Ipswich Town 1 Sheffield United 1

The first time I saw Ipswich Town play Sheffield United was in April 1972; the result was a goalless draw but I remember the game not just because Sheffield had a character from Beatrix Potter playing for them (Len Badger), but because it was also the first time I had suffered the pain, shock and hurt of seeing a Town player sent-off. The late Colin Harper was that Town player; he had protested too much to the evil Gordon Kew who had awarded a penalty to Sheffield United; but Colin laughed last as Laurie Sivell saved the kick, because back then right was on our side, sometimes. At the end of the game the pitch was pelted with cushions by spectators in the West Stand who were aiming at Mr Kew and his police escort. It is now hard to believe that such passion could be shown by people in what is probably Portman Road’s most comatose of stands. The up-shot of this reminiscence however, is the admission that I have never much liked Sheffield United.

optional signals

But today is a beautiful, bright winter’s day and it’s almost Christmas, so in the spirit of goodwill towards all men it would be very bad manners not to put my ill-will towards The Blades on hold. Feeling better for that loving feeling I arrive at the railway station to find that the 12:57 to Ipswich is delayed by six minutes due to ‘signalling problems’. I text my wife Paulene because she likes to know of all the small misfortunes that befall me and because she likes to have her already low opinion of Greater Anglia railways reinforced whenever possible. Paulene texts me back with a series of emojis; her interpretation of potential ‘signalling problems’.

simplicity creations

As I wait for the train I enjoy the low winter sun; on the railway platform a sign advertises the services of The Samaritans, they are “in my corner” should I need them; but I’m not a boxing fan and the words don’t really work as a footballing analogy. The arrival of the train soon shakes me from my reverie. I sit on the grey moquette by a window and look about the carriage. The face of an ugly old woman with a big nose leers down at me from a poster advertising Simplicity Cremations, their strapline being ‘making funerals less of an undertaking’. I’m not sure when humour became ‘a thing’ in advertising for undertakers; I think of an alternative strapline with more of an accent on the ‘simple’ cremation “Light the blue touch paper and retire”. It is interesting that an undertaker would think that train passengers’ thoughts should turn to their own deaths, although when delays are really bad I guess people do begin to wonder if they will ever make it home and therefore begin to make plans.

christmas club shop display

Arriving at Ipswich there are two Christmas trees on the railway station concourse and two policemen guard the doors. A string of lights fail to make the Station Hotel look very festive; I hurry on towards Portman Road where there is little festive feel but for one steward in a red and white hat. For a reason I find hard to explain I buy a programme in the club shop, but it was worth it to see the display of Christmas themed soft toys and assorted tat.

Round the corner in Sir Alf Ramsey Way I pause to hear the Salvation Army band strike up with ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. Beginning to feel a lot as if it’s Christmas I head for St Jude’s Tavern to enjoy a pint of the Match Day Special (£2.50), which today is Maldon Brewing Co’s ‘Five Gold Rings’. I sit and read the programme, occasionally joining in with the conversation of the match-day regulars who are sat around the table next to me. I enjoyed the Match Day Special but variety is the spice of life and from my second journey to the bar I return with a pint of Maldon’s ‘Winter’s Ale’ (£3.20) and finally I drink a half of Earl Soham Brewery’s ‘Sir Roger’s Porter’ (£1.70). Glass drained I walk down Portman Road with one of the St Jude’s regulars with whom I had been sitting, I think his name is Ian; he is a bald man who currently has a limp, I discover that like me he has a penchant for French and Belgian football. I silently envy him his visits to Royal Antwerp and Aalst.
Portman Road is not overly busy, it’s close enough to 3 o’clock for most people to be already inside the stadium and by now only those who have struggled against Christmas crapulence to leave the pub are making their way through the turnstiles. I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile No3 and bid the operator a cheery Christmas greeting. I make my way, via the gents, to my seat next to Elwood and ever-present Phil who never misses a game and just in front of Pat from Clacton. I ask Pat if she enjoyed Tina Turner The Musical, which she went to see yesterday, in London. She did; although it was the understudy who played Tina. I hand a Christmas card to Elwood, to give to his dad, who tells him to put it in their bag.
The game begins with Ipswich as ever in their blue and white kit, which this season has sadly been tainted by the ugly logo of an organisation peddling on-line gambling. Without good reason, unless they are showing solidarity with France’s gilets jaunes, Sheffield United eschew their proper colours of red and white striped shirts and black shorts in favour of luminous yellow shirts with black shorts. I keep a look out for piles of burning tyres and pallets but fortunately there are none to be seen as Town get the ball rolling towards me, Pat, Phil and Elwood. Another good afternoon’s work from Zero the sniffer dog.

“Oh when the Reds, Go marching in” sing the Yorkshiremen in the Cobbold Stand “Hark, now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” is the riposte from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and I wonder if the Salvation Army have been co-opted into the Blue Action supporters group. The football is fast and furious but it’s Sheffield who are fastest. Town may have to bide their time this afternoon, Sheffield United look quite good despite their poor choice of shirts. In the Sheffield corner of the Cobbold Stand the Okey Cokey breaks out and all around the stadium is a sprinkling of Santas and people dressed as elves. At seventeen minutes past three Sheffield United ‘score’ but the ‘goal’ is disallowed, something to do with a breach of the offside rule it would seem. “Down with the Wednesday, you’re going down with the Wednesday” sing the Sheffielders, presumably not to their own team, although if not it doesn’t seem a very charitable thing to sing, given the time of year.
It’s almost twenty five past three when Town at last have a goal attempt of their own as a cross from the right is met by the head of Ellis Harrison, a man who until today I did not realise had such impressive calf muscles. The header is caught easily by the Sheffield goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Six minutes later a deep cross from Town’s Gwion Edwards drops into the edge of the Sheffield penalty area, Freddie Sears is running onto it, there is an audible gasp of expectation from the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, but Henderson gets there first, giving him cause to dance and sing. Town then win a corner; Luke Chambers launches himself towards the goal like a human missile and heads the ball solidly into the roof of the net. The ‘goal’ however is disallowed by referee Mr Woolmer. “What the hell was wrong with it?” calls the old boy behind me, showing admirable bias towards his team. Unfortunately, the human missile took out a few too many Sheffield players in the course of its rather flat trajectory.
Having disallowed a ‘goal’ Mr Woolmer seemingly develops a taste for enraging the home crowd and awards a free-kick against Ellis Harrison when it’s likely he was the player who was fouled and when Town are heading towards the Sheffield goal. The crowd is at once energised. “Who’s the wanker in the black?” sing the Sir Bobby Robson Stand in a rare display of unified voice. I volunteer the information that the wanker in the black is Mr Andy Woolmer, a short balding man who every other step has to skip or jump to keep up with the longer strides of his assistants as they walk on and off the pitch…like Private Baldric on the opening credits of Blackadder Goes Forth. This is the fourth consecutive home match for which Town have been given a ‘short ref’. I think its about time we had a lanky one.


Perhaps it is just Ipswich’s good fortune, perhaps the Sheffield players are unnerved by the better than usual vocal support for Ipswich or by the use of the word ‘wanker; perhaps they have heard about the cushion throwing incident in 1972, but they proceed to muck up several passes leaving Ellis Harrison with a run on goal and space to shoot. Ellis shoots, Ellis scores. I get a perfect end on view of the ball swerving wonderfully inside the netting just behind the goal post; it’s a thing of beauty, it’s bloody marvellous. Joy abounds.
There are eight minutes until half time. “I hope we get to half-time without…..” says the old boy behind me, his voice trailing off as if he cannot bear to utter the words to complete the sentence. Half-time arrives and Town are still winning. It has been a struggle but in the last ten minutes we came good, in part thanks to the diminutive Mr Woolmer’s ability to stir up the supporters with his abject refereeing.
I visit the gents, I talk to Ray and hand him a Christmas card; a very small brass band play Christmas Carols in the centre of the pitch. On the concourse below the stand what looks like a soil pipe is decorated with a twist of blue lights, some rather feeble strings of lights dangle from the roof and a Christmas tree decorates the entrance to the upstairs hospitality area. The stadium announcer tells us that the Premier League half-time scores will be on the scoreboard, “should you wish to see them”, which I think is a nicely condescending touch, richly deserved by those who do wish to see them.
All is well until the second half begins and within a minute Sheffield equalise through Billy Sharp a man who despite his thirty-two years has a name which will forever sound like he’s a young scamp of an eleven year old who’s just stepped out of a Barry Hines novel. He should perhaps call himself Bill or William now he’s a bit older. “Well, we’re gonna see plenty of the ball this half then” remarks the old boy behind me looking on the bright side, sort of.
It turns out that whilst we do see quite a lot of the ball being passed between the gilets jaunes in our half of the pitch, they don’t manage to create many certain chances to score and Dean Gerken makes hardly any saves; far, far fewer saves than he did against Wigan last week. Sheffield’s dominance of possession leaves the Ipswich crowd quiet for long periods but no one moans to fill the void. Everyone outside that one corner of the Cobbold Stand is of course hoping for another Town goal, but a draw will be alright. The crowd is announced as 17.942 (1,292 from Sheffield) which is pretty good for a Second Division team bottom of the league on the Saturday before Christmas, and shows that people do still care and still believe that relegation will be avoided. At twenty-five to five a chorus of “Come On Ipswich, Come on Ipswich ” ringing around much of the ground is strong enough to prove the point.

Mr Andy Woolmer

This is an enjoyable game and the old dear behind me is getting her kicks from Mr Woolmer’s lack of height, “I don’t know how he can see the fouls, he int tall enough is he?” she says before querying how he can manage to measure out ten yards at a free-kick with “… his little legs”. Happily for those of us satisfied with a draw, only three minutes of added time are called and whilst Mr Woolmer books Jordan Spence and gives Sheffield United a free-kick just outside the penalty area in that time, his efforts to let Sheffield score come to nought. The game ends and a warm applause flows from the stands. “That was bloody brilliant” says the old boy behind me getting a bit carried away with it all. I wait to applaud the team from the field and of course boo the referee. If I had had a cushion I doubt I would have hurled it at Mr Woolmer, possibly because we didn’t lose, but probably because I’m quite mild-mannered really. It’s odd that we think we live in a more liberal society than we did in 1972, but hurling a mere soft cushion would probably see me tracked down and banned for life from Portman Road now.
It has been a grand afternoon at Portman Road and Town are well worth their point against a superior team. We seem to be successfully assuming the role of plucky underdog, which in a league rammed full of Premier League pretenders will allow us a wry smile come the end of the season when only three of them get what they wished for…..and of course they should be careful of what that is. As for Town, we’re bottom of the league at Christmas, but I’m happy……or as happy as one can be.

Ipswich Town 0 Cardiff City 1

 

Tonight I am looking forward to going to the football at Portman Road despite the pall of gloom that hangs over the place; a gloom which deepened on Sunday when a Norwich City goal in the last seven seconds of added on time fooled many Ipswich fans into thinking a decent result was a terrible one.   There’s a lot of blame and a lot of disinterest weighing the place down.  But what do I care, it’s five o’clock and one of the best things in life is to leave work and go directly to the pub and that’s exactly what I am doing, along with my accomplice for the first part of the evening Roly.

Darkness is imperceptibly surrounding us as we head along Constantine Road, Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Portman Road towards St Jude’s Tavern.  It’s cold and through the eerieOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA half-light a few tiny specks of very light sleet drift and fall and sparkle in a car headlight beam.  There is activity in the football ground as stewards arrive and are detailed off for their evening duties; Zero the sniffer dog arrives at the Constantine Road gate to the ground with his handler; Zero is sans-lead, which I guess for a working dog like him is like being in civvies.  I like to think of him having his own dressing room where he changes into collar and lead and perhaps prepares for the evening with a few exercises to clear his sinuses. In Portman Road the hot food stands set up a while ago and early diners stand nearby in ones and twos, basking in the beautiful, enticing fluorescent light, which falls out into the street and as ever make me think of the paintings of Edward Hopper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s not yet 5:20 when we rock up at Jude’s and there aren’t many drinkers here yet, just the few who are seemingly always here and think they are characters in Cheers.  Roly gets me a pint of Bearstown Best Bitter (£3.20) and has a pint of Priory Mild (£3.20) himself.  We sit in a corner near the door, a location Roly chooses, perhaps because of the tilting leather-bound chair which allows him to lean back and pose questions in the manner of a TV chat show host.  Roly has a show on Ipswich Community Radio and is used to audiences of less than ten. We talk a variety of nonsense, although Roly does most of the talking because he’s nothing if not loquacious, which is perhaps why he is on the wireless.  As we finish our pints and are about to get more beer and a pie each, who should walk in to the pub but ever-present Phil who never misses a match.  Attracted by tales of the Match Day Special (£2.50) in this very blog, Phil has decided to eschew the delights of the fanzone tonight and sample cheap beer in a proper pub where none of the beer, rather than all of it, bears the name Greene King.

After introductions and an explanation of Phil’s claim to fame, I eventually fetch a pie and a pint (£5.00) each for Roly and me. I have a pint of Nethergate Suffolk Bitter and a mince and onion pie, Roly has more Priory Mild and a steak and kidney pie; I tear open a sachet of red sauce, Roly has no sauce.  I return to our table to find Roly talking at length to Phil about the 1993/94 season, which could be the last time Phil missed a game, I don’t really know.  Time passes and I have a further pint, this time the Match Day Special (£2.50), which is St Jude’s Gainsborough.  Phil leaves for the ground before Roly and I, but by and by we also head to Portman Road; Roly is meeting a friend called Andrew, a public sector worker who lives in Bury St Edmunds.

Outside, the night time now surrounds us, but it’s very cold and the chill night air feels damp.  A fine mist shrouds the Portman Road floodlights creating a scene and an atmosphere far too spectacular and evocative for this mundane second division fixture, for which only 13,205 people will bother to leave their homes.  Roly, Andrew and I meet close to the statue of Sir Alf and try hard to be humourous.  I say that if we see a game half as good as the goalless draw against Burton Albion last Saturday week, I will be happy; how we laugh.  Roly and Andrew depart for the expensive seats in the East of England Co-operative stand leaving me to saunter down Portman Road and bask in the variety of light that shines from street lamps and windows, from over doorways and from the little white programme kiosks.

 

        OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are two orange plastic cones behind the statue of Sir Bobby Robson, which in the shadows deceive the eye and look like there is cloth hanging off the back of his plinth.  Why are they there? Does Sir Bobby get down off his plinth in the middle of the night and dance around joyously with one on his head as he remembers victories under floodlights over St Etienne, FC Koln, Real Madrid and Norwich?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am not searched as I enter the ground, although I carry a bag displaying the yellow stars of the European Union, perhaps I have diplomatic immunity.  Near the turnstiles just inside the ground a notice warns of high voltage electricity, seemingly just behind a locked door, and the sign advises that one should contact the stadium manger to gain access; I make a mental note just in case I’m feeling suicidal at half-time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I use the toilet facilities and advance through the undercroft of the stand where there are now very few people at all; there aren’t many more in the stand and swathes of empty blue seats  greet the teams, cheering and singing just like regular Ipswich fans.  The teams are ready to kick-off as I select a seat just along from Phil.   Ipswich are playing towards me, Phil and the empty seats of ‘Churchmans’, now known as the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Cardiff kick-off and are wearing the most garish, unpleasant kit I have ever seen in my entire football watching life.   Cardiff’s shirts are day-glo green and their shorts are blue; it’s a kit inspired by the heads and hands of Edward Lear’s Jumblies and “Happen what may it’s extremely wrong”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It takes the Cardiff City supporters of whom there are 371, just eight minutes to enquire as to whether Portman Road is a library;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

their question is met with the characteristic stony silence as if no one heard them; just once I would like 13,000 odd Ipswich supporters to put their fingers to their lips and go  SShhhh!   The first half is not surprisingly a quiet affair; Cardiff dominate in the first ten or fifteen minutes without really looking like they know what they’re doing, but then Ipswich get back at them and create openings that almost lead to something that might result in a goal; corners, crosses, shots and the like.  The most notable feature of the game however, apart from Cardiff’s hideously coloured shirts, is the size of the Cardiff players, they are to a man enormous; it’s like a team of Neanderthals against a team of Australopithicus.  Who knew Neanderthals had such poor taste in shirts?  Any way, it’s not too bad a game and Ipswich seem every bit as good as Cardiff, just shorter and better dressed.  Surely there’s more to Cardiff City’s being second in the league table than this?

Half-time brings a visit to the toilet and a then a chat with a couple of women who used to travel to away games, as I did, on a coach hired by the Clacton branch of the supporters club. I also talk to Dee and Pete with whom I used to work and then Ray, another public sector employee and former colleague, who once appeared in an Anglian Water advertisement.  Ray went to see Ipswich play at Norwich; I ask him if he has come into some money; tickets for that game cost £40. £40! I’d expect to see a World Cup final for that.  We chat and are surprised to hear America’s 1971 recording ‘Horse With No Name’ playing over the PA system, but on reflection it is an appropriately dreary  and pessimistic song for Portman Road and its passionless supporters.

The second half begins and Cardiff City are still wearing those repulsive green shirts with blue shorts; why hasn’t the little bald referee Mr Davies told them? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But then, why would the Football League let a man called Davies referee a Cardiff City match?   I have heard talk of the Welsh Mafia, or Tafia and tonight we are seeing it in action.  There is no way Ipswich will win this game.

Ipswich aren’t quite as ‘good’ as they were at the end of the first half and get a bit fed up.  When a disputed throw-in is awarded to Cardiff, Ipswich captain Luke Chambers gives a frustrated little skip and beats his arms against his sides like a petulant school girl.  Behind the thrower an advert reads ‘Ginster’s Pasties, Fill your boots’, which would make a good alternative to the half-time penalty shoot-out; how many pasties can you stuff into your shoe?  Above my head a buddleia still grows on the roof of the stand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When the attendance figure is announced, the Cardiff fans sing “ You’re only here for the Cardiff” , which given that it’s the lowest gate of the season isn’t saying much; if only they knew, but perhaps it was just the next song on their playlist.   But the Welsh clearly caught the late 60s early 70’s vibe of ‘Horse With No Name’ at half-time and reprise it with a blast of the Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance, singing “ All we are saying is give us a goal” .  Three minutes later, a Cardiff free-kick drops in the Ipswich penalty area, a bloke in a nasty green shirt seems to fall on top of it, possibly handling it, before standing up and kicking it in an ungainly manner into the corner of the Ipswich goal; his name is Kenneth.  It’s a crappy goal, one of the crappiest, but we know something of Mr Davies’ taste in music.

The Ipswich supporters react as usual to their team going behind with a deafening wall of silence as they contemplate how they might become any less passionate and supportive of their team. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the game enters its final fifteen minutes however, some voices briefly stir in the North Stand as the drum up the corner is occasionally heard and that old favourite “Sloop John B” is employed to celebrate that Luke Hyam is the only player in the team to have emerged from the Ipswich Town ‘Academy’: “He’s one of our own, He’s one of our own, Luke Hyam, He’s one of our own”.    Phil satirically sings “We’ve got him on loan, we’ve got him on loan, perm any one from Carter-Vickers, Callum Connolly or Bersant Celina, we’ve got him on loan”.

Having scored just twice in their last six home matches, Ipswich inevitably go one better to make it two goals in seven matches.  Equally inevitably, I hear the fading sound of boos as I skip out of the ground and run to the railway station to catch the ‘early’ train to Colchester, which I succeed in doing only to find my connecting train is cancelled.

It’s not been a terrible night’s football, some small parts of it were even quite good.  But overall it was what I believe in modern parlance is described as ‘meh’.  But I enjoyed going to the pub and seeing the pretty lights and speaking to lots of people and hearing the occasional Welsh accent, so there’s lots to be thankful for. I’ll probably come again.