I hadn’t intended to go to this match; well I thought about it but just didn’t get around to buying a ticket. It’s what happens at the start of the season. I’m still in summer mode, it seems way too early for football, but it creeps up on you and all of a sudden the match is here and I’m sat at home ticketless.
Come the day of the match however, the bloke I sit next to at work, let’s call him Oliver, which coincidentally is his name, asks if I’d like his ticket because he has committed himself to watching Framlingham Town’s FA Cup extra-preliminary round replay against Wadham Lodge so can’t make it. Severe, heavy rain is forecast, the wind is in the north and the seat is in the south stand. Armed with this valuable potentially life-saving knowledge I say “Yes, I’ll take that ticket off your hands”.
I didn’t get home from work until just before six o’clock tonight because of heavy traffic and the fact that the A12 is partly flooded near Ardleigh. So rather than linger over dinner with a fine wine I gulp it down and am out again in time to catch the 18:46 train to Colchester. The rain is hurling down as I walk to the railway station, as it has been for the past couple of hours or more. Tonight trying to stay dry will be a challenge, one I am meeting by means of an umbrella, long navy blue raincoat, which my father bought in about 1954 and a pair of Wellington boots (green). Proud to be different. A tall man walking towards me appears to be wearing spats but as he gets close I see he is wearing black and cream trainers; they won’t keep his feet dry like my wellies will.
From Colchester station it’s a short walk to the bus stop to take me to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Stadium, the bit of Colchester the Romans just couldn’t be arsed to occupy. There’s no time to stop for a pint of Adnam’s Oyster Stout in the Bricklayers Arms tonight as the train is late and I just want to get in the stadium and out of the rain as quickly as possible. I step onto the bus and fumble for change, but the driver says that it’s free tonight, which is just as well because the top deck is already full so I will have to sit downstairs. A woman in her sixties politely budges-up and thanking her I settle down in a seat at the foot of the stairs. This bus is sweltering; it has warm air blowing down from vents in the roof and nearly everyone is sat in steaming wet coats. Most of the passengers are men, several are in their seventies or older. It’s not long before the bus is officially declared full, the doors sweep closed and it pulls away. The roar of the engine fills the ‘saloon’ and the swish of the rain and splash of the puddles in the gutter create an exciting cacophony of sound; men have to shout to be heard above the noise of this speeding, softly lit, mobile tin sauna. “With this team we should win about 3-0 most weeks” expounds an obese Villa fan of Asian descent. Less confidently he adds that Steve Bruce “..is a good manager, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he could be better”. He concludes that if Villa aren’t promoted at the end of the season Bruce will be sacked.
Arriving at “Layer Road” we politely pile out of the bus, many of us thanking the driver for his labour. It is gloomy and wet and people queue unhappily for programmes and draw tickets. The cameras of Sky TV are here tonight to broadcast the match live and at the corner of the stadium is a corral of trucks and broadcasting paraphernalia which looks like a traveller site; I half expect to see a couple of straggly-haired lurchers running about and some half-dressed, snotty-faced kids playing in the puddles. Sky TV have deigned to visit “Layer Road” tonight because this is a League Cup match with the prospect of plucky little fourth division Colchester knocking out famous, big city, and until recently Premier League club Aston Villa. Whilst I have called it a League Cup match it is in fact known by the name of its sponsor, a company I have never heard of , something like Caramac or Caribou. Whatever the cup is now called the sponsor is probably something to do with alcohol or on-line betting because modern football is classy like that.
I buy a programme (£3) and join the queue to get in the stadium; only one turnstile is open at the south end of the ground although not long after I join the queue, two more open. It is still raining of course and a gust of wind blows my umbrella inside out. “He-he it’s not doing much like that” blurts a drowned rat of a youth in front of me in the queue who looks like an extra from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!. I want to tell him that even inside out it’s a lot more effective than his non-existent umbrella, which is why he looks like he has just stepped out of Albert dock and will probably die next week of pneumonia in depressing Dickensian circumstances. I, meanwhile will of course live on to enjoy watching Colchester United on many a wet night to come as he moulders in a damp pauper’s grave.
At length I get to the turnstile where I hand my slightly soggy and bedraggled ticket to a steward who passes it across the sensor on the automatic turnstile, which rather defeats the object of automatic turnstiles, but hey-ho. Safe and dry In the strip-lit cosiness of the breeze-block concourse beneath the stand I seek re-invigoration with a pounds-worth of Tetley tea and then head for my seat.
Once the adverts on the telly are over the game begins to a spectacular backdrop of floodlit, teeming rain. Wow. Colchester are quick and play freely, but so do Aston Villa; this is good, an open game. Sadly, unluckily and possibly unfairly for the U’s, they trail quite soon when their goalkeeper spills the greasy ball, or has it kicked from his grasp and a Villain rolls it accurately beyond those around him into the net. The goal scorer’s name is announced as what sounds, perhaps because of the hiss and bubble of rain on standing water, like Squat Hogan. I think his name may be Scott, but he is a bit squat being slightly bandy and having the disfigured, pumped-up torso of a spinach filled Popeye. But soon afterwards Colchester are awarded a penalty, only to have it saved athletically by the Villa goalkeeper. It’s not even eight o’clock yet.
The referee is not popular with the home supporters due to that dodgy goal and for a series of free-kicks he awards to the Villains who seem quite unable to stay upright as if they have some unpleasant infection of the inner ear. The referee is called John Brooks a name he shares with my dead grandfather who, nice as he was, would probably have made a terrible football referee, so a bit like this bloke, who along with his assistants sports a shirt the colour of palest primrose. At about five past eight the U’s trail further as the tubby, balding linesman on the main stand side seems to react slowly to a probable offside and Col U’s number six Frankie Kent slides across the wet grass on his bum to clear the ball, only to deflect it into his own goal. A stroke of bad luck combined perhaps with misadventure and the uncertainty of the balding linesman.
The game looks up for the U’s despite the fact that they are matching their opponents all over the pitch and creating goal scoring chances; I start to wonder if their best bet would be for the game to be abandoned because of the weather. My hopes of this are raised as the intensity of the rain increases and the water bounces off the roofs of the stands and cascades down making the floodlights appear as watery roman candles through the moisture laden night air.
A late arriver sits next to me and asks if John Terry is playing; had I thought for just a second I should have said “Who”? But to my eternal shame I just tell him there’s no one I’ve ever heard of playing for Villa, adding that there was no Dennis Mortimer, no Peter Withe and no Gary Shaw. I’m not sure if he understood, although he didn’t look that young.
It’s twenty-five past eight and at last Colchester get a break as a shot from some distance is deflected into the Villa goal by Kent allowing him to atone for his earlier bum-sliding error. How we cheer. But half time follows soon after and the like of such chances for Colchester is not seen again. Aston Villa, under the management of the well-fed and somewhat boozie-looking Steve Bruce, unsportingly tighten up in midfield and the flowing football we enjoyed up until half-past eight becomes just a fading memory.
The home supporters console themselves by taunting the Villa fans, singing “You’re not famous anymore” which kind of contradicts itself and there’s a bit of native American style drumming at the few corners the U’s win. For my own part I gain disproportionate enjoyment from an advert on the illuminated scoreboard which displays the message “Watch from a box” and has me imagining fans sat in coffins along the touchline. Some fans have their loved-ones ashes sprinkled on the pitch, well why shouldn’t those not lucky enough to be cremated be able to come along too?
Despite their team being ahead for all but the first seven minutes of the match, The Villa fans have not been overly vocal, something the Col U fans have pointed out to them through the medium of song. The stadium announcer tells us somewhat too excitedly that there will be five minutes of added-on time and then with two minutes left of those five minutes the visitors from the West Midlands finally feel bold enough to mount a chorus of “We shall not be moved”. These are perhaps some of Britain’s more pragmatic, not to say cautious supporters. But there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s infinitely preferable to the big-headed, cocky attitude displayed by certain clubs’ fans from London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Indeed, it’s rather endearing.
As much as I don’t want Colchester to be knocked out of the Caribou Cup, I’m not too sorry when Mr Brooks blows for the last time and a further half an hour in the cold and damp has been averted by the U’s failure to equalise. The rain is still falling as the crowd of 6,600 odd file out of the stadium, but it falls with a bit less vigour and intensity as befits the moment when the game is over and the excitement has ended; it’s time to go home and dry out .