|Letters from Wiltshire #06|
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 29th Sep 2020 17:41
Here we are again, back in the (now) much-maligned EFL Trophy and a home tie against West Ham United U21s, and I think probably our last chance to stay in the competition? Robbie’s most recent rallying cry has been to “buy, buy, buy” when it comes to iFollow streams, and with the likelihood of supporters getting to matches receding, making streaming probably our only viable revenue stream, who can blame him. As an exile, I was never expecting I’d have many opportunities to see the U’s in the flesh this season, so he’s rather preaching to the converted as far as I’m concerned, but I do like the loyalty scheme he’s put together.
[b]Colchester United v Scunthorpe
Saturday 11th September 1999
Nationwide Football League Second Division (Tier 3)
From the sublime of winning a Wembley final in LfW05, we revert to the ridiculousness of emerging from the post-Wadsworth era. Letters from Wiltshire #06 picks up the original random match selector from my memorabilia collection, with a home tie against Scunthorpe relatively early in our 1999/2000 season. Mick Wadsworth had departed two weeks earlier, taking a coaching role at Crystal Palace to be closer to his family ties in the north east, leaving Steve Whitton to try and pick up the pieces and fix the mess he’d left us in.
[b]Who are ya![/b]
However, before I get to the match report, I want to first touch on the ‘never met’ question. In previous musings, and upon further reflection, I actually think we are now down to just three clubs in the current 92 who we have never played in a competitive match – Liverpool, West Ham United and Harrogate. Provided the season at least makes it to 24th October, we’ll be ticking Harrogate off that list, so the big question is does West Ham count for tonight?
It’s a difficult one, and my instinct tells me because they have “U21” as a suffix to their name tonight, probably not. But still it is a competitive match, in a fully professional competition, so why not? I can foresee a scenario where, for instance, we could be playing against West Ham in an early round Carabao cup game, with for them an important league game coming up at the weekend, and their line-up not necessarily being too dissimilar to what it will be tonight. I’d be interested to know your thoughts – will the club historians count this as our first competitive game against West Ham or not?
Interestingly, if so, and with Harrogate less than a month away, that leaves just Liverpool. If the FA Cup survives a second wave, and we’re fortunate enough to get through to the 3rd round and draw Liverpool, that would mean we have for the first time in our history played every single other club in the football league. Given Harrogate have never got passed the 2nd round of the FA Cup, I sincerely doubt many outside League 2 will have played Harrogate, so would that make us unique as the only club to have played everyone else at least once? Lots of ifs, buts and maybes in that, but it’s fun to speculate.
[b]So, we meet again Moriarty[/b]
However, never mind who we haven’t played, who do we always play? I crunched some numbers this morning, and they probably need a through sense-check, but as far as I can tell, we have most often met up with Gillingham, playing 101 times in all competitions to date. Not surprisingly, another local side in Peterborough come equal second with 85 matches, but surprisingly alongside my near-neighbours Swindon Town. There is actually quite a strong south west representation here, with Exeter City fourth (83 matches), then of course Southend United (79 matches), Northampton Town (77 matches) and distant Torquay (72 matches).
So, who do we like playing most? Looking at those that we have played sufficiently regularly to be meaningful (more than 40 matches), top of the list is actually Stockport County (played 46 times, won half of them), followed very closely by Crewe Alexandria (played 59 times, won 29 of them). And the least? Using the same 40 match cut-off, bottom of the list is Brighton and Hove Albion (played 45 times, won just ten), followed by – you guessed it – today’s match report opponents and bane of copy-editors everywhere, Scunthorpe United (played 63 times, won just 16 matches).
And so to September 11th 1999 and today’s report for the Scunthorpe match. The U’s were in disarray, freefall almost, and Whitton was struggling to do anything about it. Wadsworth had decimated the squad during the summer, filled back up with (largely) mercenary recruits through the Barry Silkman agency, and then jumped ship. Managing Director Steve Gage had also resigned at the very start of the season. None of this made for a particularly happy camp, and my abiding memories of this era was quite how dismal things seemed at the time.
However, that was never a good reason to stop supporting the U’s, and with my youngest sister having a house-warming in her new Southend home that evening, time then to drive over to Essex with the kids, see my dear old mum and take in a U’s match before heading back to South Essex for an overnight stop.
Kind of wished I hadn’t…
[b]The horror, the horror!![/b]
I went to the match with my daughter, brother-in-law and his son, and although I still had driving to do in the evening, allowed ourselves the luxury of a quick drink in the Drury. Considering the situation Colchester United was in, there was actually quite a decent and vociferous crowd that day on the barside – possibly buoyed by the fact that Wadsworth had finally departed? With young’uns in tow, we had seats in the Family Enclosure.
Leading up to the match, Whitton had called for a ‘[i]…blue-and-white brick wall…[/i]’ for Scunthorpe to run into, particularly given the 5-2 mauling we’d received at Bury in the previous match. Off the pitch, striker Tony Lock – one of those cast aside by Wadsworth – had recovered from a back injury and had asked if he could return to Layer Road to train. Joey Keith was also in a race towards fitness and managed to climb out of his sick-bed to play. As an added bonus, David Greene had also asked to discuss a contract extension with Steve Whitton to stay at the club – so some (ahem) greene shoots there 😊.
The U’s lined up:
6….Warren Aspinall (KK Opara 86’)
9….Brian Launders (Steve Germain 74’)
10..Jamie Moralee (Craig Farley 66’)
11..Lomana Tresor Lua Lua
Scunthorpe were managed by Brian Laws at the time and were having a poorer start to the season than even the U’s, failing to score in the first five matches of the season. Cameroon striker Gui Ipou had improved matters, signed on a free transfer from Bristol Rovers, and they also had Lee Hodges in the team. Hodges was already a reasonably well-known name back then, who’d been twice round the houses whilst on loan from tonight’s’ opponents West Ham (including Ipswich and Southend), before eventually landing permanently at Scunnie at the start of the season.
Green(e) shoots or not, this was very poor entertainment from start to finish for the long-suffering faithful. Although marginally better in the first half, we never looked like scoring from start to finish, in to be honest what was a fairly drab encounter all round. The only highlight, if that’s the right expression, was Lee Hodges drilling home from a tight angle, beating Simon Brown far too easily at his near post. This was early in the second half, and despite Whitton using all three substitutes (including a debut for Craig Farley) thereafter, frankly we did not possess the guile or craft to try and breakdown a resilient rear-guard action from Scunthorpe. Let’s be honest, they were just as desperate for points as we were and defended accordingly.
[b]Colchester United 0 Scunthorpe 1 (Hodges 49’)[/b]
Thankfully, this would be the last time Brian Launders pulled on a U’s shirt, and he was sacked shortly after for gross misconduct. Silkman tried and failed to take the U’s to court, and in the process kind of revealed quite how much influence agents had (and still have) over the game. Peter Heard had certainly seen enough, and immediately banned any further involvement with agents for Colchester United.
With echoes of the Bolton manager’s sour grapery last week, Whitton reported after the match “[i]… It's too easy just to point a finger at Simon, Hodges should not have been allowed to get into that position in the first place. It was another soft goal, the sort of thing we had been working hard to cut out in training. The game had a draw written all over it until that mistake, but we've got to look at all the positive things and I thought we were the better side in the first half.[/i]
To cut a long story short, and spare you the misery of dwelling on our struggles, it took pretty much until Christmas for Whitton to really start improving things, and by the end of the season we had clawed our way to safety in 18th place, three places and six points away from the relegation zone. Scunthorpe weren’t so lucky, and finished second from bottom – joining Chesterfield, Blackpool and Cardiff City in the basement.
[b]The horror, the horror…Part Deux[/b]
As a final postscript, after the match we headed over to Southend for the house-warming party, and despite the misery of the match, a cracking time was had by all. In the wee small hours, I found myself with my sister, her hubby and a couple of others watching a ‘moody’ copy of the recently released “Blair Witch Project”. It was the sort of copy where at one point the silhouette of someone else in the cinema appears on the way to the toilet, that sort of thing.
Still not as terrifying as the U’s performance though…
Up the U’s
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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.
Letters from Wiltshire #30 by wessex_exile
Friday night football – can’t beat it. Gives you that feelgood factor all weekend, sitting back to enjoy a stress-free Saturday afternoon watching others fail in your wake. Of course, you have to win first, which we’ve been struggling to do for a while now, so be prepared for the possibility of a miserable weekend just in case. We share this evening with Reading v AFC Bournemouth, albeit they kick-off an hour later than we do. In the real world, leaders of the UK’s five largest business groups have written to Boris demanding action on the substantial difficulties they are facing over Brexit bureaucracy, whilst French border authorities are reporting that two-thirds of lorries arriving from the UK are empty (i.e. no exports leaving the UK). Still, at least the NHS can enjoy their extra £350m per week…