Hordes of people, men in pairs, in groups, pale, thin and fat, in blue scarves, in blue jackets, families, pushchairs, “Daddy says we’re going to lose,” couples, more men, old, young, chinless, bald, in blue bobble hats, blue fleeces, heading east on the main streets as if they were evacuating from an accident, blue jerseys, blue overcoats, and still more men.
I stop at home to change my muffler for a blue one, even though it’s not the right blue.
Seagulls in dense flocks, wheeling and honking over the sparse hot dog stands outside. The ticket office serves only home fans; away fans must pay cash at the turnstiles and it costs more. The tannoy has started. Behind me: “They’re just counting them down. We’ve got twenty minutes.” I buy the cheapest seat left (27 quid), learning football is not an inexpensive hobby; later an officer of the club will tell me that although attendance is declining, tickets can’t be discounted very much, to be fair to season ticketholders who are the mainstay.
Inside there are gangs of orange-jacketed guards, obviously amateurs. My seat is on one end right behind the goal, about halfway up. The section is packed full of men and women in blue jackets, blue mittens, etc. The right-hand long stand has a fully occupied block of seats that is enclosed by guards, one orange jacket at the end of every second row. No blue. Those must be the away fans.
Football, with the simple field in front of you stripped of extra camera angles and busy text overlays and breathless color commentary, is surprisingly easy to follow. You just keep your eye on the ball. So much for Nick Hornby and his literature of mystique. Of course, I don’t know what the moves and strategies are called, or what they mean. There should be a handbook, something like Sports for New Audiences: Critical Approaches to Football Practice. It could be remystified into social semiotics. Routledge could publish it.
The fans applaud generously at the least demonstration of skill by a home player. There is a lot of headbutting of the ball; I always thought that was a novelty move by certain players, but here it’s so common they are sometimes volleying from head to head. Despite being regularly outrun, Town score two near-goals in the first 15 minutes and two more in the next 20 minutes. Crowd on their feet.
When did all athletes start wearing Day-Glo trainers? I first noticed it in the Olympics. They look like The Sims out there.
The four stands are old and mismatched, which adds to their charm, and we are so close to the action. It’s mind-blowing to see the whole field at once, not just a bit picked out by the TV camera, and the players rarely pile up. They just chase each other up and down. By halftime there is still no actual goal. People step out to hit the head and scarf down food, which they are not allowed to bring in. There’s no room for it and there are no hawkers either.
The halftime show is less exciting than the game, with community announcements, players kicking balls around to music, and a number by cheerleaders called the Uptown Girls. It’s the reverse of American football where half the viewers just want to watch precision marching bands Sousafy pop hits. The second half starts with a goal by Daryl Murphy and ends with another by DJ Campbell. Then there’s five minutes of unexplained overtime, which I later learn is to make up for out-of-bounds kicks and other time-out activities that took place on the clock. There were a lot of out-of bounds kicks. Apparently if you can’t get to the goal it is all right to decide you are now playing kickball and place the ball beyond reach. Fortunately the score doesn’t change in overtime.
The crowd disperses quickly and peacefully, and rather happily since it was Mick McCarthy’s first big victory at home. The gate was announced at 16,297 with 455 away fans, or equivalent to more than 10 percent of the population of Ipswich. Over the following weeks I wax rhapsodic about my friendly, legible football experience and suggest that Town could improve its attendance by marketing tours for football newbies, or young fans, or even foreign tourists who’d read Nick Hornby and wanted to see a game for themselves in a nonthreatening atmosphere. People are politely skeptical. The loyal fans, I am led to infer, are invested in tacit constructions of football fandom as risky, tough in both senses, with recondite regimes of knowledge to which local brotherhoods have special access. The selling of Ipswich Town must not undermine these perceptions, even at the price of a gradually declining gate. All right then! But psst, if you’d like to watch a nice game of British football, come out to Ipswich on a Saturday afternoon and follow the crowds.