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Letters from Wiltshire #31
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 6th Feb 2021 18:29

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.

[b]Sheffield United v Colchester United
Saturday 17th August 2013
Sky Bet League One (Tier 3)
Attendance 17,167[/b]

The past two blogs have covered an undeserved defeat, and a richly deserved victory (both against Plymouth Argyle), so it seems fitting that Letters from Wiltshire #31 features a draw to maintain the balance. This blog goes back to the early days of season 2013/14, and a relatively rare visit to Bramall Lane to play Sheffield United. As portents of things to come, neither LfW#29 nor LfW#30 made any difference to the subsequent abject defeats for the U’s, nor indeed the quality of the performances, so let’s see if this one does. I rather fancy if there is to be a change of form tonight that it’ll have more to do one, some or all of our new signings (if match fit) – so let’s see if any start, or are at least on the bench.

As for back in 2013, the universe harmonised to provide that most auspicious of celestial alignments for me, a free weekend, one of the first matches of the season, and virtually on my birthday – all of which resulted in kids being despatched to others and me on the train bright and early for the trip to Sheffield. It’s an easy trip too – living in Warminster at the time it was one short hop to Bristol Temple Meads and then direct to Sheffield, and likewise on the way back – all of which allowed me to relax with some good music and a beer or two for the journey. Even better though, for reasons I was unclear on (think it might have been some sort of family day), Sheffield United decided to reduce adult ticket prices for this match to £10.

Apart from one season in the Championship, the league paths of Colchester United and Sheffield United didn’t cross between 1982 and 2011, and since 2016 haven’t crossed since. So my memories of visits to Bramall Lane are pretty thin on the ground, but I think that apart from our noble 1-0 defeat in the FA Cup back in 2004, this was only my second visit to Bramall Lane. I would go on to make it three visits in 2015 for the infamous ‘three penalties’ victory, but don’t have a programme for that game.

Back in 2004 I’d met up with other U’s fans in the Howard pub, right outside the train station, and although I had one in there again in 2013, there wasn’t much going on, so I headed over to the Rutland Arms nearer the ground. This was much more like it, with a decent crowd of U’s supporters crammed into the small pub, as usual making themselves heard on occasions. There were a fair few Blades in there too, who I guess were grinning and bearing the hicks for the sticks up for their ‘cup final’ against the mighty Sheffield United. Anyway, after a very pleasant few pints catching up with mates, drinking and singing, we headed over to the ground.

The U’s had made a decent start to the season, with victories away at Gillingham and at home to Port Vale, and as a result there was a decent turnout from the faithful (maybe 250-300?), which definitely included [b]Durham[/b] and [b]Gerry[/b] (I met them) and I think at least [b]Noah[/b] and [b]Daniel[/b] as well. Not just a decent turnout either, in good voice to cheer the UI’s on against a team rather unimaginatively tipped to be amongst the promotion contenders. Not quite the massed ranks that were there for the FA Cup game, but a good crowd nonetheless.

The U’s were still managed by Joe Dunne at the time, in his first full season in charge after taking over from John Ward. Over the summer, Joe signed a whole host of new talent, including permanent contracts for Craig Eastmond and Sanchez Watt from Arsenal, James Bransgrove (Brentford) and Conor Hubble (QPR), as well as loans for Daniel Pappoe and Sam Walker from Chelsea. Out went, amongst others, John-Joe O’Toole, Matt Heath and John White, to be followed not too long after this match by Kemi Izzet.

The U’s lined up that afternoon:

44..Sam Walker
20..Brian Wilson (captain)
4….Magnus Okuonghae
18..Tom Eastman
3….Ryan Dickson
2….David Wright
6….Craig Eastmond
21..Gavin Massey
11..Freddie Sears (Andy Bond 66’)
7….Sanchez Watt (Drey Wright 61’)
17..Jabo Ibehre (Clinton Morrison 80’)

Over their history, Sheffield United have played at all levels within the professional leagues, and many of the faithful will remember meeting them back in the 1981/82 season down in the old Division 4. Indeed, when they encountered each other back in 1979, Sheffield Wednesday v Sheffield United at Hillsborough set the still unbroken attendance record of 49,309 spectators. Leading up to this match, following relegation from the Championship at the end of the 2010/11 season, they had failed two years running to get out via the play-offs, and were determined to get it right this time. New manager David Weir had a strong squad to work with, which of course included current Manchester United and England superstar Harry Maguire.

However, superstars or not, the U’s were far from in awe of their big name opponents, and went toe to toe with the Blades right from kick-off. Admittedly most of the early pressure was coming from Sheffield United, with Tony McMahon curling one effort narrowly wide, and Sean McGinty shooting straight at Sam Walker when it looked easier to score, but otherwise we were more or less keeping Sheffield United at bay, whilst always carrying the threat of a breakaway, particularly with the pace of such like Sanchez-Watt, Sears and Eastmond on the pitch.

Eastmond particularly was having a great game in midfield, showing some great touches and vision to pick out killer passes in an instant, alongside David Wright starting to control the middle third. Dickson was having a cracker too, causing no end of torment down the left wing. In the 25th minute Sheffield United were awarded a corner, which broke kindly for the U’s, and on the break Sanchez-Watt received the ball and bore down towards the Blades penalty area. Timing it to perfection, at the last second he slipped the ball across to the onrushing Sears, who drilled his low shot past the dive of ‘keeper George Long and into the back of the net – and then the away end erupted!

It was nothing more than we deserved, and working tirelessly for the remainder of the first half, managed to negate anything that Sheffield United could throw at us. Indeed, the library that Bramall Lane became after Freddie’s goal began to turn positively hostile from the home crowd at times. However, that was until the stroke of half-time, when none other than Harry Maguire tried a speculatively long punt at goal, more in hope than expectation. The ball zipped off the surface, which was a bit greasy, and although Walker seemed to have it covered, it somehow squirmed through his grasp to nestle agonisingly just inside the post...and thus our turn to endure the taunts and catcalls of the home support.

Although there was nothing actually wrong with the half-time pint and pasty, quite nice if I’m honest, it tasted like ashes, I can tell you…

Still, as the second half kicked off, two things were imperative – carry on doing what we were doing so well in the first half, and don’t let their goal give them any momentum. I suppose, on reflection, it’s probably better to concede straight before half-time than straight after, the latter undoing your half-time team talk in an instant, and I’ve always assumed as an ex-U’s player through and through Joe Dunne knew how to talk to the dressing room. It certainly proved to be the case this afternoon, with the U’s very much picking up where we’d left off in the first half, denying Sheffield United at every opportunity.

Obviously Sheffield did come back out with a spring in their step, and we had to defend well for a while, with Walker pulling off excellent saves from Lyle Taylor and Conor Coady efforts, and rushing out to smother the ball at the toes of Taylor from a Fabien Brandy through ball. But we had our moments too, including the referee ruling out Jabo Ibehre converting a Dickson free-kick for offside (harshly I thought, but then again I would, wouldn’t I).

With less than half an hour to go, Joe Dunne brought on Drey Wright and then Andy Bond to tighten up the midfield. With just ten minutes to go, the pantomime boos that greeted the arrival of former-Owl Clinton Morrison were amusing – he enjoyed them, that’s for sure, and the U’s comfortably saw out the remainder of the match, always in control and thoroughly deserving the draw.

[b]Sheffield United 1 (Harry Maguire 45’) Colchester United 1 (Freddie Sears 25’)[/b]

The post-match stats show Sheffield enjoying the majority of possession with 54%, and dominating attempts on goal (12, with five on target), compared to the U’s managing just three attempts on goal, with only one on target. It just goes to show that sometimes these stats are meaningless...

On my walk back to the train station, a gnarly (but certainly not distinguished) man of Yorkshire decided to try and fill my face with a vitriolic profanity-laden rant about how undeserved our point was, much to the embarrassment of what I assume must have been his grandson in tow. I was having none of it, and whilst not an overtly aggressive person, decided to stop and laugh full in his face, and ask whether he’d actually been at the match, because he clearly hadn’t been watching the same one that I had – and then just stood there face to face waiting for his next move. His next move was to shuffle away muttering, leaving me to recommence my journey home.

For a season that started so positively for the U’s, it gradually petered out to be a lower mid-table finish with first round exits in all cup competitions. I don’t think it would have been significantly improved, but we weren’t helped by a fixture pile-up after a string of postponements in January and February, either due to cup clashes for others, or waterlogged pitches.

Despite their promotion billing, although Sheffield United finished considerably better than we did, they too missed out on even the play-offs, admittedly by only one place, but with a whopping 7pt gap behind Peterborough United in the last play-off slot. Harry Maguire would leave for £2.5m (to Hull) in the summer, and it would turn out to be another four years before they eventually escaped League 1 back into the Championship.

As I can’t find any highlights for this game, here’s that 80s match from back in Division 4 for you to enjoy. Incidentally, Sheffield United had to use our reserve kit, because their shirts included sponsor’s logos, at the time not permitted on the BBC.

Up the U’s

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