|Letters from Wiltshire #17|
Written by wessex_exile on Friday, 20th Nov 2020 17:30
So I never actually imagined more than two weeks after the event that Trump and his attack-dog “Hot Mess” Giuliani would still be refusing to acknowledge that Biden has won the US Presidential election, but there you have it. Closer to home, we are just past halfway through our circuit-breaker 4-week lockdown, and most of the graphs suggest things are slowly improving, but nowhere near a rate that would see figures return to the pre-October levels. Much closer to home, Alfie has been in self-isolation for the last 14 days because one of his teachers tested positive – delighted to say we have both passed through that period without developing symptoms…and without killing each other either 😊
[b]Notts County v Colchester United
Letters from Wiltshire #17, and we return to the memorabilia random match generator for a trip to Meadow Lane in only our third match of the 21st century. In the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we go back to when the world was last meant to come crashing to an end, just fifteen days after the Millennium Bug was supposed to have brought the world to its knees, economies collapsing, society breaking down, planes falling from the skies etc. As we know, none of that actually happened, and although there were sporadic technical glitches around the world with software which hadn’t factored in 4-digit year codes (so 2000 would be indistinguishable from 1900), these were very minor indeed. Still, didn’t stop virtually an entire industry of consultants popping up overnight who could ease our Y2K worries…
What followed, in our previous match before travelling to Meadow Lane, was a game that is already part of Colchester United folklore, as the U’s entertained Bristol Rovers at Layer Road. In a ripping end-to-end contest, Jason Roberts gave the Pirates a 12th minute lead, McGavin equalised on 36 minutes, before Roberts (46’) and then our very own Jamie Cureton from the penalty spot (59’) gave Bristol Rovers a commanding, seemingly unassailable lead. McGavin gave us hope with a stunning strike over the despairing dive of ‘keeper Lee Jones three minutes after Curo’s penalty, only for referee Butler to dash that hope – pointing to the spot in the 69th minute for another Cureton penalty.
And then the miracle really began.
Cureton tried for the same top corner, sending Simon Brown the wrong way, but his effort cannoned of the corner of post and bar and away to safety. With ten minutes to go, Layer Road erupted as Karl Duguid controlled beautifully on the edge of the six yard box to pull the U’s level at 3-3, and then put us into dreamland with a blistering strike from outside the box to make it 4-3 just two minutes later. Ecstasy turned to agony in the 86th minute, when Nathan Ellington pounced on a loose ball (back off the bar I think) to bring it back to 4-4, and then cometh the hour cometh the man, with a minute to go Lua Lua blasted Layer Road into the stratosphere, jinking, twisting and turning in front of three defenders to make it 5-4 for Colchester United, and probably one of our greatest comebacks of all time.
When lockdown began, Colchester United very kindly added the full match to their YouTube channel, so if (like me) you weren’t lucky enough to have been at Layer Road that day, it is definitely worth a watch.
[b]After the Lord Mayor’s show…[/b]
I’ve been to Notts County on a number of occasions (two years earlier for example, covered under Matches of Yesteryear #34) and it’s usually been a reasonably stress-free awayday. I say usually, but train cancellations did force me and Alfie to turn round and head home a couple of years ago, when we realised we couldn’t make the match before about half-time. Still, all good back in 2000, and as I wasn’t meeting my brother-in-law at the Trent Navigation this time, I contented myself with some beers on the train without the need to get to Nottingham too early. Once I got into the ground (we were still back then housed in the cavernous Kop stand closest to the train station), there was a fairly decent turnout from Essex gathered, clearly still buoyant after the Bristol Rovers comeback.
The U’s lined up:
Whilst the U’s were struggling to pull away from the relegation zone, Notts County under manager Gary Brazil were going considerably better, just outside the play-offs, but only on goal difference. No one, therefore, was underestimating the task we faced – I personally would have been over the moon with a point (and in a small dark corner of my soul maybe subconsciously actually sort of okay losing so long as we didn’t get gubbed). But hope is a curious thing, and that result against Rovers had certainly provided plenty of that, so we were all in good voice cheering on the U’s that afternoon.
In the Notts County line-up was striker Kevin Rapley, who would go on to somewhat underperform for the U’s for a couple of seasons a year or so later, and Mark Warren in central defence. Warren would sign for the U’s in August 2002 but left for our South Essex rivals the following January. For the U’s, Titus Bramble (on loan from Ipswich) had picked up a knock in the Bristol Rovers game, and had temporarily returned to Portman Road for treatment, so new Brighton and Hove Albion loanee and long-throw specialist Ross Johnson stepped up to make his debut for the U’s. Although we didn’t know it at the time, that Rovers game turned out to be Bramble’s last appearance for the U’s.
On a chilly January afternoon, Notts County certainly started the brighter of the two, and Brown did well to pull off a stunning reflex save after just 20 minutes. Notts County broke down the right wing, with a pinpoint cross met perfectly on the volley by Craig Rammage. I’m pretty certain everyone in the ground believed it was a goal all the way, but Brown thought otherwise and managed to instinctively tip it over the bar. That was the sort of thing that really raised your spirits and instil some self-belief, and five or so minutes later it paid off.
Kelechi “KK” Opara was proving to be a bit of a revelation at the U’s and was certainly a handful this afternoon. On 30 minutes he picked the ball up in Notts County’s half and weaving his way into the box past various attempts to block him, was eventually tugged back in unison by both Matthew Redmile and Mark Warren. Referee Michael Ryan had no hesitation, and gleefully McGavin took his chance from the penalty spot, expertly finding the bottom corner of the goal well beyond the reach of Darren Ward. After the match, McGavin admitted that the role of penalty-taker hadn’t really been sorted out ahead of this match, but with Lua Lua on the bench to begin with, he happily took the opportunity to stake his claim.
And it didn’t stop there either. Bang on half-time, and just after receiving a yellow card, McGavin managed to dart between a hesitant Gary Owers and Ward to tap home right in front of us an exquisite cross from the mercurial Opara out on the right wing. 2-0 up at half time, and we were bouncing around the terrace in delirium!
[b]Backs to the wall…[/b]
Into the second half, and McGavin very nearly made it a hat-trick, with the ball ricocheting into his path just two yards out from a David Greene header, only to see his deft touch smothered on the line by goalkeeper Ward. Thereafter, with promotion-contenders Notts County really starting to apply pressure, it became a real park-the-bus backs to the wall performance for the U’s, desperate to hold on to their 2-0 lead.
They did well too, with a really gutsy performance, Brown doing particularly well to push a well-struck shot by Rapley around the post for a corner, but inevitably the pressure did eventually tell. On 65 minutes Stallard expertly hooked a shot from inside the box over the defence and the head of Brown, and into the goal to half the deficit to 2-1. Whitton immediately sacrificed the flamboyant flair of Opara for the…err…flamboyant flair of Lua Lua, but clearly in much more of a midfield holding role. For the remaining 25 minutes I can’t remember us getting out of our own half with any particular purpose, but boy did we defend resolutely – typified by Joe Dunne throwing himself in the way time and time again, and eventually, miraculously we held on for another vital 3pts.
[b]Notts County 1 (Mark Stallard 65’) Colchester United 2 (Steve McGavin 30’p, 45’)[/b]
Downbeat Steve Whitton was trying not to get too giddy about it though, commenting "[i]when we are safe from relegation, then we can start to enjoy ourselves…[but]…the lads did everything we asked of them and it was a good, hard-working away performance[/i]". Whitton also singled out KK Opara’s performance, only his second for the U’s, Brown’s excellent performance in goal, and indeed a very solid debut for Ross Johnson in defence. We’d go on to win the next two as well, but ultimately be content with lower mid-table survival at the end of the season.
Both Bristol Rovers and Notts County would miss out on the play-offs, in 7th and 8th place respectively, albeit Notts County were a distant 15pts behind the Gas, who themselves were only 2pts outside the play-offs. I’m sure many Rovers fans that season looked back to when they were winning 3-2 at Layer Road, with Cureton looking to make it four from the spot, and wonder whether that was when they lost their chase for the play-offs?
Now that’s a millennium bug.
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…