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.

Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.