Colchester United 1 Aston Villa 2

I hadn’t intended to go to this match; well I thought about it but just didn’t get around to buying a ticket. It’s what happens at the start of the season. I’m still in summer mode, it seems way too early for football, but it creeps up on you and all of a sudden the match is here and I’m sat at home ticketless.
Come the day of the match however, the bloke I sit next to at work, let’s call him Oliver, which coincidentally is his name, asks if I’d like his ticket because he has committed himself to watching Framlingham Town’s FA Cup extra-preliminary round replay against Wadham Lodge so can’t make it. Severe, heavy rain is forecast, the wind is in the north and the seat is in the south stand. Armed with this valuable potentially life-saving knowledge I say “Yes, I’ll take that ticket off your hands”.
I didn’t get home from work until just before six o’clock tonight because of heavy traffic and the fact that the A12 is partly flooded near Ardleigh. So rather than linger over dinner with a fine wine I gulp it down and am out again in time to catch the 18:46 train to Colchester. The rain is hurling down as I walk to the railway station, as it has been for the past couple of hours or more. Tonight trying to stay dry will be a challenge, one I am meeting by means of an umbrella, long navy blue raincoat, which my father bought in about 1954 and a pair of Wellington boots (green).36301663442_fac2cda0d1_o Proud to be different. A tall man walking towards me appears to be wearing spats but as he gets close I see he is wearing black and cream trainers; they won’t keep his feet dry like my wellies will.
From Colchester station it’s a short walk to the bus stop35634451744_9e9bf25d93_o to take me to the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Stadium, the bit of Colchester the Romans just couldn’t be arsed to occupy. There’s no time to stop for a pint of Adnam’s Oyster Stout in the Bricklayers Arms tonight as the train is late and I just want to get in the stadium and out of the rain as quickly as possible. I step onto the bus and fumble for change, but the driver says that it’s free tonight, which is just as well because the top deck is already full so I will have to sit downstairs. A woman in her sixties politely budges-up and thanking her I settle down in a seat at the foot of the stairs. This bus is sweltering; it has warm air blowing down from vents in the roof and nearly everyone is sat in steaming wet coats. Most of the passengers are men, several are in their seventies or older. It’s not long before the bus is officially declared full, the doors sweep closed and it pulls away. The roar of the engine fills the ‘saloon’ and the swish of the rain and splash of the puddles in the gutter create an exciting cacophony of sound; men have to shout to be heard above the noise of this speeding, softly lit, mobile tin sauna. “With this team we should win about 3-0 most weeks” expounds an obese Villa fan of Asian descent. Less confidently he adds that Steve Bruce “..is a good manager, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he could be better”. He concludes that if Villa aren’t promoted at the end of the season Bruce will be sacked.
Arriving at “Layer Road” we politely pile out of the bus, many of us thanking the driver for his labour. It is gloomy and wet and people queue unhappily for programmes and draw tickets. The cameras of Sky TV are here tonight to broadcast the match live and at35661501913_6f1d94c088_o the corner of the stadium is a corral of trucks and broadcasting paraphernalia which looks like a traveller site; I half expect to see a couple of straggly-haired lurchers running about and some half-dressed, snotty-faced kids playing in the puddles. Sky TV have deigned to visit “Layer Road” tonight because this is a League Cup match with the prospect of plucky little fourth division Colchester knocking out famous, big city, and until recently Premier League club Aston Villa. Whilst I have called it a League Cup match it is in fact known by the name of its sponsor, a company I have never heard of , something like Caramac or Caribou. Whatever the cup is now called the sponsor is probably something to do with alcohol or on-line betting because modern football is classy like that.
I buy a programme (£3) and join the queue to get in the stadium; only one turnstile is open at the south end of the ground although not long after I join the queue, two more open. It is still raining of course and a gust of wind blows my umbrella inside out. “He-he it’s not doing much like that” blurts a drowned rat of a youth in front of me in the queue who looks like an extra from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!. I want to tell him that even inside out it’s a lot more effective than his non-existent umbrella, which is why he looks like he has just stepped out of Albert dock and will probably die next week of pneumonia in depressing Dickensian circumstances. I, meanwhile will of course live on to enjoy watching Colchester United on many a wet night to come as he moulders in a damp pauper’s grave.
At length I get to the turnstile where I hand my slightly soggy and bedraggled ticket36469586505_8b71af2da1_o to a steward who passes it across the sensor on the automatic turnstile, which rather defeats the object of automatic turnstiles, but hey-ho. Safe and dry In the strip-lit cosiness of the breeze-block concourse beneath the stand I seek re-invigoration with a pounds-worth of Tetley tea and then head for my seat.
Once the adverts on the telly are over the game begins to a spectacular backdrop of floodlit, teeming rain.35661459713_ae68344f0a_o Wow. Colchester are quick and play freely, but so do Aston Villa; this is good, an open game. Sadly, unluckily and possibly unfairly for the U’s, they trail quite soon when their goalkeeper spills the greasy ball, or has it kicked from his grasp and a Villain rolls it accurately beyond those around him into the net. The goal scorer’s name is announced as what sounds, perhaps because of the hiss and bubble of rain on standing water, like Squat Hogan. I think his name may be Scott, but he is a bit squat being slightly bandy and having the disfigured, pumped-up torso of a spinach filled Popeye. But soon afterwards Colchester are awarded a penalty, only to have it saved athletically by the Villa goalkeeper. It’s not even eight o’clock yet.
The referee is not popular with the home supporters due to that dodgy goal and for a series of free-kicks he awards to the Villains who seem quite unable to stay upright as if they have some unpleasant infection of the inner ear. The referee is called John Brooks a name he shares with my dead grandfather who, nice as he was, would probably have made a terrible football referee, so a bit like this bloke, who along with his assistants sports a shirt the colour of palest primrose. At about five past eight the U’s trail further as the tubby, balding linesman on the main stand side seems to react slowly to a probable offside and Col U’s number six Frankie Kent slides across the wet grass on his bum to clear the ball, only to deflect it into his own goal. A stroke of bad luck combined perhaps with misadventure and the uncertainty of the balding linesman.
The game looks up for the U’s despite the fact that they are matching their opponents all over the pitch and creating goal scoring chances; I start to wonder if their best bet would be for the game to be abandoned because of the weather. My hopes of this are raised as36301673682_59ebd56d1e_o the intensity of the rain increases and the water bounces off the roofs of the stands and cascades down making the floodlights appear as watery roman candles through the moisture laden night air.
A late arriver sits next to me and asks if John Terry is playing; had I thought for just a second I should have said “Who”? But to my eternal shame I just tell him there’s no one I’ve ever heard of playing for Villa, adding that there was no Dennis Mortimer, no Peter Withe and no Gary Shaw. I’m not sure if he understood, although he didn’t look that young.
It’s twenty-five past eight and at last Colchester get a break as a shot from some distance is deflected into the Villa goal by Kent allowing him to atone for his earlier bum-sliding error. How we cheer. But half time follows soon after and the like of such chances for Colchester is not seen again. Aston Villa, under the management of the well-fed and somewhat boozie-looking Steve Bruce, unsportingly tighten up in midfield and the flowing football we enjoyed up until half-past eight becomes just a fading memory.
The home supporters console themselves by taunting the Villa fans, singing “You’re not famous anymore” which kind of contradicts itself and there’s a bit of native American style drumming at the few corners the U’s win. For my own part I gain disproportionate enjoyment from an advert on the illuminated scoreboard which displays the message “Watch from a box” and has me imagining fans sat in coffins along the touchline. Some fans have their loved-ones ashes sprinkled on the pitch, well why shouldn’t those not lucky enough to be cremated be able to come along too?
Despite their team being ahead for all but the first seven minutes of the match, The Villa fans have not been overly vocal, something the Col U fans have pointed out to them through the medium of song. The stadium announcer tells us somewhat too excitedly that there will be five minutes of added-on time and then with two minutes left of those five minutes the visitors from the West Midlands finally feel bold enough to mount a chorus of “We shall not be moved”. These are perhaps some of Britain’s more pragmatic, not to say cautious supporters. But there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s infinitely preferable to the big-headed, cocky attitude displayed by certain clubs’ fans from London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Indeed, it’s rather endearing.
As much as I don’t want Colchester to be knocked out of the Caribou Cup, I’m not too sorry when Mr Brooks blows for the last time and a further half an hour in the cold and damp has been averted by the U’s failure to equalise. The rain is still falling as the crowd of 6,600 odd file out of the stadium, but it falls with a bit less vigour and intensity as befits the moment when the game is over and the excitement has ended; it’s time to go home and dry out .

 

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.