Wigan Athletic 0 Ipswich Town 0

I first travelled away to see Wigan Athletic on 22nd September 1992.  The match was the first leg of a League Cup  tie  and Ipswich Town were newly promoted to what had suddenly become the Premier League,  whilst Wigan were in Division Three where they are once again.  I think I travelled by car with a handful of fellow supporters and after a pre-match drink in a pub which I remember for its faux beams and cheap beer I joined 2,683 others to witness Gavin Johnson and an own goal  prevent defeat  on the night and set up a 6-2 aggregate victory a fortnight later.  That game was at Springfield Park, a fabulous old ground that had a curved grass bank behind one goal.  It was a wet evening so we paid extra to sit in the dry of the main stand.   Wigan Athletic wore the name of tinned-food purveyors, Heinz on their shirts.

Today there is no thrill of discovering an away ground for the first time, there isn’t even the thrill of a four or five hour journey along the congested motorways of England cooped up with three or four other blokes in a modestly priced, family-sized saloon car. Today,  I shall once again have to follow the game on the wireless courtesy of BBC Radio Suffolk’s Brenner Woolley and his current away-day sidekick, former FA Youth Cup winner Stuart Ainsley.   Football always dominates Saturdays even if it’s just a matter of listening to it on the radio, but in a vain effort to get more from life I have spent the morning tidying my garden alongside my wife Paulene.  We are serenaded by the croaking of frogs enjoying a writhing orgy of mating in the garden pond. I tried to give them all names, I got as far as Andre and Teddy, but there were too many of them and I couldn’t always be sure which ones were the girls and which ones were the boys.   After a couple of hours of weeding and digging my reward is a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for a case of eight direct from the brewer) whilst Paulene drinks gin and soda water. We sit at a metal garden table trying to spot patches of clear blue sky amongst the mass and swirl of the dull, grey cloud above; it reminds me of watching Ipswich Town.  We soon feel cold and finish our drinks indoors.

Three o’clock arrives earlier than I had anticipated and I miss kick-off as I fiddle with the dial on my retro—style Bush radio, fine tuning it to ensure optimum enjoyment of BBC Radio Suffolk.   Missing the kick-off is perhaps also a symptom of a creeping malaise that advances at the same pace as Town’s promotion hopes recede. Ten minutes of the match have passed. “Not a lot of quality at the moment, on the pitch” says Stuart suggesting perhaps that there may be quality elsewhere; if only we knew where.  “Eleven on the clock and still waiting for the first goal of the afternoon” adds Brenner glumly, although along the A14 and up the A1 Peterborough are already two goals up against Accrington.

“Wigan trying to play football from deep”, ………ball along the deck…….. not seeing a lot of quality are we? ” says Brenner lifting words from virtually every other commentary he’s done this season. The fourteenth minute and there is some interest, “I think the referee is potentially going to dish out a card” says Brenner a little breathlessly.  “ A right booking in my opinion” says Stuart struggling to find the correct words to express what he means.  The name of Wigan’s Thelo Aasgard is written down in referee James Bell’s notebook and the yellow card is probably not so much “dished out” as just held aloft by the referee.   Aasgard becomes a favourite of Brenner as the game proceeds and he will later refer to him as “the 19 year-old Norwegian”; “…looks like a player who could hurt Ipswich Town” continues Brenner, although this isn’t necessarily a guarantee of future footballing greatness.

“If you’re joining us this afternoon after nineteen minutes, you ain’t missed a great deal” says Brenner sounding all chummy and clearly anticipating that malaise I mentioned earlier that makes supporters miss the start of games through sheer disinterest.  Brenner continues describing a passage of play but mysteriously adding the word “goalless” mid-sentence.  It’s as if the absence of goals is playing on his mind, they’re what he lives for, goals are the oxygen of his commentary.   Diverting his attention away from goals Brenner perhaps indulges in a little word play,   “Tilt on the stretch” he says as the Wigan defender whose surname is a verb stretches for the ball.  I look forward to hearing “Tilt on the turn”, “Tilt at full tilt” and “Tilt leaning in” but they never come and I can’t help feeling  Brenner has missed an open goal.

Brenner and Stuart generously begin to look for excuses for the terrible game they are watching. “The pitch looks like it might have a bobble in it” says Stuart; pity it wasn’t  a crevasse or open cast mine I think to myself.  “Not quite been at the races” says Stuart of the poorly performing Gwion Edwards, practicing his football-speak.  Will Keane almost scores for Wigan. “Fantastic defending, Toto Nsiala has kept the score at nil-nil” says Brenner, trying to get as excited about a goal not being scored as he would about one being scored.

Town win a corner; little Alan Judge takes it; Brenner refers to him as “The Irishman”, making him sound like a character in a spy novel.  A third of the game has been played and Town win another corner; “Dozzell just pulls his shorts down slightly as he takes this one” says Brenner unintentionally explaining perhaps why the ball fails to beat the first defender.  Another passage of play ensues with Brenner naming each recipient of the ball in turn but then inserting “nil-nil” mid-sentence.   Town win a free-kick wide on the left. “Let’s get it in an area where the big boys at the back can attack it” says Stuart making the game sound like a playground free for all.  Stuart praises Andre Dozzell for winning the free-kick; “He done well” says Stuart, drawing attention to both the growing culture of inclusivity that now prevails at the BBC and the death of received English.

“Stretching to clear is Tilt” says Brenner smiling audibly. “Still not a great deal to report” he continues. “There’s not a plan” adds Stuart.  “As the sun comes out in Greater Manchester” says Brenner in the absence of anything more interesting happening; “Ball along the floor” he continues, innovatively not using the word ‘deck’, when he actually means ‘ground’.  “One minute of added time” continues Brenner; “I’m fairly happy about that” he adds laughing with Stuart; not it seems because he’s busting to go to the toilet,  but rather because the match has been so dire.  I like the idea however that he is desperate for a wee having had the proverbial pre-match skin-full; he might enjoy the match more if he had.

I catch part of Stuart’s half-time summing up before I head to the kitchen to put the kettle on. “Really tough to watch” is Stuart’s synopsis. “I hope Paul Cook hasn’t sent them out to play like that” he muses. Stuart goes on to tell us how he feels sorry for Freddie Sears who is being made to play out of position.  At times like this it seems that all football managers are idiots who don’t know what they are doing.   The broadcast returns to Graham in the studio, “Phew….that was hard going” says the anchorman.  I take solace in a cup of green tea and two ginger Christmas Tree biscuits from a job lot acquired at a knock down price because its nearly Easter.

The second half begins and Brenner tells us that Town are playing from right to left in their “burgundy and petrol blue kit”, it’s a beautiful way to describe dark red and dark blue, worthy of the Dulux colour chart and conjuring images of limpid, full-bodied wines and Molotov cocktails.  Luke Woolfenden we learn, has replaced Kane Vincent-Young for whom this was only his second match back in the team after a long absence due to injury.  “May be they’re just being cautious; let’s be positive” says Stuart fearing the worst.  It will later transpire that Kane now has a hamstring injury.

“Good pressure this from Wigan, early doors in the second half” says Brenner airing his favourite football-speak phrase in all the world.  It becomes apparent that Wigan have improved with their half-time tea but Ipswich haven’t. “It’s just the basics of football Ipswich are struggling with at the moment” says Stuart describing how straight from kick-off Town aimlessly lumped the ball forward.  It’s an illuminating comment from Stuart, but I would quibble with his reducing the importance of the basics by describing them as “ just the basics”. 

The commentary and thereby the game, trundles along.  “Dozzell along the floor” says Brenner telling us what we knew, that Andre Dozzell doesn’t have wings, before going onto to trot out some more old favourites.  “Paul Cook, gloves and beanie hat on, just down below us”.  “Always going to be an easy one for the big Czech to catch”. “Edwards wafts his right leg at the ball”.  “So, so disappointing from Ipswich Town”.  Stuart meanwhile is strongly advocating that Town should be  “ getting a foot on the ball”, from which I think he means we should simply be passing it to one another, not standing about like the Suffolk Punch on the club badge.

 “ Big chance missed by Wigan” says Brenner as Funso Ojo skips past Luke Chambers but fails to get the ball past the combined efforts of Toto Nsiala and Tomas Holy.  I notice from the commentary that Wigan have a player called Lee Evans and I ponder how good it would be to have an Eric Morecambe  at left-back or Stan Laurel up front.  I emerge from my reverie to hear Brenner say “Flat, disappointing” he is no doubt describing Town’s performance again, but I surmise that if disgraced former sky  TV presenter Richard Keys or Canal Plus hack Pierre Menes had said those words they would probably be referring to a female footballer’s chest.

“Here come Wigan on the prowl” says Brenner, making them sound like a team of perverts; “The burgundy shirts streaming back”.  Kayden Jackson and Josh Harrop replace Freddie Sears and little Alan Judge.  “A nice easy catch for Jones the goalkeeper” says Brenner, making me think of Ivor the Engine and Jones the steam.  Wigan threaten to break away but Luke Woolfenden trips Thelo  Aasgaard and is booked.  “It’s a good foul from Woolfenden” says Stuart revealing a weak grasp of morality which he had until now kept well hidden.  “Not really a game that deserves a goal” adds Brenner a short while later, making his own contribution to the philosophical theme that is developing.

Armando Dobra replaces Gwion Edwards. “Can he be the creative spark that turns one point into three?” asks Brenner providing his own creative spark to the commentary and inspiring thoughts of alchemy, magic and the occult, with me if no one else.   “He’s small, he’s diminutive. He’s got good little feet” adds Stuart, introducing tautology and podiatry into the already heady mix.  “It feels like a defeat watching this” says Brenner, bursting the balloon of hope and banishing the dream in a puff of smoke.

The game enters the final four minutes of normal time.  Luke Chambers is booked by Mr Bell for a petulant foul. “Frustration” opines Brenner.  “He’s had 86 minutes to show his frustration in other ways” responds Stuart poignantly; it’s a retort that’s almost worthy of applause; “Pretty good” I say to myself in the style of Larry David in ‘Curb your enthusiasm’.

“Are you finding it hard to stay awake Stuart?” asks Brenner injecting an element of levity into proceedings. Suddenly however, Brenner’s voice takes on a sense of urgency and excitement “Norwood heads the ball into the box…”, but that’s as exciting as it gets.  “Been a while since Town scored a late decisive goal” says Brenner with a hint of resignation. “A boring afternoon it has to be said” and Brenner says it, because he has to.

Perhaps feeling insulted by the poor spectacle that the two teams have produced, the fourth official declares that there will be six minutes of added on time;  I feel like I’ve been transported through time and back to school where I have been put in detention.  Nothing of any note happens in the additional six minutes of time added on for inept play and the final whistle brings nothing but relief.   “No plan, really difficult to watch” is all of Stuart’s summary that I need to hear. I switch of the Bush radio and cast all thoughts of Ipswich Town from my mind, although tomorrow I shall wear my T-shirt which bears the words “FC IT…where’s the pub?”  To add insult to injury the pubs are of course all shut.

Blackpool 1 Ipswich Town 4

For someone who had already given up travelling home and away every week to watch my team, one of the good things about the current pandemic and so-called ‘elite’ football being played behind closed-doors is that when your team plays away from home, you simply cannot go, so there is no internal debate to be had about whether or not you should travel.  Equally, there is no longer that same feeling of regret or self-doubt come Saturday afternoon that you are possibly missing out on something when the decision has irrevocably been made not to go away.  Today however, is not such a day, there is no chance that I would have travelled to Blackpool because it’s a long way away and it’s a dump. I have been to Blackpool twice before, once in 1989 with a girlfriend, whilst somewhat bizarrely holidaying on the Wirral and staying in a hotel that looked like the Munster’s house.  That day the sun shone and we took the tram along the front, no football was involved.  Then, eighteen and half years later in January 2008 I was one of a car load of four Town fans who, along with several others witnessed a one all draw at Bloomfield Road.  That game has faded from memory, but the one thing I do recall is a massive, somewhat dilapidated public lavatory near the sea front; this is not a metaphor for Blackpool itself, although it could well be because I found it to be a seedy, ugly town, but the public toilet was actually quite impressive.  To be fair to Blackpool it does have a decent wrought-iron lattice tower (158 metres tall), but once you’ve been to Paris (the Eiffel Tower is 300metres tall), it is easily confused with numerous phone masts.

 In my experience the best thing about Blackpool is the football team’s tangerine shirt, something that first came to my notice in 1971 in the form of ten painted, moulded, plastic footballers on circular bases which I saw when I attended a Subbuteo club at school.  The thought of Blackpool’s tangerine shirts still thrills me a little today as over lunch I look forward to Ipswich Town’s encounter with the collection of living, breathing footballers who currently wear them for work. It’s a cold day of showers and occasional sunshine which I have so far spent indoors, save for a brief excursion to my garage to check its leaking roof and the positioning of five plastic buckets.   My wife Paulene and I eat our lunch of heated-up homemade curry, left over from last night’s dinner, and I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (500 ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for a case of eight bottles direct from Fuller’s brewery with free postage on orders over £50), which coincidentally, given its name, goes down very well with curry.  

It feels grey and a little chilly in the spare bedroom today and pining for human contact I choose to listen to the match on the wireless in the living room, where I will be in the company of Paulene.  With Paulene watching the Giro d’Italia cycle race on the telly I have to find an earphone because she is strangely uninterested in hearing the fortunes of the Super Blues.  It’s easier to use an earphone with a smaller more portable radio and I therefore eschew the Bush TR82 today in favour of the Sony ICF-S10 portable radio.  After an initial unfortunate brush with Radio Essex, I delicately adjust the dial just in time to catch the hand-over from the Radio Suffolk studio in St Matthews Street, Ipswich to Brenner Woolley at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.  Today Brenner is in the company of former Ipswich Town starlet Neil Rimmer who, whilst not exactly a Town legend or candidate for our Hall of Fame scored three times in twenty-two appearances for Town between 1985 and 1988 before he went onto play ten times as many matches for Wigan Athletic.  According to Wikipedia Neil is currently manager of Ashton Town.  Neil has a warm, almost mellifluous voice, perfect for radio, even if his mild scouse accent occasionally makes me think of Keith Chegwin, but that could just be me desperately trying to find humour in every situation.

Brenner helpfully tells me that Town are all in blue today and I strike up a colourful mental picture of our blue, Blackpool’s tangerine and the green of the pitch against banks of empty orange seats under a no doubt grey sky.  Brenner begins his commentary, relaying that it is former Town employee Grant Ward who “gets the ball rolling” before he treats us to some decent footballese, describing Blackpool as getting to the edge of the Town area “early doors”.  “Impressive stuff from the Radio Suffolk man.” he might say if he was commentating on his own commentary.  According to Brenner it’s a sunny afternoon in Blackpool, so I adjust the colour and brightness in my mental picture; and it’s very blowy, either that or one of Brenner or Neil is about to tap the microphone and launch into a kind of Norman Collier impression – “testing – testing, 1-2-3”.  Brenner will later say that he expects we can hear the wind around the microphone; he’s not wrong.

Unlike Mantovani or most of the musical content on Radio Suffolk, the early minutes of the game are not easy listening.  “Town have yet to have the ball on the ground in the Blackpool half” says Brenner. ”We’ve got to be precise with our passing” adds Neil offering a solution to the problem and simultaneously endearing himself to Town fans with his use of the first person plural.   “I think it’s all about results” says Neil explaining to Brenner what will make Town fans happy or annoyed, although Mick McCarthy might have cause to disagree, but thankfully he’s not with Neil and Brenner this afternoon.

Twelve minutes pass. “Maxwell puts his right foot right through it” says Brenner using an expression he tends to use once in every match to describe a goal kick.  Brenner carries on with a bit of filler as the action subsides, “Nsiala back in his native north-west” he says, displaying a woeful knowledge of the geography of both England and the Democratic Republic of Congo; Toto was born in Kinshasa which is in the West, not the northwest of the DRC.   Although Kinshasa was in Zaire when Toto was born, it has never physically moved and it seems unlikely that it’s ever been in Lancashire. 

Barely have I recovered from the thought of LS Lowry’s paintings of the cotton mills of Kinshasa and its Hot Pot and Barm Cake restaurants, than “Chambers shoots – fabulous goal!” are the welcome words arriving in my earpiece through the ether.  Town are a goal up courtesy of a shot that “…just about took the net away”.  Paulene missed my celebration of the goal because she has nipped to the toilet, but I tell her about it when she gets back; she feigns interest perhaps because her own team Portsmouth are also winning.

The first half is half over and Brenner tells us that it’s so far so good. Ninety seconds later “Nsiala goes Route One for Ipswich” and Brenner revives memories of BBC tv’s fabulous Quiz Ball, a programme which was last aired in 1972.  I think to myself how I’d like to see Quiz Ball revived; Richard Osman could host it in place of David Vine, they practically wear the same glasses.   It sounds as if the goal has settled Town, although occasionally they continue to give the ball away in midfield; more than once Huws is the culprit but the defence recover well.  “Gabriel back to Marvin Ekpiteta” says Brenner using the best two surnames in the Blackpool team, adding that Ekpiteta has “…come up through the pyramid”, which makes him sound like he could have been an extra in The Mummy.   A move breaks down and “Again Town starting from square one” says Brenner omitting to tell us that he’s now using the system created for the very first BBC radio commentary for a match (Arsenal v Sheffield Wednesday in Division One on 22nd January 1927) whereby the pitch was divided up into eight squares and the commentator Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam described the game whilst a co-commentator said which square the ball was in; a diagram showing the football pitch divided up into squares was printed in that week’s Radio Times.

At about 3.35 Gwion Edwards runs into the Blackpool penalty area “He shoots – he scores” says Brenner and Town lead 2-0.  “Again, I think it’s deserved” says Neil displaying a level of enthusiasm and positivity towards Town not often heard. “Yeah clinical from Ipswich Town” replies Brenner putting the emphasis on the word ‘Clinical’ in a way that makes him sound either sarcastic or surprised.

Three minutes later Hawkins “scoops” a chance over the cross bar but Brenner kindly adds that it was “…not quite put on a plate for him”.  Neil’s audible smiles are having an effect on  Brenner who reminds listeners that Neil Rimmer is with him today and goes on to refer to Neil as “…so far a lucky charm”, which sadly implies that the 2-0 score line is nothing to do with Town playing well, but all down to Neil, and that that luck may change.  Other forces are at work it seems and as a Blackpool attack is broken up with a headed clearance from Town’s goalkeeper, Brenner announces “Holy’s forehead takes charge”.  Equally weirdly Brenner praises the teamwork of Town saying that when Miles Kenlock has been under pressure at left-back “… a Huws, an Edwards or a Wilson has helped out.” raising questions about just how many players with these surnames we have at the club and why they are all playing at the same time.

Half-time is almost here but there is enough time for Teddy Bishop to win the ball and then “…he shoots – and oh, great goal!”.  “Get this for a scoreline” say Brenner; Town lead 3-0 and it’s time for a cup of tea, although not before Brenner asks Neil for his assessment of the half and Neil says “I was very impressed” before adding “Goals change games” because clichés and football are impossible to separate.

Unplugging myself from the radio I head for the kitchen but forego a half-time snack today because I had a slice of homemade carrot cake after lunch and still feel quite full.  Making a case for a return to the yellow and blue away kit of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I take my tea in a yellow and blue Ipswich Town mug, which also features the old club crest and refers to the Premier League, dating it to the 1992 to 1995 period.

The second-half coverage opens with Neil again endearing himself to Town fans by telling us that “Teams like this shouldn’t cause us any problems”.  Brenner and Neil reminisce about Neil’s playing days at Ipswich and we learn that the highlight of his time with Town was his two-goals against Manchester City.  Brenner feels the need to explain to ‘younger listeners’ that  back then Town would often beat Manchester City, but omits to tell them that everyone did.

Blackpool win a corner. “They need a goal soon if they are going to get anything out of this game” say Brenner, unnecessarily seeing the game from the opposition’s point of view.  The 57th minute arrives and Kayden Jackson replaces Oliver Hawkins.  An hour has been played.  “Surely a chance, and it is” and Blackpool score through Gary Madine. That’s “really disappointing” says Neil perfectly catching the zeitgeist back in Suffolk.  “Have Town been guilty of sitting back?” probes Brenner turning the knife. “Yeah” says Neil, really disappointed.

There are twenty-five minutes left. “Anything could happen” Brenner tells us almost as if expecting Blackpool to score again.  It seems as if a substitution is about to be made and we learn that on-loan Keanan Bennetts is possibly coming on, “Paul Lambert certainly has his arm around somebody on the far side” adds Brenner injecting a hint of scandal into proceedings. Bennetts replaces Teddy Bishop, but as good as it is for Bennetts to get a ‘run out’ for the first team , I am slightly disappointed that Paul Lambert is not combining his Saturday afternoon job with some sort of romantic tryst.

“Surely not a penalty there” says Brenner suddenly. “Well played referee” he continues having evidently realised that he needs to want Town to win.  In the same vein Brenner begins to speak more quickly and with an air of excited anticipation “Bennetts cuts inside, shoots” then “Wide” in a flattened, deeper tone.  Brenner and Neil are conveying the feeling that Town are responding to Blackpool having scored, Paul Lambert is clapping his hands on the far side, presumably as an act of encouragement for his team and not because he’s cold. Brenner has not said what Paul is wearing today so we are not to know if he might be cold or not.

There are ten minutes left.  Brenner brings good news. “Edwards in behind Gabriel, is he going to make it four? He does”.  The game is won for Ipswich, but perversely Brenner’s thoughts are with the opposition and he finds it necessary to share his supposition that Blackpool manager Neil Critchley will “…be happy with the attitude”.  I’m not sure anyone back in Suffolk cares.

It’s ten to five and I realise I never drank my half-time tea.  I down the still lukewarm beverage and by the time I’ve done that referee Chris Sarginson, whose name I don’t recall Brenner having mentioned, has blown his whistle for the last time this afternoon.   The players, we are told, begin to “pat hands” and in my mind’s eye I see Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in tangerine shirts doing their “patty cake” routine in the “Road to” movies. Road to Blackpool would be a worthy addition to the series. After almost two hours of Radio Suffolk I can’t bear to listen to whatever follows the commentary and for me the broadcast ends with Brenner telling us that Neil will be “hanging around to take your calls”; my mind’s eye flits from musical comedy to a vision of Neil, hands in pockets loitering outside a dimly lit seafront phone box.

Four-one wins away from home are not common occurrences for any team, in the 1980-81 season when we were the best team on the planet we scored four goals away from home twice, at Coventry City and at St Etienne, so today’s result is one to treasure. Results like this however do make me want to travel away again and they highlight the sadness of football that we can’t be a part of.   But I refuse to let it bother me and I am now already looking forward to next Saturday and the reunion of Brenner with Mick Mills after what seems like a geological age without a home game. Inspired by the mention of St Etienne and Blackpool Tower I shall be wearing my Allez les Bleus t-shirt.

Ipswich Town 2 Rochdale 0

It’s a grey, blustery Saturday in late September and despite the miserable nature of the weather there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Obviously, the normal, “traditional” Saturday of dossing about a bit, catching the train, sinking a couple of pints of fine ale and strolling on down to Portman Road is not going to happen today because of the continuing pandemic, but a fresh, new reality has taken root and after a morning of tidying my garage, involving putting up hooks and brackets on which to hang my garden furniture and my bicycle, there is now the prospect of logging onto the ifollow to watch the mighty Ipswich Town.  Today there is added excitement too as today is the first ever appearance at Portman Road of one of the Football League’s most resilient, remarkable and in most people’s eyes unsuccessful clubs, Rochdale AFC.  Rochdale’s survival as a professional football club for almost a century is simultaneously a great achievement and a story of fantastic under-achievement. No other club can boast thirty-six consecutive seasons in the fourth division or a home crowd for a league game of just 450.   That Rochdale have spent eight of the past ten seasons in the third division nevertheless makes them one of Britain’s most successful clubs, relatively speaking. As if that is not enough, Rochdale has a marvellous Victorian town hall, something it has in common with Ipswich, but it was also the birthplace of the Co-op, and Gracie Fields.

After a somewhat peculiar ‘lunch’ consisting of the remains of a bag of Gujerati Mix and leftover home-made chips that my wife Paulene didn’t want, I enjoy a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually 500 millilitres) of Adnams Ease-Up IPA (two for £3 from Waitrose) whilst logging-on to the i-follow.   Amazingly, I find the ifollow very easy to set up, connecting my laptop to the television with what I can only describe as aplomb.  The only thing I have difficulty with is getting the picture to fill the whole screen because the ‘expand’ icon is hidden beneath an icon that asks me if I want to chat about the EFL;  I can think of few things I  would want to do less.  I eventually discover that by scrolling down the page the ‘expand’ icon can be uncovered. Ready for the match I take up residence in an Ikea Poang chair, with my beer carefully positioned on an occasional table next to me, just an arm’s length away.

As an experiment, today I am not wearing the blue, Ipswich Town branded ‘button neck t-shirt’ that I wore when listening to last week’s win at Bristol Rovers, when watching the game versus Wigan Athletic the week before and when listening to the game versus Bristol Rovers in the League Cup the week before that.  Today I am wearing a grey Euro 2016 t-shirt that I bought at a Carrefour hypermarket in Tinqueux just outside Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’).  I need to know if Town can win on their own, or whether my ‘button neck t-shirt’ has special powers. 

The game has not yet started and I and my fellow viewers of the ifollow are treated to a Radio Suffolk preview of Needham Market’s match versus Stratford, the reporter Nick Garnham delivers his report in the style of a 10 year old who has been asked to read out loud in class; he’s very good.  The radio broadcast returns to Portman Road and resident Radio Suffolk commentator Brenner Woolley provides a precis of Town’s season so far before his side-kick and appointed expert Mick Mills magnanimously announces that “Most of what you’ve said I totally agree with”.  Undeterred, Brenner goes on to describe the two teams’ kits; I agree totally with most of what he says but disagree with his description of Rochdale’s shirts as ‘bottle green’, they’re a shade too light for that.  The Dulux colour chart has a shade called ‘Seaweed’ which is a much better match.

On the ifollow a caption appears that shows today’s teams and I am impressed with the use of the correct diacritical marks above the a, s and y of Tomas Holy’s name, something that our own match programme doesn’t even bother to do,  and nor do I because I can’t find them on my keyboard.   Returning from the caption to the pictures of Portman Road I feel a bit seasick due to some wobbly camera work but I am soon settled by the calming voice of Mick Mills, although he does then proceed to conjure some disturbing images when, talking about the advantages of a settled team, he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson would only ever “…mess about with three or four players”.   It’s not an accusation I’d heard levelled at Sir Alex before.

The match begins with the shrill whistle of today’s referee Mr John Busby and Rochdale kick off towards the North Stand in their seaweed green shirts with black stripes, black shorts and socks.  I am peering at my tv screen looking for a fat bloke with a Teddy Boy haircut after Brenner tells us that Paul McShane is playing at the back for Rochdale, but I then remember Rochdale’s penchant for players with famous names; well, Paul Weller played five games for them back in 2004 anyway. 

Town are very quickly looking good and only Freddie Sears and Jon Nolan deny them an early lead as they contrive to balls-up a two versus two breakaway in the seventh minute.  Mick Mills is almost as quick to tell us how Town are much the better team and are dominating, before Rochdale naturally enough then begin to pass the ball around with nonchalance and Chambers and Nsiala create a complete mess at the back just two minutes later. It’s Rochdale’s Aaron Morley who then has the first shot on goal, if it can be described as such.

Brenner tells us more than once than the rain is hammering down at Portman Road but we don’t need him to tell us that actually this isn’t a bad match at all.  Oliver Hawkins has a header saved, hits a post with a shot on the turn and then has another header cleared off the goal line.  Brenner tells us again that the rain is hammering on the roof of the stand and this time I’m glad he does because it sounds like applause, as well it might.   Brenner and Mick are almost purring over some the play but at the same time talking pretty sensibly in plain English. “Dozzell, using his quick feet there” says Brenner raising the question in my mind at least of whether a player’s feet can be quicker than his legs, and how, if they could, this would genuinely bamboozle the opposition.  “They’re decent; decent footballers, Rochdale” says Mick with a third of the match gone and sounding rather surprised. 

The match continues to be worth the entrance money, if not a tenner to watch it on the ifollow, and Brenner’s detailed radio commentary is adding to my enjoyment , especially when he introduces the use of compass-points into his description pinpointing possession in one instance to “…just North of the centre circle”.  I can only think the lashing of rain and wind has stirred up some memory of the shipping forecast in his BBC radio presenter consciousness.   Speaking of the wind and rain I’m quite pleased to see that my seat in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand is being kept dry by having a George Cross endorsed with the name of someone called Aaron draped over it.  It leads me to muse on whether I’d be so happy to have my seat sub-let to a cardboard cut-out of a complete stranger, I’m not sure I would.

Half-time is approaching and still the game flows like proper football should;  and even though a number of simple looking passes are going astray the emphasis is on attacking football. “We had bodies in the box, we had Luke Chambers in there” explains Mick, as if to say “even Luke Chambers”.  The Rochdale goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a 20 yard shot from Jon Nolan, Luke Chambers “…lumps the ball into touch” and a Freddie Sears cross is cleared off the goal line before notice of a minute of added on time is given and then half-time arrives.

With peripheral vision I glimpse an endorsement of the EFL by Screwfix as I leave the room and head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and seek out a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar and endeavour to create an authentic half-time experience in my own home.  I return in time to see the match stats paraded before me on the screen at least three times along with a request to report the fact to the piracy@efl.com e-mail address if I am watching this in “commercial premises”.  I wait for another caption inviting me to report the charging of a tenner to watch EFL football on the telly to the daylightrobbery@efl.com e-mail address; oddly it doesn’t appear.

Fifteen minutes pass in the blink of an eye and the football returns, but not before I enjoy the avant garde views of wanderings of the camera man and lingering shots of Paul Lambert returning to the dugout in his large, rather shapeless, black Adidas coat, yet another addition to his burgeoning match day wardrobe since last season.  I can only think that in PL’s five year contract wily Marcus Evans included an ‘all you can wear from Planet Blue’ clause in lieu of hard cash.

Addressing the important issues of the day Brenner pumps Mick for his views on football without crowds and Mick is forthright, telling us in no uncertain terms that “This is not a proper game of football”; I can’t disagree, as much as I try to pretend that it is by creating my own ‘going to the match’ fantasy world by buying a programme on-line, drinking a pre-match beer and a half-time cuppa and singing to my wife that she’s a “dirty northern bastard” (she’s actually from Portsmouth).

Mick continues in honest vein suggesting that “Freddie might be losing his job soon” as another of Freddie’s free-kicks fails to make the opposition goalkeeper do anything more than raise his eyebrows.  Freddie’s free-kick shortcomings are soon forgotten however as just a few minutes later a good passing move down the left hand side of the pitch ends with Teddy Bishop scoring at the far post.  “Yay” I shout, not standing up and sending my Poang chair skittering backwards on the tiled floor as I look for someone northern looking to make obscene hand gestures towards.   “One-nil to the Tractor Boys” I don’t sing to the tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West.’

With the game re-started after the hiatus of the goal Brenner lapses in to a momentary bout of  footballese as he tells us that Gavin Bazunu “…puts his foot through the ball”, before more helpfully adding to the mental picture of the afternoon by sketching in Paul Lambert stood in his black coat with his hands in his pockets. The Town then make another decent passing move down the left hand side of the pitch and this time Gwion Edwards scores and Town lead 2-0.  “We’ve got hold of the three points” says Mick, causing Town fans everywhere to gasp at his most blatant, brazen tempting of fate.  Here is me thinking that a two-nil lead is the worst thing to have in football, should we go for a third goal and risk conceding or sit-back and risk conceding, letting the opposition back into the game either way.   Is it such confidence that separates Mick as a former captain of Ipswich and England from us punters? 

Twenty-five minutes of normal time remain and Jon Nolan is booked for a pointless trip of an opponent, but somehow Brenner hasn’t noticed it and seeing Mr Busby with his arm raised thinks it’s Hawkins who has been shown the yellow card by BT’s misspelt mascot’s namesake.  What could he have been doing to have missed that I wonder, checking his compass; practising putting his foot through a ball? 

The remaining minutes are illuminated by a wonderful pirouette with the ball at his feet by Gwion Edwards (it can only be a matter of time before someone says he’s a Welsh wizard), a full card of substitutions and more rain “hammering” on the roof.   Substitute Flynn Downes seems to want to pick a fight with Rochdale’s Matty Lund just seconds after entering the field of play and Mick is quick to call him out.  Downes is showing himself to be the idiot that we saw before when he was sent off in a pre-season friendly at Cambridge.  Fifteen minutes now remain and Brenner tells us that it is “…good Jack Lankester is involved again, and playing football”. It would have been a tragedy if he’d returned from injury only to play water polo.  With his predilection for short vowels Brenner can’t help not mispronouncing Lankester as Lancaster; I shall be writing to the radio equivalent of Points of View. Bloody northerners.

As full-time approaches Town become more and more sluggish and sit back, it’s not something I enjoy watching. As if echoing the drop in performance on the pitch, the sound quality of the broadcast suddenly drops too, with Brenner occasionally taking on the accent of a Dalek, as happened towards the end of the Wigan Athletic game.   My mood is lightened however when in the 90th minute Rochdale’s Rathbone (sadly Oliver not Basil), volleys a shot against one of his own players; you can’t beat a bit of slapstick. 

A good 2-0 win is imminent and taking Mick’s counsel I am not worrying that the last flickering embers of the game see Town continuing to do the bare minimum.   But Brenner has to try and make the commentary interesting, although whilst trying to suggest the prospect of a Rochdale consolation, he shows that he’s mentally in the car on the way home too as he says “A little bit sloppy from Ipswich, what can Rotherham do?”  A little bit sloppy indeed Brenner. 

With five minutes of added-on time played the games ends and I reflect upon an afternoon in which I have learned that Ipswich can win without the help of my blue, button-neck ITFC branded t-shirt, although it doesn’t prove that the t-shirt doesn’t have special powers and could mean that my Euro 2016 t-shirt might also be capable of influencing results.  Oh ‘eck, as Gracie Fields might have said.

Ipswich Town 2 Wigan Athletic 0

Sunday bloody, Sunday, a classic angst ridden film drama from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger starring Glenda Jackson, Murray Head and Peter Finch and featuring a doomed dog called Kenyatta, but also how I describe the Christian Sabbath when Town have to play on it.  I like my football on a Saturday and at 3 pm to boot.  Noon on a Sunday should be when the pubs open and nothing else.  To make matters worse today’s is the first match of the league season, a fixture which for the sake of symmetry if nothing else should kick off at the same time as every other club’s first game of the season.  As if Boris ‘Bozo’ Johnson being Prime Minister wasn’t enough to cope with.  Why do things only ever get worse?

Waking from my slumbers a little before 8 o’clock I draw the blinds and am bathed in bright early autumn sunlight. I shower and dress, donning my button neck, blue, Ipswich Town branded T-shirt purchased over the summer from the Planet Blue website, where my review of the garment has never appeared despite having been submitted three times (see previous blog post “Consumer City 1 Lockdown Town 0”); I’m not bitter, but the truth must be told. After a breakfast with my wife Paulene of bacon, egg, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms with tea and an espresso coffee, all prepared by me, I look for things to fill the time until shortly before noon when I will switch on my lap top, log on to the ifollow and hope that it lets me watch the match.  I have heard that yesterday Portsmouth supporters were unable to watch their game versus Shrewsbury Town on the ifollow and ended up listening to local radio.  I am soon in my garage breaking up cardboard boxes to put out for the refuse collection on Wednesday; it’s been a busy week of deliveries with two new toilet seats and thirty-two bottles of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer pale ale all arriving courtesy of men driving white vans.  Boxes crushed, I potter about and fold away the blue and white bunting that bedecks my garden each summer to celebrate the season the sun and the Town.

Time passes quickly and Paulene is soon telling me that she has logged me onto to the ifollow and  it’s working.  I pour myself a pint of water, which I liven up with a squirt of lime juice, and lie on my back on  the orange canvas bean bag that normally sits in the corner of the room, but which I have re-positioned centrally in front of the smart tv.   I have today’s match programme by my side; impressively it arrived in yesterday’s post in time for the match.  It’s not the best programme I’ve ever seen, it’s front cover, which appears to be an homage to the programmes of the 1980-81 season is a little speckled at the edges, like a poor photocopy, which is possibly the source of the design, but at least the cover price is a £1 cheaper than if this was a normal game.  I don’t mind if there are fewer pages and less to read, I just want a few folded sheets of paper that are specific to this match and which lists the teams or at least the names from which the teams will be selected.  Who actually reads all the other drivel that’s printed in the massive programmes we pay the price of a paperback book for anyway? Less is more in the world of football match programmes and I pine for those of the 1960’s and 70’s.  In France, the clubs that produce a programme do not charge for it.

I am now comfortably slumped and as the broadcast begins I am surprised, but pleased, to hear the familiar, nearly Geordie tones (he’s from Berwick-Upon-Tweed) of Brenner Woolley and the flat, steady delivery of Mick Mills.  Mick sets out on a lengthy monologue in which he immediately tempts fate by explaining that this is a good time to play Wigan.  He goes on to explain in a manner which suggest he thinks we should be surprised, that he has been doing a bit of research and had logged on to the Wigan website to see who is in their squad.  But he tells us that they have shipped out sixteen players and only brought in two so it was a waste of time; presumably he didn’t recognise any of the names. 

The players are now walking onto the pitch to the accompaniment of the crap-rock strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”, this despite the absence of a crowd.  I wonder to myself if the ‘entrance music’ is meant to inspire the players, and feel glad I am not a professional footballer.  Sadly the opportunity has not been taken to have some fun with the entrance music by playing something like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” or something by Roger Whittaker.  I’m pleased to see the players ‘take the knee’ and hope that all the people that it annoys, and sadly there are some,  are so annoyed that they slam their heads repeatedly against the nearest wall and pour boiling water over their own genitals.  Today’s referee and assistants are wearing purple tops which make them look like sporting Anglican bishops, which is appropriate for a Sunday game.  Meanwhile , Brenner Woolley tries to trump Mick Mills efforts to tempt fate by telling us that Wigan Athletic as a club are “in free fall”, which is probably not quite true.   At 12:02 little Alan Judge literally gets the ball rolling for Town who are resplendent in their new kit of all blue with Adidas decorations and the yellow  and blue badge that the team wore back in the days when it won Cups and was one of the very best in Europe, if not the World.  Wigan in contrast are today’s ‘baddies’, wearing all-black, although the gift of the tv close-up reveals that the shirt features a grim machine-like pattern of various shades of grey hexagon.

The game begins like a tennis match with the ball being knocked back and forward pointlessly between the two teams, but this disappointment is tempered by the realisation that Brenner Woolley’s radio commentary is actually much better than the usual tv commentary because he makes the effort to say who has the ball, and that is all we really need to know. On a tv screen the numbers and names on the backs of the players’ shirts are too small to read and most of the players look the same with their conscripts’ haircuts.

Eight minutes pass and Wigan should be ahead as 19 year old Nigerian Emeka Obi is left all alone to head Gary Roberts’ corner powerfully but clumsily past the post; the Ipswich defence seemingly need to learn the lesson that black lives especially matter when they’re in your own penalty area.  At about this time Paulene comes into the room and by some sorcery manages to make the screen bigger.  This naturally adds to my enjoyment but not as much as Teddy Bishop does in the eleventh minute as he heads into the goal an attempted clearance of a Freddie Sears’ left-wing cross.  It’s a goal that in its construction has something in common with Roger Osborne’s FA Cup winning goal in 1978, with the Wigan defender playing the role of the hapless Willie Young and with Freddie Sears as David Geddes.

As well as putting Town ahead, the goal highlights the fact that the commentary is fractionally ahead of the pictures on the screen as Brenner tells me that Teddy has scored a moment before the ball strikes the net.  As the game continues it’s a lack of synchronisation that ultimately proves reassuring as Emeka Obi is twice more left free to score, but Brenner promptly tells me that he fails to do so at the very moment when my heart is about to enter my mouth.  Brenner spoils it a bit though when he confirms that Wigan should be ahead, but adds, sounding slightly disappointed “…as it is , it’s 1-0 to Town”.  From wrongly placed bias Brenner then veers towards surrealism with the phrase “Ipswich Town’s ball, in the shape of Stephen Ward”.   The picture in the programme of Stephen only adds to my worries because I hadn’t realised he had a nose bigger than mine and hair neat enough to suggest he might follow a career as a referee once his playing days are over.

Whilst Brenner Woolley’s commentary adds things to the commentary not visible to the human eye, Mick Mills is I think having a very good day, providing some convincing and totally plausible tactical analysis about the full-backs and how the two teams’ respective line-ups and formations cancel each other out.  On days like this it’s as if Mick is wearing the number 4 shirt again in Frans Thijssen’s absence and is running the midfield.

Wigan had looked quite good for a spell but Town are looking better, and a passage of absolutely marvellous play ends with Teddy Bishop having a shot tipped away on to the post by Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones, whose name instantly has me breaking into the opening song on the Clash’s eponymous first album.  It’s easily the highlight of the match so far, but soon Brenner is competing with more weirdness as he tells how “Naismith scoops Sears’ cross away with his left shoe”.  His left shoe! No wonder we’re winning if Wigan are playing in their shoes; but presumably for these Lancastrians it’s better than playing in clogs.

With a half hour gone there is a drinks break and the camera lingers on Wigan manager John Sheridan and his coach gesticulating and pointing enthusiastically as if relaying the latest odds on another relegation to the club’s former owners.  Meanwhile Town manager Paul Lambert is wearing a rather unpleasant shiny grey Adidas training top and a blue Ipswich Town branded baseball cap.  I’m not a fan of baseball caps, to me they just say “Sir Francis Chichester”, and whilst I have nothing against the sadly deceased circumnavigator, he wasn’t a Town fan.  What have you done with your v-neck black jumper Paul? That looked much more classy.

As the end of the half draws nigh Joe Garner hits the Town cross bar with an overhead kick and my attention is grabbed by his nascent ginger beard, but also his skinhead haircut, which makes him look like he could be a member of the BNP, although I’m certain he isn’t.  The half ends with Mick Mills telling us that “A second goal would be handy to say you’re in a good position” before the sound from Radio Suffolk takes on a weirdness to match Brenner’s commentary making the co-commentators sound like a cross between the Daleks and Peter Frampton. Oddly it’s an aural effect that suits Mick more than Brenner.

Half-time brings adverts like on the real telly and I am being encouraged to purchase the services of Screwfix, something called Utilita, some sort of video game and to watch the EFL on Quest, and then it happens all over again as if I might need reminding.  Not really interested in this commercially driven filling of the football broadcast sandwich I head to the fridge and pour myself a glass of Faro Foudroyante lambic beer.  Paulene is watching the Tour de France on the telly in the kitchen and expresses her surprise that Town are winning.  My beer tastes a bit like cider and is very refreshing on a warm day like today.

The joys of the ifollow broadcast return with Norwood replacing Drinan for Town and Perry replacing a Wigan player; like Mick Mills, I don’t know who.  At 13:07 the fun begins again and soon Brenner is saying “Norwood takes the ball on his shoe”. What is it with these northerners playing in shoes? Are Church’s and Clark’s suddenly offering better sponsorship deals than Nike and Adidas?  This doesn’t bode well I’m thinking; thank goodness we’ve already scored one goal because I can’t see Norwood scoring  if he’s not wearing boots.  Idiot.  I’m surprised Paul Lambert allows it.

The second half is interesting enough to begin with; but Wigan are doing better and Brenner suggests that Town let Gary Roberts go too soon, although he is now thirty-six years old; but it’s an opinion I support. In recent years Town and English football in general have valued athleticism and endurance above skill far too much. I want to watch football not long distance running.  Brenner now adds incontrovertible facts to set alongside his opinions and lets us know that Town have won only four of their last sixteen home games before Mick Mills advises that someone else should have a go at the free-kicks after Freddie Sears sends  a second hopelessly over the cross bar; I couldn’t quite understand why he took them when Bishop and Dozzell are both playing, but perhaps  I am wrong to see them as the heirs to Peter Morris, Arnold Muhren, Mark Brennan, Ian Redford and Jimmy Juan.

An hour has passed and Luke Chambers is the first player booked, but the match is becoming a bit boring; Mick Mills euphemistically describes it as ‘mundane’ and asks if Wigan aren’t beginning to be the better team.  If I didn’t have beer to hand I’d be hoping for Pat from Clacton to appear with a bag of sweets now; hopefully the sugar would help me feel less queasy at the sight of Joe Garner’s completely tattooed left arm, which makes him look as if he has a nasty skin condition, all his veins and capillaries are a little too close to the surface  or he hasn’t washed his arm for a year.  But more to do with the game I am currently unimpressed with Norwood who seems to be wrongly playing beyond the defender who is marking him (Naismith), which means the ball is always intercepted before it reaches him, whereas Drinan played in front of the defender, received the ball, controlled it and laid it off bringing Dozzell and Bishop, the attacking midfield players, into the game.  I like to think that Mick Mills would be impressed with my tactical evaluation.

 Seventy-three minutes pass and Edwards replaces Sears, and three minutes later Huws replaces Bishop and the game swings back in Town’s favour.  Just four minutes after Huws comes on Edwards doubles Town’s lead after a second excellent passing moving from Town, again down the left, and our record of sixteen successive games televised by Sky tv without a win looks set to end.  The game is as good as won and the remaining highlights are reduced to seeing Wigan substitute Oliver Crankshaw massaging his right buttock, although he does have reassuringly long hair.  Town attempt to end the game with panache, playing ‘keep ball’ until it reaches Luke Chambers and it’s good to see Emyr Huws then kick Joe Garner in the stomach. But there’s nothing more to this and at four minutes to two referee Mr Thomas Bramall calls time. 

It’s been an afternoon of mixed and fluid emotions just as should be the case with proper football matches.  The game has been won, but the result was often in doubt and credit to Messrs Woolley and Mills, today they have reflected and explained the turmoil, the trouble and the ultimate satisfaction, a much better performance than last Saturday.  The ifollow has also done its job and I feel more confident about watching future broadcasts, even if I am paying over the odds just to watch the telly.

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.