|The History Boys|
Written by Tristan90 on Tuesday, 16th Apr 2019 19:29
My first season following Town was 2002/03, just after relegation from the Premier League and in full of optimism for a quick return.
I’d just moved in with my Dad and he gave me a choice as to which game I wanted to see as my first one in the late summer of 2002: Avenir Beggen in the UEFA Cup or Bradford City in the then Football League Division One. I picked Bradford, we lost 2-1 and a lifelong love affair was born. We beat Avenir Beggen 8-1 that night, incidentally.
The early years felt bleak at the time with defeats to West Ham in the play-off semi-finals two years in a row feeling like the nadir of my early football-supporting life. Little did I know, eh?
As relegation to the third tier sinks in, it feels like the right time to look back on the last 17 years. Forgive the rambling and the going over of old ground but I think writing this will be cathartic, or at least help to process what lies ahead of us, and what lies behind.
I’m often asked why I support ‘such a bad team’ by friends who don’t follow football or offered commiserations by Premier League glory hunters whilst they simultaneously cry about their team, a team from a city with an alien accent to them playing in a stadium they’ve only ever seen on TV, finishing outside the top four of the Premier League, conversations that I’m sure are familiar to ‘lower league’ fans across the country.
Yes, I’ve sat through home defeats to Southend United in the sleet and travelled the length of the country to see us lose in seemingly every ground in the North, experiences those at the dizzy heights of Champions League qualification can scarcely imagine.
But they can also never grasp the joy of a last-minute winner at The Den before being penned in by the Met’s finest for 45 minutes on a Tuesday night or the horrendously mixed emotions of a play-off Derby being confirmed at the end of the season.
Even the home win against Rotherham, the only one I’ve actually seen this season despite being a season ticket holder, felt like winning something so much more significant than three points. I guess it’s all relative.
I’ve seen seasons under Joe Royle, up to this point my high point as a Town fan, and I still maintain that we should have gone up that season. The Magilton years promised much and delivered so little, although hindsight throws in to sharp perspective what kind of hope we had when Jim was sacked after winning the East Anglian derby in 2009; I feel like we’d be calling for a banner at the very least for the next manager that achieves that feat (although how I’ll feel if we’re subjected to the humiliation of playing their U23s in the Checkatrade Trophy next season is anyone’s guess).
‘Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town’, as we became known, appeared to be the low point; it could not get worse from there, with the dismantling of the academy and the reports of players being told to send photographs of their own vomit to prove their were ill. But it could, and it did.
Paul Jewell, fondly remembered as the worst manager in the history of the Premier League, channelled his Derby days far more than his Wigan ones in the Portman Road dugout. To misquote Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, it was ‘one f****** thing after another’.
Step up, Mick McCarthy, a name that divides opinion among Town fans so strongly that it makes his 2002 falling out with Roy Keane look like a lovers’ tiff. I was at Turf Moor with an inflatable crocodile (until the Burnley stewards decided we couldn’t have too much fun) at the end of that season, chanting his name as the saviour. MM had become Merlin the Magician and we’d stayed up. Such an atmosphere of positivity did not last, though, as we all know.
I’ve had a season ticket again since moving back to Cambridgeshire in 2015 and it feels like it’s been downhill from there. It wasn't only the football that stagnated under Mick, but the atmosphere at Portman Road, a place I’d looked forward to going to since I was 12.
Even the away games, with our famously excellent on-the-road following, were dismal. There were times when I made the 160-mile round trip to Suffolk on a work night to see us win and still left wondering why I’d bothered. I missed games I could have gone to, something that was unthinkable when I’d first got my season ticket back for the first time since 2007.
I missed the singing, I missed the atmosphere. I missed being in a lower tier of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand that did not include regular verbal altercations and the occasional punch amongst fans who should have been singing together.
I missed the Ipswich Town where the club and the fans pulled in the same direction, where the songs were loud and witty, even if the match wasn’t a spectacle (‘Tracksuit from Matalan’ towards a particularly outspoken young chap at Fratton Park or ‘We’re only here for the pasties’ in darkest Plymouth, a ground that still looks like an industrial estate from one side, spring to mind).
I missed supporting a club where the supporters weren't told, less than politely, to go away by a manager referring to us as numbskulls.
I never booed the team off the pitch. I never verbally abused McCarthy and I certainly never condoned the personal abuse he got, culminating in those shameful scenes at Griffin Park. But I never wanted him to stay, either. I believed his time at Ipswich had long since run its course. I was pleased when it ended. I thought it was right. I still do.
The national press, and some very knowledgable friends of mine who support other clubs, have trotted out the ‘Be careful what you wish for’ line ad nauseam since Saturday teatime. They’ve asked if we now see what a good job McCarthy did, if we regret ‘hounding him out’. I get it. I can see what it looks like from the outside. But inside, it’s different.
We might get frustrated at the ‘lazy journalism’ that’s covered our demise but we’re not big any more, every tiny nuance of our club is not of interest to journalists more concerned with how much Maurizio Sarri spends with Wrigleys or Marlboro.
I don’t regret McCarthy leaving Ipswich Town and, in many ways, what we’ve got was exactly what I wished for. Now I’m not one of those vocal few who, misguidedly, thought that relegation would be good for the club. It’s not. It is financially awful and comes with the prospect of playing the Metropolitan Police (them again) or my local club St Neots Town in the first round of the FA Cup.
The short-lived Paul Hurst era, that catastrophic, hubristic blip that has given such fuel to the ‘careful what you wish for’ fire was, without a doubt, calamitous. The arrival of Paul Lambert, the rise of Blue Action, the return of the noise and the passion and a reconciliation of club and fans, though, is precisely what I wished for.
The rest of the footballing world may have looked at the scenes following the final whistle on Saturday, if they’d bothered to look at all, in disbelief and understandably so. This Ipswich Town team has made history by being the first to be relegated from this level so what right do we have to be happy?
In the words of the immortal Sir Bobby Robson, "What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride”.
Among the tears on Saturday was defiance and, yes, pride. It’s a sad indictment of the Evans era that it has taken the worst season in our club’s history to bring this out but it is there, plain as day, for all to see and all to join in with.
I don’t think next season will be a walk in the park and I’m nervous for those who refer to it as our ‘League One Tour’. Yes, Lambert has form in this area and yes it has fairytale written all over it but I’m not a subscriber to the Gatsby-esque idea that "You can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can."
As JP Hartley, said, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." But I am optimistic.
League One will be an experience, what kind remains to be seen as we travel to new grounds and host long-lost friends and foes. But what Paul Lambert has built this season, the most unlikely support in the most unlikely circumstances, gives me hope.
Yes, it depends on the season ticket renewals and a good start and all of the footballing ifs, buts and maybes that will come over the next season but the hope, the optimism and the pride in my club is back.
A Norwich-supporting friend of mine called us ‘The History Boys’, harping on about past glories in the absence of current success (the Liverpool of the Championship, if you will). But we are right to be proud of our club’s history, of overachievement piled on top of overachievement and the springboard for two of the three greatest England managers of all time.
I don’t quite understand where my optimism comes from, I don't quite understand why I feel how I feel but I do.
To misquote Bennett again: "I don’t always understand football."
"Don’t always understand it? I never understand it. But know it now, feel it now, and you’ll understand it… whenever."
Bring it on.
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