It’s often commented, this season in particular, how much better the atmosphere is away from home. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise; we’re on our best behaviour on the road. At home there’s no compulsion to put on a show, it’s the equivalent of sitting in front of the TV with your trousers unzipped scratching yourself. Everything about an away game is an event; the journey, the food, the ground, singing yourself hoarse. It’s different.
I was last at Portman Road forty years ago; I was a home fan then, sat in the three tier main stand. The posh seats, or back in the early eighties, the safest. ‘We’ won 3-1 against Wolves, the team my dad supported. You could say the intersection of his old-gold (let’s call it yellow for this analogy) and my preference for blue, was the yellow and blue of Oxford who we watched as a secondary treat during Christmas visits to my grandparents.
Ipswich Town form some great memories of my childhood; the FA Cup win in 1978, the UEFA Cup of 1981. Bobby Robson, Paul Cooper, Paul Mariner, Arnold Muhren, Eric Gates and my personal favourite, winger Chris Woods.
When we got to Portman Road yesterday, the memories flooded back. It was exactly as I remembered it, nestled in the town. Interwoven into the fabric of Ipswich life, Town and town to our town and gown. For us, football is something you go to, for Ipswich you can drop off your dry cleaning before walking to the stadium.
On the side of the Cobbold Stand are giant pictures of Mick Mills and John Walk, their history and, to some extent mine, is writ large.
Most grounds of my childhood – Highbury, The Manor – are gone, but broadly speaking Portman Road is unchanged. This is one of the remaining legacies of my past, like meeting a first crush cutting through the weathering of age to see the beauty of their youth. We went into the club shop and saw the vintage replica shirts with the Pioneer sponsor, Adidas everywhere and a book celebrating the 40th anniversary of their UEFA Cup win. It’s the only opponents’ club shop where I could buy 85% of their merchandise.
It was like part of my childhood had broken off and was just floating there in front of me. I had my daughter with me, but couldn’t explain what I was feeling, it was all about mortality and futility. For a brief period, I was a ten-year-old Ipswich fan.
Inside the ground, the players’ tunnel is in the corner with a strange shed built on top. The stadium is the product of its history, complete and coherent and a hotchpotch at the same time. When the teams came out, there were chequerboard flags and their players wore tracksuit tops; these are literally things I obsessed over.
My life now is very different, so fittingly where so much about Ipswich is familiar, so much about Oxford has changed. We’re unrecognisable from the club of ten years ago, let alone forty.
Before the game, there was a thankfully restrained Remembrance Day ceremony. It wasn’t the hideous over-engineered debacle of Portsmouth two years ago which had so many elements somebody forgot to bring the players out before it started. Even so, the fans’ hushed reverence began while the coin toss was still being completed, it meant it was one of the more tense decisions about which end to face that Elliott Moore will need to make.
We started well, controlling and probing with menace, there were fleeting moments where an opportunity seemed to open up before being shut down. The real chances fell to Ipswich who hit the post twice and drew good, if routine, saves from Simon Eastwood.
After a solid first-half, the inevitable lull came early in the second. At home, we might think of it as that dopey period which seems to be a characteristic of this team. Away, we’re more forgiving, we chivvy, we don’t chide. The efforts of the first half were always going to catch up with them at some point. As we retreated, Ipswich threatened again and a goal seemed to be coming. But, they too would eventually pay for their efforts, it was just a question of whether we could hang on until they blew up and whether we had anything left in the tank.
On the hour, the storm seemed to have passed, leaving the final half-an-hour for a slug-fest. Subs warmed up with menace on the far flank, Marcus McGuane was our most obvious threat, but even he couldn’t affect enough change.
The final exchange of blows had winded both sides. As the clock ticked by, I predicted there would be one remaining big chance, but for whom, it was difficult to say. In fact, we were done, the engine, quite literally, went into limp mode. To the fury of the home support, we strangled the life out of the game with a series of stoppages. Anti-football, they call it, securing an away point is more accurate.
We left the stadium into the chilly autumnal darkness and that lovely buzz of a thousand post-match analyses before weaving our way through the shadows, away from my childhood and back to the car. We edged our way back to the road and caught one last glimpse of the floodlights as they beamed into the stadium. Happy memories of the past and of the present, that’s why we do away days.
There’s been one goal in five fixtures between these teams in the last three years. BBC cricket commentator and Oxford fan Henry Moeran described it as the most boring fixture in football. Personally, I loved it.