Back on Tuesday 8th March I erroneously believed that the glorious two-goal victory over the Imps of Lincoln City would be the last time this season that I would witness our heroes play a match under the dreamy luminous glow of the Portman Road floodlights. But my capacity for getting things wrong is pretty much limitless, and courtesy of Sky Sports TV moving our Good Friday excursion to Rotherham to Saturday lunchtime, what should have been a relaxed end of season stroll of a game on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon has been transformed into a final, atmospheric night game. Sky TV and its parent company Comcast may have completely ruined professional football in England with their money and meal-time kick-offs, but it is an extremely ill-wind that blows no good at all and I love a mid-week game under floodlights, even if our opponents tonight will only be third division leaders Wigan Athletic and not Real Madrid, Feijenoord or Lokomotiv Leipzig as they once would have been.
For an evening match it’s still very light as I walk down through Gippeswyk Park and along the river behind the Pentahotel, but then it is only half-past six on an April evening in the Northern Hemisphere. The salty, pungent smell of seaweed and mud is carried on the wind and Oyster Catchers whistle like demented referees as they swoop above a group of Canada geese, ornithological reminders of Frank Yallop, Jaime Peters, Craig Forrest and Jason De Vos. I’m heading for what was the Arboretum pub but is now the Arbor House for a pre-match pint. I stop off in Sir Alf Ramsey Way to buy a programme in the modern cashless way. “Is it working?” I ask the cheery young female programme seller. “At the moment” she replies, cheerily. ”We’d better be quick then” I say, tendering my blue plastic card. Disappointingly the sale does not transact. “I think we probably don’t take that card” says the girl letting me down gently. “No, I don’t expect you do” I say, proffering a second blue card, “That was my season ticket”. It’s the sort of faux pas to rival those of my dear mother, who once on a day trip to France asked a waiter if he spoke French.
At the Arboretum, or Arbor House, I purchase a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.90) using my bank card and sit in the garden alone. I take my programme from my jacket pocket expecting to just ‘flick through’ it, but to my surprise I end up actually reading two quite interesting pieces about Sone Aluko’s experiences playing for Nigeria and how Idris El Mizouni copes with being a professional sportsman during Ramadan. After a half an hour of beer and contemplation I head back to Portman Road beneath the setting sun shining through pearlescent clouds. Turnstile 61 is my favoured portal tonight, it was a choice between that and No 59. The pleasant lady turnstile operator smiles me into the ground and I make for the gents where I enjoy a tinny rendition of Edward Ebenezer Jeremiah Brown before I wash my hands. Up in the stand, ever-present Phil who never misses a game is concealed within a blue hoody and Pat from Clacton is talking to the bloke who sits to my left and I think is from Stowmarket; they’re talking about how cold it is this evening and indeed a lazy East wind is blowing across the bottom tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand, causing me to raise my collar and do up the top button of my coat. Fiona arrives, returned from her cruise and other excursions.
With hands shaken and knees taken and applauded the game begins; Town getting first go with the ball and pointing it mostly in the direction of the goal in front of me, Pat, Phil, Fiona and my neighbour who might be from Stowmarket and whose grandson is here with him tonight. “Everywhere we go” sing the Wigan fans up in the Cobbold stand, but I can’t quite catch what it is about everywhere they go that they want to tell us. Everywhere they go is quite nice? Everywhere they go is better than Wigan and not as nice as Ipswich? Everywhere they go they are politely asked to leave? I may never know. As if not to be out done by the visitors, which is unusual, the Sir Bobby Robson stand breaks into the same tune but with different words, the ones that begin “Addy, Addy, Addy-O”. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a good start and it’s not even properly dark yet. My first thoughts on the game itself are that the Wigan players all look extremely big and their all-scarlet kit stands out particularly well even if it does lack style. But the football soon chases away all thoughts of haute couture as Town embark on a first half of fine attacking football, raining in crosses from left and right from Wes Burns and Matt Penney and winning corners courtesy of Janoi Donacien and the clever passing of Conor Chaplin.
Only an announcement asking the owner of a black Ranger Rover in the Sir Alf Ramsey car park to move it breaks my concentration and I realise I never knew Sir Alf had a car park named in his honour. The incident reminds me of when my own car achieved similar fame at Barnet, with the registration being read out over the public address system. My car was also black, but it was a Ford Fiesta, and I didn’t have to move it, just turn the lights off. When I got back to my car after the game the battery was flat, but some friendly Barnet fans gave me a push start. Wigan have a few moments of possession, but it ends with Town breaking swiftly with Wes Burns, who lays the ball off to the oddly named Macauley Bonne who feeds it to the overlapping Matt Penney who shoots hopelessly high and wide of the goal from 20 metres out.
This is a good game with Conor Chaplin threading more inviting passes into the box and Bersant Celina shooting into the arms of the Wigan goalkeeper and Old Testament prophet Amos. As Amos then spills the ball from a Sam Morsy shot , a man a couple of rows behind me laughs like Goofy, the anthropomorphic Walt Disney dog. A cross curves in a graceful arc from the boot of Bersant Celina but eludes the head of the oddly named Macauley Bonne and another chorus of “Addy, Addy Addy-O” emanates from the North Stand before echoing from pockets around the ground where people seem to know the rest of the words too. Up in the Cobbold Stand the Wigan fans sing of balm cakes, coal and canals, possibly. A man next to the man who laughs like Goofy, laughs like a chimpanzee.
Above the North Stand roof and floodlights a smear of cloud adopts a pinkish tinge as the sun sinks down over Sproughton and a lone seagull glides above the pitch on its way back to the coast for the night. Twenty-five minutes have passed and Wigan’s Kelland Watts, whose name sounds a bit like the formal version of former Coronation Street character ‘Curly’ Watts, gets to be the first player shown the yellow card of referee Mr Will Finnie, after he fouls Conor Chaplin. Matt Penney and Bersant Celina rain in more crosses, which Wigan’s tough centre-back Jack Whatmough (pronounced Whatmuff I hope) sends out for another Town corner. “Are you working from home still?” asks Pat from Clacton of Fiona; she is. Town are all over Wigan like a rash but just can’t score. My neighbour from Stowmarket and I turn to one other and share how we just know that Wigan are going to go up the other end and score.
With half-time approaching Sam Morsy is shown Mr Finnie’s yellow card as a bloke called Bennett wriggles on the turf and rubs his face. No free-kick is given to Wigan and indeed Town have a corner, during the taking of which Mr Finnie watches intently as the miraculously recovered Bennett proceeds to give Sam Morsy a huge bear hug to prevent him from making a run towards the ball or anywhere else. Incredibly Mr Finnie evidently doesn’t consider that being hugged by an opposition player as the ball is crossed into the box is any sort of a foul, perhaps he simply thought Bennett hadn’t seen Morsy for a long time and was understandably overcome with emotion. From the corner, Wigan break away and Luke Woolfenden is booked for bringing down Stephen Humphrys. The free-kick leads to Wigan winning their first corner of the match; it’s the forty-fifth minute and Wigan score as Will Keane runs free and glances a header inside the far post. We knew it would happen.
Four minutes of added on time give the Wiganers in the Cobbold Stand the opportunity to sing “We’re gonna win the league, We’re gonna the league, And they int gonna believe uz , And they int gonna believe uz” to the tune of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, but curiously they develop a Midlands accent as they do so.
Half-time begins with me booing the referee for his incompetence and then Ray stops for a chat on his way to using the facilities beneath the stand. The football resumes at seven minutes to nine with the replacement of Matt Penney with Dominic Thompson and Pat from Clacton remarks on how Thompson receives a lot of unfair abuse from some Town supporters on social media; but we all agree that he’s alright and we like him. I would even go so far as to say that with his beard that sometimes looks like massive sideburns and his hair that looks like tied-back dreads (it might actually be tied-back dreads), he is easily the coolest player Town have ever had.
Town pick up where they left off about fifteen minutes ago and dominate possession whilst also sending in more crosses that are cleared. “Ole, Ole, Ole” or “Allez, Allez, Allez” sing the Sir Bobby Robson stand lower tier, along with other words that I have even more difficulty deciphering and therefore don’t bother trying to; I just enjoy the noise. The fifty third minute and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar. The attendance is announced in a very jolly manner over the PA system by Stephen Foster, former Radio Suffolk presenter and school chum of my friends Ian and Pete, as 21,329 with the number of Wigan supporters in that total being 402, or as Stephen in full DJ mode pronounces it “foouur, huuuundred and twooo.” “You’re support is fucking shit” chant the Wiganers to the ever adaptable Welsh hymn tune of Cwm Rhondda, which in turn provokes more chimpanzee style laughter from the bloke a couple of rows behind me.
Back on the pitch and with an hour gone Wigan’s Callum Lang scythes down Conor Chaplin and is justly booked by the otherwise inept Mr Finnie. Lang’s protestations of innocence are as credible as those of Boris Johnson; it was a blatant foul, but probably less cynical than our Prime Minister’s lies. From the free-kick the ball pings about a bit in the penalty area before it falls to Conor Chaplin who makes a small clearing and pops the ball into the back of the net to equalise. “Top of the league, your ‘avin’ a laugh” taunt the Sir Bobby Robson standers to the tune of Tom Hark, originally recorded by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes in 1958, which seems a bit harsh given that Wigan are both genuinely top of the league and, for all Town’s possession and good play, are not actually losing. But the goal has enthused the home crowd and a pledge of “Ipswich ‘til I die” is heard before James Norwood replaces the oddly named Macauley Bonne and then Wigan almost reclaim the lead, as Dominic Thompson inexplicably heads across his own penalty area forcing Christian Walton into two point-blank saves from the lurking Bennett.
Within four minutes Wigan are punished for missing the gift we had tried to give them as Wes Burns’ cross is headed back across the face of the correct goal by Dominic Thompson, atoning for his earlier error and an incoming Sam Morsy does a passable impression of John Wark by lashing the ball into the roof of the net. It’s a proper goal, but foolishly and conceitedly the home crowd find it necessary once again to chant “Top of the league, you’re ‘avin’ a laugh” and go on to compound their error with more than one chorus of “Keano, Keano, What’s the score?”. It’s almost as if the crowd have forgotten that Will Keane no longer plays for us and they actually still want him to score. What other explanation for such flagrant tempting of fate can there be?
Will Keane has already scored once and eludes the defence again to shoot at Christian Walton before the inevitable happens and with four minutes of normal time remaining he again slips all trace of marking to flick a low cross past Walton from close range. Keane has looked mean and lean all game and much sharper than he ever did playing for Town, and when he has needed to he has made easy work of Town’s zonal ‘marking’ system. Up in the Cobbold stand the scenes are more reminiscent of Wigan Casino than Wigan Athletic as the foouur, huuuundred and twooo dance and celebrate being top of the league (still) and Will Keane scoring both of his team’s goals.
The game is more even now, not only in terms of goals scored. The final whistle sees Wigan having the last laugh at being top of the league; we might have mostly outplayed them but they didn’t lose and it seems unlikely they won’t be going up as Champions, whilst Town will be hoping Bolton and Portsmouth let us finish higher than eleventh. Some people find solace by saying that age is just a number, well perhaps so is your team’s league position, unless of course it’s bottom like Norwich’s.
Watching your team play well is always a pleasure whatever league they’re in and tonight’s has been a marvellous match, a fitting finale to this season’s floodlit fixtures, which is just as well because courtesy of Sky TV the last game of the season is at bloody lunchtime, so we can all fast like it’s Ramadan. Bon appetit.