My assistant Norman said that we ought to go to more trade shows. “We’re so out of touch with technological developments in this shop”, he said. “When that bloke came in yesterday talking about ultra marathon tactics you thought it was a new kind of peppermint.”
“Look here,” I said. “I’ve been to more trade shows than you’ve sold multi-stage, impact-absorbing rugby tooth-guards. Can I remind you who came back from that Earls Court sports exhibition with Sir Roger Bannister’s autograph?”
“I wasn’t working here then,” Norman said. “Anyway, my dad was a Teddy Boy and blokes went out running in pumps and braces with a slice of pork-pie in their back pockets. Things have moved on a bit since then, squire.”
Maybe Norman had a point and when he found two free tickets in Sports Insight for a sporting goods show at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre I couldn’t think of a good reason not to have a trip to London, apart from the fact that we hadn’t closed the shop on a Saturday since the Winter of Discontent in 1979.
The upshot was that there we were at seven in the morning outside the Conservative Club with old Mr Mortiboys, from the junk shop next door, and Dave, from the fitness gym, waiting for the minibus to the show, arranged by my friend Harbottle, who has a sports shop near the crematorium and is always complaining about the lack of passing trade.
To cut a long story short, only when we were halfway round the M25 did it finally dawn on us that our fellow travellers didn’t seem to know an awful lot about customised running shoe cushioning but were Ipswich Town supporters going to an away match to Millwall. We had got on the wrong bus.
Dave and Harbottle said they didn’t know why they were going to the show anyway because they weren’t interested in buying anything, and were quite happy just to have a cheap day out.
Mr Mortiboys said he didn’t care where he went so long as he could sit down. Only Norman actually wanted to go to ExCel and when he was defeated on a show of hands, we were welcomed aboard as Ipswich supporters and invited along to the match. It immediately increased the away support by more than 30 per cent.
They were a friendly lot. A cove on the back seat, who offered round his chocolate digestives, was finishing a jigsaw he had brought with him of Sir Bobby Robson with the FA Cup Ipswich won in 1978. “I reckon I’ve done really well,” he said. “It’s only taken me three weeks and it says 10 to 12 years on the box.”
Some of the chaps were talking about the last home game with Blackburn Rovers. “For a minute I thought we were in with a chance,” one said. “Then the game started.”
Apparently the manager was caught speeding on the way to the match. “You’ve got to hand it to him,” one of the supporters said.
“He’ll do anything for three points.” One bloke said his dog was a great supporter of the Tractor Boys and would be listening at home to the results on the radio. “He always barks when the name comes up,” the bloke said.
“What does he do when we win?” someone asked. “I don’t know,” the dog-owner said. “I’ve only had him three years.”
One of the female fans said she worked in the Ipswich supporters’club shop and had brought along some Ipswich Town tablecloths which were selling at half-price as they did tend to slip down the table.
There was surprisingly little trouble at the match. True, a pound coin was thrown on to the pitch, but the police couldn’t decide whether it was a missile or a takeover bid.
On the row in front of us there was an empty seat and at half-time the chap sitting next to it told us that the seat had been his late wife’s.
“Couldn’t you find a friend or relative to use the seat?” asked old Mr Mortiboys. “Not really,” said the chap. “They’re all at the funeral.”
Ipswich lost 1-0 but our friendly fans were surprisingly philosophical. “It could have been worse,” said one. “I suppose we were pretty lucky just to get nil.”
They dropped us off at the Conservative Club on their way back to Ipswich and we all agreed to say nothing to our nearest and dearest about the slight detour via Millwall football ground. After all, as Harbottle said, anyone can get on the wrong bus and when you’ve seen one low-volume personalised sportswear solution, you’ve pretty well seen them all.
The only slight problem was that my wife was apparently expecting more, as a souvenir from the show, than a cut-price Ipswich Town tablecloth.