|Letters from Wiltshire #23|
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 15th Dec 2020 17:58
As I’ve been providing updates on the ongoing US presidential election, it is worth mentioning that the Electoral College votes have now been cast, which formally confirms Biden as the new President-elect. Normally a formality, as the losing candidate has usually long-since conceded defeat, but these are far from normal times, and America has far from a normal lame-duck President. Still, at least the threat of members of the Electoral College ignoring the popular vote in favour of an outcome demanded by Trump has failed to materialise. In the UK, new Covid tiers were announced this week, with London going into Tier 3. Colchester stays in Tier 2, but only just, with as far north east as Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford also moving into Tier 3 – and as if you need reminding, Tier 3 means no supporters at matches.
[b]Colchester United v Doncaster Rovers
Tonight CUFC visit CUFC for what will no doubt be a tough match, but following a spirited four points on our travels in the last two away games, not necessarily one we should be daunted by. Cambridgeshire, for now, is Tier 2, so we can expect up to 2,000 home fans to be there, which if memory serves will be the first time we’ve played away in front of supporters this season? It will be interesting to see whether that plays a part or not. Traditionally, football supporters have always assumed that being at home is an advantage, and the stats back that up. I guess most of that is down to the presence of home support, so I think it’ll be interesting towards the back end of this season to look at how much results during lockdown and closed stadia do or don’t buck that trend.
Letters from Wiltshire #23 is another from the random match selector, and a return to something involving Colchester United after the last two ‘specials’ for #21 and #22. This time, it’s the final match of our domestic season in 1995/96, at home to Doncaster Rovers. The U’s still had an outside chance of making the play-offs, whereas Donny were content to finish the season comfortably mid-table, or so we thought. That wasn’t to say their supporters weren’t up for a party.
In an otherwise sea of fog, there are three, no four very clear memories I have from this game…
[b]Memory #1 – seemed like a good idea at the time…[/b]
Incidentally, and on that subject, allow me to share the story of my friend Mark, who was at our final game of the season in 2015 against Preston North End that I covered in my very first Matches of Yesteryear blog. He was at the match, but not with me; as a lifelong PNE supporter he was in the away end, and leading up to and during the day we’d been sharing light-hearted ‘bantz’ back and forth. Although the match was broadcast live, I’d never actually seen it…well, because I was there. I’d seen the highlights loads of times, but not the whole match start to finish, so imagine my amusement when the club broadcast the match last season during lockdown, and up popped an image of my mate repeatedly throughout the match.
And why? Because completely by chance (he’s the one on the left) Mark happened to be stood next to someone spotted by one of the match cameraman who rather randomly had decided to dress up as a chicken! I get that the supporters wanted to wear yellow (we’ve done similar with orange in the past), but at what point does your inner voice say “yellow yes, but chicken suit – nah”? The most amusing part for me was my Mark’s post-match description of the world’s most disconsolate chicken traipsing out of the ground after the match – and that’s the thing, if you think something like face-painting or fancy dress is a good idea – ask yourself whether it’ll still seem like a good idea if you have to travel a long way home disappointed.
[b]Back to it[/b]
They might not have had anything to play for, but we certainly did. The U’s were one point and one place behind Wigan in the last play-off berth, and just two points behind Hereford in the third play-off spot. So, we pretty much had to win as an absolute minimum. We could have got away with a draw, but only a very high-scoring draw, given Wigan (who’d also have to lose) had scored two more than the U’s (back then, places were decided on goals scored not goal difference). If we did win, and Wigan failed to win, we were in the play-offs. If we did win, and Wigan also won, we were reliant on Hereford losing. If Hereford drew, we’d have to win big, scoring at least three more than Hereford in the process. Basically, the long and short of it was that whilst we were all in fine voice on the Barside, there were lots of permutations and combinations which made success unlikely.
The U’s were managed by Steve Wignall back then, in his first full season in charge, and all in all it hadn’t been a bad season. We’d never quite managed to force our way into the automatic promotion top three but had been in and around the play-offs throughout – I think the lowest we’d been all season was 10th following a run of poor results in January and February.
Our line-up that afternoon was:
There were one or two changes to the line-up on the back of the programme, with Gus Caesar coming in, presumably for Joe Dunne who wasn’t even on the bench (injured?), and Doogie dropping to the bench in favour of Paul Gibbs starting. The latter would prove to be a very significant decision.
[b]Memory #2 – who are ya?[/b]
[b]Memory #3 – outrageous![/b]
Or at least he tried to, but got the angle slightly wrong…well, wrong for a cross, but bloody perfect if he was trying an outrageous driven looping shot from a very tight angle. Back-pedalling ‘keeper Gary O’Connor could only flap aimlessly as it sailed over his shoulder and into the top corner of his goal. I was looking right down the barrel of that one from my vantage point on the Barside, and as soon as Gibbs had struck the ball, it was “no, surely not…” and then absolute pandemonium as the ground erupted.
[b]Memory #4 – easy tiger![/b]
But they didn’t, and scoring his last goal in a U’s shirt, Paul Gibbs had taken us to the play-offs 😊
[b]Colchester United 1 (Paul Gibbs 45’) Doncaster Rovers 0[/b]
Elsewhere, although Hereford comfortably beat Rochdale 2-0, Wigan slipped up losing 1-2 at home to Northampton, and the U’s had snatched an unlikely play-off slot. I won’t dwell on how were fared (a) because it still makes me sad, and (b) because my trip to Home Park may well feature as a blog one day.
After two seasons of mid-table finishes, Doncaster Rovers let Sammy Chung go in the summer. Since then, he spent some time around the turn of the millennium as Director of Football in Barbados (let’s be honest, not a bad gig), and joined the coaching staff at Minehead in 2005. I’m delighted to report that according to Wikipedia, at the ripe old age of 88, Sammy still lives on the Somerset coast to this day.
Although this play-off attempt would eventually fail amid the golf balls and small change of Home Park, we did go on to not only make the play-offs again at the end of 1997/98, but this time going all the way through to promotion, defeating Torquay in the Wembley final. In the Torquay line-up that day was none other than Paul Gibbs…
Up the U’s
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Letters from Wiltshire #35 by wessex_exile
As many were predicting, time finally ran out for Steve Ball mid-week, after the U’s lost 2-1 at home to Exeter City. Although a considerable improvement in score-line compared to the 6-1 thrashing they handed out at St James Park earlier in the season, apart from the first 10-15 minutes and very brief glimpses throughout the remainder of the game, it was a poor performance, leaving Robbie Cowling with no choice. After a brief interlude, Robbie named Wayne Brown as our new Interim Head Coach (that’s caretaker as far as I’m concerned), and after an even briefer interlude, Robbie and Wayne in a joint statement put to rest any lingering concerns about Wayne’s attitude to race. If Wayne can show the same sort of leadership on the training ground and in the dressing room as he used to show for the U’s on the pitch, I am certain he’s going to do very well in the job.
Letters from Wiltshire #34 by wessex_exile
I won’t dwell on Robbie’s latest message to the supporters – we’ve all read it, and we’ve all probably drawn our own conclusions about what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. To me, bottom line, I suspect the clock is now ticking for Steve Ball (at least), turn around this terrible form pretty damn quick, or start clearing out your locker. Regardless of personal opinions on any of the individuals concerned, I would like to think none of us actually wants to see people made redundant in the current climate. But, these are difficult times that require tough decisions. If Steve Ball is up to the job and can turn this around, I’ll be more than happy to support him. If he’s not, he has to go before irreparable harm is done…and we all know what that will look like, we’ve been there before…
Letters from Wiltshire #33 by wessex_exile
Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Letters from Wiltshire #32 by wessex_exile
Fifty years ago yesterday, Colchester United of the 4th Division pulled off the greatest cup giant-killing ever, beating 1st Division Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road. Watched by 16,000, and the Match of the Day cameras, Dick Graham’s U’s, a rag-tag band of mostly aging journeymen, defied the odds to defeat arguably the greatest club side in Europe at the time. “The greatest cup giant-killing ever” is a bold claim, and over the years various football magazines and websites have run their own polls of which was the greatest. Whilst that day at Layer Rd always features, as the years have gone by other feats fresher in the memory have been put forward as a candidate – we probably all remember Ronnie Radford’s screamer against Newcastle, Sutton’s exploits, or even Bradford City quite recently at Stamford Bridge – but these pale into insignificance when you pause to reflect on the Don Revie side that we beat that day. Sprake, Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Giles etc – all full internationals, all household names – the only one missing was Billy Bremner, and that was because he was injured. By comparison, all we had to offer was Ray Crawford – at his peak arguably on a par with some in the Leeds side, but that peak had been ten years earlier playing for Ipswich and England. Eleven heroes didn’t just try and hold out against Leeds United, they took the game to their illustrious opponents with such tenacity, grit and no small amount of flair, and before we knew it, the U’s were 3-0 in the lead. As legs tired, Leeds got back into the game with goals from Hunter and Giles, but we held firm – typified at the death by Graham Smith pulling off an impossible save to ensure the U’s achieved [b][u]the greatest cup giant-killing ever![/b][/u]
Letters from Wiltshire #31 by wessex_exile
And so the dust settles on another transfer window closing, and despite (my) expectations that the possibility of incoming business was going to be remote, we have instead seen a veritable flurry of activity, with no less than three coming in. Big Frank Nouble, making a very welcome return on loan from Plymouth Argyle, of course needs no introduction. Neither really does feisty Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu, here on loan last season, and this time signed full-time from Charlton Athletic for an undisclosed fee. Actually paying hard cash for someone did come as a surprise, presumably offset by the sale of Cohen Bramall to Lincoln for a similarly undisclosed fee. However, the fact that the Addicks have insisted on not only a sell-on clause, but a rarely used buy-back clause too, suggests (a) Wiredu’s signing fee probably wasn’t too high, and (b) Charlton are protecting those finances with these clauses. The last one, which would have been a complete surprise for me were it not for a contact leaking me the news earlier yesterday, is left-back Josh Doherty on loan from Crawley. Josh was only announced once outgoing left-back Bramall was confirmed, and presumably his loan is directly related to part-time fashion model, TV and radio celeb and former left-back Mark Wright signing for Crawley on a non-contract game-by-game basis in December. We have also released seven from the academy, Ollie Kensdale, Miquel Scarlett, Sammie McLeod, Michael Fernandes, Ollie Sims, Danny Collinge and Matt Weaire, and I’m sure we all wish them the best for the future.