I’ve never really been able to work myself up into any significant level of indignation about Ipswich Town.
I may not be the only Norwich fan who isn’t too bothered about them one way or the other of course but, even so, those of you out there who share my level of indifference about the self-titled ‘Tractor Boys’ are probably in a substantial minority amongst Norwich fans.
And I blame my dad for that. Plus a ham sandwich.
Back in the day when I had lots of hair and getting my homework finished and in on time was an obsession that my teachers seemed more fixated upon than I ever was, Ipswich were the very first ‘proper’ football team I went to watch.
This unexpected event took place when, in a typical state of spontaneous largesse Dad, who knew someone on the Linnets board, decided we should spend an otherwise typically nondescript (apart from the homework, naturally) evening by taking a trip to King’s Lynn to see them take on Ipswich in a friendly at The Walks.
Thus it came to be that the very first professional footballer I ever laid my early innocent teenage eyes upon was John Wark, who was the first on to the pitch for the game. Or at least the first one I recognised, thanks to my weekly subscription to Shoot! magazine.
The same John Wark who, at the end the game, stood next to me in the club’s boardroom, clutching a cardboard plate on which rested a half-eaten ham sandwich and looking as if he would rather be anywhere than where he was right at that particular moment.
He’d occasionally look right past me in an attempt to catch the eye of the Ipswich coach, Bobby Ferguson; Wark’s narrow and very dark eyes silently asking, no, pleading his boss for them to leave the god forsaken non-league hell-hole they found themselves in and to head back to Suffolk.
But Ferguson was having none of it. He was happily chatting with Dad about golf which meant that Wark and his equally mutinous team-mates were left to brood for quite a bit longer as Ferguson and my old man jawed about their mutual love for that most frustrating of all games.
As we drove home that night, Dad asked me if I’d got any autographs. I hadn’t.
To be honest, the prospect of asking Wark for his at the time filled me with a sense of foreboding; the man looked so on edge and miserable I’d feared he’d have given me a bit of a slap if I had even dared to suggest the idea.
So I stood and stared at the worn carpet instead, occasionally catching Wark’s eye or drifting in and out of the conversation Dad was having with Ferguson.
I don’t know if they ever did have that game they’d promised themselves but I did learn a little while later that he’d taken part in a foursome that included Laurie Sivell, the club’s then understudy to Paul Cooper in the Ipswich goal.
“He told me he’s played at Wembley boy”.
“I don’t think he has Dad, it would have been Paul Cooper in the 1978 FA Cup Final”.
“Well he said he has”.
That was that with Dad. If Sivell had said so, then Sivell was telling the truth. But I knew Sivell was lying, spinning a bit of make believe to impress the blokes he was playing golf with. And let’s face it, his inclusion in their party would have been a major disappointment.
They’d have gone along for a day’s sport and amiable banter hoping, expecting, a Mick Mills, an Eric Gates or even Bobby Robson.
And ended up getting Laurie Sivell. Them’s the breaks. Sivell, of course, did end up going on to greater things, playing the part of Schmidt, the German goalkeeper in the film Escape to Victory.
Something Dad would never have believed. Wembley? Of course. But in a movie? With Pele? And Michael Caine?
Don’t be silly.
He loved his football though. I remember once his excitement at going to an evening game at Carrow Road, one that saw him drive there from Brancaster in his pride and joy – his recently acquired Hillman Hunter.
He’d barely arrived in Norwich before the car overheated. Stopping and throwing open the bonnet, he did what all sensible people would do if their car was overheating and carefully but relentlessly, started unscrewing the radiator cap.
The resultant geyser of hot water, stained red with anti-freeze that exploded into his face as a result of his folly meant he had to seek the attention of a St John’s Ambulance crew who were patrolling the ground as kick off drew close.
The Old Man must have looked a mess – wet, scalded and with skin stained red by that anti-freeze. The St Johns Ambulance man looked at him in disgust before saying, “Cur, blarst, can’t yew wait until at least the star’ o’the game before you git to fightin’?”
He loved to tell that story.
He also used to love the story of his encounter with Ted MacDougall. Now, goal scorer supreme that Ted undoubtedly was, he was not that keen on running somewhere if he could just as easily get to that place by walking or, better still, get someone (usually Phil Boyer) to do his running for him.
On one particular Saturday afternoon, Ted was being even more sloth than usual, something which was steadily winding up the entire Barclay, all of whom were eager to offer him help and guidance in what he should be doing.
“MacDougall. Get your arse off the floor and start making a bit of effort. You’re bloody next to useless today”, opined Dad.
Ted, who was enjoying a picnic at the time, put down his newspaper and cup of tea and ambled up, during play, near to the edge of the pitch at the Barclay end, looked up to where Dad was standing and, while giving him and those around him the classic V-sign, offered to Dad (and those around him) his own thoughts on the matter, .
Ted then ambled off to an area of the pitch where he wouldn’t be disturbed, yet one that offered him the opportunity, should he wish to take it, of joining in now and again. Well, he was there after all, it would be a shame not to.
As he did, Dad, together with the rest of the Barclay, burst into laughter and gave Supermac a round of applause.
It would have been a shame not to do that as well. Because he was one hell of a player, one who would, even today, get into my all-time Norwich City XI.
Dad’s hero though was Kevin Keelan. He wouldn’t admit it of course, but The Cat was a footballing god in his eyes.
Yet, despite all his goalkeeping prowess, one of the reasons that, I suspect, Dad admired Keelan so much was that he was a bit of a hard-man; someone who could look after himself and wouldn’t shy away from doing so if the opportunity presented itself.
Keelan himself admitted that his temper could let him down in the heat of the moment, accepting that the stick he often got for being aggressive might well have been deserved but that, as far as he was concerned, he was playing for the team and would do anything and everything in order not to let his mates down.
Something a Northampton Town player by the name of Tommy Robson, who later went onto play for Chelsea and Newcastle, would attest. Northampton and Norwich were locked in a fierce encounter at 2-2, a game in which left winger Robson had been on at Keelan all game – niggles, ankle taps, elbows and shirt tugging at corners. You name it. And Cat had been pushed to the limit.
Keelan later described it; “He kept on at me whenever I caught the ball so I tucked it under one arm and just punched him with the other”.
Down went Robson. And off strode Keelan without even waiting for the referee to complete the formalities.
Dad approved. You looked after your mates and you looked out for yourself. That was how it was.
Different times now of course. Very different. There is no way that Kevin Keelan would even wear, let alone endorse, a pink goalkeeping kit. He didn’t always wear gloves and could often be seen spitting on his hands before a penalty or free kick as if that would make all the difference.
It probably did as well.
As Dad moved into quiet retirement and stopped going to games, he lived through them with me. I’d often call him (mobile signal permitting) from my place in the River End around 10-15 minutes before kick-off, giving him the latest on the games build up, the atmosphere, the opposition.
“Is Holt starting?”
“On the bench Dad”.
There’d be silence before a long sigh. Dad could never understand why, if we had Grant Holt, he didn’t start (and finish) every single game we had. We’d catch up again at the end of the game and, more often than not, he’d blame any misfortune on either Holty not starting or Wes not “playing in his best position”.
But you know what they say about good times.
A little under a year ago, I was at the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind (NNAB) headquarters in Norwich with Jeremy Goss going over, with him, the finer details of his book launch, which was to take place at Jarrold the next day.
My phone rang. It was my sister. She would, I mused, be wanting to know more about the launch. I let her go to voicemail and continued chatting to Gossy. He was, for some reason, worried that no-one would show up!
The message was taut and emotional. “Please ring Mum as soon as you can. It’s urgent.”
I guess those of you who have been in a similar place at some point can relate to this. You just know, don’t you?
For those of you that don’t, I hope you never have to.
Dad was dying. He’d been ill, yes, but the progression of the illness had suddenly been startling in its intent. Just over a week earlier, he’d been at an event at home, amiably strolling around the playing field at Brancaster, chatting and catching up with people, friends old and new.
“Yes, I’ve been poorly but getting over it now, feel a lot better.”
“My boy’s got a new book out. About Jeremy Goss.”
I told Gossy the news. He is, as anyone who knows him will attest, an absolute gentleman. His words and actions at that dreadful time meant a lot, and still do.
The next morning we had the launch. It went well. If you came along, thanks. The book was very well received and has gone to a reprint. Mum came, in-between hospital visits. We occasionally looked over to each other for a bit of support, a bit of “I know, I’m here too”.
I sat and signed copies, chatted with people, posed for photos. But, all of the time I was thinking that my dad was only a few miles away in the N & N, that he was dying and I wanted to be with him.
When I got to see him he was already three-quarters of the way into the next world, whatever and wherever that is. But my wife and I chatted to him, she even read a bit of Gossy to him. He had been so looking forward to reading it for himself.
He was a good old boy. He was a big Norwich City fan. And he helped make me one too through, of all things, taking me to see Ipswich Town play. And because John Wark looked so miserable. And scary.
And, for that, I decided that, for all of their high profile in the game at that time, they weren’t anything special; there was no stardust or glamour attached. Just a group of bored young men who didn’t eat the sandwiches that the good people of Kings Lynn FC had put out especially for them.
A team and a club who were not worth bothering about really. And that’s continued to be the case to this day.
Now, Liverpool, on the other hand. Don’t even get me started on them.