Groundhopping at Ipswich Town FC

Groundhopping at Ipswich Town FC

A lot of English people look at me kind of funny when I say things like, “I really enjoyed seeing a game at Ipswich Town.” But it’s true! I genuinely like places like Portman Road, where history trumps glamour and any support for the club is long-time and legitimate.

The town of Ipswich itself has very little to offer the tourist, and on that even local residents seem to agree. And the club has been stuck in a football swamp for some time. But they have a proud history, a classic old ground (at least to these eyes) and a fanbase which has stuck with them through mostly “thin” for years.

statue of Sir Alf Ramsey outside Portman Road

The Sir Alf Ramsey statue outside Portman Road.

Ipswich Town History

The club’s history can best be divided into three segments: the Ramsey days, the Robson days, and the current malaise.

Ramsey is Sir Alfred, usually just Alf, who took over as manager in 1955 and by 1961 had won the Second Division. Then, in their first-ever top flight season, they won it! This got them into the European Cup, where they lost in the two-legged first round to eventual champs AC Milan, despite beating them at Portman Road. Ramsey left in 1963 to eventually win the 1966 World Cup with England, and he now has a statue and a stand named for him.

The next hero was Sir Bobby Robson, who took over in 1969 and led them to a long run of success, including their only FA Cup (1978 over Arsenal in the Final). For three seasons starting in 1979, they finished third, second and second in the league, and they won the 1980-81 UEFA Cup (basically today’s Europa League). In fact, they have never lost a European game at home!

Robson, inevitably, moved on — also to the English national team, whom he took to the semifinals of the World Cup in 1986, and later to great success at Newcastle and Barcelona. He also has a a stand and statue honoring him, and I have previously reviewed a wonderful documentary about his life.

exterior of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand at Ipswich Town

Exterior of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand.

Robson left Ipswich in 1982, and over the next 20 years they managed a few seasons in the top tier but won nothing. They slipped into the second tier (then called Division 1, now the Championship) in 2002, and remarkably stayed there for 17 seasons! In 2019, their 63-year run in the top two divisions ended with relegation to League One. New and mainly American ownership arrived in April 2021, and they have at least spent some money on the stadium.

The club also has one of the funnier nicknames around: the Tractor Boys. This apparently started in the 2000-01 season, when they were in the Premier League and beat Leeds United, whose supporters shot back about the agricultural scene in Suffolk. Being British, they took on the insult, and it’s been Tractor Boys ever since. Their fierce East Anglian Derby with Norwich City is sometimes called the Combine Clasico or the Old Farm.

Ipswich Town players lining up before a game at Portman Road

The Tractor Boys at their home, Portman Road.

Portman Road, Ipswich Town’s Stadium

It’s not often one walks out of a train station and is greeted by the sight of the local football ground, but this is another good aspect of seeing a game at Ipswich Town. The long sides look positively old school, with the Cobbold Stand (named for former owners) built in 1971 and the West Stand in 1957, although updated in 1990. Behind each goal, the Ramsey and Robson Stands are more modern but still go back to 2001.

At around 30,000 seats, Portman Road feels close in and cozy, with old-fashioned touches all over. Behind the West Stand is a large fan zone with food, beer and live music.

Away fans will be in the Cobbold Stand, over towards the Ramsey Stand. So if you want a good view of them, go for the West Stand; if you want to be among the jumpers and shouters, they are in the Robson Stand, especially the eastern end of the lower tier.

a pie, crisps and tea at Portman Road

It was a decent pie and meal deal at Ipswich Town.

Game Day Tips at Ipswich Town and Portman Road

Like I said, you walk out of the station, and you’re practically there. From Liverpool Street Station in London to the Portman Road turnstiles is about 90 minutes. To see everything of real interest (that I am aware of), take a 30-minute walk from the station, starting with the Station Pub, just across the road and alongside the River Orwell — and yes, that’s where Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, got his pen name. That’s the main away supporters’ pub.

From there, cross the river, turn right, and in less than 10 minutes you’re at the redeveloped waterfront along Neptune Marina, with a lot of nice boats (the ocean is not far away) and some newer restaurants as well as a cool-looking old pub called Isaac’s on the Quay. The glass-enclosed, heated domes on the porch can be booked in advance.

exterior of Isaac's on the Quay on the Ipswich Waterfront

Isaac’s on the Quay on the Ipswich Waterfront.

Next, turn north and head for the town center, particularly the main square, The Cornhill, with its Town Hall and other impressive buildings. Along the way, look for some older pubs: the Lord Nelson, the Plough, and the Spread Eagle. The Briarbank is a more modern place with a cool upstairs bar.

And then head on over to Portman Road! Easy.

Getting Ipswich Town Tickets

Certainly as long as they are in League One, and unless they draw a big Premier League club or their great rivals Norwich City in the Cup, you’ll never have a problem getting an Ipswich Town ticket. I paid £30 for perfectly good, middle tier seat in the West Stand near midfield.

Ipswich Town taking a free kick at Portman Road

Free kick in front of the Ramsey Stand.

The Game: Ipswich Town vs Crewe Alexandra

This was game #3 for me on an eastern run over a weekend: Colchester United on Friday, Norwich City on Saturday, and then Ipswich — all while staying in a hotel in Ipswich. It’s about 20 minutes on a train to Colchester and 40 minutes to Norwich, plus just over an hour from London. So it was a convenient little run.

I was also sharing the hotel with none other than the Tractor Boys’ opponents, Crewe Alexandra FC — aka the Railwaymen. These are the things that happen when you get out beyond the Premier League and Championship. You step into an elevator with three young men in matching suits and club badges, then you notice the club name on a conference room, and in the evening you see one of the players sitting in the lobby, chatting with what appears to be visiting family members.

And then the next day you see that same guy sub into the game!

Ipswich Town manager having a tea on the touch line

For some reason I just loved seeing the Ipswich Town manager having a tea on the touchline.

Another aspect of this game for me was that I had been to nine previous games in November, none of which were wins for the home team! In that time, I had seen all of four goals by the home team. I was beginning to think I was cursed, or a curse.

So it was a great relief when Ipswich Town scored — an own goal, but still — about five minutes into the game. They pretty well bossed the whole first half, at the end of which I decided to head out a little early to beat the lines for a hot chocolate. But I lingered at the exit, which is a good thing, because right down in front of me, a Town player got the ball with his back nearly to goal about 20 yards out, glanced over his shoulder, and then curled a perfect lob over the keeper and into the far corner. It was an extraordinary goal, put the home team up 2-0 over the bottom-of-the-table visitors, and seemed to seal the deal.

I at least got a shot of some of the celebrations.

Ipswich Town players celebrate a goal

A rare happy moment for Ipswich Town.

Except it didn’t seal the deal, at least not emotionally. English football fans have this funny way of seeming angry or unhappy most of the time, and it was on full display that afternoon at Portman Road. I don’t know what psychological stuff is going on, but the whole second half, with Town up two goals and still on top of the action, people all around me were yelling at the players, getting angry Town didn’t score a third, and becoming truly annoyed when Crewe had the audacity to actually play some football! How dare Town not simply blow them away?

It got really exciting, at least for the home fans, when Crewe actually scored to make it 2-1. But this is where being a neutral comes in handy. When you don’t care who wins, you realize the referees are pretty good, players are doing their best, and actually, Ipswich Town have got this. Crewe did nothing else the whole game. And Town did have it, winning 2-1 to break my unfortunate record and move them up to 11th in the table.

Here are the highlights:

When the final whistle blew, I had a sense that the people around me weren’t celebrating like you might expect. For a second, I thought the referee had whistled for a foul. Then a couple of people near me said the same thing. And on the way out, I heard people saying it didn’t feel like a win!

I don’t know, maybe being in League One and playing teams like Crewe Alexandra is just too much for longtime fans. Anyway, their manager, whom I enjoyed watching have a cup of tea at the start of the game, sure felt it. Check out his post-game interview, where he started in about this without even being asked!

Buy our book, The Groundhopper Guide to Soccer in England

So maybe I was the only one who enjoyed myself at Portman Road that afternoon. Maybe it’s good to be a neutral and from another country sometimes. I know the pain of a late one-goal lead for “your” team, and I get it when people tell me they enjoyed some corner of America that I never think to go.

But the fact is, Ipswich Town won the game. And they’ve got major trophies in their cabinet. And two of the most famous managers in English history. And they drew 19,000 to a League One game when it was basically freezing out. And their stadium is cool. And there are some cool pubs in town, plus a lot of new development.

All of this is barely an hour from London! So I think you, fellow groundhopper, should get out to the east of the capital and give a place like Ipswich Town a try.

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