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.

Whitton United 5 Coggeshall Town 4

The Eastern Counties First Division is the tenth tier of English football, just a few seats, some floodlights and a half-time plate of sandwiches for the opposition committee separates it  from the clubs that play on a piece of waste ground and use jumpers for goalposts, well  almost.  But that doesn’t mean clubs at this level don’t have history; Whitton United have been going since 1926 and Coggeshall Town since 1878, the same year as mighty, illustrious Ipswich Town, former League Champions, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Texaco Cup winners.

It says in the match programme that a Whitton team existed in the late 1800’s, back when Whitton was a small village a mile or more outside Ipswich.  But between the World Wars Ipswich Corporation, as it was then, began to build the Whitton estate providing much needed,  good quality, rented housing for working class people.  Whitton is now a part of Ipswich, and if supporters in the Eastern Counties league did sing (with the notable exception of Wivenhoe Town’s they tend not to) they could chant “Small club in Ipswich, You’re just a small club in Ipswich” without fear of contradiction.

Whitton United is a rare thing in the Eastern Counties League, a team representing a truly urban area, and more than that it might be said to represent a large council estate.  The contrast with Coggeshall therefore is on the face of it quite stark.  Coggeshall, with its National Trust owned medieval buildings and its vineyard and ley lines is positively poncey by comparison.  The other big difference is that Coggeshall Town are being bankrolled; there are stories of players attracted from beyond Essex on the promise of big appearance money.  The realisation of this is shown in their relative league positions with Coggeshall currently top of the table, where they have been virtually all season, whilst Whitton are merely near the top of the bottom half of the table, albeit on a roll of five consecutive victories.

The King George V Fields ground is outside the Whitton estate next to the main road out of town towards the A14 and Stowmarket.   A third of the pitch is overlooked by a large heap of rubble that was once the concrete floor of the Tooks bakery (aka bread factory), formerly the club’s neighbour. Behind one goal there is no accommodation for spectators whatsoever, just a stretch of grass from the goal net to a very big fence, with the road beyond.   There is a stand on each of the other three sides; two of them resembling country bus shelters, one of which is labelled ‘The Shed’; whilst downhill, behind the other goal is a pre- fabricated, metal stand containing the requisite number of seats for the club to play in the Eastern Counties Premier League. should the need arise.  The changing rooms have a wonderful green and white striped tin roof.

It’s a grey, blustery afternoon with a constant threat of rain, but the two teams in their striped kits, Whitton in green and white and Coggeshall in red and black stand out through the gloom and offer the promise of excitement.  I wander around the perimeter rail before the game kicks off and a bloke on his way to one of those ‘bus shelters’ and carrying a couple of pints of beer says hello; “ We need a good result today after last week” he says.  I have no idea what either team did last week, but I agree because it would be churlish and a bit weird not to do so and I’m not one to start an argument with someone I don’t really know.  To begin with, the promise of a good game is all there  as the ball bounces awkwardly on the soft pitch and is buffeted by the wind, producing a scrappy match with neither team looking much good.  Despite kicking up the not inconsiderable slope and against the wind however, Coggeshall gradually start to look the stronger team.

I walk round the back of the dugouts and towards the end of the ground where the only spectators are those in passing cars and buses who are probably surprised to find themselves watching a football match, albeit for a few fleeting seconds only.  One or two beep their car horns as they drive by.  Coggeshall are kicking towards the goal at this end and it doesn’t take long before they score, a close range tap-in from Scarlett, despite claims of offside from Whitton.  Somewhat bizarrely Coggeshall’s number four is booked in the aftermath and from what I can make of what referee Mr Pope seems to be saying, it is because he egged on the Whitton players in their offside protests. ‘You started it’ I think I hear the Pope say as if scolding Martin Luther.  The same player is then spoken to again by his holiness and told to concentrate just on the football by the Coggeshall coach; “I only said bad luck baldy” the player opines after Whitton’s follicly challenged centre-half concedes a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area.

I drift back towards the Whitton bench having had enough of the Essex club’s manager’s questioning of Mr Pope and decide to briefly compare and contrast him with the Whitton manager.  I conclude that the Whitton man mostly complains to himself and to the bench in a sort of audible internal dialogue.  The results of the comparison fit with my own pre-conceived ideas of Ipswich and Essex people.  Happily for Whitton however, my move into their half coincides with a couple of attacks down the left, one of which results in a free-kick and ends with an unexpected, but not completely undeserved equaliser from Bell.

Half-time arrives with scores all square and I indulge in a pounds worth of tea and a warm in the clubhouse, although I have to be let in because the door only seems to open from the inside.  I return to pitch side too late for the re-start, but haven’t missed anything and take up a spot in the seats behind the goal.  It starts to rain.

With the wind at their backs and playing down the slope it seems like it might be easier for Coggeshall in the second half and gradually, as in the first half they begin to dominate the attacking play, but without really making any decent chances to score; then, a break down the left, a through ball and a goal for Whitton by Percy (sadly his surname not his first name).   It’s a bit of a surprise but the game returns to its previous pattern and with about fifteen minutes left, after some more Coggeshall domination the ball is crossed low, blocked and partly cleared before the Coggeshall substitute Guthmy coolly places the ball in the middle of the goal to equalise.  Now it really looks like Coggeshall will go on to win and that’s what the bloke behind me tells his children when they ask.

The good thing about football however is that is totally unpredictable, which is why all these ‘sports betting companies’ (bookies) advertise relentlessly to part mugs with their money.  Proof of football’s unpredictably arrived within just a minute or two as a deep cross from a corner was headed in at the far post by Griggs to put Whitton ahead again and then within minutes of that a through ball saw  Cheetham brought down in the box resulting in a penalty which gave Whitton a 4-2 lead. The rain had now eased and I stepped out of the stand so that I didn’t have to peer through a goal net and another bigger net placed across the front of the stand to protect inattentive spectators from stray footballs that might inadvertently smack them in the chops when they were looking at their mobile phones rather than the game; serves ‘em right I say.  Barely had I done this and with about six minutes left Whitton scored yet again with Cheetham ‘converting’ a cross by the beautifully named Franco Mallardo.

Surely that was it, 5-2 with just five minutes left? But no, Coggeshall rightly decided that the game wasn’t over until his holiness Mr Pope says so, and just as I would never leave a game before the final whistle, so the ‘Seedgrowers’ , for that is what their nickname is, continued to try and win the match.  And it was a good job they did or this report would be over already.  First, continuing the ecclesiastical surname theme started by the referee, Monk made it 5-3 with a fine half volley from the edge of the penalty area,  and a short while later he then crossed the ball for Nwachuku to smack a fourth goal high in to the Whitton United net.  There was still enough time for a free kick on the edge of the penalty area to be sent over the Whitton cross bar, but finally Mr Pope whistled Amen and the game was over.

It had been a most entertaining game, even if some of the defending had at times been hard to spot, and in difficult conditions on an awkward slopey pitch the players of both teams had given their all.  I was surprised therefore and disappointed that at the end no one clapped or cheered as the two teams left the pitch; but no one booed either, so it was one up on Portman Road I guess.   The 5-4 score line alone deserved some appreciation, but there was nothing, not a cough, not a wheeze, not even a tiny chortle. Everyone just filed away into the car park.   To an extent, at this level of football the result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the two clubs are still there each week to play; this is perhaps true more for a real community club like Whitton United than a club like Coggeshall Town which has been adopted by someone with spare cash like a mini Roman Abramovich.

There was apparently only a crowd of 57 at this match, which is disappointing for a Saturday when Ipswich Town are not playing, and looking about there were very few people under thirty there.  A football match where you can drink in sight of the pitch should be a massive draw and at £6.00 entrance fee it provides good value for money compared to the £40 Norwich City wanted from IpswichTown fans to get into Carrow Road the following day.

Eastern Counties League Football should be the model for sustainable football, so I urge you, support your local team, it’s friendly, it’s funny, it’s fun, it is well worth it.  I had a lovely time.  Thank you Whitton United.

Colchester United 2 Crawley Town 3

Emerging from Colchester station I crossed through a queue of cars and coughed a little at the  fumes left hanging in the evening air. It was cool, it was mid- February, man. Valentines day and my wife had stayed in with Adrian Rabiot and Marco Verrati.  A hoarding announced that a brick brutalist building (if that is possible), former offices overlooking the railway,  is being converted into flats, Station Court it will be called, what a lovely name, only one down from Station Mews. I felt a little sick, it may have been those fumes, but was more likely the two Greggs sausage rolls eaten on the train from Ipswich. Note to self, never buy a Greggs sausage roll again, they only cost a pound each for a reason.

The Bricklayers Arms is a satisfyingly short walk from Colchester station and with a pint of Adnams Old Ale for £3.65 I sat down at a round table to sup and read. I was one corner of a triangle with two empty chairs, no one asked if they were free, the pub wasn’t that busy.  I am reading a book entitled ‘The Numbers Game – Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong’ and soon I am going to catch a bus to see Colchester United play Crawley Town in what I call Football League Division Four.  I am not a football obsessive though, in fact I hate the bloody game and later I am going to write a fucking blog about it.

There were only two other people on the top deck of the bus to Layer Road (£2.50 return fare), or the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium as I believe it is more properly known.  Lonely and scared I spoke to them; one was an occasional  Crawley Town follower who only began to take an interest when they were drawn against Manchester United in the FA Cup; he knew nothing about their players but nevertheless liked the club and wore the scarf, he was like a reverse Manchester United fan, I thought he was laudable.  His companion was in IT and had worked for Ipswich Town (haha ITIT) during the George Burley and David Sheepshanks era, but left disillusioned by the budget cutting Marcus Evans. What is Marcus Evans up to at Ipswich?

Having resisted the temptation to buy a cuddly Eddie the Eagle mascot in the club shop I queued for what must have been seconds to get into the stadium where I immediately met a lady steward I know, we hugged; I felt blessed, all football supporters should get a hug from a steward I thought (if they want one) , a sort of apology for that frisking and request to look in your bag.

After urinating in a slightly smelly and drafty room of shiny steel troughs and breeze blocks I sat down in time to hear the stadium announcer tell us that Owen Garvan would be wearing the two little ducks shirt; although he actually said twenty-two.  Owen Garvan played for Ipswich Town, I am an Ipswich season ticket holder, Roy Keane sent Owen Garvan away to Crystal Palace, I liked Owen Garvan, I hate Roy Keane.

The Jam’s A Town Called Malice played on the public address, was it a reference to Colchester or Crawley?  The ‘real’ Eddie the Eagle mascot did a Mick Jagger impression to a Rolling Stones tune and the scoreboard advertised a night out at the stadium to see the Rollin’ Clones, a tribute act .  I wondered if it would be possible to clone Keith Richards or has his DNA been irreparably damaged like his face.

Yay, the game had started.  George Elokobi was playing for Colchester and looked a different shape to when I had last seen him play for Braintree Town; was he slimmer or was he wearing a truss?  For one moment the floodlights refelected so brightly off the head of Crawley’s Kaby Djalo  I thought he was sporting a Davy lamp, he wasn’t.  A Colchester player jumped at a Crawley man, falling over him as he followed the trajectory of the ball; free-kick to Crawley, “e’s given it the uvverway” moaned the bloke in front of me expounding his ongoing critique of the referee Lee Collins.   As United’s Dickenson vainly tried to manoeuvre around the Crawley full-back and ran the ball into touch, another concerned Colcestrian desperately called out  ” ‘elp ‘im” .  But Colchester were doing alright, striking at the very heart of the Crawley defence and after 18 minutes Johnstone scored, shooting beneath ‘keeper Morris and all was well.

Having seen the joy that a goal can provide, five minutes on and Crawley Town got one too, a corner being diverted into the net from very close range by a man called Smith.  That popular beat combo The Cure and their frontman Robert Smith were from  Crawley. I hoped it was a relative at least. The scoreboard declared Barry’s 50 year love for Joan because it was Valentine’s day, but her joy was likely dented nine minutes later as a high cross was headed back to Smiffy and he volleyed the ball unsympathetically into the Colchester net.  The natives were no longer happy . ” The trouble with this now is…” said a bloke behind me,  but trailed off frustratingly; what was the trouble with this, apart from the obvious?

Half time. Cup of tea for a pound and a check of the half time results, then back for more.  Smith again, this time low and at an angle from 20 yards, 3-1 to Crawley.  Smith 23,34,52 (HAT) read the scoreboard and Smith was worth his hat, although he deigned to wear it. Unless you were a fan of the 1946 New Towns Act and its subsequent sport related spin-off things were not looking good, although another bloke behind me insisted on encouraging the U’s by repeatedly yelling ” Come on U’s, you’re all over them”, but he might have been being ironic, it was hard to say.   Another spectator was obsessed with Crawley Town having been a non-league side only recently, as if that meant they would be forever inferior. There’s never a psychologist about when you need one.  Personally I was now struggling with the smell of the after-shave or scent of the man in front of me who I thought, for a man in his seventies, had very, very  neatly coiffured hair; I surmised he had a post match Valetine’s date with a lady who liked smelly old men.

The ninety minutes became 98 minutes because the referee had made a spectacle of himself by hurting his  leg  and eventually being substituted, and Colchester pulled a goal back.  The locals emitted some throaty growls of encouragement , reviving memories of the Layer Road roar, but they couldn’t turn the tide of progress and Britain’s reputedly oldest town was unable to gain parity with one of Britain’s new towns.

Romans and Ancient Britons 2  Planned Post-War Utopia 3

I caught the bus, I caught the train, I walked home to my wife and her memories of Adrian Rabiot the pre-Raphaelite Parisian and Michaelangelo’s Paulo Verratti.