with Coggeshall in their red and black striped shorts and black shorts kicking towards the clubhouse; Wivenhoe are in all blue. It’s all quite keenly contested but Coggeshall are clearly the more talented side and just before 8 o’clock number seven Tom Monk hooks a shot into the top corner of the Wivenhoe goal from about 20 metres. I stand on the grassy bank that looks down on the pitch with Jonny, one of the SOBS; we talk about football and Jonny tells me about an interesting book he has read called The Chimp Paradox which is about how our minds work. Jonny’s advice is to get a copy and rip out about the first thirty pages, read them and throw the rest away because it gets repetitive after that. Twenty-four minutes of the game have passed and ‘The Seedgrowers’ number nine, Nnamdi Nwatchuku shoots across the Wivenhoe goalkeeper from a narrowish angle to put Coggeshall 2-0 up. .Six minutes later Nnamdi scores again; the most spectacular goal of the night, a shot from 20 metres-odd into the top right hand corner of the goal. Seven minutes after that and Coggeshall score a fourth goal and Jonny and I have no need for a telescope as we get a perfect view of a free-kick, which is swept over the defensive wall and just inside the far post by number eight Conor Hubble.
Half-time comes and I join the queue for a pounds worth of tea. “Man United are winning 1-0” says a bloke in front of me to his ponytailed friend. “Fuck, it’s Cup weekend innit” says the ponytail. The bloke in front of me gets a Twix and the teams are returning to the pitch just as I get my tea and add a splash of milk from a six pint plastic bottle of Cravendale. The girl behind me in the queue asks “Can I get a tea and a coffee?” That’s an odd use of English I think to myself. If I was the young girl in the tea bar I think I would reply that she can have a tea and coffee, but I will get them for her. I don’t often think about being a young girl in a tea bar, but know that the girl in this tea bar needs some help at half-time because there is still a queue for teas and sausage rolls
Wivenhoe have a substitute on for the second half, but within five minutes they are five-nil down as Coggeshall substitute Aaron Cosgrove scores from not too far out at an oblique angle. I am now standing with Bob and Rich’, two more SOBS who I know from my own days watching Wivenhoe, but then I wander off to talk to Paul my next door neighbour and just watch the game from different perspectives, because I can. Behind the goal that backs on to the car park a group of six or seven nine or ten year old girls muck about and do handstands, they’re here to see teeny bopper heart throb Olly Murs, who is on the Coggeshall bench but not named as a substitute; his uncle runs the place.
Despite being second best by some way, some of the Wivenhoe players seem very committed to the cause and they shout and remonstrate with one another as things inevitably go wrong; at one point it looks like they might come to blows. There is much waving of arms and shouting and I’m struck by the fact that the only word I can really make out from any of these animated conversations is “fuck”. One or two players also seem to spend quite a bit of time lying very still on the damp turf. Fortunately they

recover and play on, but it can’t be good for them. A Wivenhoe player lies prone in his own penalty area but the game carries on. When the Wivenhoe goalkeeper eventually gets to boot the ball into touch the game is stopped and Wivenhoe’s ginger-haired number four proceeds to berate the referee Mr Andrew Gray angrily; I am amazed he is not booked, many a more sensitive referee would have sent him off for such front.
One of the Wivenhoe defenders is a large man and although it is a cold night he appears to be sweating more than his team mates and his visibly damp shirt clings to his back unpleasantly. Wivenhoe rarely venture beyond their own half in any numbers but they are now managing to plug the gaps a bit more successfully, although Coggeshall still miss several ‘sitters’. At one point a Coggeshall shot smacks against the cross bar and rebounds down bouncing close to the goal line. None of the players appeal for a goal and play just carries on, but a couple of blokes stood up on the concrete path are adamant the ball was over the line; who needs goal line technology when there are a couple of blokes with beers stood forty yards away.

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Surprisingly, no more goals are scored, although the contest is still kean with plenty of neat football played, particularly by Coggeshall who have looked very good tonight, despite not scoring as many goals as they often do against the weaker teams in the division. I have returned to stand with Rich’ and Bob, who has offered me a mint which I am sucking upon as Mr Gray blows his whistle for the final time. We hang around as the players leave the field and wait to have our photos taken with Olly Murs. I talk to another Paul who the programme says is Coggeshall’s Football Analyst/Media Manager before finally heading out into the car park. On my way out I wander through the now empty stand, erected in 1964, and look at the signs and foam padding, placed on the stanchions to protect the skulls of people taller than five foot four. Outside on the grassy bank there are rabbit droppings. I head into the car park with a car load of SOBS who are still in good spirits, we wish each other well ‘until the next time’. It’s been a good evening.