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 1 Wycombe 0

Remaining true to my fictional new year’s resolution to ‘get out more’, I return for the second dull Tuesday night in a row to the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium for a second helping of Colchester United in the competition properly known at Football League Division Four.

Two pints of Adnams Old Ale in The Bricklayers Arms and a speeding, top-deck, bus ride that’s worth £2.50 of anyone’s money are the prelude to the shock of arriving at the stadium.  There’s a queue at the turnstiles because tonight’s the night the U’s play Wycombe Wanderers, their meanest, nastiest foe who once, long ago in 1991  pipped the U’s to promotion by scoring more goals. The rotters.  Like last week a steward asks if he can look in my bag, of course he can, but I tell him he probably won’t see much because its a navy blue bag and it’s awfully dark out here.  He peers down perfunctorily and fondles the bottom of the bag just a little before turning away, perhaps a tad embarrassed.

Into the ground and I immediately meet my next door neighbour, who explains that she is here to see her son take penalties at half time with the Coggeshall Under 15’s team; I’ll look out for that I tell her.  I meet her husband in the toilet who’s here for the same reason, although he’s in the toilet to have a piddle, like me.

After the usual modern age twee ‘sporting’ nonesense of handshakes and standing in a line, the game kicks off.  The teams are made up of the usual collection of young men with serious yet silly haircuts and Colchester once again field ex Ipswich prodigy Owen Garvan – Hurrah!  Wycombe meanwhile have a star in their midst , a star the size of a planet, Adebayo Akinfenwa who apparently weighs 16 stone.   Mr Akinfenwa’s football career spans a century, albeit the 21st one and he is a Football League legend who has also won medals in the Premier League, the Welsh Premier League; with Barry Town;  he is enormous, absolutely vast.  It might be an exaggeration to say he is worth the entrance money alone, but you get a lot for your money with Ade.  He doesn’t run so much as waddle about the pitch, but he knows where to be and when. He’s always in the right place at the right time, but when you’re as big as him it’s difficult not to be.  Ade is apparently known as ‘The Beast,’ but he seemed like a very lovely man indeed, playing as he did with a smile on his face despite being called a ‘fat bastard’ by those Col U wags behind the goal.  Far from being a beast Ade is the sort of bloke you’d happily invite round for afternoon tea and a plate of fancies with your mum. You wouldn’t want to invite a ‘beast’ round for that would you, they might leave something nasty in your downstairs toilet, and as Kevin Keegan might say, no ones a fan of that.

Inspired by Ade, as anyone would be, the Wycombe fans are in good voice and have a drum, which they bang, or one of them does.  Sensibly, those Wycombe fans who want to stand up do so at the back of the stand where they can see over the heads of those who prefer to sit. It looks a very neat and tidy arrangement, they’re not daft in Buckinghamshire.  Wycombe start well and whilst the Col U fans also have a drum they have no rhythm yet and their unco-ordinated shouts produce a hollow echo off the tin roof and walls.

Colchester send a shot past the post and the U’s fans offer a double salvo of “Fuck Off Wycombe!” but it somehow doesn’t quite sound quite right, saying that to an innocuous town in the home counties; you wouldn’t say that to Gerrards Cross now would you, so why Wycombe.  Things are getting nasty, well kind of, and Wycombe’s Will de Havilland is booked for not controlling his elbow well enough in the vicinity of someone else’s face.  I imagine the referee asking his name and saying “Really? de Havilland? What like her in Gone With The Wind?”

Moments later the U’s are in front and no one looks more surprised than the goalscorer George Elokobi whose spectacular effort from 2o odd yards arcs delightfully into the top corner; it might have been a cross originally though, there’s no knowing from where I’m sat. The U’s fans rise as one and a man in a beanie hat in front of me stands purposefully as if to address the players, and slowly stabs both his temples with his forefingers. Odd.

The U’s are in full flow and Brindley sends the ball low across the face of goal, like you do.  Then at the other end Akinfenwa literally squashes Brindley, who has to be shaken back into shape by the physio. Mascot Eddie the Eagle then helps referee Mr Kettle to ensure the ball is placed accurately in the little ‘D’ for a corner kick.  The scoreboard fleetingly advises us to kit ourselves out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at cufc retail, and by the look of a few people around me they have done just that.  Unimpressed, Olivia de Havilland shoves a Col U player and a bit later does it again, she is substituted at half-time.

The game is what you might call ‘attritional’.  A Wycombe player with a a hair cut which is part Marge Simpson part skinhead gets in to a good position, but then sends his cross far over everyone’s head, before scratching his own as if unable to fully comprehend what just happened.   Then U’s Lapslie has a free-kick awarded against him. “What about the foul earlier?” cries an angry, plaintiff voice. Indeed , what about it. Eh, Mr Kettle?  ” Oh sorry, you’re absolutely right, my mistake”. But no,  Mr Kettle didn’t say a word to his accuser; how cool is that?

At number 12 Wycombe have a player rejoicing under the name of Paris Cowan-Hall.  Paris, now there’s an exotic name for a footballer, but his double-barrelled surname perhaps suggests Patrician parents who benefitted from a classical education.  In Greek legend Paris was a bit like a stereotypical Premier League footballer; he was ‘one for the ladies’  having a fling with a nymph called Oenone before getting Aphrodite, Hera and Athena to get their kit off and then eloping with Helen who was already married to Menelaus king of Sparta; all of which resulted in the Trojan Wars and that big horse and everything.   Just thought you’d like to know in case they ask a question on University Challenge .

On the cusp of half time and the U’s keeper tries to look busy as he taps the soles of his boots on the goal posts and swigs from a bottle, even though he is only seconds away from a nice cup of half-time tea.  Sadly I am more than seconds from my half-time tea and spend so long in the not very long queue that I only return to the stand in time to see the Coggeshall Under 15’s leave the field, having presumeably scored all their penalties against the hapless Eddie the Eagle.  I’ll lie to the neighbours.

There’s just time to enjoy Pulp’s Mis-shapes over the tannoy before the action recommences. An early boot into touch sees a wonderfully disinterested looking ballboy in a bobble hat take an age to return the ball to a Wycombe player who seems to curb his impatience because the lad is so very small and looks so much like he’d rather be elsewhere.  I like to think that his dad was right chuffed to get young Tommy in as a ball-boy, but actually Tommy is day-dreaming about trying on his sister’s dresses or doing ballet.

Moving on and U’s earn an obvious corner . “Corner!” shouts a reedy voice behind me as if challenging Mr Kettle not to give it. Again Mr Kettle stays calm.  The game rolls on and Colchester have the ascendency, doing most of the attacking and doing it with a fair lick of pace. This is in contrast to Wycombe who seem restricted to move at the same pace as big Ade, after all, they wouldn’t want to leave him behind.  He nevertheless wins quite a few headers and  defies physics for one final moment in injury time and  has one cleared off the goal line.  The Wycombe fans have been silenced largely, although with 1o minutes to go they had raised a few “Come on Wycombe” chants to save face.

Responding to a prompt from the scoreboard the U’s fans get behind the U’s once more to carry their team over the winning line on a wave of vocal encouragement.  A fine win for the U’s and a most enjoyable evening for which credit must also go to the vanquished team and in particular Ade Akinfenwa, what a great bloke and worth a hundred Premier League players; by weight alone.