By Stuart Hellingsworth
“So you live in Norfolk, always have, but yet you support Ipswich! Why?”
I’m frequently asked this and it is sometimes accompanied by a spit to the floor. Naturally I am readily prepared for this question and have two answers, including the truth.
“I wanted to support a local football team”
“But Norwich are closest!”
“I said a football team, not a joke”
Given the last six years, I cannot say this with any credibility, unless I want the joke to be on me.
Number 2, the real reason:
“I was a glory hunter”
Many of you will read this and be even more puzzled; ‘Ipswich? Glory?’
But yes this is true. Back in the day, when all this land was fields and there was white dog poo and curly wurlys were bigger than your dad (who was not bigger than my Dad), Ipswich were a good team.
When friends and I were getting into football, many were choosing Manchester United or Liverpool. “You only support them because they’re top of the league” was the cry from many. I did not want to appear so fickle myself or risk the wrath of the other eight year olds (I was twenty at the time).
I had to choose a team. This was more important than getting the latest Star Wars figure or playing ‘1, 2, 3, Home’. The TV presenter, Frank Bough or Stewart White probably, announced they were going to show the league table. Now was my chance.
I had to pick carefully, it was not a decision to take lightly (good preparation for the Brexit vote); pick a rubbish team would without doubt indicate that I was gay. I did not know what gay meant, but apparently it was bad, and picking a bad team would result in this (my subsequent psychology studies have surprisingly not found a correlation of this. However, there is a link between stupid and prejudice). These were the hard facts of the time.
And so the table appeared. There at the top were Liverpool; that’s them out of the equation I thought (but not using the term equation). Everybody had told me it was against the law to choose the team at the top. And rightly so. Perhaps I could go for the team in second.
“In second place is Manchester United”.
My plan was scuppered. Manchester United were also a team you could not support. This had been as regular a feature at school assembly as:
A: Don’t speak to strangers.
B: Sing about some bloke called Jesus.
C: Harvest festival
D: Get sponsorship for the RNLI by knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for money
Yes, it was an agenda item.
I stared at the table in disbelief. What now? But then it happened. There, highlighted with a font that would come to mean “we’ve saved you Stu”, were: “Ipswich” and “Town”.
Oh yes. I had defeated the system.
Ipswich United, Ipswich City, Ipswich Albion or just Ipswich were my team. I announced this the following day just before spelling. A crowd of what I would estimate to be in the region of 875 had gathered to hear the choice of another child. Akin to the sorting hat in Harry Potter. These were big issues and back then we could not name the team we were backing on Sky News or Facebook. No, this was the way.
There was a murmur of acceptability. “He’s not gone for Liverpool or Manchester United.” No allegations of just picking the best and no risk of getting the cane in assembly. Everybody knew you were caned in assembly for picking the wrong team, even though none of us had seen it. Glen’s brother had seen it happen. And you did not question Glen. He was good at cricket, football and maths.
Before approval was given, the eighties version of the internet was checked: The Panini sticker album. Multiple men with beards and these shiny badge things appeared from within a booklet. At the same time, analysts discussed the merits of my chosen team. What would David, Martin and Scott make of my decision? Would their discussion match that of the Panini sticker album?
By not picking Brighton or Norwich or Swansea or Accrington Stanley or West Ham, the risk of supporting a rubbish team was gone.
My choice was approved.
Word quickly spread of my chosen team and of my peers’ approval. I had the respect of the class and the whole year. Walking into assembly the following day, it was clear the news had also reached the teachers. You could tell by the way that Mrs Baldwin was smiling. Even Mrs Longley. Had I wandered towards them, they would have certainly offered me a high five.
Not only had I won the respect of the school for ever and ever, but the team were brilliant. Mariner, Walk, Brazil, Mills, Burley, Butcher, Muhren were just some of the men who, despite lacking the seemingly compulsory big beard, were fine players. Trophies were won (ok, 1).
Our manager was so good, England picked him. We were even chosen for a film about the War. I simply could not have made a wiser decision.
This team would be ace for good I smugly determined before the summer holidays of 17 weeks.
What could go wrong?
Nothing dear reader, nothing. Forever we remained top and won the league, the world cup, Wimbledon, It’s A Knockout and the Eurovision Song Contest.
If you have not followed football since the mid-1980s, this piece ends here. You can go away feeling happy for me with my good choice. Thank you.
Stop reading here please.
So those of you who did carry on following football will know that, not only can a lot go wrong, but a lot did go wrong for my team, Ipswich Town. It turns out that rebuilding a big stand is a bad idea. This was one of the main reasons for our plummeting fortunes from the mid-80s. But at least we learnt our lesson. Never again would we take such a risk… Bollocks.
Over the following decades, things changed greatly for both Ipswich and Norwich and football in general. Norwich lost the tag of teams you should not support. It is fair to say you invested in areas we have been ignorant of. The things that require time and planning more so than money. You do the things we should be doing too.
So what have we learnt from this:
For now, let me end by applauding your club’s brilliant recent twitter response regarding Pride. “Everything”.