I’m starting to feel sorry for Ipswich Town

When you become a fan of a football club, it involves another, twin pact, one written in the small print, implicit but not articulated: you get a new enemy, too. And whether we like it or not, our own fortunes are, in a way, tied to theirs.

Every team will have one, and some will have several: a nemesis, usually chosen by geography, though there are other reasons rivalries develop. Few footballing grudges are as fierce as that held by AFC Wimbledon towards MK Dons, for example, the team created when their old Wimbledon side moved to Milton Keynes in 2003 and which fans refuse to recognise as having any genuine link to their club. Now both teams are in League One, when AFC Wimbledon host their rivals they render them “Milton Keynes” on tickets because they consider the Dons nickname to be theirs and theirs alone.

Some of the most notorious rivalries have cultural and religious aspects at play, such as with Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, or just plain old bad blood and years of close, fiery competition, as between Liverpool and Manchester United. There are individual ones, too, though they are not always as bad-tempered, driven instead by a simple desire to be the undisputed best, boxing-style: Wenger v Fergie, José v Pep, Pelé v Maradona, Messi v Ronaldo.

The Norwich-Ipswich rivalry may be a straightforward local derby, a cross-border Norfolk-Suffolk clash, but that does not mean that the emotion on both sides is any less fierce. I’ve only been to two — the 3–1 win in 2004, when Malky Mackay scored a brace, and last year’s delicious 3–0 — but can remember where I was to watch many more, sometimes the only Norwich fan in a pub, among a disinterested lunchtime crowd unaware of just how keenly I was feeling every shot, tackle, save.

Because derbies are torture, only enjoyable after the result is confirmed in your favour. The one in February 2019 was, of course, near perfection, thanks to a nice early nerve-settling goal and Paul Lambert’s touchline tantrum, and because of what was to follow: come the end of the season, we were promoted to the Premier League and Ipswich Town, rock bottom of the table, were relegated to League One.

But while our stay in the top flight was, unfortunately, rather short, they remain stuck in the third tier, and the discontent is growing. They are just inside the play-off spots at the time of writing but a run of bad results and lacklustre performances is prompting concern among fans that they are repeating the pattern of last season (when they eventually finished 11th, eight points outside the play-off places).

The consensus is that Lambert is not the man to turn their fortunes around — last month a banner appeared at the training ground, reading “Cheers for the beers but it’s time at the bar”, a reference to the Scotsman’s occasional habit of buying drinks for fans — but he was handed a new five-year contract in January and the owner appears to be indifferent to the clamour.

Recent post-match interviews have involved a clearly rattled Lambert railing against the local press, accusing them of “stoking negativity”, apparently oblivious to his own considerable contribution to the sour mood at the club. There are no offers of a conciliatory round now; instead he is banning journalists from his press conferences and battening down the hatches.

The novelty of Ipswich struggling may be yet to wear off for many Norwich fans, which is understandable, and if so — enjoy! But I’ve also seen some admit that they’re starting to feel a bit sorry for our Suffolk counterparts, and that makes sense to me, too. However painful derby matches are to sit through, they are always a highlight of the season, one of the first fixtures to look for; both sides lose out when they are missing from the schedule.

And on a more basic footballing level it is never nice to see a club seemingly on the decline, increasingly disconnected from their supporters. Though we are lucky now there have been moments in our history when we have felt the same despair about the direction and stewardship of our club and it is worth remembering that when we are tempted to celebrate a fanbase in crisis, even when it is one we usually enjoy taunting.

As satisfying as it is to check the other scores after a win and find Ipswich have lost (again), it’s part of a wider picture, and, probably, fairly meaningless to their supporters — another bad result is nothing when you feel like the very soul of your club is at stake, when the hope you have for its future is vanishing, fast.

Besides, the appeal and power of having a close rival, a nemesis, comes from the fact that they are meant to be your equal; that is what motivates you to be better, to keep your standards up, knowing they are breathing down your neck. There’s nothing enjoyable about besting them when they make it so easy.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Nottingham Forest on 9 December 2020. Subscribe to OTBC here.

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