Colchester United 2 Harrogate Town 1

It’s the first day of the second weekend in October and in the space of a week the leaves on the trees have begun to turn to shades of yellow and brown; it’s autumn and it’s cool.  I had wanted to head north to Morecambe today following Ipswich Town, but fate conspired to leave me without a car this morning and a hoped-for message that would have seen me ‘get a lift’ never arrived.  But like Ray Davies I like my football on a Saturday and so I have sought my fun elsewhere.  Local non-league football is always an attraction and Halstead Town, both Stanway Rovers and Stanway Pegasus, Little Oakley and Coggeshall United are all at home this afternoon but sticking two fingers up to the cost of living crisis I choose Colchester United versus Harrogate Town.  As some people collect vinyl records, Smurfs or infectious diseases so I collect Football League teams (well sort of) and I’ve never seen Harrogate Town.  It should be an “interesting” match, with the teams being third and fourth from bottom of the fourth division, but at least Col U should have a chance of winning.

Since Colchester United stopped running shuttle buses to their ridiculously remote stadium at Cuckoo Farm I have only been to see them there once, I used to be a regular. The Colchester United website now makes no reference to getting to the Community Stadium by public transport, the implication being that you can only get there by car, which is scandalous given the urgent need to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.   We are all doomed, but nevertheless I book a space on-line for my trusty Citroen C3 at the ‘Park and Walk’ car park (£3.00), which is over the A12 from the stadium, and make the short drive towards oblivion.   

It’s a pleasant walk from the car park beneath pale blue afternoon skies punctuated with fluffy clouds, over the roaring A12 to United Way and its vacant expanses of tarmac haunted by the ghosts of terminally delayed shuttle buses.  At the ground I visit the club shop to marvel at the pencils, mugs, cuddly toys and fridge magnets; this is Colchester’s Fitzwilliam Museum.  I pick up a programme in the shop and am pleasantly surprised to find that these are still free, “It’s like being in France” I tell the woman at the counter.  Mysteriously the cover of the programme is printed with the words “£3.00 where sold” and I wonder where that might be. Outside, I take a wander, easily resisting the temptation to pay £4.00 for a plastic cup of fizzy ‘IPA’ from the Legends Bar, although the alfresco Yogi Bear-style tables look inviting and £4.00 a pint is actually very cheap for a football ground.  Up a shaded corner sits the Harrogate Town team bus, provided by a local company with the fabulously Yorkshire name of ‘Murgatroyd’; it’s a name straight out of “Last of the Summer Wine”, and I imagine the Harrogate team running out to the theme tune at home games.

My fascination with the outside of the Community Stadium is soon exhausted and I head inside the stadium, successfully scanning my ticket and pushing through the turnstile at the third or fourth attempt; computer technology frequently succeeds in belittling me like this and I expect I shall meet my eventual demise at the hands of artificial intelligence.  I drift past the poorly patronised food stand beneath the stand, with its alluring smell of hot cooking oil and grease and find my way to my seat, which is sufficiently close to the foot of the stairs for the safety rail to be annoyingly in my field of vision.  Over the PA system, ‘Lost in music’ by Sister Sledge is followed by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ and I wonder if I’m not back at Layer Road in 1979 waiting to see Mick Packer, Steve Leslie and Trevor Lee strut their stuff.  Some of the people sat around about me look as if they would have been getting the benefit of a ticket at the concessionary price even back then.

“The teams are in the tunnel” announces the voice of the PA system excitedly to no reaction whatsoever from the crowd.  The teams soon emerge and as they line up for the usual pre-match pleasantries my view of them is almost totally obscured by the rail and the steward zealously guarding it.  Quickly, a couple of old boys sarcastically ask him if he’s going to stand there for the whole match, whilst also telling him to retreat into the stairwell, which he obligingly does; but I think he’s here to see the match as much as we are.

Colchester United get first go with the ball as the match begins and they attempt to aim at the goal closest to the town itself, which is over 3.5 kilometres away.  The U’s are wearing their traditional kit of blue and white striped shirts with white shorts and blue socks, and very smart it is too, particularly with just three broad blue stripes, although the red numbers on the backs of their shirts are mostly illegible.  Harrogate are regrettably one of the increasing number of teams that feel compelled to wear a funereal all-black away kit, despite there being no colour clash whatsoever between their yellow and black home kit and the U’s blue and white.   On the plus side, today is the first home league game for Col U’s new manager Matt Bloomfield, who joins the long list of former Ipswich Town players and managers at ‘Layer Road’, albeit that he only played one game for Town

“Col U” bang-bang-bang is the noise off to my right as the heirs to the Barside and Layer Road end get behind their team with a chant and the aid of a drum that sounds like a large cardboard box.  “Oooh, they’re in black, another bad sign and we’re kicking the wrong way” says the old bloke behind me cheerily like some soothsayer who might have told fortunes for Queen Boudicca.  “Only about bloody ten of ‘em” he continues, commenting on the Harrogate supporters in the opposite stand. “Got bloody cars in Yorkshire in’t they?”  He then proceeds to count them coming to a total of twenty-one.  Regrettably, I can’t resist doing the same and make the total twenty-five, although I don’t tell him.

“Blue and white army, de-de-de-de-dur” chant the home fans behind the goal as if they’ve either forgotten half the words or just couldn’t be bothered to think up any more.  “Hit the bloody thing” calls the old bloke behind me as Col U get into the Harrogate penalty area.  So far, so scruffy, it’s hard to  believe Col U beat Ipswich in the  League Cup earlier in the season.  “New manager’s made a difference, don’t you think” says someone behind the bloke behind me, perhaps only half in jest.  “Give him a chance, we’ve only had five minutes” says the voice of reason next to him, not quite getting the ’joke’.   “Who’s the wanker in the black” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, which is as close to wit as most football chants ever come.

When football is not of a high quality there comes a tipping point where this increases the likelihood of goals due to mistakes or ineptness, and happily this is what happens next.  A punt forward by Tom Dallison sails over the head of a Harrogate defender, who was either stood in the wrong place or didn’t jump high enough, and lands at the feet of Kwesi Appiah who is left with an unimpeded 20 odd metre run towards goal; he easily evades the Harrogate goalkeeper and runs the ball into an empty net whilst looking slightly surprised and possibly embarrassed.  Col U lead 1-0.

With Col U winning I relax and realise I haven’t seen the Col U mascot Eddie the Eagle, I hope he hasn’t succumbed to bird flu.  Col U are the better team with more attacking ideas, I hesitate to call it ‘verve’. “Go on push him” shouts the bloke next to me as Appiah chases another punt forward and the Harrogate defender who is ahead of him. Unfortunately, Appiah takes the bloke at his word and physically pushes the defender, inevitably conceding a free-kick.   The game is 25% gone and Frank Nouble heads a cross against the inside of a goal post, but it defies the laws of physics, and the angle of refraction somehow falls short of the angle of incidence and the ball stays out of the goal.  “There’s been more action in this first twenty minutes than in the whole season” says the bloke behind me sounding uncharacteristically positive.

I count the Harrogate fans again and it looks like there are thirty of them now, if they go on like this there might be forty of them by full-time; it seems unlikely though.  Perhaps aware of their swelling support, the Harrogate team begin to get something of a game together and win a corner and then another as Harrogate’s Armstrong, a bearded man with his hair tied back dangles a foot at the ball by way of an attempt on goal.   At first referee Mr Hicks give no decision and looks to his linesman. When the linesman signals goal-kick Mr Hicks awards the corner. “That’s teamwork” says the bloke next to me.

With ten minutes to go until half-time, Harrogate’s Joe Mattock has the honour of being the first player to be booked as he fouls the mouthy and theatrical Appiah.  Col U are strongest down the flanks and two minutes later a low cross from Junior Tchamadeu evades everyone in the penalty area expect Frank Nouble who is lurking beyond the far post and strikes the ball firmly into he goal to give Col U a 2-0 lead.  “Ole, Ole, Ole” chant the crowd behind the goal, simultaneously celebrating the goal and re-living holidays on the Costa Brava.

Four minutes of added on time are announced. “Where’d he get that from?” asks the bloke behind me but no one answers.  “You officials are a joke” shouts someone else when a possible handball is ignored and then Harrogate have their first shot on target, but it’s easily caught by Sam Hornby in the Col U goal.

With the half-time whistle I stand up to stretch my legs, and devour a Nature Valley Canadian Maple Syrup Crunchy bar as I check the half-time scores and discover that Ipswich are losing 1-0 at Morecambe. 

With the re-start of the game Harrogate replace Joe Mattock with Warren Burrell, I agree with the bloke beside me that Mattock had looked like he might get sent off if he wasn’t substituted, such was his enthusiasm.  Harrogate’s kick-off for the second half doesn’t show much hope for their approach as the ball is tapped back from the centre spot and then launched straight into touch as if just trying to gain distance from their own goal.  The other half-time substitute for Harrogate, Josh Falkingham fouls Appiah and quickly becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Hicks. “You dirty northern bastards” chant the Col U fans behind the goal, to my shame it’s a chant which, as someone who has never lived north of Ipswich, I have always found enjoyable.

Col U soon win another free-kick, but in the Harrogate half;  Mr Hicks sprays a line on the pitch ten yards from where the foul was given but  there is not a Harrogate player within ten yards of it. When Col U come to take the kick, they play it backwards.  “Go on boy, open your legs” cries the bloke next to me as Tchamadeu breaks forward again down the wing, I try not to look. Behind the goal the home fans have moved the choice of music in the stadium from the 1970’s to the 1980’s as they launch into a rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘I just can’t get enough’.  They switch to ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ as Mr Hicks brandishes his yellow card in the direction of Col U’s Cole Skuse.  As the sun goes down,  over half of the pitch is now in shadow and I’ve got cold hands.

Not quite an hour of the match has gone and as happened when Col U scored their first goal, a moment in which any ability a player has suddenly deserts him occurs again.  This time Hornby’s seemingly easy clearance barely leaves the ground and travels directly to Harrogate’s Daniel Grant who strides forward, and slips the ball through to Pattison who shoots the ball into the far corner of the Colchester goal, the score is 2-1.  Weirdly, the Harrogate fans do not appear to celebrate; if they do they do it quickly and quietly, but then, it might not be possible to hear them because they are so well spread throughout the away fans enclosure in groups of no more than two or three, it’s almost as if they don’t get on or are embarrassed to be seen with one another.

Harrogate win another corner from which McArdle heads over the cross-bar and then they make another pair of substitutions.  When a Harrogate player is injured and stays down he’s attended to by the physio who is a woman.  At least one person in the stand behind the goal feels it’s appropriate to produce a wolf whistle and the bloke behind me suggests that the injured player will be looking into her eyes and telling her the pain is in his groin area.  It is sobering to find there are people who still think like this.

The last twenty-five minutes of the match play out in a series of free-kicks, the occasional corner, the evening up of the number of yellow cards shown and some more substitutions, three for Col U and one for Harrogate.  Col U’s defending gets more desperate with Luke Chambers hoofing the ball inelegantly even when he doesn’t have to, like he did for Ipswich in his latter days. When Col U win a free-kick the bloke behind me suggests they bring on Freddie Sears who has already been substituted. “It’s what they do in America” he says, attempting to justify his stupid comment, with an equally stupid one. 

In the final ten minutes of normal time Luke Chambers is booked, almost wilfully it appears, and Alex Newby and Luke Hannant miss simple looking chances in quick succession that could have secured the win for Col U. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon is the nine minutes of added on time that is to be played, but this might just be because in previous years four minutes has always been what we’ve come to expect.

With the final whistle there is applause, the crowd has clearly enjoyed the win even if it wasn’t the greatest game ever played. Often however a game between two evenly matched teams will be perfectly watchable regardless of how good they are; Col U and Harrogate were evenly matched today but Col U were the better team and deserved their victory.  I head off back over the A12 to the car park and learn that Ipswich have come from behind to beat Morecambe 2-1 and all is right with the world.

Colchester United 0 Forest Green Rovers 3


It’s been a foul March day; blustery, wet and cold; at times the word very has been in front of those adjectives.  Now it is gone seven o’clock, the sun has gone down and it’s mainly miserable and dark, particularly at the Colchester Park & Ride car park, an exposed expanse of dimly lit tarmac next to the A12, adjacent to a petrol station and a McDonald’s. Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town.

Across the A12 the lights of the Colchester Community Stadium, currently known as the Jobserve Community Stadium and formerly the Weston Homes Community Stadium, which I like to call ‘Layer Road’, shine, but not enough to satisfactorily illuminate the ticket machine at the edge of the car park.  The machine  asks for at least three digits from my car number plate, then changes its mind and asks for all of them and then tells me to pay with coins; I don’t have any.  I trudge the 70 odd metres to the typically streamlined Park & Ride waiting room building and change a fiver into coins with the help of another machine. I ignore the queue of other people buying tickets at the machines there and trudge back to the dimly lit machine.  A kind man illuminates it with his mobile phone and after the machine first claims ignorance of my car registration it eventually allows me to purchase a ticket (£3).  

I walk to the football ground between bright lights planted into the ground that don’t actually illuminate the path only give me a clue where it might be.  I turn left onto Boxted Road and traverse the bridge over the A12 with its high metal sides presumably there to prevent suicidal football supporters from jumping down onto the highway; I turn left into United Way and arrive at another open expanse of tarmac upon which here and there are painted the words BUS STOP.  A white Mercedes Benz is parked partly across the word STOP.  I shed a tear for the shuttle buses which no longer ply their way to the stadium and were the only thing that made this god forsaken location for a football ground even faintly viable. I have probably watched Colchester United play well over 300 times in the last 35 to 40 years but have not been to ‘Layer Road’ since the shuttle bus service stopped running, until tonight. Tonight I have come to see Forest Green Rovers play Colchester United because I want to see Forest Green Rovers, the Football League’s only vegan football club, the only Football League club owned by a former ‘New Age’ traveller.  The irony that I have had to drive to watch this club famed for its ‘green’ credentials is not lost on me.

The Community Stadium is as bleak and lonely as it ever was, surrounded by a car park and nothing much else.  The Forest Green Rovers team bus sits up a corner by the main stand, disappointingly it looks like a regular team bus, not powered by methane or biofuel or anything other than dirty old diesel. I take a look in the well-stocked club shop, where trade is slow; toy bears stare out into the car park but no one is buying.

I queue at the turnstile for what feels like seconds wishing I had a bag for the steward to look into to make this experience more interesting.  Inside the ground however things look up, the programmes are free! This is like being in a civilised country like France where free football programmes are de rigeur and fleetingly I am transported to the imaginary Rue de Layer where Unifie de Colcestre are about to take on Nomades de Foret Vert in the Ligue National.   The sight of Pukka pies not baguettes and Carling instead of espresso coffee returns me from my reverie.   I spot a former work colleague called Mark, which is nice, and we shake one another warmly by the hand; he introduces me to his friend Darren who like me is really an Ipswich Town supporter.  Mark tells me this should be a good game, although Colchester United tend to either ‘do alright’ or lose 3-0.  Up in the South stand I take my seat,  I am sat behind a man and woman who I recognise from the Barside at Layer Road from over thirty years ago, they look much the same, just slightly shrivelled with age.

The U’s soon kick off towards me in their customary blue and white stripes, although from behind their shirts are all blue with white sleeves as if they couldn’t really decide if they want to be in stripes or not.  Their white socks have just two blue hoops as if they couldn’t decide if they should be hooped or not either.  There are no such uncertainties with Forest Green Rovers’ kit of overly dark bottle green with lurid day-glo green trim.

Colchester dominate the start of the game taking on the role of 6th placed promotion hopefuls eager to cement their place in the play-off positions, as someone on Sky Sports TV might say.  Ninth placed Forest Green defend capably.  “It’s a long way on a Tuesday, innit?” says the bloke behind me and is not fully understood by his companion.  He explains that it’s a long way for Forest Green supporters to travel from wherever it is that Forest Green is, “Somewhere down Portsmouth way, I think”.    Forest Green Rovers actually play in Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, so they’re more Laurie Lee than Lord Nelson, but I don’t turn round and tell him that.

The Forest Green number 23 Joseph Mills is the first player to make an impression; he is wearing his hair in a bun.   “You’ll never make it Ward” says a voice at the back of the stand, seemingly attempting to goad the Forest Green goalkeeper Lewis Ward who is dressed all in pink.  From the middle of the stand directly behind the goal a chorus of “Ole, Ole, Ole” rises or perhaps it’s “Allez, Allez, Allez”; it’s hard to tell, it could be both.  After twelve minutes Colchester win the game’s first corner.

Twenty minutes have passed, Colchester are doing okay just not scoring.  Forest Green cross the ball from the left to Lloyd James, he quickly shoots and scores from a good 18 metres or so from goal. No one was expecting that, it’s probably the first shot on target.  “Come on Col U” chant the understandably disappointed but not unduly upset occupants of the South Stand.  But things change, the crowd becomes more vociferous, less happy, more angry.  Colchester win another corner to no avail and Forest Green players spend time sat on the turf looking pained.  “Get on with it, you bloody…” shouts an angry man so irate that he can’t think of a word to finish his sentence.  It’s nearly twenty past eight and Forest Green break away down the right, one pass, another pass and number ten Reece Brown side foots the ball past Colchester’s slightly exotically named goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin.  Forest Green lead 2-0. Colchester’s number forty-five Frank Nouble kicks Lewis Ward out of spite and becomes the first player to be booked by the slightly portly referee Mr Alan Young. Colchester rather pointlessly win a third corner and Lewis Ward is booked for mucking about.

After three minutes of added on time comes the half-time whistle and I head downstairs for a pounds worth of PG Tips in a plastic cup and to check the half-time scores, but mysteriously all the TV sets are on their sides; perhaps the Sky subscription is cheaper like that; it would be okay if you could lie down on a sofa to watch it.  Ipswich are losing.

The second half is much like the first, just a bit colder.  The breeze is getting stronger and there are a few spots of rain in the air.  In the West Stand a man in a blue and white wig and bath robe reclines against his seat looking bored.  Perhaps like Bobby Ewing he will later step out of the shower and find it was all a bad dream. Colchester press forward but Forest Green defend well, blocking every shot, thwarting every move, frustrating the spectators.   The crowd begin to blame Mr Young for a lack of free-kicks to Colchester or too many free-kicks to Forest Green.  “You are kidding” shouts an exasperated man at Mr Young and drawing out every word.  “What is wrong with you referee?” asks someone else.  “Show some flair referee” says another rather more obscurely “Show some bollocks” replies yet another, a little crudely.  I for one want Mr Young to keep his shorts very definitely on.  A few rows in front of me a young woman, or very high pitched man shouts viciously, rendering herself or himself incoherent with vented spleen.   The atmosphere is unpleasant and it’s no wonder Boudicca sacked the place back in AD60 if the inhabitants were as narky as this.

Despite Colchester’s dominance of possession and shots it takes until gone ten past nine for Lewis Ward to make a decent save as he dives away to his right like a flying raspberry blancmange to give Colchester another pointless corner kick.  The final ten minutes begin and Forest Green show that they can keep and pass the ball very neatly, so much so that they end up passing to an unmarked Christian Doige who despite a suspicion of offside amongst the home supporters scores a third goal.  The names Shephard, Brown, Doige appear as verse on the scoreboard.

With the game lost its time for two youths to run onto the pitch, probably as their tribute to recent televised pitch incursions at Arsenal and Birmingham.  They only look about fourteen.  One of them makes a break for it trapping himself at the back of the East Stand having athletically vaulted over several rows of seats. “Wanker, Wanker, Wanker” shout the South Stand. “Wanker!” shouts an angry man behind me a little belatedly, and sounding a bit stupid as a result.  He should have saved his shout for the equally silly Frank Nouble who rounds off an entertaining evening by committing a needless foul, getting booked for a second time and consequently sent off.

The crowd of 2871 are already heading off into the dingy car parks and wasteland outside before five minutes of added on time are announced.  A wildly bearded man in patched double denim rails at the team as others shuffle past. “Worst game of the season” a man says to me unintentionally referencing Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons as he raises his eyebrows and edges past me. I wait until the very end to get my money’s worth (£18.50) before also heading off into the damp and dark to walk to my car and travel home alone fondly remembering the days when we left the ground together sharing our misery in a crowded shuttle bus.