Days Gone By - The changing face of Ipswich Town’s Portman Road ground
Professional football is a different world since reader Rod Cross first attended a match at the Ipswich Town Football Club ground at Portman Road, writes David Kindred.
Looking back 62 years, Ipswich was in the Third Division (South) and matches attracted a large crowd in the austere years after the Second World War. There was no live television coverage and the only mention on the radio was the result.
Ipswich had turned professional in 1936, but the facilities at Portman Road were still basic in the 1950s. Most players travelled to the ground on buses and cycles as few had the money to buy a car.
The stands were packed with all ages, many men wore cloth caps and usually a tie, children filled the front of the all-standing terraces.
Here Rod Cross shares his memories.
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“Recently I watched Ipswich Town at Portman Road, a matter of 62 years after my first-ever visit to the ground. It was on March 27, 1954 that I first handed over my nine pence (4p in new money) to the attendant at the boys’ entrance and pushed through the turnstile with eager anticipation. Shrewsbury Town provided the opposition for the Division Three (South) match that day, the result, a dull goalless draw. The attendance was 13,439, a crowd figure that would be deemed highly respectable today for a game at that level.
“I stood by the little wall surrounding the pitch on what was known as the Popular Side – the open, windswept, concrete terrace in front of the practice pitch. It was to be several years before the West Stand was constructed behind it, which in turn, was later transformed into the extensive, all-seater, three-tiered stand that’s there today.
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“Queens Park Rangers were the visitors for Town’s next Saturday match and I witnessed my first-ever goals in a 2-1 victory. This time I went to a covered terrace behind the goal, now the site of the Sir Bobby Robson stand. I was perched on the perimeter wall – permissible then for small boys, providing they sat side-saddle with both legs on the stand side of the wall.
“For the penultimate home match of the season, against Swindon Town, I again found my spot on the wall. However, as the crowd grew to over 17,000 and the stand began to fill, fans were allowed to sit or lie on the grass behind and beside the net. From this superb vantage point I saw Town’s 2-0 win. “It seems astonishing to think that although we were just feet from the goal line, nobody considered it in any way dangerous. Health and safety was hardly an issue in those days and crowd management pretty unsophisticated.
“By the time Ipswich played Northampton Town in the season’s final match, the championship had already been secured and the crowd exceeded 22,000. I watched this game from The Enclosure – a rather flattering title for an uncovered, grit-strewn, sloping area in front of the grandstand. This was a blue-painted, wooden, shed-like construction backing on to Portman Road. It contained seating for the season-ticket holders and VIP’s, though ‘grand’ it certainly was not! It was later demolished and rebuilt as the Cobbold Stand and was where I sat during my most recent visit.
“The biggest stand was behind the goal at the far end and was known as Churchman’s, after the cigarette factory at the rear. The flooring was made of old railway sleepers, rendered worn and uneven by thousands of pairs of boots that had trodden and stamped up and down on them in the past. There was a gap to let in light and air between the back of the stand and the roof. Even so, as cigarette smoking was part and parcel of watching football at the time, a thick blue fog quickly built up on match days. It was a very male environment with a character all of its own.
“During the old Third Division days, there were no floodlights. Matches kicked off at 2.15pm during the winter months and midweek matches were always played on Wednesday afternoons. There was no scoreboard, half-time scores being displayed by hanging numbers on hooks on the perimeter wall. The numbers could be decoded using the key in the match-day programme.
“Two St John Ambulance men, clad in black greatcoats, sat in a dugout at one corner of the ground. A well-used wooden stretcher lay on the grass in front of them. There were also two primitive dug-outs near the half-way line for the players’ medical team i.e. an ex-player in a tracksuit, with a cold sponge and bottle of smelling salts.
“As now, the two teams ran on to the pitch from the far corner of the ground. The dressing rooms were an old cricket pavilion and were far removed from the luxurious facilities of today. However, they housed some of the greatest players to appear for Ipswich Town in that or any other era: Ray Crawford, Ted Phillips, John Elsworthy and Roy Bailey amongst those that helped win four league titles in nine years, during the 50s and early 60s, including the League Championship itself.
“Those days of unmitigated success were to be matched two decades later by the wonderful teams under Bobby Robson. As the club progressed, Portman Road changed out of all recognition and is now a modern stadium, befitting of a club with a great history.
“The seat I had recently was comfortable and the view unhindered. Yet, it couldn’t compete with the thrill of standing on an open, concrete terrace that March day, 62 years ago; hearing ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ being played over the speaker system; and watching, for the first time, the men in the famous royal blue of Ipswich. That could never be equalled!”
Were you a regular at the Ipswich Town matches in the 50s and 60s and have watched the changes to the game and ground over the decades?