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 2 Coventry City 1

After a hard day at work (7 hours 24 minutes) there’s nothing like getting home to your wife, husband  or partner on a winter’s evening to enjoy an aperitif, a good meal and a relaxing evening of engaging conversation.  But tonight I have worked almost eight hours, caught a later train and now find myself on the cold, dark, traffic-dominated concrete forecourt of Colchester railway station leaning into a drizzle filled wind as I head for The Bricklayers Arms as a precursor to a bus ride out to the Weston Community Homes out in the middle of nowhere Stadium and an evening of fourth division football.

In the Bricklayers there are just a handful of drinkers, perhaps because it’s not yet six o’clock.  I buy a pint of Colchester Brewery Number One (£3.50) and settle down at a small table to read a couple more chapters of W Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage; I’ve been reading it for weeks.  A man called Mike and his grand-daughter walk in, he says hello and I reciprocate.  The Bricklayers is under new management and seems brighter and somehow larger than before, I like it but they have been unable to resist having inane words in different fonts painted on the walls –   “Menu, Share, Full Flavour, Experience, Greatness Awaits.”  They forgot “Huh?”, but at least the beer is bit cheaper than it used to be.

 

  Someone says it’s quiet because the trains are not running; there’s been ‘a jumper’ at Kelvedon.  The barman, with no one to serve, obsessively wipes down the bar.  There’s a group of four men who seem to be from out of town, well one of them has Scottish accent, and they sit and pore over the menu before discovering that food isn’t served on Tuesdays.  As they leave one of them says “We’re going pizza then are we?”    I return to the bar as the first appreciable numbers of patrons, mostly men going to the match arrive and stand in groups; I have a pint of Colchester Brewery Sweeney Todd (£3.50).  At length I finish another chapter, drain my glass and head for the bus.

It’s still wet outside and the soft lighting inside the buses gently illuminates the dull street; I pay my fare (£2.50 return) and head upstairs to the front of the empty top deck; car brake lights and yellow street lights glow psychedelically  through the misted up, rain spotted front window of the bus.  I eat a Ginster’s pasty that I’d bought earlier (£1.50 from Sainsbury’s); it’s strongly flavoured but the packet tells me that despite being ‘The Nation’s Favourite’ it contains just 14% ‘quality beef’. It doesn’t clarify whether that’s good or poor quality; the two large pieces of gristle I chew on don’t suggest the former.  The bus fills up and a bunch of middle-aged Coventry fans join me, still enjoying the thrill that we got when we were young, riding up at the front.  I ask one about the recent travails of their troubled club, but wish I hadn’t, because he goes on a bit.  I’m interested, but don’t want to write a thesis on it.  I’m not proud of this so don’t admit to my slightly ghoulish desire to see Coventry City, a club who were in the First Division for 34 years, playing in the Fourth Division. It’s morbidly fascinating, like having seen Simon Dee signing on.

 

The bus lurches, growls and hisses its way through the wet streets to the stadium where everyone politely alights thanking the driver for delivering us safely.  The stadium lights penetrate the gloom, casting angular shadows beyond the spiky stands. It’s only twenty five past seven so I take a wander around the ground to take in the ambience.  I love floodlights. It’s bleak and open out here, even more-so on a wet and windy night like this and people scurry towards the turnstiles appearing and disappearing between the shadows.  Across the A12 the jaundiced neon of the McDonald’s arches glows brightly.  Feeling cold I head for the warmth of the club shop from which a toy Eddie the Eagle stares blankly into the night.  The shop is virtually empty of customers; children have long spent their Christmas money and it seems no one wants a Colchester United air freshener, tea towel or pencil tonight.  I buy a programme, but outside from one of the cold and wet, windswept vendors.

 

As I join the three person queue at the turnstile a steward asks what I have in my bag and I try and make it sound interesting as I tell him about my umbrella and Kindle; he takes a look but mostly has a feel as if playing one of those party games where you have to pull out particular objects from a sock.  A female steward in a fluffy bobble hat asks me if I have any games. “What, like Snakes and Ladders or Ludo?” I say, bemused.  “No, on your Kindle” she says.   I didn’t even know you could have games on your Kindle. “You can read my book, if you want” I tell her as the turnstile beeps and I enter the stand, not really knowing if she would like W Somerset Maugham.  I reduce my liquid content and then take my seat, which appropriately is in Row P.

The pitch looks soft and muddy and Coventry City kick-off the playing towards the South Stand, Severall’s and the town far beyond.  Coventry wear their customary all-pale blue kit, not for nothing are they known at the Sky Blues.  Colchester United sport blue and white striped shirts and white shorts with beautiful blue and white hooped socks which look a treat. The drizzle sweeps across the pitch from east to west, visible only in the glare near the lights and unseen on the ground.

It’s a good game, Coventry try a couple of shots and then Colchester take over a bit, their number 20 Courtney Senior darting forward and repeatedly feinting to the right before running off to the left past hapless Coventrians.     In the seventh minute, as if to announce that they’d now got a quorum, the few hundred Coventry fans up the corner near the A12, somewhat surreally burst into a chorus of the Eton Boating Song.  It’s not because of the ‘jolly boating weather’ or being Old Etonians, but rather because when Jimmy Hill took over the club in the 1960’s, taking them for the fourth to the first division he wrote new Coventry-centric lyrics to make it the club song.  I always thought Jimmy Hill was a bit odd.  Now Jimmy is dead and Coventry City are back in the fourth division, but the song remains the same and they’ve brought their modern folk music with them to soggy Colchester.

People around me are getting involved in the game, some cuddle up for warmth , others are in fancy dress.  A free-kick is given to the Coventry goalkeeper after he’s challenged by a Colchester player, “How the fuck does that work?” queries a voice behind me. A dog’s bark echoes from the dark corner between the stands; there are two policemen with police dogs watching the game, the dogs turn around as if to ask “Who said that?”   The drizzle has draped itself over the walls of the concrete vomitoria in the west stand.  At the back of the stand a man talks loudly with occasional calls of “Come On U’s”.  He  sounds a bit like Harry H Corbett and in my mind I imagine he looks like Oliver Reed; I turn around to look, but can only see Roy Cropper from Coronation Street.

 

Twenty-six minutes have passed;  a couple of legs or feet trail and snag and courtesy of the interpretation of referee Mr Busby, Colchester have a penalty; Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe scores, they deserve it and possibly more goals, but 1-0 is still the score at half-time.  I go under the stand to escape the chill and release some more what’s become of the output of the Colchester Brewery.  The refreshment counters are doing a good trade tonight and there’s an intensity about the staff in their blue schoolboy caps as they dole out the over-priced, plastic wrapped, processed fare.  I flick through the match programme which is boring and too inoffensive for my taste.  I like the page on local football however and in particular the words of FC Clacton manager Kieron Shelley who is quoted as saying “I still believe this team is good enough to compete – may be not at the top of this league or even the middle but certainly within this league”.  I like to think he paused for a long time after he said certainly and perhaps went “…erm…”.

 

Within ten minutes of the game re-starting a newly galvanised Coventry City equalise as Tom Bayliss smacks the loose ball high into the middle of the goal from the edge of the penalty box.  The Eton Boating Song is heard again and I wonder what Captain Algernon Drummond, who wrote it back in the 1870’s would have made of Jimmy Hill and Match of the Day. As a riposte to the glorious swell of the boating song the Colchester fans respond with a Welsh hymn tune and sing “We forgot that you were here”.  I don’t know where they thought they had gone, to chapel perhaps.   Not to be out done the Coventry fans respond with “You’re not singing anymore” to the same tune and from behind me Roy Cropper booms “Shut up you Black Country tossers” showing off his knowledge of geography, but perhaps a lack of singing talent and vocabulary.  A youth in front of me finds it amusing though.

Coventry are having the better of the second half and I sense that Colchester might rue not scoring more than once when they were the better team.  The managers of both teams hop about in their ‘technical areas’ looking like they may also have been processing the products of the Colchester Brewery; and it is a cold night.   Colchester bring on their substitutes and Coventry introduce a man with three surnames, Johnson Clarke-Harris, a name which the Coventry fans quickly put to music covering the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.

The drizzle has stopped, but the cold is deepening and the damp is penetrating my bones.  My ankles and knees feel like pins are being pushed into them, my nose is numb and I sense an iciness crystallising around the very depths of my soul.  It’s the 88th minute of the game and just then Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe crosses the ball from in front of me,  Mikael Mandron leaps majestically in the centre of the penalty area, turns his head to divert the path of the ball, sending it firmly into the  bottom corner of the goal net. A goal, and Mandron salutes the crowd, before disappearing into a blue and white striped human hill, which includes mascot Eddie the Eagle.  Joy abounds.

After four additional minutes Mr Busby blows conclusively, Colchester win, Coventry lose and my circulatory system stutters back into life as I head for the bus and my lonely spouse.

 

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Colchester United 1 Port Vale 1

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

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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

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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

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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

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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 parked outside, 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 aloud 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

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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.

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Colchester United 0 Morecambe 0

It is a still, grey day. It is an autumn day with a winter chill. The train into Colchester is on time. There is a man in Colchester United themed attire on the station platform. I am wearing a 45 year old blue and white bar scarf myself, but mainly to keep out the cold rather than to express my love for Colchester United; my scarf is an Ipswich Town scarf. Opposite me on the train is a girl with glasses and green hair, she looks like she might have spent time as the plinth to a bronze statue, but I wouldn’t say it doesn’t suit her. Arriving in Colchester I waste no time in heading for the Bricklayers Arms

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: I have no reason to linger at the railway station; after all, I’m not a trainspotter.
It is but a short walk to the Bricklayers; even though it’s a quarter past one on a football Saturday, there aren’t many people in the pub. I soon avail myself of a pint of Adnams Old Ale (£3.65) from the cheerful blue-haired bar maid and take a seat with a copy of the Colchester local paper, The Gazette. The Gazette is a dull read today; I scan the letters page disdainfully, who gives a toss what the sort of people who write to the local paper think? The best bit of the paper is the local football news; Holland FC are cutting their playing budget, which no doubt explains why last week their manager resigned. There are a few more people in the pub now and nearby a middle aged man talks about bar scarves. “ I had one like that” he says pointing at his friend’s scarf and then proceeds to try and make a point ( I think) about why his original scarf was better, but he never really gets to the point before his friends interrupt with their scarf experiences and another bloke arrives with the beers . It doesn’t matter, he is going to buy a new hat at the club shop today anyway. I get a second pint; Damson Porter (£3.80) this time.
The conversation about me is dull and there is rugby on the telly, I leave to catch the bus to “Layer Road”, or “Weston Homes out in the middle of nowhere stadium” as it’s now known. As I turn the corner into Bruff Road

from where the buses leave a bus leaves, but another one rolls forward to take its place. The bus driver shares his cab with a young boy (his son?) who he gets to operate the ticket machine. Paying my £2.50 return fare I ascend the stairs, ticket in hand and take a seat at the front of the bus. “Hello Martin” says a voice next to me “Hello Martin“ I say. It’s a man I used to work with called Martin; he is retired, he has a Colchester United season ticket. He tells me how later this month he is going to see England women’s team play Kazhakstan at “Layer Road” and his ticket only cost a pound.
The bus soon arrives at the stadium and before going in I buy a programme (£3)and take a look in the club shop. I pick up a “fixture list and family guide”, whatever that is; football fixtures and family planning advice in one handy leaflet? Anything is possible. I walk to the end of the stand, the Morecambe team busOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA is sat with the engine running; it’s a long trip to Morecambe so may be the driver is hoping for a quick getaway. There isn’t much going on outside the stadium so I head for the turnstile. Once inside I feel compelled to visit the toilet. Feeling more comfortable I meet another man called Martin who I used to work with; he has a season ticket like the other Martin, but isn’t retired. Martin is compelled to visit the toilet just like I was and so I take up my seat; there is no one sat either side of me, there aren’t many people here today, I later learn that I am one of just 2,872. It’s the smallest crowd for a Saturday league game at “Layer Road” this season.
Kick-off is imminent and with no delays for minutes’ silences or applauses today the match soon starts. Colchester United get to kick the ball first this afternoon, heading towards the A12 and small Marks & Spencer in the service station over the dual carriageway. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAColchester wear their ‘traditional’ blue and white striped shirts and white shorts with blue and white hooped socks. I like hooped socks; I wish Ipswich Town would wear them. Morecambe wear the archetypal away kit, an insipid all pale yellow number which is bland and annoying. It’s as if no one at Morecambe could be bothered to come up with anything distinctive. I can forgive clubs for a lack of ambition, especially on home gates of less than two-thousand, but please look like you care. It is unclear why Morecambe even need to wear their away kit today because their first choice colours are red shirts with white shorts.
The ball is hoofed off the pitch within seconds of the start, but that’s a highlight as the game quickly settles into a boring goalless draw. Morecambe do little to begin with, and whilst Colchester have the ball at their feet more of the time they don’t do anything much that would result in a goal. Individuals make runs with the ball, but the concept of passing it accurately seems alien.
The two blokes behind me have a conversation which is as directionless as the game. I hear snippets. ”It was cold yesterday, Monday it was cold” one says. “According to the paper there were 600 there, I thought it looked more” says the other. Colchester are awarded a corner. “ I know it was cold Monday at work….no, I wasn’t at work on Monday. But it was cold”. Elsewhere in the stadium the crowd briefly comes to life “Come on Col U” they implore a couple of times before falling silent again. The game fails to grip the attention of the blokes behind who carry on their conversation “I went to watch Leyton Orient, they fucking got beat mate, load of fucking shite mate”. “Whereabouts is Morecambe?” “It’s north of Blackpool on the coast. Don’t you remember, where those cockle pickers were?” Eddie the Eagle the Colchester mascot walks back and forth like a wild animal in captivity, which I suppose he is, in a way.
Morecambe, whose club badge consists of a huge shrimp on a red background set beneath the word “Morecambe” eventually begin to have an equal share of possession as if they realise that Colchester are incapable of doing anything with the ball, so they might as well have a go. Morecambe fluff a couple of half chances but then a careless back pass leaves the interestingly named Aaron Wildig in front of the Colchester goal keeper with the ball at his feet. But Wildig fails to react quickly enough, then chooses to shoot from a narrow angle when he could have passed the ball; his shot is easily saved and the opportunity is lost.
Half-time is a blessed relief and I queue in the anaemically, strip- lit void beneath the

stand for a pound’s worth of Tetley tea; others, mostly smokers, escape the claustrophobia of the concourse through the open doors at the back of the stand. It feels like we have been granted our freedom and I half expect stewards to move amongst us telling as we are free to go if we wish. Mindful that I paid £17.50 to be here I returnOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ‘indoors’ and make my way back to my seat, warming my hands around my paper cup of tea.
The second half begins and some Colchester supporters seem galvanised by being able to shout abuse at the away teams goalkeeper; bizarrely as the “The Shrimps” goalkeeper prepares to take a free-kick a man at the back of the stand calls out what sounds like “Get on with it , Coco Chanel”. Despite the Morecambe players all wearing little black dresses with matching handbags the game doesn’t get any better and my mind begins to wander. There is a small brown leaf on the back of the seat in front of me

evidencing the onset of autumn, but also the fact that the stadium cleaning regime probably needs improving; there is an assortment of other rubbish behind other seats.
The game is two-thirds of the way through, for the first time I think I hear faint cries of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Come on Morecambe’ from the half a pint or so of Shrimp fans searching for one another in the corner of the ground. Some of the Colchester supporters are getting restless; there are some more chants of “Come on Col U, Come on Col U” and angry groans when passes fail to find Colchester players.

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A man in front delivers an implausibly shrill “Whaaaat!?” when referee Mr Lee Collins awards Morecambe a free-kick. There are more plaintive calls of “Come on Col U” as supporters begin to plead with their team to score a goal. This was meant to be a game Colchester would win; the U’s are tenth in the league table, two points off the play-off places, nine places and eight points ahead of Morecambe.
Substitutions are made. It’s nearly twenty to five and Colchester’s number nineteen Mikael Mandron breaks down the left, he gets in the penalty area, gets to the goal line and hooks his foot around the ball to send a low cross in to the centre. All around there is excitement and expectation. A man in front of me begins to stand up. The Colchester substitute, number twenty-four Craig Slater is there, he shapes to shoot the ball into the net, he must score; he completely misses the ball, collapsing in a tangle of legs and arms with a Morecambe defender. From near ecstasy to embarrassment in the blink of an eye. A short while later Slater misses again, but this time he gets the ball, smashing it against the cross bar; so that’s not so bad. As the addition of three minutes added-on time isOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA announced a big number 3 appears on the scoreboard and there is a dash for the exits, as if another three minutes of this will be just too much to bear.
Mr Collin’s final whistle predictably is the prequel to a chorus of boos that echo around the emptying stands. It’s been a dull game OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAon a dull afternoon and the intensity of this dull experience has been deepened by the fact that there weren’t many of us here to witness it. Up in the stand a board advertises the ‘Matchday Experience’ and gives a local telephone number, as if you could just phone up to experience what we’ve all just been through.  I head off towards the bus stops, numbed but nevertheless enriched by the glumness of the occasion. Such awful games are what it’s all about; pain and missed opportunities. That’s life. Good, innit.

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Colchester United 2 Mansfield Town 0

As I stepped off the train at Colchester station the voice over the public address system was announcing the imminent departure of a train to Harwich Town. Something about the way he said “Harwich Town” made him sound like Michael Caine.  I tried to peer in through the window of the Customer Service office as I drifted past, hoping to pick him out, but I couldn’t.  In any case, it’s 2017 and everyone wears glasses like Harry Palmer nowadays, except me.

Leaving the station, it was still light as I walked to the Bricklayers Arms where a barrel of Adnams Old Ale was waiting for me to request the drawing of a pint, and in time another (£3.65 each). My thirst quenched by the dark liquid and my mind entertained by a book, the evening had closed in by the time I caught the bus to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium (£2.50 return).  Tonight the opposition would be Mansfield Town, close rivals of Colchester in the Division Four league table, with 52 points, one more than the U’s.

I sat with a former work colleague on the bus, we met at the bus stop. “Hello Martin” he said. “Hello Martin” I said. It sounded silly, but what can you do, we are both called Martin. Martin (that’s him, not me, I don’t like to refer to myself in the third person, only weirdos do that) has a season ticket and had one back at Layer Road. I ask how long he’d been a season ticket holder but he couldn’t say, so too long probably. Alighting from the bus I said goodbye because I wanted to stop and queue for a programme. Outside the ground there is a sense of anticipation created by this short queue and the cheery bonhomie of the programme seller. Programme (£3.00) in hand,I now pause for a moment and take in the beauty that is the glare of the floodlights huddling over the tops of the stands 33478017515_e15e34aa2f_zand the warm glow of spitting hot fat and cones of chips that emanates from a shiny white burger van.

It’s 7.30 now and the tannoy gets us in the mood by playing Love Will Tear Us Apart and I have a few minutes to look at the programme before kick-off. Admirably, Col U’s programme IMG_20170317_0002always features local non-league teams and tonight there is a piece on Halstead Town; IMG_20170317_0001it is hilarious. Halstead goalkeeper Luke Banner has swallowed a lexicon of footballspeak and cliché “…you never know” he is quoted as saying “If we take one game at a time and keep picking up wins and points then who knows what can happen”. Wise words Luke. Whatever you do you don’t want to be one of those clubs that plays several games at once and loses them all; that’s a recipe for disaster if you ask me. I don’t blame Luke for the banality of his comments though, I blame the reporter on the Gazette who he was apparently talking to.

The game begins and Mansfield Town are kicking towards the goal right in front of me. “Mansfield, they’re non-league” shouts a familiar voice from the back of the stand whose understanding of promotion and relegation is clearly still strained. He says the same thing another four times before half-time. The game carries on. Briggs the Colchester left back carelessly scythes a clearance onto the roof of his own goal. The empty north stand looks on sullenly, 32634760104_740916ac06_oa blue void at one end of the sparsely populated stadium barely creating echoes; it must miss that joyous throng of Portsmouth fans that occupied it at the weekend.

The game is end to end, although probably more Colchester end than Mansfield. Mansfield’s number 10 shoots over the bar from all of 7 yards but atones, in my eyes anyway, by dancing around and over the ball a bit later in the manner of John Travolta, I bet he looks good on the dancefloor I think to myself getting Mansfield and Sheffield muddled up. Meanwhile the Mansfield supporters are a stoic bunch. We’ve not heard a peep out of them. I imagine a collection of dour characters drawn from the pen of DH Lawrence. Meanwhile again, the Colchester ‘lads’ (I can’t imagine them being lasses) break into a chorus of “Oh Colchester is won-der-ful, Oh Colchester is wonderful, It’s full of tits, fanny and United, Oh Colchester is won-der-ful.” So, once we’ve kicked racism out of football we should probably get right on to sexism. No wonder you don’t see many black women at football.

Twenty minutes pass and Colchester score, a low shot from Brennan Dickenson cutting in from the left. Soon after, Mansfield’s No 2 misses the ball completely about five yards from goal; but yes, it was a difficult angle. Still not a murmur from the Mansfieldians in the stands. Eight more minutes pass and Dickenson passes the ball into the box and after a neat turn the ball is sent into the corner of the Mansfield net by Sammy Szmodics, a man whose name is somewhat notable for its S’s and M’s; his goal make us smile.

Colchester are cock-a-hoop, Mansfield are mithered and losing 0-2. The scoreboard advertises a tribute to Robbie Williams; he’s not dead too is he? Half-time comes and I buy a tea for a pound; “Tetley, it begins with the tea”33321899142_18a137fb0c_o it says on the paper cup, but that sort of play on words doesn’t impress me; I should hope it bloody does begin with the tea, although we all know it really began with the motivation of profit. That’s why a few crushed up dried leaves and some hot water costs a quid. I am going to smash capitalism one day you know; it’ll probably be between May and August when there’s no football.

Mansfield’s number 10 continued to please once the game re-started as he shot hopelessly wide of the far post when practically stood in the Colchester penalty area on his own. The the U’s support howled with derision as well they might. The second half became a bit dull after that with Mansfield hogging the ball without really looking like scoring. In a particularly dull period of play I blew on my tea and enjoyed watching the game through a fog as the condensation very slowly cleared from my glasses. Then I did the same again. “Stand up if you love the U’s” sang the sexist Colchester fans in a moment when they weren’t thinking about lady-parts.

Then a Colchester player stayed down on the pitch after a challenge, apparently hurt; only now did the Mansfield supporters stir as they subjected the injured U to a tirade of abuse. I could see fists being shaken and fancied I heard the sort of incomprehensible angry ramblings uttered by Tom Bell in the early 1980’s BBC adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers. The sudden burst of life from Mansfield didn’t go un-noticed by the U’s fans “keep the noise down over there would you please” quipped one.

The ball and players moved about as if governed by Brownian motion and it was inevitable that someone would get booked. Mansfield’s number 2 was the referee’s first choice and having been shown the yellow card he hung his head and swung his right leg stiffly as if miming “Aw shucks” and in the realisation that he would get a clip round the ear from his Ma when he got home. The score board advertised Comedy Nights the first Thursday of every month and right on queue a free-kick ended with the Mansfield No 10, who amusingly is called Matt Green, like the paint, missing the goal hopelessly once again.

Mansfield were getting nowhere fast despite restricting Colchester to breakaway attacks. Change was needed thought their manager the un-loved Steve Evans and up went the number board to withdraw Number 18. But ever the prankster it was our old friend Matt Green who started to walk off; may be it was his eyesight that had been letting him down all evening. With his dancing skills and comic timing he would have been a star in Variety, but we’ll probably need a new Bruce Forsyth before too long.

Another injury to a U’s players provoked the Mansfield support again, “Cheat, cheat, cheat” they howled. Injured opposition players seemed to be the only thing that really floated their boat. To be fair to them though, what with their rough mining heritage they probably have a fixation about soft southern jessies and if they see someone go down with all four limbs still attached to his torso they just see red.

The game was now petering out; Eddie the Eagle looked on, arms folded and Colchester just had to see out the last few minutes. When Sammy Szmodics got word he was to be substituted he made his way to the far side of the pitch first, so he had farther to walk and then stopped to shake the referee by the hand as he went off. That use of precious goal scoring time was practically enough to win the U’s the game and in the moment it took referee Mr Kinesley to blow his whistle for the last time, it was possible for most of the 2,526 in attendance to be up and on their way home.