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.