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Letters from Wiltshire #30
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 30th Jan 2021 18:37

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…

[b]Colchester United v Plymouth Argyle
Saturday 8th February 2020
Sky Bet League Two (Tier 4)
Attendance 4,768[/b]

In our current climate (no doubt both on and off the pitch), and in response to LfW#29 reporting on an undeserved defeat at Plymouth Argyle back in 2016, [b]Durham[/b] bemoaned a blog on another defeat. Madame La Chance is indeed a capricious mistress, and by complete coincidence has not only rewarded [b]Durham[/b] with a victory for Letters from Wiltshire #30, but against the very same Plymouth Argyle, this time in our most recent match against them.

[b]He who would Valiant be…[/b]
However, before we get into that, and because I’ve never really explored this empirically, I thought I’d look into my ‘bang for buck’ return on following the U’s. I’ve mentioned on more than a few occasions that as an exile, I am much more likely to follow the U’s at away matches. Within the limitations of my memorabilia collection (by no means anywhere near all matches I’ve attended, just the ones for which I have some sort of physical evidence), this is born out, on a ratio of 2:1 away to home. To be honest, I’m surprised it’s not higher, but I suspect there is a bias involved, in that I’m probably more likely to buy a programme for a home match (and of course they’ve been free for a while now as well).

Since 1990 I have 114 away matches in my collection, of which just 25 are victories, 53 are defeats and 36 draws. To be honest, that’s kind of not bad I reckon, with just over half of my awaydays seeing me head home with at least a point. For the 57 home matches (Layer Rd and Cuckoo Farm), 29 are victories, 12 defeats and 16 draws, which is even better – nearly three-quarters of my long journey’s across to Essex see me heading home with at least a point, and just over half with a victory.

In terms of calendar years (not seasons), not surprisingly the glory years of the Conference feature prominently as good times to follow the U’s, with an average of 2.5pts and 2.2pts per match for me during those two years. 1993, 2005, 2009 and 2017 weren’t too shabby either, all with an average return of 2pts per match in my collection. 2010 was the pits, not a single point witnessed all year, and 1997 (0.3pts per match) wasn’t much better, but for whatever reason these were both years with very few matches evidenced in my collection.

Shifting focus to those years where I’ve got a more complete record of my usual 1+ matches per month (generally 9-12 matches per season), 1998 through to the end of 2002 were exceptionally hard years, with an average of less than a point per match across 50 matches – there ought to be some sort of medal for that. Conversely, 2004-06 was sublime – 21 matches and an average of over 1.75pts per match.

I’m not sure what all this is telling me, other than when it comes matches being selected by random from my memorabilia collection, I guess you have to get used to defeats, because there’s quite a few of them.

[b]Happy Dayz![/b]

…and so to one of those rare thumping victories. For this match, I’d made plans to meet up with my mate Jon, who needed some beer and football therapy – a common state of affairs it has to be said. As is often the case, we were to meet up at Hamilton Hall beforehand, which turned out to also be an opportunity to chat with some of the Pilgrims who’d had the same idea, before heading out to Colchester. Knowing a good deal when I saw one, I’d bought our tickets ahead of the match, and of course chose the print at home option.

Now, the plan had been to print these at work on the Friday, and it was only on the drive home that evening that I remembered I’d forgotten to do so. This required an emergency detour via Chippenham, where I just managed to get through the doors of PC World before they closed, to grab the cheapest printer off the shelf that they had. This kind of blew my financial acumen out of the water, but I still have the printer, it’s still working, and with the benefit of hindsight, with lockdown and home-working just around the corner, it actually turned out to be quite a sensible investment.

The U’s remarkably familiar line-up that day was:

1….Dean Gerken
2….Ryan Jackson
3….Cohen Bramall
18..Tom Eastman
5….Luke Prosser (captain)
8….Harry Pell (Luke Gambin 79’)
14..Brandon Comley
24..Ben Stevenson
15..Callum Harriott (Courtney Senior 82’)
45..Frank Nouble
13..Theo Robinson (Luke Norris 85’)

Well, I say familiar, but it’s of note to reflect on how many sort of big names for the U’s have moved on less than a year later – Jacko, Pross, Luke’s G and N, Theo and of course big Frank (plus unused sub Ethan Ross on the bench). On the day, Plymouth boss Ryan Lowe had former U’s player Joe Edwards on the bench, but I think not surprisingly that was the limit of any tangible connections between the two squads from opposite sides of the country that day. We had taken Tafari Moore on loan from the Pilgrims in January, making his debut on the day he joined in our home win against Macclesfield. He was subbed on 64 minutes, made one more appearance as an unused substitute at Exeter the following week, and that was the end of his Colchester United career (and, it would turn out, his Plymouth career too).

Going into this match, Plymouth were sitting in 3rd place, with games in hand over pretty much everyone else in promotion contention (thanks to a couple of postponements in November and December). They were on a pretty impressive run of form too, having only lost two and drawn one of their last 13 league matches, which had propelled them from 10th into the automatic promotion slots. Although less impressive in terms of games won, the U’s weren’t doing badly either, with only one defeat since mid-October, albeit that had been the previous game away at Cambridge. But 9 of those 17 matches had been drawn, which was enough to keep us in the play-off slots, but not good enough to force us into the top three. All in all, a tough game against very good opposition was expected.

Me and Jon had gone for Row T seats right at the back of South Stand 2, so imagine my delight to discover we were right next to none other than [b]Noah[/b] and friends. Wasting no time getting the introductions out of the way (though I’m pretty sure Jon and [b]Noah[/b] had met on previous occasions), we settled back to enjoy the match. We didn’t have to wait long either, the U’s were at Plymouth right from the start, who frankly had nothing in their locker to deal with it. Maybe they were just used to teams playing a cautious cagey approach, inviting the Pilgrims to play a possession-based high press, but the U’s were having none of it.

Decent chances had already gone begging when Callum Harriot, who was playing a blinder, latched on to an inch-perfect punt into the right channel, sold his marker the dummy and rolled the ball into the path of Stevenson to side-foot passed the outstretched dive of ‘keeper Wootton. Less than 15 minutes on the clock, and things were looking good already.

[b]Did we stop there, did we heck as like![/b]
On the half hour big Frank weaved his way into the box from the left, bewitching and bamboozling his defender to the point that he virtually left him on his @rse, before chipping delightfully up to Theo Robinson, who buried his header into the top corner passed the (next) despairing dive from Wootton. 2-0 up, and the South Stand was in bedlam, falling over each other in celebration. It wasn’t just the goals, despite Plymouth Argyle looking a decent outfit, they simply could not cope with the U’s.

[b]Pinch me someone…[/b]
Six minutes later and we were in dreamland. As if they’d kinda forgotten they were under the cosh, and in danger of being completely overrun, the Argyle defence contrived to dither and dally on the ball deep in their own half, rather than anyone deciding to put their foot through it. Harry Pell was having none of it, and as combative as ever, closed them right down, and was rewarded by a part-poach part-ricochet, which fell perfectly into the path of Robinson on the edge of the box. Holding off the attentions of two defenders, Robinson slotted in under the body of the onrushing Wootton to make it 3-0!!!

Half-time arrived, and amid the celebrations, the big questions were (a) how many more might we score if we kept this up, and (b) how many might Argyle score if we don’t?

We needn’t have worried, as the second half showed the U’s were equally fantastic in defence and game management as they were in attack during the first half. That’s not to say we were under the cosh, as we never really were, just comfortably keeping Plymouth at arm’s reach for most of it, whilst still carrying a significant threat up front when the opportunity presented itself. Robinson, who was on fire, could have grabbed his hat-trick, running on to a long clearance from defence, but with a virtual one on one with Wootton chose to go early and try and chip, which was caught comfortably. He went even closer shortly after, with a definite one on one, with his curling shot evading Wootton and sadly (just) the outside of the post.

Even as the second half wore on and Argyle posed more of a threat, as the U’s sat back more on, clearly happy with a job well done, still the defence was resolute. Even when they looked to breach that defence, there was Gerken keeping out whatever they threw at him. After a flurry of game-management substitutions from McGreal, full-time duly arrived with the U’s not just victorious, but so on top it was almost embarrassing.

[b]Colchester United 3 (Ben Stevenson 14’; Theo Robinson 30’, 36’) Plymouth Argyle 0[/b]

It’s difficult to find the right superlatives to do this match justice – but it was without doubt the most consummate, finest performance from a U’s team I’d seen for many years. It wasn’t as if Plymouth Argyle were necessarily poor, they hadn’t been, but they’d been just blown away by our game.

Jon and I yomped back to North Station in time for the fast train back up to London, finding ourselves sharing our carriage with a bunch of Argyle supporters. They were magnanimous in defeat, happy to confirm that was the best team they’d played all season, and certainly no complaints about the result. To their credit, they weren’t taking the long train journey west licking their wounds, they were staying up in London for the weekend, determined to at the very least go out and drown their sorrows that night – and I’m sure they did.

Just over a month later the season was curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, and after a protracted wait to see if it would ever resume, Plymouth eventually gained automatic promotion on the average points per game measure, and as we know the U’s sneaked the play-offs using the same criteria. Many will point to our final victory at Carlisle as the game that allowed that to happen, but I would argue this match was another significant contributing factor – the least said about the play-offs the better however.

Up the U’s

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