And so we come to the end of 2019 – halfway through a season that promises much, so it seems appropriate that we dip into the 1997/98 season for this blog. May I take the opportunity to wish you all a very Healthy, Prosperous and most of all Happy New Year, starting of course with three points for the U’s against Crawley tomorrow.
Notts County v Colchester United
Saturday 21st March 1998
Nationwide League Division 3 (Tier 4)
Match #34 of the series, and we travel to Meadow Lane, home of Notts County, towards the tail-end of what was to be a very auspicious season for the U’s. Our previous encounter in the league had been back in 1970/71, so I’m pretty certain this was the first of what would prove to be numerous visits to Meadow Lane over the years.
Notts County were managed at the time by none other than Big Sam Allardyce, who had arrived half-way through the previous season, though too late to save them from relegation to the basement. His previous managerial role had been at Blackpool, where he had guided them to the First Division play-offs, only to lose out to Bradford City in the semi-finals. Remarkably, despite bringing considerable success to Blackpool, chairman Owen Oyston sacked Allardyce shortly after the play-off defeat. Now in truth I’ve never been a big fan of Sam Allardyce, but Oyston (who was in prison when he sacked Allardyce, sentenced for the rape of a 16-year old girl) is an odious reptile by any measure, and makes Big Sam look like St Francis of Assisi.
Under Allardyce, Notts County were sweeping everyone before them this season, banging in goals for fun, and running away with the league title. Going into this match, they were a whopping 16 points clear of second place Torquay, and only needed one more victory to be mathematically certain of promotion. This would be no mean feat – not since the Second World War has a team achieved promotion in March – and it was clear that Sam wanted this record for him and Notts County. Part of my antipathy towards Sam Allardyce, apart from the repeated corruption allegations, the relatively one-dimensional tactics his teams tended to employ, and the big gob, was that I’m absolutely certain at some point around this game, before or after, he had some fairly uncomplimentary things to say about Colchester United. I honestly can’t remember the words, nor can I find any reference on the internet, but I’m sure it was focused on the usual big club little club sort of thing.
The U’s lined up:
5….David Greene (programme lists David Gregory)
6….David Gregory (programme lists Paul Buckle)
8….Paul Buckle (programme lists Steve Forbes)
9….Mark Sale (programme lists Tony Lock; Steve Forbes 76’)
10..Tony Lock (programme lists Tony Adcock)
11..Paul Abrahams (programme lists Nicky Haydon; Karl Duguid 62’)
Never mind Notts County, the U’s under Steve Wignall weren’t having too bad a season either, and after thumping Macclesfield 5-1 at Layer Rd the previous Saturday, were sat in 7th place with 57 points (on goal difference), just inside the play-off zone. There was still a lot to do though, Peterborough United and Rotherham United were also on 57 points, with three and four games respectively in hand on the U’s.
I traveled up on the train for the match, which allowed time to meet my brother-in-law for a beer beforehand at the Trent Navigation Inn. I can’t remember exactly how many of the U’s faithful made the trip up, but I’d say it was about 250-300, and we were definitely in good voice. Back then, away supporters were given the cavernous Kop Stand (as it was called then), which could accommodate 5,438 if needs be, so we had plenty of room! I couldn’t help but be impressed with the ground, particularly given they had replaced three of the four stands in the 1992 close season (apparently at a cost then of £8m). I must admit, I always thought that the original Meadow Lane was one of Archibald Leitch’s, with the replica gable above the new-build Jimmy Sirrel stand an homage to Leitch – but it turns out he wasn’t the designer after all.
Jimmy Sirrel Stand
I have virtually no detailed recollections of the game, rather a more general clear memory of a decent game of football, which the U’s controlled for long periods. Notts County were clearly a good side, but whether it was the significance of the occasion (given they could achieve promotion with a victory), or we were just too good that day, but they never really troubled the U’s. I certainly do remember the half-time pie, that’s for certain, which as football food goes, was right up there at the top alongside the old Abbey Stadium bacon rolls.
The second half was more of the same, and in fact we began to look the more likely to break the deadlock and score – which I’m certain would have been the winner had we done so, and really wouldn’t have been undeserved either. Wignall had already introduced Doogie and Steve Forbes during the second half, but on 84 minutes I witnessed something I don’t think I’d seen before, not possibly ever since. With one last desperate roll of the dice, Allardyce made a triple substitution, bringing on Shaun Cunnington, Justin Jackson and Tony Lormor. However, to no avail, as we comfortably saw out the remaining minutes to earn an invaluable point towards our promotion challenge at the champions-elect.
Notts County 0 Colchester United 0
Although the U’s had prevented Notts County from gaining a March promotion at the first attempt, Leyton Orient weren’t able to do likewise the following Saturday 28th, losing 2-1 at Meadow Lane. With results elsewhere going their way, this also confirmed Notts County as champions. They would go on to amass 99 points, scoring a whopping 82 goals, and with a +39 goal difference. They were only beaten five times all season, one of which was at Layer Rd. There were only three teams in the league that they failed to defeat at least once, Macclesfield Town (promoted in second place), Peterborough United, and of course Colchester United, and there was only one team in the entire league that they failed to score a single goal against – you guessed it, Colchester United!
As for the U’s, well I’m sure you all know that we had a storming finish to the season, winning five and drawing one of our final seven matches, to finish top of the play-off zone. Our first-leg play-off semi-final at Barnet has already featured in the Matches of Yesteryear series (Match #15), and needless to say our day out at Wembley to come may well feature in the future, so I’ll say no more than that for now.
Finally, often football supporters will talk about that most elusive of beasts, a 20-goal per season striker. Not that I wouldn’t say no if one came along, but it’s worth reflecting on our 1997/98 season. The joint top league goal-scorers for the U’s were Aaron Skelton, Paul Abrahams, Neil Gregory and Mark Sale, with just seven goals each! Even taking in all competitions, David Gregory was our top goal-scorer, with just ten to his name. It just goes to show, with a stout defence and goals shared out across the entire squad, you can still achieve greatness.
Up the U’s