Match Review 07/03/2017 Ipswich Town 0 – 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers
Ipswich v Wolves on Tuesday evening wasn’t so much a bad football match as a low-point in human history; a staging-post on the decline of western civilisation, or an indicator that human evolution may have gone into reverse. Everything about it – the relentless pragmatism, the lack of invention, the repeated expositions of crapness which stopped just short of actually being funny, the apparent attempts by both teams to turn risk-aversion into an Olympic discipline, the players’ contempt for the watching public which extended as far as not even bothering to pretend to do anything other than go through the motions – reeked of both immediate and existential despair. There were no goals and nothing interesting happened.
Anyone who was there could have told you that. Pity those whose job it is to fill newspaper columns and websites with actual analysis of a game so shockingly bad that those in the crowd who hadn’t slipped into a torpor were left wondering how something as notionally prosaic as a second division football match could create the impression that time was moving backwards.
None of that is the point of this piece. There’s a young man who sits a few rows in front of me at Portman Road. I’ve noticed him a few times but particularly, for some reason, tonight. I’d guess he’s about 14 or 15 years old. He always wears a blue and white bar scarf. He attends with a man who I assume is his dad. It’s clear from the young man’s demeanour that he has a fairly substantial disability, or additional needs, whichever is your preferred term.
Here’s what I’ve noticed about him. It doesn’t matter how bad the football is, how listless or apathetic or sparse the crowd, how lacking in atmosphere is the ground – this young man devotes himself totally to the occasion, and for the duration of the game is consumed with a mixture of frenzy, anticipation, and joy. The passion with which he exhorts his team. The excitement with which he gets his dad to take a photo of him with the Ipswich mascot, Crazee, at half-time. He does this at every game but his enthusiasm is undimmed. For two hours at Portman Road every other week, rain or shine, this young man is completely and blissfully absorbed.
Now pause and consider – and there will be many reading this who will be considering this from a position of empathy – what life, in general, is like for this young man and his family. Someone who doesn’t “fit in” to society. Someone who follows his own rules, his own instincts, which are for the most part completely at odds with the world in general. Consider the responses he gets from his peer group, the confusion with which he watches them live their baffling lives of online gaming and easy socialisation, a world which can’t cope with him and from which he is therefore excluded. Consider the battles that his family have faced every day of his life, for inclusion, for acceptance, having to agitate for his interests and wellbeing among educators, medical professionals, “the system”, possibly even their own wider family, and society in general. Consider how they have had to adjust their expectations of parenthood. The relentless emotional assault of it all. Consider the bemusing effect of all of this on the young man himself. Consider just how much fucking hard work that is, for him, for his family, and for millions like them.
Now think about how much it means to him and to his family to know that – just for a couple of hours, every time Ipswich are playing at home – all of that melts away. Marvel at the young man’s resolve – despite being surrounded by an atmosphere which has latterly veered between apathetic and toxic – in pursuing his relentless and inspiring dedication without the merest hint of it being infected by the grumbles of the dwindling number of jaded souls around him.
There are many different pursuits in which disabled people, or others who for whatever reason don’t quite fit in to society’s norms, can find pleasure and acceptance, and hallelujah for that, and for all those who make it possible. But only football can do it quite like this. The simple beauty of the game. The immediacy. The reliance on instinct over analysis. The thrill of the unexpected or the spontaneous. The fundamentally welcoming and inclusive nature of the football crowd. All of this crystallised in one young man’s excitement, and his dad’s beaming pride. A reminder of the inescapable, heart-grabbing forces which caused us all to fall in love with the game in the first place.
I think I’m supposed to say, at this point, that this young man is an example to the rest of us, that we should all take inspiration and example from the pure and joyful way in which he approaches something as apparently mundane as Ipswich v Wolves. That would be true, but utterly unrealistic. Most of us aren’t like him. We will complain and mutter when things go wrong. We will moan about how the players don’t care as much as we do. We will snipe about the manager or the owner on social media. This will not change and neither will we.
But it is good to get a reminder of why – despite everything – football is still the beautiful game: why there is still (again, despite everything) a purity at the game’s heart which transcends all the hype and the petrodollars and other associated nonsense. The season ticket renewal packs will be posted soon. It’s been a mostly crap 2016/17 for Ipswich Town, but I’ll be back next year. I have a feeling that young man will be, too.
Match review by Grant Bage