The year of our Lord 2023 has not started well. I have been suffering with diarrhoea all week and on Friday evening the teams I was rooting for in their respective ties in the ‘round of thirty-two’ in the Coupe de France (Montpellier HSC, Nimes Olympique, RC Strasbourg and LB de Chateauroux) all lost. Today began as dull and grey and has progressed to become both wet and miserable, but my gloom and despondency have lifted as today is also the third round of the FA Cup and mighty Ipswich Town have a home tie against mighty Rotherham United.
When I saw my first FA Cup third round tie back on 5th January 1974 (Town v Sheffield United) it would have been inconceivable to think of first division Town beating fourth division Rotherham as ever being a giant killing, but forty-nine years on the tables have turned a bit. With Rotherham now in the second division and Town in the third, if Town win today I shall be claiming this as a ‘giant killing’, albeit one akin to a school child who is rather big for their age thumping one who is small for theirs but in the year above.
Ipswich is grey, Gippeswyk Park is wet underfoot and traffic is queuing to get over the bridge opposite the railway station, but Portman Road is quiet as I step up to the first booth I come to to purchase a copy of today’s programme. “Let me guess, £2.00 today” I say to the young woman in the booth. She smiles perhaps through pity but I like to think she almost appears impressed as I hand her a single coin and tell her it wasn’t that big a deal, I’ve been to Cup matches before.
By and by I cross the threshold of ‘The Arb’ and at the bar tell the barman that I ought to have something non-alcoholic; he directs me to the third shelf from the bottom of a tall fridge with a glass door which is packed with cans of ‘craft’ beer. I pick a can of Big Drop Galactic Milk Stout and returning to the bar the I hear the voice of Mick saying “I’ll get that” which is characteristically good of him. Mick has a glass of an anonymous amber bitter and packet of Fairfield’s Farms cheese and onion flavour crisps. We repair to the garden where we meet Gary coming in the opposite direction who texted me early this morning, but I didn’t reply because I hadn’t noticed. Gary is on his way to buy himself a beer and returns with a pint of unidentified lager; Gary is from Essex.
The three of us talk a little of football, the tv series ‘detectorists’, but also of death, as ever. Mick’s daughter’s neighbour died this week from cardiac arrest and Gary tells of a man whose birthday coincided with his wife being admitted to hospital and her father dying. Aside from the big things like wars, famine and climate change life can be pretty miserable on a micro-level, which puts football into perfect perspective, so we really should try and enjoy it whatever the result.
Not much after twenty-five to three we head for Portman Road, returning our glasses to the bar on the way and noting that ‘The Arb’ now has a menu for dogs; I make a silly comment about restaurants in Malaysia. Sir Alf Ramsey Way is thick with people queuing to get into Sir Alf’s eponymous stand and the Magnus west stand, but we carry on towards the Corporation bus depot and find no queue at all at the end turnstile, where for the first time in my life I gain entry by my wife having downloaded my ticket on my mobile phone and having it scanned. Mick and I were both nervous that this would work but it did. I find myself marvelling at the wonder of modern technology in the manner of uncle Bryn in tv’s ‘Gavin and Stacey’.
Having syphoned off some beer, Mick and I find our way to the ‘posh’ padded seats in Block Y from where will be watching this afternoon’s game. Gary only bought his ticket last night and so is away in the humbler surroundings of F Block. Courtesy of his season ticket, Gary normally sits in J Block which Mick tells me is also the name of an Ipswich drugs gang from the mean streets between Bramford Road and London Road. In the oppressive dim light of the upper tier of the Magnus west stand, we edge ourselves past an unsmiling man and his unsmiling wife, although she could be his floozie, and we find our seats. A little weirdly to my cold, unfeeling mind, today’s game is, according to page 23 of the programme, the Club’s annual Memorial Matchday in which members of the Blue Army who died in 2022, or ‘passed away’ as the programme calls it, can be remembered. Before the game can begin the names of the deceased appear on the scoreboard and they receive a minute’s applause. “There are an awful lot of names” says Mick, who for a moment thinks these are all former players. I’m not sentimental and find this Memorial Match idea a bit odd, but I am reminded nevertheless of former manager John Duncan and the excellent, original David Johnson, John Jackson and, although I saw none of his thirty-four games for Town, Aled Owen. I recall seeing Jackson’s only game for Town, a 2-1 win over Manchester United and that Aled Owen played a single league game in the Championship winning season of 1961/62. I think of fellow fan Andi Button with whom I saw many an away game in the 1980’s and 1990’s and even travelled with him by car to see Doncaster Rovers v Colchester United for what was the last game at Belle Vue before Doncaster were relegated from the Football League in 1998.
With applauses clapped and knees taken the game begins, Rotherham having first go with the ball, hoping to kick mostly towards the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and looking like Derby County or Germany in white shirts with black shorts, despite their proper kit of red shirts with white sleeves and white shorts not clashing at all with Town’s blue and white ensemble. Perhaps the absence of the red kit is a sign that Rotherham haven’t turned up as themselves today and aren’t much interested in the Cup, but in fact their team shows just one change from that which lost in the league at Millwall last weekend.
The crowd is loud with a good noise from the Sir Bobby Robson stand where the most vocal support, Blue Action, has re-located itself from stuck up the corner to the central section. Despite the impressive support, the game starts slowly, very slowly, with Richard Keogh and George Edmundson frequently standing still with the ball at their feet before merely passing the ball between one another. As I remark to Mick, it’s not exactly a ‘blood and thunder’ cup tie. I spend my time getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings of Block Y with its tight legroom and padded seats and the man behind me with a loud voice who likes to explain things to his children, although to be fair they are asking questions, as children do. Slowly, Town venture forward and a couple of forays on the flanks nearly produce moves worth applauding and some people do. Both Conor Chaplin and Kayden Jackson have shots on goal, but both are poor efforts. Then twice the ball is given away cheaply in the Town half and luckily Rotherham fail to take full advantage, Jamie Lindsay trying and failing to pass when he should have shot and then most luckily of all the ball is sent from close range into the Town net only for the ‘scorer’ to be flagged offside. The home crowd is in good voice with the lower tiers of both the Sir Alf and Sir Bobby stands looking full.
Freddie Ladapo chases a through ball. “Way offside” calls a bloke behind me in a tone of voice that implies that Ladapo being offside is a given. “Way offside” he says again scornfully and then once more for luck when the assistant referee finally raises his flag. This bloke behind me would seem to have turned up simply to let the world, or at least an unfortunate part of Block Y know that he doesn’t rate Freddie Ladapo. The larger part of the first half is marred by such carping “Here we go, what are you gonna do with it? Do something with it” says another know-it-all as the opportunity for a match winning pass once again fails to materialise. Much more enjoyably, when Kayden Jackson is fouled but gets no free-kick, a high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice from behind calls “Get your bloody glasses out”.
A half an hour has gone and whilst Ipswich have dominated, they have not been incisive, and shooting has been snatched at and inaccurate. The children behind are eating savoury snacks that smell like a dog has farted. In the corner between the Cobbold Stand and the Sir Alf Ramsey stand I can see a patch of blue sky above what must be Holywells Park. A fine rain has started to fall and it’s nearly half-time. Kayden Jackson breaks down the right wing, as the Rotherham defence back pedal, Jackson sends a low cross towards the back of the penalty area, Conor Chaplin can’t reach it, but Cameron Humphreys is running in and strikes the ball smoothly inside the left hand post beyond the diving Viktor Johansson, and Town lead 1-0, it’s a fine, fine goal.
Half-time follows on quickly and the crowd seems happy, a goal always works wonders. Mick had departed early to siphon more used beer and I meet him in the bar where we watch the half-time results on the tv and play spot the ‘giant-killing’ which leads to a discussion about which league clubs are in and how it was easier when it was divisions one to four. I admit to Mick that I still refer to divisions one to four bloody-mindedly to show my dislike of ‘modern ways’ in the same way that I call the internet the interweb. Mick says he does the same when he still calls Ipswich’s ‘waterfront’ the docks.
The game resumes at five past four and it’s still raining, just a bit harder. We’ve barely got comfortable again before Keogh and Leif Davis get in a muddle and allow Conor Washington to slip between them and get beyond Keogh who stretches out a leg or two giving Washington the opportunity to fall over him and win a penalty, which being unfamiliar with the Corinthian Spirit he naturally takes. Washington recovers sufficiently from his ordeal to score the penalty and the hard work of the first half is laid to waste. Keogh hasn’t had a great match today, he could be the new Luke Chambers although happily he’s no Mark Fish or Ivar Ingimarsson.
The match resumes again and despite no doubt the worst fears of the crowd, Town continue to be the better team and Rotherham don’t look like scoring again. The rain continues, swirling and drifting through the beams of the floodlights as natural daylight fades from the streets around the ground. Over an hour has passed and Marcus Harness replaces Sone Aluko, Rotherham bring on the only player from their last league match who didn’t begin the game today, Dan Barlaser, who sounds like a character from a sci-fi novel.
Town play a patient game, which is just as well because there are twenty-six minutes to wait until Freddie Ladapo, with his back to goal is wrestled to the ground by Rotherham’s Wes Harding. Conor Chaplin scores the resulting penalty and the Sir Bobby Robson stand channel the spirit of Doris Day with an essential but tentative chorus of “Que Sera, Que Sera”. “It wasn’t even a great penalty” says the know-it-all behind me. Four minutes later Town make mass substitutions, which as often seems to happen bring quick relief to our pain and Freddie Ladapo gets a free run at goal; he rounds the goalkeeper and shoots low and hard to put Town 3-1 up, much to the chagrin no doubt of the know-it-all.
Today’s attendance is announced by the dangerously up-beat Stephen Foster as being 15,728 with 215 of that number being Rotherhamites. It has to be the biggest crowd for an FA Cup match at Portman Road in at least ten years, probably more. Rotherham continue to flounder. “Ha-ha” says the child behind me sounding like Nelson Munce from the Simpsons as a rare Rotherham foray forward squirms away over the line for a goal-kick. All around, except up in the Cobbold stand there is a sense of joy. Cup fever has broken out at Portman Road and is spreading fast through a crowd previously thought to have been vaccinated against it. The until now totally reserved man beside me begins to mutter “Ole, Ole, Ole” to himself following the lead of the Sir Bobby Robson stand, only they’re not muttering.
Eight minutes of normal time remain and a Kyle Edwards shot hits a post. Gassan Yahyi replaces Freddie Ladapo and then Kane Vincent-Young takes advantage of a shove by Hakeem Odoffin and Wes Burns adds a fourth goal from the penalty spot as a result. “Championship you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” chant the Sir Bobby Robson standers safe in the knowledge that we can’t possibly lose now, and after three minutes of added on time Town’s ball books its place in the velvet bag for the fourth-round draw.
As we descend the stairs and head out into the drizzly darkness Mick and I reflect on our afternoon of FA Cup giant-killing . I venture that it was pretty good. “After a very slow start” says Mick, tempering my enthusiasm, but I’m sure he’s only trying to keep my feet on the ground. Wemberlee!