|Letters from Wiltshire #20|
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 5th Dec 2020 16:00
And finally, for now, we see football supporters return to stadia to watch elite football…well, those that aren’t in Covid-19 Tier 3 anyway. After some of the more recent performances, there are no doubt many of the faithful that would question the moniker ‘elite’, so let’s hope the U’s respond with some pride and passion today. With Essex in Tier 2, that would allow up to 2,000 in attendance, but Robbie (sensibly in my opinion) has currently restricted capacity to just 1,000 whilst he assesses how effective the measures that have been put in place will be to ensure fans stay safe. Whether we get 1,000 in remains to be seen – when the restriction was announced we had 540 season permit holders, I don’t know if we’ve sold any more since, and I severely doubt all of the permit holders we already have will attend. But, whether its 100 or 1,000, it’ll be refreshing to at least hear some crowd noise on the iFollow stream.
[b]Sheffield Wednesday v Colchester United
Maybe we all need a bit of a lift after Crawley and Exeter, so I’m delighted that the random match selector has chosen what I’m pretty sure was my first trip to Hillsborough, as Letters from Wiltshire #20 goes back to the very start of the 2004/05 campaign. This was Phil Parkinson’s second full season in charge at Layer Road, and after steering us away from relegation on arrival in February 2003, his first full season had shown considerable promise, with a couple of decent cup runs in the FA Cup (5th Round) and LDV Vans Trophy (Area Final) thrown in for good measure, so expectations were reasonably high for 2004/05 amongst the travelling faithful.
[b]Who put the Grim in Grimsby?[/b]
Grimsby are considered the most successful of the three sides from the historic county of Lincolnshire, alongside Lincoln and Scunthorpe, winning (amongst numerous minor honours and play-offs) Division 2 twice, Division 3 once, Division 3 North twice, Division 4 once, and the Football League Trophy once. Not a bad set to be honest, and a trophy cabinet we’d be more than happy to have, but it isn’t all roses. With fluctuating but overall declining fortunes throughout their history, when they were relegated to the Conference in 2010 they became only the fourth club (after Carlisle United, Oxford United and Luton Town) to have played in all five top divisions – Leyton Orient and most recently Notts County have now also joined that group.
[b]“[i]Grimsby on a Tuesday night…[/i]”[/b]
It’s one of those Friday night matches at Layer Road that I recall particularly fondly, a crisp chilly evening in November 1974. I was 12 at the time and had been taken to Layer Road with my eldest sister, her boyfriend (to become my brother-in-law) and I think his Uncle Flash and a few others, and we were in the Barside. Anyone who was never out on a Friday night at Layer Road, I can’t even begin to describe what you missed. This was one of those nights, floodlights penetrating the misty gloom, the heady aroma of woodbines and wintergreen filling the air, and the ever-present roar of the crowd interspersed by savage terrace humour directed at both opposition supporters and players, and frequently match officials too.
It’s too far back to remember many details clearly, but I know thanks to Graeson’s www.coludata.co.uk website that John Froggatt got us off to a blistering start in the 4th minute, and doubled the lead in the 12th minute. When strike partner Bobby Svarc made it three in the 16th minute, I honestly thought it was going to be double figures by the end. But Grimsby steadied themselves, and ground things out until big John got his first and only hat-trick for the U’s half-way through the second half to make it 4-0. And then came the moment that in my mind I can still see today – with only a few minutes left on the clock a cross came in virtually along the 18 yard line, and there was diminutive Bobby Svarc bravely diving in to drill a header like an arrow from the edge of the box to make it 5-0. What a night!
[b]Owls about that then![/b]
Saturday morning, and after a bracing mid/late-morning breakfast, we headed over to the match, pausing for a few starters in the nearby Hillsborough Hotel. We weren’t the only ones either, with not only many Wednesday supporters, but quite a few of the U’s faithful doing likewise. I guess we simply weren’t on Sheffield Wednesday’s radar as a club to be wary of (even if we’d done the double over them the previous season), so there was nothing much apart from good-natured banter around the pub. Phil and Tess, willingly too, had donned U’s shirts for the afternoon, Phil in one of my spare blue and white stripes, and Tess in the dayglo orange away shirt.
Parky’s side lined up that day:
[b]New Kids on the Block[/b]
With over 24,000 in the ground, including what must have been nearly 500 of the faithful, there was certainly a decent atmosphere when the Wednesdayites found their voice, though with large sections of unoccupied seating inside the enormous stadium, when things quietened it felt strangely atmosphereless. Not that we let that get too much in our way and did our best to drive the team on in a game that on paper looked like a tricky way to start the campaign.
Karl Duguid was out injured, so the captaincy was given to Wayne Brown and it was clear right from the start he was going rise to the responsibility, constantly talking too, haranguing, bossing even his back line, leaving Sheffield Wednesday barely scraps to feed on. As often happens, before too long this started to affect the home support, with cries more of frustration than celebration ringing out, as the Owls failed to establish any sort of hold on the game. It wasn’t just a defensive masterclass either – as the U’s comfortably withheld almost everything Sheffield Wednesday had to offer, so they grew and grew in confidence as an attacking force. Craig Fagan was a constant thorn in their side, and his ding-dong battle with man-marker Patrick Collins would eventually earn both a yellow card.
As half-time arrived and the match still at 0-0, there were even a few boos and jeers from the home support, and if I’m honest, probably mild frustration amongst the away support that we weren’t actually in front – not that we’d created too many clear-cut chances to be fair. Chatting at half-time, the main worry was could we keep this up for the second half, or would Sheffield Wednesday eventually get into their stride? More importantly, if it was offered would we take the 0-0 right now, more than a few would answer yes to that one.
[b]Oh ye, of little faith[/b]
Parky countered the increased pressure with a double substitution of his own, replacing Gavin Johnson and Wayne Andrews with Jamie Cade and Ben May respectively on 72 minutes. Slowly, inexorably, as the second half wore on, it really looked like we were going to hold on for a very and thoroughly deserved valuable point away at Hillsborough.
And then something magical happened…
[b]Pinch me someone[/b]
Maybe, maybe not, but Sam Stockley decided he wasn’t going to take any chances, and with a minute to go latched on to another inch-perfect pass from Kevin Watson, raced forward into the Sheffield Wednesday half, and from all of 30 yards let rip an almighty thunderbolt of a shot. It was like time stood still as we held our breath watching as it arrowed towards the goal, past the despairing dive of Lucas to bury itself in the back of the net – and then we literally exploded!
Stockley said after “[i]as the ball left my foot I just knew it was going in. I looked up after I struck it and saw the keeper was struggling to get across and I just started running to celebrate in front of the U's fans in the stand behind the goal. I'm glad that stand was there actually, because I was so fired up I think I would have kept running right out of the ground[/i]”.
Now we definitely could relax, there was no way we could let a 2-0 lead slip…was there? Clearly Sheffield Wednesday supporters didn’t think so, and the trickle leaving after Fagan’s opener turned into a flood. And still we pressed, so fired up by the two goals there was no question of sitting back. As the match entered the last minute, Fagan tormenting their defence yet again earned a free-kick on the edge of the box. Up stepped Joey Keith with an absolutely sublime free-kick, curling around the wall and into the corner of the net, leaving a hapless David Lucas flapping at thin air in its wake, and the U’s faithful in dreamland.
[b]Sheffield Wednesday 0 Colchester United 3 (Craig Fagan 85’; Sam Stockley 89’; Joe Keith 90’)[/b]
Not surprisingly, the result took us to the top of the table. Parky was suitably calm after the match, stating "[i]we will enjoy this win, but we are not going to get carried away. To come to Sheffield Wednesday and win by this margin is a great achievement, but we have to remain focused. I'm really pleased for the guys who scored, and I thought the two new boys were good as well, both Aidan Davison and Kevin Watson did really well on their debuts[/i]".
We’d go on to win the next two matches as well, with home victories over Stockport County and Peterborough United, to stay top of the league. But, inevitably, we started to slip back, and a run of poor form through to late October saw us slip back out of the promotion race. In fact, by March we were actually starting to glance nervously over our shoulders at the wrong end of the table, but we ended strongly with 11 games unbeaten stay comfortably mid-table for another season.
However, on the evening of Saturday 7th August all we cared about was celebrating, so straight back to the Hillsborough Hotel for a few more celebratory beers. Again to their credit, there were plenty of Wednesday supporters in there as well, and all more than happy to admit we thoroughly deserved it. I used to have quite a few photos of that evening in the Hillsborough, but all I can find these days is this one of me grinning like a fecking eejit post-match.
However, that’s not quite the end of the tale. Two years later and leading up to the 2006 World Cup final, the company Sixty6Art put a plea out through social media etc. that they wanted photographs of football supporters to use in a montage banner depicting the classic scene of Bobby Moore holding aloft the Jules Rimet Trophy. I think the idea was the banner would be taken to England matches in the World Cup, though I’m not certain this did actually happen?
Anyway, I dug around in my photo archive, and found and sent in another photo from our post-match session back in the Hillsborough Hotel that evening, taken by Phil of me and Tess. To my amazement, they used the photo, and for every photo they used, they sent out a print of the montage. I still have the print on my wall, and if you look really close, seventh column in from the right, just about level with Bobby’s forehead, there’s me and Tess.
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.