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 and 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 always features local non-league teams and tonight there is a piece on Halstead Town; it 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, a 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” 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.