It is the day before Christmas Eve, a dull, dirty December day. A breeze has dried the pavements and roads but the damp is in the ground and releases a chill into the air like a radiator in reverse. It’s a short train journey into Colchester but the carriage is well loaded with people ‘going to stay’ for Christmas, the gangways between the seats are blocked up with suitcases.
Opposite me a bulbous-eyed, red faced man is on his mobile phone organising last minute work details as he heads off for the holidays… “Take Stella’s name out….sanitise it….just say it’s a commodity distribution company….a cdc…”. It all sounds a bit dodgy. Twat, I think. Behind me a woman asks a man if he is going to Colchester. No, Stowmarket” he says. “ Is that near Norwich?” “ Yes “ he lies, although I suspect it would just be too much bother to be truthful and to say “No”. People do that I find; I do that.
In Colchester I leave the train and head for the Bricklayers Arms, following a bald headed man in a camouflage jacket who disappears into the pub fifty yards ahead of me. I stride across the pub car park eager for a beer, there is a man with a large Airedale terrier in the smoking shelter. At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Old Ale (£3.65; I can’t see the man in the camouflage jacket anywhere). There are a few people enjoying a drink, it being nearly Christmas, but conversation is quiet and there don’t seem to be many football fans in yet. Two men and a woman, who is wearing a sparkly woolly hat with a furry bobble, occupy the next table along from me. The woman is on her mobile phone as she sits down. “No, I’m going to London tomorrow. We’re taking the dogs up town” she says mysteriously before sitting down with her back to me. Phone conversation over, one of the men dominates the pub conversation; he talks about the Star Wars films. “I’m not a sci-fi person” he says “ But basically those three made in the 1990’s were shite; but I always go and see them all because I feel if I don’t I might be missing something… I know I’m going to come away disappointed.”
I get another pint of beer (Adnams Broadside £3.70) and speak to a man at the bar called Mike who I vaguely know from my wife’s church. He is waiting to swap a pint of St Austell Tribute which refuses to settle for a pint of Adnams Ghostship. The Broadside is very enjoyable and I am still savouring it as I board the bus to the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium (£2.50 return). There is plenty of leg room
on the bus which is good. The front window on the upper deck has a blue tint across the top which reminds me of my first car, a mark two Ford Escort. Hopefully the bus won’t get written off on a frosty road like the Ford Escort did.
Once off the bus I join a queue for a programme (£3), then pop into the club shop, not to
buy anything but just because I am fascinated by club shops and the things they sell. It’s like visiting an art gallery. Back outside the Port Vale team bus nestles at the back of the main stand, a few hardy souls sit and drink coffee at the picnic tables outside the Hot Shots café, which is serving locally made ice cream. At the corner of the ground a vast screen stares out across the A12 advertising forthcoming ‘attractions’. It seems that in July four young women dressed as prostitutes will appear under the name ‘Little Mix’. I turn away because they make me feel a little uneasy, and head for the turnstiles.
Inside the south stand I take in the aroma of breeze blocks and urinal deodorizer blocks and for reasons I cannot explain decide to buy a sausage roll (£2.30). It’s a decision I begin to regret as I peel the pastry from its plastic wrapper which has turned brittle in the microwave. The wrapper tells me that what I am about to eat has a ‘pork-based filling’, a phrase which worries me slightly. The list of ingredients reveals a pork content of just 18%. On the front of the wrapper it says “…don’t compromise”; as the slimy sausage roll slides down inside me I realise that it’s too late.
Feeling disappointed with myself I take up my seat and the game begins with Port Vale kicking towards Colchester town centre with the McDonald’s across the other side of the A12 at their backs; they are wearing an all-black kit with narrow yellow and white stripes running down from the armpit; Colchester wear their usual blue and white stripes with white shorts. Port Vale’s kit is rather nasty. A new layer of disappointment is added as the game unfolds not into a beautiful flower but into a scrunched up mess. A win could see Colchester step into the top six in the fourth division, whilst Port Vale are only four points above the relegation zone; so a Colchester win is expected. But neither side is very good, although Port Vale are slightly better than expected and Colchester far poorer.
The game and the pervading atmosphere are dull and grey like the weather. The man sitting in front me who has a very full head of grey hair mildly vents his frustration with a slightly camp flick of his wrist as referee Mr Kinseley gives Port Vale a free-kick. “but he got the ball “ the grey–haired man opines. Behind me two men talk about things other than what is unravelling in front of us. As ever, one of them dominates the conversation. “I’ve got a feeling Braintree are at home ……..he’s got a very funny surname…..I watched this thing, it mighta been on Channel Five, about a bloke that built a lot of stuff in this country….Brunel, fuckin’ ‘ell, what a clever bloke…”
On the pitch Port Vale’s Marcus Harness stands out, not just because his first and surnames kind of rhyme, but because he runs around a lot to good effect and has a very bouncy, almost fluffy ponytail. Just after half past three a ball is lumped over the Port Vale defence, Sammie Szmodics runs onto it and kicks it beyond the appropriately named Ryan Boot in the Port Vale goal. It’s a bit of a surprise, but more importantly it’s a goal.
At half-time I step outside the back door with the smokers and eat the last of a box of Fairtrade cereal bars that has lasted me several months. Whilst some spectators smoke and top up with fast food at the burger van outside the stadium I browse through the programme; it’s not very interesting today, but I enjoy reading the names of the Colchester United squad; my favourites are Doug Loft, Kane Vincent-Young and Rene Gilmartin. To read out a team containing such names would be something like poetry.
The grey afternoon gets darker as the sun goes down and the second half begins. Hopes of there having been a stirring half-time team talk which has inspired the players to produce anything approaching entertaining football are soon dashed, this is dull. Eddie the Eagle peers on glumly through his huge startled eyes, wearing a red coat edged in white. I assume this is Eddie‘s sartorial nod to St Nicholas, but in fact he looks more like a bizarrely colourful Teddy boy or perhaps he is just wearing his dressing gown.
Port Vale are Colchester’s equals today and with a quarter of an hour left Marcus Harness scores the equalising goal with a glancing header. For the first time the small band of away supporters can be heard,” Vay-al, Vay-al” they chant, once or twice. Five minutes of added-on time raise hopes that Colchester can re-establish their lead, but they don’t. With the final whistle I am up quickly and on my way to the bus stop. This seems like a wasted afternoon; a wasted £17.50. But may be football is like Star Wars; shite, but you can’t not go in case you miss out on something.